Saturday, July 29, 2017

Inbox: Radical Pruning

A reader writes:

“Over the past year I had to do a radical pruning of my social media feeds and the time I spent looking at them … the constant barrage of complaints and call-outs from Christians and non-Christians worked up about some political / social / educational / economic / artistic outrage was exhausting. It was making me feel angry and disgusted with humanity, and not in a good or holy way.”

Hey, that’s honest. And taking practical steps to solve the problem, as this reader did, is an eminently more sensible solution than fuming about the world and being miserable.

An Unrelenting Barrage

Let’s face it, even if we stick to Christian websites, the unrelenting barrage of misinformation, whinging, bizarreness and outright crazy talk we encounter in the course of a single day can be tremendously discouraging. Over time, it can become overwhelming. And if we don’t handle it correctly, it can push us in some pretty unpleasant directions emotionally.

Paul’s closing lines to the Philippians are apropos here, I think:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
It’s only the “God of peace” that enables us to manage the sort of internal agitation our reader is describing. Filling our minds and hearts with things he values, along with putting the teaching of the apostles into practice daily, is a recipe for a life characterized by evenness of spirit and a consequent readiness to be used as the Lord sees fit.

Mind the Flying Bromides

But let’s be careful not to hurl Paul’s words at each other like some kind of trite bromide. In our minds, these verses often morph platitudinously into something else; something like this: “Never, EVER think about anything that is NOT true, honorable, just, pure …”, etc. In short, disengage from the world so you can enjoy inner peace. Avoid anything that riles up your spirit. Monkhood, I suppose, or something like it.

For Christians called to preach the gospel and make disciples, that’s a strategy that cannot possibly be applied 100% of the time if we are are to engage the needy around us rather than keep them at bay. Moreover, I don’t think it’s what Paul is teaching. We can’t hide from the ugliness of the world, the ugliness in our fellow believers or even the ugliness in our own hearts.

What sort of ugliness did Paul have to deal with?
“There is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?”
Does this sound to you like a person at peace 100% of the time?

Down in the Trenches

Paul was very personally involved in the spiritual struggles of his fellow believers. I suspect he was not just offering doctrinal Band-Aids from a safe distance that his audiences were free to apply to their own wounds as they saw fit. To me he sounds like a man at home down in the trenches with the spiritually needy.

That’s not a painless task: many new disciples have been to some pretty grimy places. They face problems most Christians haven’t; problems that, if we are honest, we want no part of:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you.”
Do you figure dealing with the residual baggage of former adulterers, homosexuals, drunks and chronic liars was easy? I know it wasn’t. It’s defiling, messy and emotionally disturbing. “Touch no unclean thing,” said the prophet Isaiah to the Lord’s people. Paul picks up this statement and applies it to the Christian life.

Avoiding the Unnecessary

But how exactly do we avoid all daily defilement and still do good in the world? I think the obvious answer is that we can’t.

What we CAN avoid is unnecessary defilement. Much of what weighs on our hearts in the course of a 24-hour day is just that: unnecessary. Here I think our correspondent has hit the nail on the head: radical pruning of the things we allow to influence our thinking is in order.

For example, I gave up the watching the news a few years back. I haven’t missed it at all. Oh, I’m not completely out of touch, as you all know if you read here regularly. But I’m on about a two-week info-lag. When a story is breaking somewhere in the world, I rarely know it’s even happening. I pick up on it once all the information is in and the facts are known (as much as the truth can ever be “known” these days), and I process it through the pundits and op-editors on the Internet rather than through the newsmen. Instead of getting hour after hour of CNN hand-wringing and angst, I take a single concentrated information pill that takes five minutes to read.

It’s still not fun, and it can still be dispiriting, but it’s a lot less so. I know enough to get by in a conversation at work, but I’m not immersed in the gory details every minute.

The Fool Will No More Be Called Noble

Another thing I try to do is apply the word of God to the unpleasantness of the world as I’m processing it. That’s given rise to a lot of what you read here. The sordid pettiness of the Obama administration or the moral insanity of Trudeaupia is a lot less daunting when you set it alongside something like this:
“Behold, a king will reign in righteousness,
    and princes will rule in justice.
Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,
    a shelter from the storm,
like streams of water in a dry place,
    like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.
Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed,
    and the ears of those who hear will give attention.
The heart of the hasty will understand and know,
    and the tongue of the stammerers will hasten to speak distinctly.
The fool will no more be called noble,
    nor the scoundrel said to be honorable.”
There’s a lot of hope in those statements. These are things the Christian should never lose sight of.

Now, not everyone has time to do that, I agree. But I would argue you don’t have time to watch an hour of news daily if you don’t also have the necessary time to process that new information in a Christian way right down to the core of your being. If you can’t get more prayer and more Bible study into your life, then you need less negative input, whether that’s cutting back your TV watching, skipping movies or newscasts, backing away from social media or whatever you have to do to let the peace of God (and the God of peace) back into your life in a daily way.

Jumping in Voluntarily

You pick up the phone, and that poor, damaged, mentally ill believer you’ve been trying to help is on the line again. You know it’s going to be an ugly half-hour, maybe more. She’s got some horrible things going through her head and she needs to work them through with you to get herself back on track.

This half-hour of your life, unfortunately, is not really negotiable. It’s no fun, but it’s got to happen, not least so you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning. But if these unpleasant moments can’t be pushed away, maybe some other unpleasant moments can be.

In the course of helping real people out of the muck, whether on the Internet or in our living rooms, we are going to experience a degree of defilement, sorrow and unpleasantness whether we like it or not. That’s part of the Christian experience.

But we sure don’t have to jump in voluntarily in our spare time.

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