Stillness

Have you ever wandered into a wood, or deep forest, found yourself surrounded by trees and the color green everywhere, and as you had been moving at a good pace to get wherever you are, you find yourself stopping for a moment, slowing down, and as you slow down you begin to notice things around you which maybe you saw before at a glance or in periphery, but suddenly everything seems magnified and you just kind of stay there and then you notice more things like the birds and the colors on their feathers, the rabbit that begins to scurry away as soon as you notice it’s presence, the detail of some of the bark on some of the trees and perhaps wildflowers and the types of leaves and their patterns?

One thing you rarely come across in these moments are larger wild animals and if you do stumble upon a deer, what is interesting is although they perceive a potential threat and have a heightened awareness to their surroundings for their own survival, they are either fleeing at an incredible pace until you no longer see them or they are perfectly still, like a statue. I find it interesting that so many creatures in nature rather than busy themselves with lots of activities (like squirrels and some birds which do their own thing) practice being completely still when they sense the presence of something that could be a threat.

Stillness as a defense mechanism against something that could be dangerous or in fact, is dangerous. That is what I’d like to talk about in this post.

We live in a world and culture where stillness is frowned upon. Everything in our world and culture is telling us constantly to “hurry up,” to keep busy, to keep moving, to “be productive with your time,” to hustle, to work hard (which is rewarded promoting the behavior and encouraging even greater effort), to work long. Even our down time is time that is filled with things we are doing.

You remember the 90s when people had real down time and moments throughout their days when nothing was happening? Nobody was looking down at their phone. Nobody was streaming Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime (the culturally acceptable trifecta of noise filling our homes) or countless other streaming services. People stood in line at places and just waited, maybe even talked to other people they didn’t know who all they had in common was waiting in the same line for whatever good/service. People sitting around a dinner table (not a tv) weren’t looking at phones every few seconds, but engaged in eye contact and unpacked one another’s days or talked about issues. All of that is still there and possible, but often the distraction of a phone or tv or something fills the space and time that once existed for the possibility of connection. People to some extent have substituted technology and entertainment for relational intimacy and connection, and the result – people have actually become more lonely, perpetually exhausted, depressed, sad, suicidal.

We have become so accustomed to being distracted and entertained with every moment of every day in our modern, tech-dependent culture that we struggled like a drug addict going through withdrawals when we in a moment or space when we are forced to be still, quiet, and actually do less. People aren’t talking about this known problem as much because it is culturally acceptable like caffeine dependency, etc, but with greater consequences.

Some scholars have argued that the solution to our problems of sadness, depression, loneliness, and exhaustion are to just do more. If we would work harder to fill our time and be more productive, then we would feel better. The trouble is people just burnout when they attempt this. There is a reason that young professionals often will get into jobs straight out of college and work two work weeks in one or more for only a few years before they transition to something different altogether or a job that doesn’t demand so much – it’s unsustainable. We can’t survive being on all the time. We have to have time off when we can rest.

I was thinking on a hike this morning near where I live, what if the answer to some of the greatest challenges and problems we face isn’t more busyness and culturally defined productivity, but actually stillness?

When we consider how many pastors and authors have addressed spiritual struggles, they often have recommended praying more, reading the Bible more, going to church activities more, getting involved with communities during the week, making time each day to read the Bible and pray. All of which I am an advocate of by the way in a big way, but I believe we can get in trouble when we do all these things, we listen to music or podcasts in the car, we have our headphones in, we are doing, doing, doing, drinking a little more coffee, and then doing some more, and then finding ourselves either numb by having done so much and become exhausted, and or completely distracted and not present to those near us, let alone actually present to God in the midst of all the things we do, ironically, to connect with God.

When trouble comes in our spiritual lives, we feel we need to do more to combat the trouble, but sometimes we end up doing more and more and more only to find ourselves face to face with the same trouble. You know, they say you can’t outrun a grizzly bear? While scholars hypothesize there being no limit to how fast a human can run and theorize the possibility of humans running as fast as a car on the highway although no human has ever remotely run that fast, the fastest recorded human speed is 27.5mph and was only for a brief moment (Usain Bolt). The average running speed is between 6mph and 8mph for both men and women. A grizzly bear can reach speeds of 35mph, so if you try to outrun a grizzly bear you will be out of luck. The best defense against such imminent danger is to stay perfectly still, to stand your ground. Basically, the whole deer in headlights move that deer are so good at. It’s not moving quickly or doing lots of things that preserves us when we encounter a bear, but rather stillness. Stillness is a survival skill in nature.

