August 2011

I have it from a reliable source it’s okay for me to say the following sentence out loud (and actually mean it): “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

 I spent the last 3 days at a local FaithWalking Retreat trying to excavate why that’s true. I learned there are multiple ways to define “being fully human” and that Jesus is the best definition from Jim, how our thoughts about God affect our prayer life from Trisha, how the Psalms call us to be open to God from Sue (my mom!), how being in control displaces God from the throne from Steve, and how hard ministry can be on a pastor’s family from Karen. I even learned a lot from Bruce Willis the movie star, who showed up Tuesday night to teach us how our past wounds can significantly limit our ability to be radically obedient to God.

Conversation with myself, by Lorry Acott-Fowler

 But I learned the most in conversations with myself. Certainly not because I was the smartest person in the room: far from it! That was how the retreat was designed: with cycles of input, solitude, and small group sharing. Questions and journals guided my conversation, and prayer bathed it, but the time was mine to grab my shovel and start digging. Why can’t I do what I want? What holds me back? Why are things like total obedience to Jesus, full transparency in prayer, believing I’m worthy of love so hard? Am I more interested in obedience or just looking good?

As someone called and employed to talk to others, I was surprisingly out of practice with talking to myself. But my FaithWalking guides opened up safe space to talk, learn, and dig. The picture to the right, passed on to me last month by my spiritual director, sums up well my experience: it’s appropriately called Conversations with myself.  Paul, the author of the sentence I quoted above, goes on to say “it happens so regularly it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but its pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge (Romans 7 in The Message).” The retreat was an opportunity for me to sit down with several covert rebels and invite them to come into the light and give control to God.

That Paul was authentic with his Roman friends gives us permission to be open with each other in the same way. The good news and the bad news about that is this: I’m not sure we as citizens of planet earth can be transformed in any other way. Genuine personal transformation (the kind our HMC mission statement says we’re all about) doesn’t happen by stumbling upon more information. I don’t think it’s come for you in the 150 or so sermons I’ve preached or the 150 or so sermons I’ll preach in the coming years. How could it, when we put our one hour worship service up against the Goliath of western mammon-culture which demands unconditional allegiance and obedience?

The times in my own life I’ve experienced accelerated spiritual growth and transformation have all happened digging deeply into conversations with myself in the context of loving community. Not Sunday School, not sermons, not incurring huge debts to attend seminary, not guilt inducing condemnation for failed morality. It comes when I open myself to a process of personal transformation. Then, and only then, can I be the follower of Christ I hunger for so deeply. Then, and only then, will we as a congregation be “Transformed by God to Transform the World.” To the degree we have all found this at Houston Mennonite- I give thinks. To the degree we haven’t- I vow to embrace a more holistic vision of discipleship and personal transformation for individuals and our congregation.

I’m gracious to have gone FaithWalking this week as my love of Jesus and the mission of God deepened immeasurably. But more than anything, I give thanks for the conversations I had with a guy named Marty, who, as it turns out, had a lot to teach me after all.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been on vacation. Many of you know this by my lack of response to your comments. Our family trip was fantastic for its ordinariness. But one aspect of my time away was wildly meaningful for me: I unplugged. That’s right, I took an extended tech-Sabbath, a time off and intentional distance from email, cell phone, twitter, facebook, blogging, and all things wired. I said “No” to constant connectivity, rested from stats and the beep of attention, entrusted my work to others, and stopped being wired.

It was utterly marvelous!

And terribly difficult. Nearly impossible actually. Like an addict going cold turkey, the first couple unwired days were a failure of epic proportions. I knew it would be hard, but not like that! I was contantly thinking about blog comments that needed approval, emails that demanded answers, my tweet stats (would my precious followers be patient with me while away, or would they run?), work left undone. I snuck multiple peeks at every social networking site I’ve ever joined, including an ancient blog I haven’t touched in years called 20First Century Heretic. All I wanted to do was get my hands on something, someone, wired. It was pathetic.

The spiritual nature of my chosen combat was evident, ”I do not uundersand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:15).” Clearly being unwired taught me how limited my freedom really was. And how wrapped up in cyberspace my identity and ego had become. I was allowing myself to be defined based on the sense of worth that technology afforded.

Let me say more about that. Technology and the social networking it affords has an insatiable way of making us feel important, noticed, and valued. With every tweet, text, beep, post, message, or link that comes our way, we’re reminded that somebody somewhere knows us, wants to connect with us, maybe cares for us, or best of all: needs us. For those of us who know teenagers who rack up 4-10,000 texts a month, you know it’s not so much about what’s said as it is being connected and that feeling of worth that comes with being noticed. From a work perspective, our “value” is sometimes based on our availability and/or quick response time. Somewhere along the way I picked up the notion that people will value my ministry higher the quicker I respond. To be out of touch, to let emails sit? How would the world survive without me?

Being stripped of all that during my tech Sabbath reminded me once again of what “Sabbath” really is. Sabbath is a Hebrew word that simply means: stop, rest. It’s also a word pregnant with religious meaning which calls us to a non-anxious existence. God, as it turns out, was not anxious about the work accomplished during the first 6 days of the week, and therefore could rest on the seventh. If God – caretaker of the entire cosmos – was not anxious, why should we be?

And yet anxious I was: no more stats to prop up my ego, no more tweets and texts to reinforce my self-worth. And no more social networking to distract me or enable me to put off more important work that beckons. No more ability to send emails to make sure my work universe doesn’t fall apart. Just me. And the people I was physically with.

But what I learned most came from being with people  actually in the same room with me. As an introvert, technology proves to be a great way for me to connect with others and express myself. But I also love, crave, and need the real thing. Technology can so easily become disembodied information swapping, but we’re wired for so much more. I learned how deeply I am wired for relationship, particularly embodied, ongoing and consistent connections that go beyond single-issue or superficial levels. And I learned that I can too easily use virtual reality to distract from connecting with those I’m physically with. 

Let me be specific: dialogue is much easier, deeper, and more meaningful in person than online. Online dialogue is terribly stunted, particularly in a blog setting such as this, where back-and-forth, give-and-take discussion rarely develops. Most blogging is a monologue followed by a series of comments that mostly take on a negative effect. But imagine the same exchange happening over coffee instead of in cyberspace. You may both still disagree, but you would word arguments differently, listen for nonverbal cues, pay attention to emotions (and be more adept at reading them!), share in small talk and focal exchanges and ultimately work together more than work against one another. No one would dominate the conversation.

So what does this mean for me going forward? If a 2+week tech Sabbath was meaningful, how do I plan to incorporate what I learned in my week-to-week life?

  • Continue the practice of one day a week of tech-Sabbath. As a pastor, Friday’s are my Sabbath day.
  • Limit my email checks to 3 per day, rather than having my hotmail open at all times I’m on the computer.
  • Limit my stat and blog comment check-ups and responses to once per day, or less.
  • Prioritize face-to-face and phone conversations more than email and social networking.  
  • Continue to work hard at building genuine relationship with you, my blog readers.

Oh yea, and before we left my wife went to this museum called The Library that displays artifacts called “books” which they allow you to take with you. I read two quality novels that were strikingly unimportant, which made them delicious for a guy who works in such an important job as “ministry.” Add that to the list: reading a novel at all times for my emotional health.

By all means, give a tech-Sabbath a try! If you do or already have, let me know what you learn about how you’re wired. Thanks.