Unfruitful Introspection

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As Ben and Bob have already observed, Rich’s sermon this week was about being alone. How often are we alone, with only our thoughts for company? Do we deliberately seek time alone to reflect on our lives and realize our identity in Christ, or do we distract ourselves from serious thinking with reading, TV, video games, music, Facebook…? What does it mean to be a Christian when we’re alone?

Brenda Account PictureMuch of the sermon focused our attention on the innumerable ways in which we avoid being alone with our thoughts. This was interesting to me, since being alone with my thoughts is my default mode—and I usually enjoy it. I’m almost always analyzing and reflecting, turning things over in my mind. I am reflective to a fault. (This is no doubt why I’m sometimes anxious.) In fact, I deliberately choose some distractions so that I can stop thinking about things.

Rich also stated that if we don’t even ask ourselves what God might be teaching us in a particular situation, we aren’t responding to that situation in a Christian way. I thought about this observation for quite a while. Does this mean that non-reflective extroverts aren’t Christians? I have a friend who says that I taught him how to be introspective; before then he didn’t know how to do it! But Rich pointed out that both introverts and extroverts have a problem with distraction; it’s just that the distractions may be different.

Here’s where the sermon connected with me. Although I have no problem with solitude or reflection, I have to admit that my tendency is not to ask what God is trying to teach me in and through the events of my life. I try to understand things that happen and learn from them—even learn about myself—but I rarely stop long enough to listen to what God might want to say to me. As I learned when I started to practice listening in my prayer life, silence is easy for me but listening is hard.

I have as many habitual distractions as anyone else. And even when I get away from the external distractions, I have a lot of interior noise that can drown out the voice of God. I’ve found that a break in my routine can help. The best thing I’ve done along this line is to do five-day silent retreats at a couple of Trappist monasteries. It usually takes me two days to slow down enough to be able to listen!

Not everyone has the luxury to go on retreat—and I don’t do it very often!—but as Rich said, all of us can carve out a few minutes to practice attentiveness to ourselves in relation to God. Rich suggested doing this while we’re in the bathroom, but we can do it during any activity that doesn’t require a lot of thought, such as taking a shower, mowing the lawn, folding laundry, walking on a treadmill, riding a bike, weeding a garden. Some people call this mindfulness, simply being aware of ourselves in the presence of God. We can do this in the confidence that we are loved by God and always welcome.

So I don’t think I’m going to pick up on Rich’s bathroom suggestion, but as the new school year gets started, I am going to try to find a time that works for me where I can be mindful of myself and God—and see if God has anything to say. How about you?

Alone…And Not Alone

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As a petulant child, I can remember saying “leave me alone!” Yet I might have silently added in my head, “but not too long.” This Sunday, Pastor Rich talked about the Christian alone and how rare it actually is to be alone. Some of this has to do with the myriad distractions in our lives–our work, families, and an ever more ubiquitous technology. The latter is sometimes a paradox as we are connected to the world digitally and more socially cut off than ever.

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Alone often seems to equate with loneliness. And yet sometimes I’ve felt most lonely in a crowd of people, and not at all lonely by myself. What is harder though is being alone, and unplugged. For ten seconds, there is the blessed silence of alone–and then the thoughts come. Sometimes it is recalling a task that I need to accomplish and it is relatively easy to add that to a “to do” list and return to silence. Sometimes it can be a fairly constructive process of mentally chewing over a problem or thinking through an upcoming presentation and beginning to experience the gelling of my thoughts.

What can be harder are some of the other kinds of thoughts. At least for me, and this may reveal my own dysfunctionality, the thoughts can be of shortcomings or failings–the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” kind of accusations that remind me that I could be a better person than I am. Or it can be thoughts of the tempting sort as I become aware of hunger and other desires. No wonder it is easy to open up the computer or turn on the radio.

What sometimes seems to help is remembering that I am alone…and not alone. I am not just with my thoughts but with the God who knows my thoughts, and neither runs away in horror or hammers me into oblivion. Instead he invites me to confess them, the word “confess” meaning “to agree with.” Somehow, acknowledging my failings, my frustrations, my desires, my anxieties seems to bring me to a place where i can let go of them into God’s care–kind of like telling your dad about something that was really bugging you as a kid, and then somehow knowing it would be all right. Dad knew.

