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Changing Pace: The Need for Rest in a Frenetic World

Gregory E. Reynolds

Planes, trains, and a cabin in the woods—these are where my best thoughts always germinate. But what do these three have in common? Planes and trains may seem oddly out of place in the quest for solitude. To be sure the enjoyment of solitude I experience in the cabin far exceeds my enjoyment of planes and trains. But in each of the three I find that I am not distracted by electronic forms of communication. Amtrak's Acela Express enhances solitude in its "quiet car," insisting, like a school marm, on "library quiet"—no conversations or cell phones allowed. Such solitude in the midst of a busy schedule is heavenly—well, in an earthly way. After the stressful passage through security, planes offer the third possibility of solitude, unless you end up next to a chatterbox—nothing an open book cannot cure. The absence of phones, Internet, and email is still a significant shift from everyday life in the modern world. My cabin in the woods, however—being without electricity, as it is—offers the quintessential setting for solitude. But what is the problem solitude solves?

The problem is not people or activity—or even interruption per se—but distraction. Maggie Jackson's challenging new book Distracted describes the disease (dis-ease) in order to focus on the cure—attentiveness, a vanishing human attribute in her opinion.[1] Last summer Nicholas Carr caused a stir on my Media Ecology Association email discussion group with his article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in the Atlantic Monthly (July-August 2008)—after all, everyone loves Google. To criticize it seems almost as un-American as criticizing motherhood. The sky may not be falling, but our attentions spans are—and in a way that is utterly unique to the electronic situation. The problem has been growing ever since the sluiceway of electronic information was opened by Samuel Breese Morse over a century and a half ago. If your cell phone isn't vibrating in your pocket, a wide screen is attracting your attention in the corner of the restaurant. This is the culture in which we are called to minister as church officers. My deepest concern is for ministers of the Word. The torrent of noise and visual distraction is unsettling our minds and unsuiting us for deep thinking of any kind.

Positioned in our studies—not offices, please—the distractions are around every corner. Long before the Internet became a pace-altering reality, the telephone, and before that, the telegraph, were eating away at the old pace. The answering devices, in seeking a remedy for the interrupting tendency of the telephone, have only delayed the sense of urgency that lingers when that annoying beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, greets you when you make a call. My phone has a flashing red light that adds to the sense of emergency. "Call me, now!" says the phone. Email is worse, because under the guise of not interrupting us, it takes more time than written correspondence ever did. And we are all annoyed when someone fails to respond. I have actually grown to admire those who do not let the tyranny of the urgent, built into email, drive them to respond immediately, if ever. Call waiting is another example. It's like someone barging into line in front of you. But the most well-mannered of family and friends allow it because the technology itself demands it. Inattention is the default position of modern life.

Media commentator Christine Rosen worries that the cognitive bottleneck caused by multitasking will spawn a generation of quick but shallow thinkers.[2] Rosen argues convincingly that what was early on labeled a virtue is now proving to be a hindrance to productivity of all kinds, and even to intelligence and learning ability. Marshaling journalists, psychologists, and neuroscientists, she makes a strong case for considering multitasking a myth. While some are optimistic that the brain will adapt to the new situation, I cast my lot with the biblical notion that part of the givenness of human nature includes our ability to focus our personal intelligence. Rosen speculates about what the rising generation will look like:

The picture that emerges with these pubescent multitasking mavens is of a generation of great technical facility and intelligence but of extreme impatience, unsatisfied with slowness and uncomfortable with silence.[3]

Unchecked by prudent stewardship of the electronic media,

this state of constant intentional self-distraction could well be of profound detriment to individual and cultural well-being. When people do their work only in the "interstices of their mind-wandering," with crumbs of attention rationed out among many competing tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.