Could stillness be a survival skill for our spiritual lives? Could stillness be a survival skill in the midst of living in our modern, tech-dependent, distractible societies?

I believe it could be, but how do we cultivate a still life as we live in this modern world?

We have to realize that stillness is counter to culture and so it is an act of resistance to what everyone else is doing. That means, we will be odd and will not likely find much support from others as we cultivate stillness in our lives but the result could be that we are far more equipped and prepared to face trouble in live in its many forms than others.

While there are many ways to cultivate stillness, I will focus on a few that I’ve been practicing in my life and some that I hope to incorporate into my life in hopes that some of my lived experience could benefit you. I have been trying to limit my use of technology: tv and phone. Rather than just getting home from a workday and sitting down to fill the time with whatever you can find on your streaming device until you are tired and go to bed, what if you used that time for something else? It’s a goal you could work up to, but maybe start with one night a week without tv and do some other activity that doesn’t involve a phone or tv, whether alone or with your family?

I’ve spent a lot of time working at severing my own dependence on my smartphone the past couple years. Scientists have found that the colors on smartphones create a neurobiological link in our brains which help addict us to our phones by making the actual world less appealing than our phones. Something that you can do which might sound extreme is to set your phone display setting to greyscale. Your phone will basically be a dulled black and white, without the bright colors. However, you’ll be surprised how this simple change of setting can make your phone less appealing. I still change my setting back to edit pictures but then I set it back. You can create app limits on your phone to limit the time on your phone in that app under screen time on the iPhone, and you can monitor your phone usage in screen time as well. Sure, you can by-pass the limits but think of the limits like those gutter barriers in a bowling alley when kids bowl. They are guides meant to keep you on a path. You can get around them, but to your detriment. A big help and another that may seem extreme is I removed myself from Facebook altogether, so no Messenger or Facebook apps on my phone to check. I also removed my email app from my phone and check email on my computer, which isn’t with me all the time. The email bit has helped tremendously even if I login and check my email as soon as I get home, I am not doing it constantly all day every day.

Now, here is the big challenge and help for phone addiction and cultivating a spirit of stillness in your life… Don’t go to bed with your phone and don’t wake up immediately to your phone: checking email, checking social media, checking the news, etc. You won’t sleep as well if you go to bed having been on your phone searching or checking whatever, and you will go about your day hurried, anxious, and more susceptible to stress which will make stillness very difficult and reacting in unhealthy ways to trouble more likely.

I try to start each day with 30min-1hr not on my phone at all, and be off my phone 30min-1hr before bed. That means I don’t sleep with my phone next to my bed and that means I purchased an old fashioned alarm clock. Well, it’s new fashioned, technically, it’s a Loftie alarm clock which is pretty expensive but worth it. It comes with sleep sounds and meditations built in and you can sync your alarm schedule to it via an app on your phone (which isn’t charging next to your bed at night at arm’s reach). I get to go to sleep with the sound of soft rain or a redwood forest which through a setting will automatically shutoff after so long so that it doesn’t keep me up at night, but relaxes me into good sleep and wakes me up with a gentle sound of some chiming, not buzzing. It’s great, but what is even greater is not having my phone next to me or not even in my bedroom. Making your own rules for technology can be helpful.

Perhaps you commute to work, maybe instead of that audiobook, podcast, or song you turn the speakers off and just commute for that 20min-1hr in silence. You’ll be surprised how difficult this is initially and how amazing it can be in time. Intentionally leave your phone at home or in the car. Have times when you are without your phone. If something happens, you will find out because you will be on your phone eventually, but you don’t need to be on it all the time. When you don’t have a phone to reach for, you don’t have a phone to be plugged into. Make a rule to not have your phone at the table when you are eating with friends or family, maybe make it a game and whoever looks at their phone at the table while eating out gets the bill or something.

From a spiritual standpoint, taking time in those still and in between moments of the day to focus your attention on God in Christ is key to cultivating a disposition of stillness. A heart posture that is ready for whatever may come, good or bad, in the day and in life. Think of it as unplugging from technology and plugging into a life with God through silence and solitude, meditation, lectio divina or continua, Bible reading, devotional time, prayer in all it’s many types throughout the day, or perhaps a podcast or series of songs that reinforce the same focus. All of these practices are life giving and beneficial, however, they are fruitless if we are distracted by our technologies and constantly plug our minds into something else. We have to disconnect from the technology of the world in order to connect to life with God in this busy, tech-dependent world. That doesn’t mean modern technology is evil. I am using it now, lol, but it doesn’t have to control us and it doesn’t have to smother/dominate our lives to the point that we aren’t present for God and others in our lives because we are so distracted. However, that takes intentionality. It takes resistance. Are you up for the challenge? It’s not easy, but it is rewarding. It could give you a hidden strength when danger comes your way in life. Think about it.

