The End of Absence

A couple of years ago I read a superb book by Michael Harris called ‘The End of Absence’. The ‘absence’ he refers to in the title is the ability we used to have, in those old pre-Internet days, of being truly alone. Near the beginning of the book he tells this poignant story:

I remember that final blithe summer of 1999 when I – like so  many others – embarked on the last trip I’d ever take without a cell phone. Hiking for months through England’s Lake District and island hopping across the Scottish Hebrides, I was oblivious to the fact that I would never experience such splendid isolation again. Never again would I be so completely cut off from work, from family, from friends. And yet, nineteen years old and living happily off apples and beer, I didn’t think it was the end of anything. So, I told myself, this is my life at last, the beginning of my real life.

Like Harris, I remember my last trip without a cell phone. I was living in Valleyview in northern Alberta at the time, and I drove seven hours to Fort McMurray to lead a weekend workshop. It was winter, and it snowed over the weekend, so the return drive was a rather interesting experience. I had been resisting buying a cell phone, but that trip convinced me; I didn’t want to be on a road like that again without the means to be in touch with potential help (of course, I didn’t know about the spotty cell coverage in northern Alberta at the time!).

Now, thirty years later, that seems like a different world. Like nearly all my contemporaries, I am reachable by cell phone almost all the time. My Facebook and Twitter feeds direct me to vital news stories twenty-four hours a day. Emails and texts come in, Wikipedia can be consulted, questions can be answered. The whole world is in my pocket.

But the problem is, it won’t go away.

In ‘The End of Absence’, Harris muses on the fact that our generation is the only one that will remember what it was like both before and after this great change. My grandchildren will never know an internet-less world. They will never be able to imagine not being able to talk instantly to people on the other side of the world, or find instant answers to their questions. They will never have to deal with boredom, when centuries-worth of entertainment and reading is waiting for them in their pockets. The thought of being without that will be terrifying to them.

And in a way, it’s terrifying to me, too. I certainly enjoy many aspects of it. I enjoy being able to discuss things with like-minded people and not be restrained by the bounds of geography. I’ve enjoyed catching up with old friends and seeing their family pictures. I like being able to see what people are up to, the gigs my friends are playing, the activities various churches are planning.

But I also have a certain nostalgia for the old days.

From 1988 to 1991 I lived in what is now Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories. I was the third most northerly Anglican minister in the world. I lived in a community of four hundred people on an island in the Arctic Ocean. There were no roads in; you had to travel by air (or, if you were brave, by snowmobile, two hundred miles by sea ice to Kugluktuk). I rarely saw my clergy colleagues. The Bishop came to visit once a year, and I might get out to another meeting once a year if I was lucky. We communicated by phone and letter – usually letter, as phone was expensive.

Not that I was ever really alone. A community of four hundred people, all related to each other, in a culture where doors were never locked and no one ever knocked before they came in, can be overwhelming at times. But still, I found solitude easy to find. If I took the dog for a walk I could be out of town in five minutes, and I had no cell phone in my pocket. Fifteen minutes by skidoo could take me to a landscape where I couldn’t see a single thing created by humans. I could turn off my skidoo engine, sit on a rock above a frozen lake, drink coffee from my thermos, and listen to the sounds of silence.

As I said, there are many things I enjoy about my present state of Facebook and Twitter connectedness. But I must admit that there are also times when I feel the tug of that older, quieter way of life. I love my friends, my family, my parishioners, but I also enjoy being absent from them from time to time. I like working things out for myself in my own head (or more likely, in my case, at the point of a pen). I like solitary walks where my thoughts can go wherever they want, without being interrupted by the buzz in my pocket.

Where am I going with this?

Over the past few years, from time to time I’ve taken Internet breaks – logged out of Facebook and Blogger for Lent, for instance. I have never regretted it, but I notice that with every passing year I’m more and more reluctant to do it. I’m an addict, and it’s the attention of others I’m addicted to. Write a blog post or a Facebook comment, and people know I’m still around. And whenever I announce an upcoming break, I’m greeted by a chorus from the other addicts: “No – we’ll miss you!” I’ve even being accused of thinking myself superior, or being pointlessly ascetic or ‘puritan’.

So why do I care what people think? Silly question for an Internet addict – of course we care what people think! The pleasure centres in our brains are stimulated by every ‘like’ we get, every comment, every engagement. By now the science of this should be familiar to all of us.