Writer, literary critic, and teacher of writing Sven Birkerts has observed that electronic media tend to "spread language thin, evacuating it of subtly and depth."[4] Birkerts sagely observes, "Language is the soul's ozone layer and we thin it at our peril."[5] It is here that preachers must be most alert to this cultural peril. How will preachers—distracted in such a world, as we are—be equipped to deal with the most difficult and profound text in history, the Bible? Paul gives us a description of Word ministry that requires the profoundest kind of attention and focus:

Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. (1 Tim. 4:13-15 NKJV)

The frenetic pace cultivated by electronic distraction can only be slowed by dramatically changing the pace. It makes the blessing of the Sabbath all the more attractive and important.

The Power of Solitude

The power of solitude first came to my attention through the mystical countercultural poetry of Gary Snyder. He wrote eloquently of the "power-vision in solitude."[6] As a fellow mystic in the late sixties I pursued his vision relentlessly. While my mystical quest left me in a spiritual quandary, I did discover the importance of solitude for reflecting on the meaning of my existence in this crazy world. Ironically, as I used my solitude to seek union with the one (a monistic quest that ended in futility), I learned the beauty and power of being alone with my thoughts.

The modern penchant for "connectedness" leaves us strangely disconnected from things that count, including our thoughts. It was in a state of utter solitude that I was brought face to face with my own need of a Savior who could liberate me from my sin and the awful prospect of death. Such solitude is often thought to be a sign of being antisocial. Yet I have found it essential to fortifying the most important virtues necessary to maintaining true human relations. Disconnecting from the ordinary means of communication gives us opportunity to overcome the tendency to the jejune promoted by the electronic environment. Christian meditation is the biblical version of the power-vision in solitude.

The Sabbath is the biblical implementation of rest. The first Sabbath rest recorded in the Bible is not ours but God's:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Gen. 2:1-3)

This raises the question of just what this resting is. It cannot be sleep for the divine being. It was rather a concentrated enjoyment of the completed work of creation. The Sabbath made for man—redeemed man in the worship assembly—is characterized by focused attention to worshipping and enjoying the presence of God through the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

The Christian Sabbath offers a marvelous respite from the cares of life, especially from the frenetic pace of modernity. Our proposed OPC Directory for the Public Worship of God encourages us, "In order to sanctify the day, it is necessary for [the covenant people] to prepare for its approach. They should attend to their ordinary affairs beforehand so that they may not be hindered from setting the Sabbath apart to God."[7] Spiritual refreshment has, of course, always been necessary for exiles and strangers awaiting the eternal Sabbath. But the sabbatical principle involved in the Lord's Day, as the first of a new creation, is meant to form the character of the remainder of the week. Since public worship is "a meeting of the triune God with his covenant people,"[8] everything else must stimulate our focus on him. This has never been more necessary than in the present environment.

Therefore, church officers should promote these benefits of the Lord's Day. Ministers, elders, and deacons must practice good stewardship of every human invention to insure that these inventions foster attention to the important things, rather than distract us from them. We also need to instruct God's people in the cultivation of thoughtful, attentive lives. Finally, in order to guard the ministry of the Word, sessions need to protect pastors from distractions of every kind and promote sabbatical rest in their lives.

Pastors, take time to disconnect from every modern distraction. Give your undivided attention to the things that count so that your congregation may know that you have communed with heavenly reality, a sacred "power-vision in solitude." "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18).

Endnotes

[1] Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2008).

[2] Christine Rosen, "The Myth of Multitasking," The New Atlantis (Spring 2008): 109.

[3] Ibid., 108.

[4] Gregory Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 263.

[5] Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994), 133.

[6] Gary Snyder, essay in A Controversy of Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, eds. Paris Leary and Robert Kelly, (New York: Anchor Books, 1965), 551. "There is not much wilderness left to destroy, and the nature in the mind is being logged and burned off. Industrial-urban society is not ‘evil' but there is no progress either. As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the Neolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. A gas turbine or an electric motor is a finely-crafted flint knife in the hand. It is useful and full of wonder, but it is not our whole life." Ibid.

[7] Amended Proposed Revised Version of the OPC Directory for the Public Worship of God, I.A.3.a.

[8] Ibid., I.B.1

Ordained Servant, May 2009