The Challenge of Hypocrisy

“Christians are a bunch of hypocrites. They talk about all this Jesus stuff and doing good things, but I know how they really live. They don’t look anything like Jesus. They act just like anybody else… or worse.”

How many of us have heard someone say that? Or said that? The Barna Group polled young people in their teens and twenties, both in the church and non-Christians, and about a quarter of both groups believe Christianity (read most churches in the Western world) doesn’t look like Jesus. This poll and study was taken awhile ago, but this news isn’t really news now. A study isn’t really needed to see how the church doesn’t resemble Jesus in the Western world. I say, in the Western world, because we run the risk of viewing one thing with one set of cultural glasses and misapplying it to everything, everywhere. We should be careful not to make statements that are far reaching when they are merely based on our own experience within our own culture and context. I say this because I confess I’ve been guilty of making these statements but am trying to be more mindful of this in how I address complex issues.

A quick glimpse at something such as the Beatitudes from Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Matthew 5-7 reveals how very not otherworldly the church has become, but rather how very worldly the church. The church is supposed to be a sort of embassy on earth of God’s Kingdom which has come into the world upon Jesus’ first coming, has been advancing in the world through the growth of the church and spread of the message of the Gospel, and will be experienced no longer in part but in it’s fullness when Christ returns (i.e. Revelation 21). While Jesus certainly had a major impact in the world and He is still being discussed today by Christians and non-Christians alike, the church today doesn’t resemble that tight-knit community of followers of Jesus who shared all their possessions, were giving to the poor in radical ways, and were the example of caring for widows and orphans and the poor and marginalized and outcasts of society (such as minorities and refugees and houseless) at the beginning of the book of Acts.

Today, the church in some contexts looks like a movie theater or a concert venue, where people come, pay/give, are entertained, experience something which involves a good bit of lecture format akin to a school, sing some songs, and go back to their lives only to do the same thing the next week… if they aren’t out of town or vacationing somewhere or decide to go experience church somewhere else for whatever reason. The church in some contexts is less exciting than a concert or movie theater, and looks more like a moralistic, uptight school where people go by obligation, smiling isn’t common, conversation is surface-level, a few people serve and do things but are burned out, joyless, people sit for awhile listening to a sermon which sounds disconnected from the world in which they live, and people sing songs that satisfy folks in the church who might become very upset if anything outside of what they like took place in the church.

David Foster Wallace, the late author, once observed and mused that everybody worships something. It is not possible to not worship. We are worshipping creatures or beings. If we do not worship God, we will worship something or someone else. Look on social media and you will find people worshipping nature, worshipping sport, worshipping appearance, worshipping self-help, worshipping themselves, worshipping causes, etc, etc. Look in the church and you will find some churches seeming to worship Jesus and other churches worshipping other things like the music, the service itself, their money and programs, politics, sports, their local culture, their tradition, their building, their organ, their location, the things that they do or have done, etc, etc. When churches hold other things, even good things, over Jesus, and other things become the object of their worship, not only do they commit idolatry but they have ceased to properly be the church in the world.

However, we need to clarify a couple things before we continue. What is the church? What is worship?

Some would say the church is a building where people who call themselves Christians gather (though historically, no Christian called themselves a Christian, but that label was applied to followers of Jesus who resembled Jesus Christ). Others like Mark Dever with IX Marks have said “the church is a people, not a place.” The word church occurs just over 100 times in the New Testament. The word for church is the word ekklesia in the Greek which means, “assembly” or “fellowship.” It is a word which bears with it an identity of who God’s people are, once Israel, and now (also Israel) but broadly the church which includes Jews and Gentiles (non-Jewish peoples). The church is a relational word which is understood in relation to God and in relation to others. The church is a people who have become God’s people by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, as God came into the world to reconcile all things to himself beginning with sinners but extending to the whole of creation. In that capacity, the church is where God’s Kingdom becomes manifest, where heaven and earth meet as they have met in Christ, so their unity is expressed in and through the church. The church is the community of the redeemed who have been brought from darkness to light by the Spirit of God through the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ no longer slaves to sin, but free and alive by faith in Jesus, and who have gathered together to work toward following Jesus together. It is a place where people learn how to be with Jesus, to become like Jesus, and to do what Jesus does. The church extends beyond race, socio-economic class, gender, and every division within humanity bringing unity as one body of people, a family, adopted by God in Jesus, the family of God.