Still, I miss absence. I enjoy the freedom of being my own person. I know I can’t totally escape being influenced by others, but I find the influence of 550 Facebook friends hard to process sometimes. It was so much easier to be me when I didn’t have so many people’s expectations to live up to.

I’ve been realizing these last few weeks that this is getting overwhelming for me again. I need, very soon, another period of absence. I need to log out of Facebook and Twitter, leave the world of blogging behind, and restrict myself to the barest minimum of screen time demanded by my job. I need some long, unhurried reading – some quality time with the flesh and blood humans with whom I share geographical proximity – some time to pray without measuring my prayer life against the ways my friends pray.

Nicholas Carr wrote an outstanding book about the physical changes the Internet causes in our brains; the book is called ‘The Shallows’. The Bible, on the other hand, uses the phrase ‘deep calls to deep’. I think I hear that call. And I know, pretty soon, that I’ll respond to it.

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Godly Sorrow

Seven-and-Neelix-seven-of-nine-30912665-500-382For your Monday morning edification: pastoral theology with Seven of Nine. (‘Star Trek: Voyager’ Season 6 Episode 14 ‘Memorial”)

NEELIX: Seven? When you were a Borg, you were involved in some unpleasant activities.

SEVEN: I helped to assimilate millions.

NEELIX: I don’t mean to be insensitive, but do you ever feel shame about what you did?

SEVEN: Frequently.

NEELIX: How to you manage to keep going, knowing that you’ve done such horrible things?

SEVEN: I have no choice.

NEELIX: Guilt is irrelevant?

SEVEN: On the contrary. My feelings of remorse help me remember what I did, and prevent me from taking similar actions in the future. Guilt can be a difficult, but useful, emotion.

I have been reflecting on this dialogue ever since Marci and I watched it on Saturday night. I have thought for a long time that much popular Christian spirituality has been heavily influenced by pop psychology from the sixties, that sees guilt as entirely negative. And indeed false guilt can be negative and manipulative. But not all guilt is false. Paul talks about a godly sorrow that leads to repentance. I should not try to escape from that guilt. I should listen to it, and fix what needs to be fixed.

Summer rambles (in mind, heart and body!)

I haven’t done one of these for a while, but here it is, in no particular order.

Anglo-Catholic Anglicans have a strong doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. I have no particular quarrel with this, although my evangelical tradition has a slightly different way of understanding it (see my internet friend Peter Carrell’s post here, if you’re interested, although you will need to get through a bit of theological jargon). But over the past few years I’ve come to a strongly experiential appreciation for the doctrine of the Real Presence of God in his creation. I DSCN1805have to honestly say, I often am more aware of God’s presence in the cathedral of nature than I am in the cathedral of wood or stone. I have reflected on this a lot as I have been out walking lately, in Whitemud Ravine and in Elk Island National Park. There have been times when the presence of God seemed so close that I felt I could reach out and touch him.

Heresy hunters, please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not a pantheist, and I understand that God is different from God’s creation. What I experience was well described by the great evangelical preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758):

‘The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything’ (quoted in Bruce Hindmarsh, ‘The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World‘, New York, Oxford University Press, 2018; chapter 4).

Speaking of Bruce Hindmarsh, I’ve really been enjoying his new book on early evangelicalism. My spiritual tradition gets a bad rap in the world today and I love going 512CP34YQtLback to investigate its early roots. A few years ago I read a superb book by Hindmarsh about the life and work of John Newton. His new book goes further; it examines the evangelical awakening of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in connection with the history of science, law, art, and literature of the time. This is new ground for me; nowadays (especially in North America) evangelicalism is not, shall we say, usually associated with an appreciation for science and the arts, so it may come as a surprise to read about John Wesley’s attempts to educate his followers in the discoveries of contemporary science, or the astronomical explorations of Isaac Milner and John Russell. I’m about two thirds of the way through the book now and I’m sure it will become one of my favourites.

Speaking of books, Marci and I have started reading Dante’s Inferno together, in the Mark Musa translation. I’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy twice before, but this is the first time through for Marci. We’re both really enjoying it.

