Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Counter-Cultural Quiet in Advent


For some people, the Advent season on the church calendar is one of the most anticipated times of the year. For some, there is no other time in which their love of God is stronger, there is no other time in which they are more aware of God's mercy in their lives and in the world, there is no other time in which their hearts go out to others with such affection, and there is no other time in which their joy is more profound.

I am not one of those people.

For me this time of year has always been a spiritually dry time. There is a line in a Counting Crows song that says "You can see a million miles tonight, but you can't get very far." That is my experience during this season. Every year I anticipate it with everyone else, hoping that this year will be different. Maybe this year the earth-shattering experience of God will take place, and I'll be able to take in the seismic joy that should result from the knowledge that God entered the course of human history to reclaim it as his own. But by December 26th, I'm left with disappointment, another year of not getting very far.

I experience a deep division within myself during Advent. My inner world stirs with longings for deep experiences of grace, for moments of pregnant silence, for times of candlelit reflections on the fullness of deity wrapped in a child. But my outer world is harassed by the rampant activity, the hurried crowds, and the consumeristic clutter of the season.

I think my personal division reflects a broader cultural division. I'm willing to suspend my cultural cynicism for a moment and speculate that at the root of American consumer Christmas is a deep-seated desire for meaning. I may be way off on this, but I suspect the decorations, the music, the saturated social calendars, the capitalistic flurry, and the caloric overload are attempts at finding something true, something significant. Hopes for discovering community and transcendence. There is a neighborhood near my own that puts on an unbelievable show of lights, music, and decorations for the weeks leading up to Christmas. Cars line up for blocks to meander through the illuminated streets and residents sit in their driveways around firepits and chat with the passersby. Aside from laying a carbon footprint likely visible from outer space, it is a powerful display of community spirit.

The problem, I think, is that our culture doesn't know how to truly celebrate. Overconsumption and overstimulation are the only ways we know how to mark a special occasion. Even though most of us implicitly know it doesn't work and that we're going to wake up with a hangover, it's all we know how to do. When there is a significant event, we commemorate it by scurrying around, spending absurd amounts of money, gathering a crowd, and turning up the volume. If we're not weighed down by anxiety and insomnia, then it must not be a very important occasion. Our holiday "celebrations" therefore seem destined to only get bigger and bigger, because we have built up such a tolerance.

Many of us in the church live in the tension of this religious and cultural ambivalence. Our Christmas Eves are often a confusing recipe of ingredients like these: the onslaught of relatives, massive food preparation, stressful and boisterous dinners, hurrying everyone into the car, attending a hot, packed Christmas Eve worship service in which we light candles, and sing lyrics like:

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Then we rush home, hustle the kids into bed so we can finish wrapping gifts and stuffing stockings, because they'll be up in five hours. Sleep in heavenly peace indeed.

I was originally asked to write about this topic because I have written a book called Introverts in the Church, those in the church who prefer a quieter, slower, more contemplative lifestyle and who, for those reasons, often find themselves on the fringes both of the culture and of Christian community. I saw a blog post recently that called January 2nd "Happy Introverts Day" because of the notorious nature of the holiday season for those of us who find social interaction tiring and sometimes stressful. But the truth is that the need for a quieter, less cluttered, more reflective Advent season is not restricted to introverts. The clatter of the holidays has caused people of all temperaments to turn from the inner places of our souls, contributing to the superficiality of our spiritual practice during this season. We need to find a new way to celebrate.

In the early centuries of the Church, celebrating Christmas was a counter-cultural activity. It's unclear whether the church fathers chose December 25th to co-opt the already entrenched pagan festival of the Unconquered Sun, or whether the pagan holiday was established to rival the Church's celebration of the birth of Christ. What is clear is that Christmas was a subversive event, providing an alternative to the mainstream culture's celebration.

In our world, quiet is counter-cultural. I'm not only referring to quiet on the outside, but also quiet on the inside. In fact, it may be easier to shut out the external voices than it is to silence the internal noise. It's often those inner voices, especially the unacknowledged ones, that compel us to fill our lives with movement and agendas and spending and eating. Our behaviors and hurry are echoes of our inner doubts about our worth. Sadly, in many ways the nature of our holiday celebrations reveal how incompletely we have embraced the actual message of Christmas.