Now that we have clarified what the church is (or what biblically and historically it properly should be), what is worship?

Some would say it’s what people do in the location where a church gathers. All of it, whatever that is. A basic definition is reverence and adoration for someone or something, especially a deity, thus, any means of expressing that reverence or adoration. Worship biblically is something that is internal and external. Internally, it is a valuing and treasuring of God above all things (John Piper, Desiring God). It expresses God’s value, worth, ascribes the weight and importance of God or gives glory to God. Externally, it is expressing value, reverence, admiration, adoration, gratitude, thanksgiving, confession, profession, singing to God. Worship has to do with a right understanding of God and right valuing of God, but it also is expressed in the heart, mind, and in word and action. Worship has to do with all of life, every facet from how a person spends money to what someone talks or gets excited about, to gathering with others to worship externally, to as Scripture says “taking every thought captive” to Scripture and to the authority of God out of love for God. Worship is a response to who God is often in coming to terms with who we are as human beings. Worship is loving God with all that we are, our whole selves.

Now, I could go on about both the church and worship, but I feel I’ve said enough to clarify what I mean as we discuss both the church and worship for this post. Properly, the church is so much more than a service on a Sunday and worship is more than someone singing a song, however, there is the ideal and the actual. The ideal is a beautiful thing. The actual in many places is a far cry from the ideal. And this seems to be a clear example of how the church is hypocritical. It claims one thing and does another. A church should be passionate about justice, passionate about mercy, passionate about giving sacrificially to support those in need the most and helping communities that are hurting because that is what Jesus did, but they don’t or do very little. A church, which I would argue is a people and a place, often is self-focused on it’s own maintenance that it rarely engages with the world beyond the walls of where it gathers and when it does it is often critical, judgmental, and negative despite many supposed Christians who routinely do many of the same things during the week that people outside the church do. If the purpose of the church and people of God could be summarized, it would be: the greatest commandment which is to love the Lord God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself; and the great commission which is to follow Jesus and bring the Good News of the Kingdom of God to all while helping others to follow Jesus.

If you ask the average person what the purpose of the church is, you could get any number of answers. You might find the purpose is to make money, to get a lot of people in the building, to showcase a worldly image of success, to get the right people, to have the right programs, to be a place for Christians to gather and that’s all, to have meetings, to look a certain way, to wear certain clothes, to sing certain songs, to resemble a certain subculture. Some of these things might be necessary, but they are not what the church is supposed to be about. Many associate the church with a political group or agenda today rather than Jesus. The word Christian brings up painful, hurtful feelings or memories for many, especially where I live near Portland, OR, a place where many have moved after having experience similar painful upbringings in a church that hasn’t been properly the church for them.

In light of this hypocrisy, many claim they can write off Christianity altogether whether to embrace atheism, agnosticism, or some other religion which they claim isn’t hypocritical. However, have we considered how hypocritical people are in the Western world beyond the realm of Christian churches? Hypocrisy doesn’t solely exist in the context of a Christian church. People everyday say one thing and do another. Just look at social media. People will claim to adamantly support a cause while going back to their life off social media doing life in such a way as to contradict what they say they are about.

One example is being for environmental conservation and the green movement. People will say they care for the environment but when the rubber meets the road, continue to support systems which exploit, pollute, and do damage to the environment especially if it makes their comfortable way of life possible. People want to show that they care about the environment, but they continue to consume goods which use plastic. They continue to drive (even cars which are electric still have plastic and rubber, mind you). They continue to travel regardless of the pollution from transportation. People continue to do activities which use resources that are damaging to the environment. People may wear a t-shirt that is made by an ethical company that supports the environment while they drive a gas powered car on their way to get takeout food in single-use containers in order to sit at home and watch tv powered perhaps by a hydroelectric dam which makes the cost of electricity cheaper at the expense of eliminating countless fish species creating the government project of fish hatcheries to offset (or provide the image of offset) the destruction caused by dams, not to mention the pollution the dams produce themselves in their materials, or the pollution caused by the mills which make various products and resources used in their home.

You see, there is the image of supporting something while living in such a way that one contradicts what they say they are about or believe. People are against violence against women today, yet, the same people who talk about women’s rights on social media will listen to misogynistic music or watch a movie or tv show that glorifies violence against women (Game of Thrones, Vikings, etc). People may talk about supporting racial justice online, but what are they actively doing to support putting an end to racial injustice? People may say that they care about refugees, but have they actually sat with a refugee and listened to their story? Have they opened up their home to a family that doesn’t have one? While it doesn’t excuse the church for not properly being the church, it isn’t hard to see that hypocrisy goes beyond the contemporary Western church to the culture at large in many ways.

