The community group that I co-lead in our church has recently been talking about and experimenting with how to better spend our time and money on what matters most in God’s economy. At this point, we’re not very ambitious, but I think that’s a good thing for now. It’s easy for me to lose sight of the little ways in which we are called to be faithful. I enjoy thinking about the big picture — about the global economy, the ecological crisis, and geopolitical conflicts. Of course, Christians need to be involved in and concerned about these things. It’s just that I’ve learned how much my own personality is prone to introversion, abstraction and disembodied faith. I’ve learned that I need practices and people to keep me grounded and focused on the tangible responsibilities in my own little life. So we’re helping each other ask, what are the areas and opportunities for change right in front of me?
Last week we assigned three simple tasks, each of which is intended to challenge the cultural currents that are misshaping not only the church’s engagement with its mission but also community life in general in our society today.
First, in an effort to free ourselves from the cultural currents of our polemical political climate, some of us agreed to take a social media fast, and re-think the way we use social media altogether. On the surface, this seems like a harmless way to simply disconnect for a time and enable reconnection through face-to-face relationships. While that is certainly part of the goal, there is more to it than that. In her book Blog Theory, Jodi Dean has argued that social media is actually part of a force of what she calls “communicative capitalism.” This force functions to capture critique and resistance, and reformat it back into the social media circuit only to then have it broken up into smaller bits. At this point, the smaller bits of thought and insight can still be shared, but not in such a way that adds up to anything that might aid us in understanding, critically confronting or restructuring our present life. Dean explains that the
“deluge of images and announcements, enjoining us to react, to feel, to forward them to our friends, erodes critical-theoretical capacities — aren’t they really just opinions anyway? Feelings dressed up in jargon? Drowning in plurality, we lose the capacity to grasp anything like a system. React and forward, but don’t by any means think.”
One of the purposes of a social media fast then serves to cut us off from the pressure release valve that is clicking, “liking,” “favoriting,” “sharing,” and “commenting.” Notwithstanding the irony of writing about this through the medium of a blog post, the hope is that our time away reveals not only our egoistic tendency toward self-promotion, but also the drive to minimalistic, low-risk involvement in relationships and in the public sphere. The ultimate aim of such a practice is the transformation of politics and culture itself, but it has to start with our own individual, daily lives.
Secondly, we invited each other to take a real, 24-hour Sabbath. Of course, Sabbath is always an important practice for Christians to observe, but it is especially fitting in our culture today for at least two reasons. In the first place, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Sabbath is not simply a pause. It is an occasion for reimagining all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity.” Sabbath makes time and space for people to become related to each other once again as people. It’s a shift from commodity-centeredness to covenantal relationship. So it serves us personally to be more richly related corporately.
In the second place, this invitation is reciprocated to others when we encounter them. Sabbath-keeping shares Sabbath. According to Sam Wells and Marcia Owen,
“Those who learn … stillness find that their lives become a Sabbath for those who encounter them. … Their lives become an embrace of the qualities and gifts in those around them that others have been too busy or too threatened or too self-absorbed to see and encourage. Their lives become an invitation into a place of depth, but an exhilarating invitation because it is depth without fear, depth as an adventure in which you are expecting to be met by God. Their lives become a place and a time of renewal in which others rediscover who they are and who God is.”
The end goal is to signal toward a new economy, a new environment, and a new creation. But again, it starts with the church actually becoming a pacesetter for this alternative rhythm of rest — one that counters busyness and consumerism, and one that rehumanizes our relationships.
Finally, we were instructed to spend anywhere from five to twenty minutes a day in stillness and silence. This could be a time for meditation or contemplative prayer, but regardless, the aim is the same: powering down what Thomas Keating has aptly called our “emotional programs for happiness.” We all have a pre-programmed self that is governed by instinctual values and conventional ideas. Unless recalibrated, this program will run us into some form of legalism or individualism. Silence and stillness — not just of body, but of thought — begins the journey of installing a new program. It takes patience, discipline and plenty of failure before this program gets fully uploaded and running, but God’s economy won’t operate on the version of that program that we were born with.
Just like fasting from social media and observing Sabbath, practices like meditation and contemplative prayer are not only intended to further our own spiritual formation. They are meant to grow us into our authentic selves, and into our authentic voices. Only then can the church participate in its mission in a way that shapes, rather than gets misshaped by the dominant culture. Cynthia Bourgeault talks about the mission behind stillness and silence in this way:
“The world will never listen to an arrogant voice that pronounces from a position of power and privilege. The world will listen only to the authentic voice that speaks from a place of deep sensitivity and openness to the real wisdom that is already present in the hearts of people who do not find a place in the church.”
This is not a battle cry to make our faith more palatable to the cultural currents. Practices like those just described are hardly accommodations. They are tools to help us live our faith faithfully enough to actually be heard.
Nor as a church are we supposed to “right” the “wrongs” in the world. There’s plenty that needs to be done to address the problems in the world for which North American Christians are more than partly responsible. But if we don’t start with disciplines that are as simple and concrete as these, we’ll never get anywhere.