In contrast to the dizzying nature of our cultural celebrations, the biblical narratives about Jesus' birth speak in hushed tones about simple, unsophisticated scenes. The baby of prophecy, the King of kings, is born in a quiet town in an inconsequential region to unremarkable people and placed in a trough in a barn. Yet by the grace of God this spot becomes the center of the universe, the matrix of hope and redemption and salvation. The quiet, ordinary place becomes the beginning of the dramatic climax of the great Story. The birth of Jesus incarnates the promise that we are not alone and that we are loved beyond measure, recipients of a love that brings peace and stillness to our souls.

The birth of a child is both a time of poignant gratitude and a time of quiet anticipation. I remember how friends of mine described the day they brought their first child home from the hospital. They placed him in his crib, in the room they had been preparing for months, and watched him sleep. For hours they sat in contented silence. My friend said, "It was unlike any other moment in my life. It was the greatest moment of love we'd ever experienced, more intimate than even our wedding night. There was nothing else in the world we needed that day -- we had everything." Yet he also said that as he looked into his son's eyes, he was full of anticipation. Who will my son be? What will he do in his life? Who will he marry? What will be his gifts, his calling? Like Mary the mother of Jesus, my friends stored up these things in their hearts and silently wondered who their child would become.

Advent is not only a season of reflection on events past. It is a season of quiet hope, as we await the second advent of our Lord Jesus, who will come and complete his reclamation project. Our celebration during this time of year is necessarily incomplete. In this season we must prepare small, quiet places in our individual souls and in our communities, still longing and waiting for the fulfillment of Jesus' work and the rebirth of creation.

I'm still struggling with Advent, still reaching for something that I haven't found yet. I do know that if there is any chance for deep experiences of God's grace and love in this season, we need to open spaces for hope and attentiveness in our hearts. We can't compel God to move, but we can clear away what distracts us from hearing his gentle voice. We can reduce the external clutter of the season by simplifying our celebration. We can slowly savor the biblical prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and the narratives about Jesus' birth. We can devote time to silence and solitude as well as to corporate celebration. We can learn to say "no" when we find ourselves spinning from all the invitations and seasonal stimuli. We can listen to the voices of people who are not often heard over the cultural shouting -- the poor, the hungry, the suffering around the world. We can prepare a quiet place for God to renew his love and rebirth his hope in us.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Seasons of the Soul

The calendar has driven us, once again, into the bracing arms of autumn. Northern Hemisphere residents are inhaling the snappy chill of the late-afternoon air, wrapping their dangerously exposed necks in magical Hogwarts scarves, exclusively eating and drinking things that taste and look like pumpkins, losing their children in elaborate corn-mazes, and unabashedly participating in the creepiest-sounding of all autumn activities: leaf-peeping.

Meanwhile, here in Santa Barbara, California, it’s 70-something degrees and sunny, and everyone is at the beach. Just like every other damn day of the year.

I’m not foolish enough to try to elicit any sympathy for my life in a Mediterranean climate. For a century, people have moved to Santa Barbara precisely for the therapy of sun and salty ocean air. No one in upstate New York will shed any tears for me when they’re shoveling themselves out of 11 feet of snow in January and I’m unironically wearing shorts.

Yet, while I am happy to call this place home, I miss seasons, sometimes desperately. No doubt retailers play a role in my angst; they have conditioned me, rather brilliantly, to associate dates on the calendar with particular products and activities. When the bell of the autumnal equinox rings, I start salivating for pumpkin-spiced whatever—like the most annoyingly hipster Pavlovian dog…and I don’t even like sweet things. Most of it is influenced by nostalgia. I grew up in Seattle, and autumn evokes childhood memories of driving with my dad past the sprawling local pumpkin patch on drizzly Saturday evenings and returning home to the fire after University of Washington football games.

But it goes even deeper. Seasons are not only realities that occur outside and around us, in the skies and in the trees. I believe seasons are also internal and personal, interwoven into the fabric of human life. We are designed to transition, to change, and to vary. Our souls have seasons.

When there are few changes in the outward seasons, it is easy to neglect the shifts required by our internal seasons. When you live in an unchanging climate, it’s tempting to try to match it with an unchanging life. External seasonal cues can remind us to transition into something new and to live differently. The reason why people historically have celebrated the month of October so extravagantly is not only because it’s harvest time, an ancient time of gratitude, but because they sensed on a primal level that the world was slowly closing, the sap was gravitating back toward the soil, the darkness was encroaching, and the natural world was going dormant. They knew their daily lives were going to change along with it: it was almost time to go inside, build a fire, and wait out the winter.