I’m used to the word ‘love’ being used in the New Testament as a translation for the Greek word ‘agapé’ – meaning unconditional, action-oriented love, not feelings or affections – so it took me a while on my first trip through Dante to realize that he almost always uses it  in the sense of ‘eros’ – not what we now call ‘erotic’ love but love that is a response to some beauty or worth in the beloved, love that desires to possess the beloved for itself. Dante shares with his theological contemporaries the idea that sin is fundamentally disordered love – we want the wrong things, and we want them in the wrong way. It took me a while to get my head around the way he uses this language, but now that I understand it, it makes a huge amount of sense to me. It reminds me of Tony Campolo’s sermon ‘Who Moved the Price Tags?’, with his illustration of the world as a department store window in which someone has changed all the price tags so that the cheap stuff is expensive and the expensive stuff is cheap. That’s what’s happened in the world, Campolo says: a lot of the things God values are not valued at all by humans, and many of the things we humans value aren’t important at all in God’s eyes. Disordered loves, you see.

And now for something completely different. Black terns are not very common – not as common, say, as the common tern. On Astotin Lake in Elk Island National Park common terns are very common indeed; if you walk the shoreline or go out in a canoe you’ll see them swooping and diving, and you’ll hear the splash as they hit the water in search of their prey. They move fast and they’re notoriously difficult to photograph because of that (hence the lack of photographs here!).

Marci and I were canoeing on Astotin Lake on Monday morning and we suddenly DSCN2326noticed that the terns that were diving and swooping around us were not white – they were dark-coloured. They were black terns! That was an exciting moment; I have never seen a black tern in my life before, so this was a lifetime first. We also got to see a whole flotilla of pelicans (see photograph!), which apparently were not stressed at all about the presence of a canoe in close proximity to them. And we also got close to the island in the lake where the cormorants roost and got to watch them flying and diving from the tall trees where we normally see them (from the shore, through binoculars). Truly, the world is charged with the grandeur of God.

Which leads me to the poem I’ll close with: ‘God’s Grandeur’, by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Amen!

New Year’s Resolutions for 2018

Yes, I do believe in these things. I think the reason most people fail is because they make resolutions without making a plan to keep them. But I learned in the first half of 2016 that if I make a plan, I can keep it. And I also know myself well enough to know that if I do these things at times when there is a natural ‘new beginning’, it gives me an added psychological impetus.

So, the Lord being my helper, here are my three 2018 New Year’s Resolutions:

Resolution #1: Get back down to 165 lbs by the end of February (I’m currently at 174).

Plan: use the same diet and exercise regime I used January to June 2016 when I succeeded in losing 52 lbs.

Resolution #2: Don’t buy any new books in 2018. Instead, read the dozens of unread books on my shelves.

Plan: sign out of my Amazon account and let Marci change the password! (Just kidding: she knows about this resolution and will help me stick to it! Although, come to think of it, it might not be a bad idea…)

Resolution #3: Each week, plan and implement new ways to love my neighbour as myself.

Plan: Pick a day of the week to journal about this (probably Saturday) and, having decided what to do, put it on the calendar. I need to do this because I’m very selfish and this is the command I (can you believe it?) get most bored with.

Honesty

One of my fundamental convictions is that life goes much better for us in the long run if we tell the truth. Don’t try to gild the lily. Don’t make promises (about the spiritual life, for instance) which aren’t going to be fulfilled. Be a real human being with others, not a fake superhero.

What stops us doing that? I would suggest two things: having something to cover up, and having nothing to cover up.

The first is obvious, of course: if I’ve got a skeleton in my closet, I don’t want you to know about it. If I’m in a relationship with you and there’s a big, dirty secret about my life, my fear is going to be that if you find out about it, you’ll end the relationship. So I’m going to do all I can to keep that secret in the dark. In other words, the root of my lie is my fear of being rejected.

But what does the second thing mean: ‘having nothing to cover up’? I mean that we’re trying to cover up ‘nothing’. Or at least, we think it’s ‘nothing’. I don’t see myself as a particularly impressive person – not especially smart, or particularly good looking, or unusually clever in any obvious way. I think I’ve got ‘nothing’ to offer, and I want to cover up that fact (at least, in my own mind it’s a fact). So I’m going to play a role, pretending to ‘have it all together’, in an effort to pull the wool over your eyes and make a good impression on you.

I think the second factor may be far more powerful – and far more common – than the first. And at its root, it’s about fear too – the fear of being tried and found wanting. The fear of being discovered to be the fraud we believe ourselves to be, deep down inside.

I think in some people these factors may lessen with age. I’d like to think they are lessening with me. I don’t have that many people left in my life I need to impress. I think that pretty well all the people I want to love me, already love me, and have proved over and over again that they’re pretty stubborn about loving me. So there’s not a great amount to gain for me in lying. As I get older, it’s harder for me to keep track of my own lies, anyway; it’s far easier just to tell the truth!