There is a difference between who the church is called to be and what the church is called to do in relation to God in Christ Jesus, and what many churches look like in the world today. However, that doesn’t mean that the church is altogether bad just as when a company that fails to live up to it’s environmental ideals doesn’t necessarily need to be abandoned, but perhaps someone should call that company out as not living up to it’s standards? If a company or group of people are living in an unjust way and oppressing others, it’s not unusual to find a group of people take some vocal stance in letting them know of the injustice in order to get that company or people to change their ways and become more just. However, when it comes to the church, rather than call out a church for not being the church (not living up to it’s ideals) people simply leave or get angry and bitter against it, maybe abandon that location or tradition or even the faith entirely… and then move to Portland, OR, to find a like-minded group of friends to complain about things to, lol. What if we are all hypocrites? What if we all had some actions that didn’t align with what we state we believe? What if we all don’t do what we say, and there is a disconnect between who we think/say we are, and how we live in the world? If we don’t own up to our own hypocrisy while merely pointing out the hypocrisy of others, doesn’t that then place us in a position of being condescending and perhaps as judgmental, uncharitable, and maybe in some ways if we’re honest unjust as others?

The problem with the church is that it isn’t composed of perfect people like Jesus, but regular people who are flawed and those flawed people don’t become magically perfect upon following Jesus and those flawed people mixed with other flawed people amounts to a lot of flawed and messiness. However, community exposes flaws and imperfections. When a couple gets married, sure it is exciting and fun, but after awhile those two people live together and learn things about one another they don’t like, and perhaps learn things about themselves that they didn’t know, and there comes a time when they can either change for the better and continue in their relationship or refuse to acknowledge needed change and break away from the relationship altogether. When you look at a church, it is often the same way. People experience a honeymoon initially in visiting a church but as they get to know people in the church over time and the honeymoon fades, they learn that people have problems and there are shortcomings and imperfections in the church. They then have to decide whether they will go deeper into relationship with the church which amounts to being honest and open about their own flaws and imperfections (not simply those in others which are often easier to notice), or if they will sever ties and go somewhere else. When you look at the Bible, it isn’t long before you find many of the heroes and heroines of the Bible are not perfect people like Jesus either. The Bible is full of flawed, imperfect people, but that’s kind of the point. God takes flawed, imperfect people and brings healing and reconciliation and restoration to their lives in order to repurpose them to experience joy, love, peace, grace, and to show and share that that story with others. The church is like the Japanese art of kintsugi, where artists take broken pieces of pottery and meticulously piece them together filling the cracks around the broken bits with gold so that they pot becomes more beautiful and valuable than if it were never broken in the first place. We are broken bits but God being the artist brings healing by grace in Jesus into the crevices and corners of our hearts and lives to make us more alive than we’d be otherwise, more joyful than we’d be, more at peace than we’d be. In a way, the whole church is like this as well with each member being a broken bit of a vessel but fitting together somehow to showcase something they couldn’t individually. The church is a living thing though, so there will be lived brokenness in the church and sometimes it takes awhile for that gold to shine through the broken bits.

It’s when we evaluate the church from a position not of “I am perfect and better than you” but rather, from a place of humility as a flawed, imperfect person observing flawed, imperfect people that we can see that the church has made mistakes and is going to make mistakes. However, there is a beautiful ideal that when not lived up to could use people to call out and take a stand for what is right and just and good, rather than simply have people evaluate a large group of people they don’t know and judge them base on the actions of a few that they likely also don’t know. I’m not at all advocating for letting injustice go or having a happy view of evil things in churches, quite the contrary. I am saying that the church is comprised of people, and anything that involves people is going to have imperfection. That’s just who we are as human beings. The church isn’t alone in hypocrisy, but that isn’t a license to persist in hypocrisy either. The church needs people to hold it accountable to it’s ideal, to Jesus. Imagine what the church would look like if the church resembled Jesus more than the broken organizations and systems of doing church that have existed… wouldn’t that be amazing? Even if you aren’t on board with following Jesus yourself, wouldn’t the church be better than it’s more recent representations? Wouldn’t our world to some extent be a better place if it were filled with people like Jesus? The church doesn’t need more church people or critics, but rather humble people who are willing to take a bold stand to follow Jesus and call out others who are failing not from a place of condescension but a place of love. After all, that’s what Jesus did.