My longing for seasons feels like a desire for the permission to change, to slow. I don’t believe we are built to move at the same pace, do the same activities, and feel the same feelings all year round. Humans, just like the natural world, are meant to cycle through seasons of dormancy and new life, activity and contemplation, celebration and sadness, blossom and harvest, openness and closedness, austerity and abundance. I believe the seasons serve as a lesson book for the soul, instructing us when to move fast and when to slow down, when to act and when to rest, when to focus on the world outside and when to hibernate and go down deep. If we ignore the lessons of the seasons, we may feel the pressure to try to be “up” all the time—always going, ever energetic, constantly gleeful. We may find ourselves restless and exhausted without having any idea why.

Living in a climate of seemingly endless summer has taught me some valuable lessons. First, the seasonal changes are there, but you have to discipline yourself to pay attention to the subtleties. Seasons are exercises in attentiveness. The radiant glow of summer modulates into the beautiful sadness of autumn, but it’s delicate. The marine layer persists just a little bit longer in the mornings, and the air warms up a little slower in the morning and cools down a little faster in the afternoon. The clouds linger on the peaks of the Santa Ynez Mountains into the afternoons. The light falls differently and casts longer shadows, and the loud pink rays of the summer sunset are brushed aside by the amber and burnt orange hues of fall’s curtain call.

Second, seasons are now something I choose. Here, autumn is something you resolve to do. I love that the word deciduous has the word decide embedded in it. Although I live in an evergreen climate, I have resolved to lead a deciduous life, for the sake of my soul. I allow the encroaching darkness of the fall to drive me inside earlier in the evening to read, to write, to reflect. And sometimes, you just have to put soup in the crockpot when it’s 80 degrees outside. I want to let the seasons, and their inherent gifts, rhythms, and offerings, teach me how to live and to be more human.

There is a growing trend in our country of eating in season, enjoying the produce that particular season has to offer rather than trying to eat a plastic tomato in the middle of February. What if we extended that idea to living in season? What if we stopped trying to live the year at a dead sprint and instead let the seasons teach us about how to move and how to live?

Originally posted at Quiet Revolution, October 2016.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

In an Extroverted Church Culture, Silence is a Homecoming for Introverts

There is an ancient and beautiful monastic ritual called “The Grand Silence.” For centuries, at the conclusion of evening prayer, monasteries have called a full halt on speech, to be observed except in dire emergency. This silence endures through the night until the first prayers the next morning, when as the sun introduces the new day, the quiet is broken by the singing of Scripture.

I first encountered this tradition on retreat with several of my ministry partners while I worked as a college pastor. They were a fervent group of extroverts, and for them, the nighttime silence was less than “grand.” They squirmed their way through that first evening, contorting their faces every time they had a thought they had to stifle. By the second night, though, they started to enjoy it and acknowledge the value of the silence. If we’re honest, too much talking can be a slow leak on even the most extroverted soul.

For me, the lone introvert, not even the most haunting chants of the Psalms that resonated through the chapel at daybreak could compare to the transcendence of the Grand Silence. Monasteries may be homes of asceticism, but each night their members feast on a gluttonous banquet of quiet. I anticipated and relished those hours, often going deep into the night to savor the stillness. For my extroverted colleagues, the grand silence was a vacation; for me, it was a homecoming....
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Read the rest of this excerpt from the "Introverted Spirituality" chapter of the Expanded and Revised edition of Introverts in the Church at Introvert, Dear!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Psychology Today and the New Introverts in the Church

I was honored to interview with Psychology Today writer Nancy Ancowitz last month, and all three parts of our conversation about listening and introversion are now up on the Psychology Today website. That link will take you to part one, and here is part two and part three. Part one focuses on listening to others, part two on listening to ourselves, and part three on the specific opportunities and challenges for introverted listeners.



And, this is one more gentle reminder that there is a revised and expanded edition of Introverts in the Church hitting my publisher's warehouse on July 7th. Here are some of the changes in the second edition. It should be shipping out of online retailers by mid July, with the official release date in early August.