Sometimes just to get to this point is blessed relief. But sometimes we might experience something more. That is when silence and aloneness leads to stillness. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Sometimes, I believe there is a point in aloneness where no words are needed, where our clamoring thoughts for just a moment are stilled, and we are just being with the God who is “I am”. We are both in wonder in the presence of the Holy One, and basking in the delight of being the beloved of the Father.

And this perhaps is the point where we might “hear” God. It might be a scripture that comes to mind. Perhaps a person comes to mind to call, or pray for, or visit. Sometimes there is nothing but being alone in the Presence, and attentive to whatever may come in the hours ahead. Rich observed that when we’ve been attentive to our thoughts and attentive to God, then we are best prepared to be attentive to others and truly enter into community.

Where do I get alone? Rich’s suggestion that if no where else we might find aloneness in the toilet might be the answer for some. For me, it is getting up in the early morning and sitting in a rocker with my first cup of coffee. Sometimes, it is a long meandering walk. And sometimes, it seems to be working out my thoughts in writing–with the “new mail” sounds muted. Wherever and however it is, somehow aloneness and stillness seems to be health for us and for our communities.

A good friend of ours teaches me much about the wonder of being alone, quiet, waiting. She writes a blog called QuietKeepers. I would commend it to give you a taste of the riches of coming to the place of quiet.

All By Myself

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Rich’s topic in his continuing series on the Christian life was the Christian … Alone. In this case Rich defined “alone” as no other person being around, and no external stimuli or distraction (i.e. TV, computer, Facebook, etc.). In other words, time where we are alone with our thoughts, with nothing to distract us (and not the state of loneliness which is a separate discussion).

Ben TrubeBeing alone in this way is something we may uncomfortable with, and even if we’re not, it’s not something we make a lot of time for.

I tend to think I’m alone with my own thoughts probably a lot more than I actually am. The two areas in which I am freeist from distraction are my commute, and writing blog posts. The commute does require a surface level of awareness of my surroundings, and does offer distractions like the radio or other crazy drivers. And writing on a computer offers a whole host of obvious distractions, even when I’m in an area with no Wifi.

When I am thinking it is largely about one of a few things, either the book I am currently working on, the myriad of potential future books and stories, my latest media interest, or any recent argument or incident requiring review. Except in moments of acute crisis (i.e. Family medical problems, or financial stresses, etc.), my thoughts don’t tend to stray toward the lord, unless you count thinking about what I’m going to write to all of you in the Going Deeper blog.

I think it’s pretty obvious why this is the case. The mind tends to think about what it’s saturated with, and my life is saturated with writing, media, my wife and my family, and my job. God is there, and there are times when I can sense his supportive presence through tough times, but it’s not where my mind tends to go when it’s in neutral.

If I’m not on my commute or writing, then my default is to distract myself with a combination of a menial tasks (i.e. DVD backup burns and file manipulation) and media (i.e. my favorite TV series which at the moment is Torchwood). Insert reading comic books or playing video games for variety.

I’m an only child, and so I did spend a lot of time having to figure out what to do with myself. I had my friends around the block for sure, but that’s not the same as having live-in siblings, so there was time when I needed to read, to play games, and to otherwise occupy my time. And even though I like to think of myself as a reflective and thoughtful kind of guy, that time was not spent on reflection. It was spent playing with Legos.

I’m not worried that it’s dark inside my head. I could be entertained all day by what’s going on in there. It’s just I have a pretty vibrant fascination with the world around me (which I admittedly often define as news and pop culture).

I’m not sure if Rich’s suggestion of not reading in the bathroom will work for me (that’s where I get some of my best reading done), but I should find some way to quiet other stimulations around me, and just find some time to be alone. I’ve come to understand my introverted tendencies over the years, and my need for time away from people. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to think about time away from everything (and not in one of these trendy “unplugged” kind of ways).

When’s the last time you were alone with your thoughts?