But it’s not that way for everyone. The current occupant of the White House, for example, seems to have an enormous need to fake his own impressiveness every hour of every day. Sometimes (often) I think the only reason he’s in politics is to shore up his own desperately fragile self-esteem.

The problem with getting people to love a fake identity, of course, is that you then have to sustain that fake identity. And that takes a lot of psychological energy – especially if, like some people, you have a number of fake identities, depending on the company you keep.

I believe it’s much better – and in the long run it may even be much easier – just to be real. Jesus said “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32, New Living Translation). Seeing the world as it is, and accepting that reality and living accordingly – that is a liberating thing. And who is the one who truly knows the world ‘as it is’? Surely the one who made it has the best view!

That includes seeing myself as I am, knowing that God sees that reality and loves me anyway, and being willing to be that person in the sight of others as well. This is me, warts and all, fears and hopes, successes and failures, loves and hates. God loves me despite all that, and God calls me to love the other imperfect human beings in my life, too, and to let them love me. And if we can do that, I believe that in the end life will be a lot better for us.

On Being Happy

In one of the final chapters of his book ‘Sapiens‘, Yuval Noah Harari raises the issue of whether all the ‘progress’ the human race has made in the last few thousand years has actually increased the happiness of individual humans to any great degree (not to mention the happiness of the other sentient species on Earth).

I won’t give the game away by telling you his answer, but I would like to share a short reflection on one section of this chapter. In this section, Harari points out that happiness has a lot to do with body chemistry and temperament. Some of us just seem wired to be more cheerful than others. For example, one person might have a ‘happiness range’ (on a scale of 1-10) of 3-7, averaging out at a five. Another might have a range of 6-10, averaging out at an eight. There isn’t a great deal they can do about that, although of course upbringing and choices do have some impact on where we land up in the range.

I found this liberating.

I am well aware that I have been handed a somewhat melancholic temperament. It’s easy for me to see the dark side of any issue. I panic easily, I worry a lot, and I tend to make negative observations about situations and people.

Looking at my families of origin, I can understand this. It’s in our genes. It’s not something I need to feel guilty about.

However, I do have a choice about where in my ‘range’ (let’s call it a 3 – 7) I average out. And there are things I can do, choices I can make, habits I can form, that will increase my happiness. Gretchen Rubin wrote an excellent book on this subject called ‘The Happiness Project‘. No, I can’t flip a switch to change my emotions. But there are behaviours I can engage in which have a cheering effect on my disposition. I’m talking about things like doing acts of kindness to others, sticking with my diet and exercise disciplines and so on. I know that when I’m intentional about these things, I’m a happier guy.

And I’m also more pleasant to be around. Which is why making decisions that increase my happiness is not a selfish pursuit. Generally speaking, happier people lift up the people around them, while gloomy people drag others down. I want to lift others up.

I can’t do anything about my temperament, but I can do something about my actions. I’m going to try to remember to do that.

Random Lent Thought for Thursday March 16th: ‘Jesus is Coming: Look Busy!’

One of my favourite coffee mugs (not that I own it myself, but I’ve seen it) is this one that 885025_10152158410965400_1541528251_osays ‘Jesus is coming – look busy!’

Here’s my thought for the day. Jesus is not impressed with busyness; Jesus is impressed with love.

This is a hard lesson for us to learn, because we’re formed by a culture that idolizes workaholics. And this culture is creeping insidiously into the church, so that we’re all being brainwashed into thinking that the more activities a church puts on, the higher its level of spirituality must be. If you don’t have that stressed and exhausted look on your face, you can’t possibly be doing everything God wants you to do, right?

Years ago, in a letter to a child, C.S. Lewis gave some wise advice that I’ve tried to remember. I’m quoting from memory, so this won’t be exact. Lewis told his young correspondent to remember that there were really only three kinds of things she had to do: (1) Things that must be done, (2) things that should be done, and (3) things she enjoyed doing. ‘Things that must be done’ include brushing your teeth, doing a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, cleaning the house and so on. ‘Things that should be done’ mean the ordinary rules of Christian morality. ‘Things that you enjoy doing’ – well, over to you!

Busyness is not godliness. Busyness might just be nothing more than busyness. I’m convinced that my Christian life works best when I do a few things and do them well, rather than scattering my energy like buckshot in a hundred different directions. Remember: Jesus is not impressed by busyness; Jesus is impressed by love.