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.

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.




Monday, March 6, 2017

Introverts in the Church, Revised and Expanded

Now 40% More Introverted!!!
About a year ago, I cracked open Introverts in the Church for the first time in several years. Contrary to what some may believe, we authors don't cuddle up to our books on cold nights. I had moved on to other topics, namely The Listening Life, and some other writing projects.

I had been wrestling with questions, once again, about how to approach some new relationships in my life as an introvert, and I thought to myself, "You know who's an expert on this topic? ME!" So I dusted off my copy of Introverts in the Church and immersed myself in chapter 5, the Community and Relationships chapter.

What I found is that while my advice is helpful, some of it already feels outdated. It is astonishing how much things change in 8 years. In 2009, when the book was published, everyone in the church was talking about postmodernism; now, I almost never hear that word. In 2009, I didn't even know the phrase "social media," and the iPhone was just starting to flood the market. I started writing Introverts when I was 29 years old, even though the book wasn't published until I was 33. I will be turning 41 in a few months, and needless to say, I have changed, as a person, as a writer, and as a believer.

I was a decent writer when I was 29, but I am much better now, and one of the things I noticed, ironically, is that the book is just too wordy. I can tell I was dealing with what they call "Imposter Syndrome," a common struggle with a first book, and I wanted to prove to everyone, myself included, that I was qualified to write a book. I dropped in all kinds of theological knowledge and research that just wasn't necessary and was, in some cases, distracting. That, combined with the outdated time stamps in the book, compelled me to approach InterVarsity Press last summer and ask if we could release a 2nd edition. I wanted to write a new version that had a more timeless, and succinct, feel to it. And I thought I could make the book a lot funnier.

Today, I am thrilled to announce that the Revised and Expanded Version of Introverts in the Church is now available for pre-order. Here's what's new: each chapter has been thoroughly revised, both in content and in flow. I have written a new introduction. I have interspersed more discussions about the struggles of introverted parents and ministering to introverted children. I have incorporated the new research that has been conducted in the last few years about introversion, neurology, and sensitivity to stimuli, as well as some recent studies on the effectiveness of introverted leaders. And I have brought in the work of the Queen of Introversion, Susan Cain.

There are also some new endorsements. Scot McKnight wrote the forward, and he says "the first edition was exceptional, the second even better, at least by half, perhaps more than that." 

Jenn Granneman, creator of the popular introverted community, Introvert, Dear, writes: "Introverts in the Church is thoughtful, validating, and charming. It’s the book for any church-goers who have ever wanted to disappear into their seats when the pastor said, “Turn and introduce yourself to three strangers.” Adam teaches an important lesson: Spirituality should not be measured by sociability. The introvert who quietly reflects on her faith is as true of a believer as the extrovert who preaches exuberantly to others."

There are also endorsements from Susan Cain, Lauren Winner, John Ortberg, and many others. I echo Emily Freeman's hopes when she says, "I have a hopeful vision that the giftedness of the next generations of introverts will be honored and celebrated thanks to the fine work of Adam S. McHugh in this timeless, important book."  

You can now pre-order the revised version of Introverts in the Church on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Pre-ordering guarantees you the best price, as the price will decrease at times over the next few months, and it is a helpful way to draw the attention of retailers and reviewers. The official release date is August 7, 2017, but if you pre-order the book you will have it in your hands around mid-July. While the new edition will be of particular interest to new readers, those of you who read the first edition will find plenty of new content.

As always, I am deeply grateful for all of you who have read the book, recommended it to others, and sent me emails about it. I liked the first edition of Introverts in the Church, but I like the 2nd edition much, much better. I think you will too.