The Things You Do In Private, Like Enjoying Your Life

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The past few years I’ve conducted a staggered withdrawal from all forms of social media, most recently backing away from Facebook.

I left Twitter during a Lenten fast; I dropped Instagram this past summer.

(If you’re saying, “Wait! I got to this post via social media!” please remember: WordPress pushes my content to my registered social media accounts automatically, and I’d prefer you follow my blog via subscription. Just submit your email to the proper field.)

This post by Alan Jacobs captures one thing I’ve loved about my step back from social media environments: privacy. Being alone, and letting others alone. Not knowing what a loose connection thinks about a news story, or not knowing the latest conspiracy theory a friend is now pushing.

Mo Perry, whom Jacobs quotes, writes that ditching social media gives us a “chance to rediscover privacy.”

What happens when you rediscover privacy?

Perry identifies one significant consequence. You get “[t]o inhabit…experience without broadcasting it or framing it for public consumption.”

Perry hopped off social media for a weekend trip, motivated by her observation that “my social media feed is full of people scolding others who have the audacity to try to salvage a shred of joy and pleasure from their lives…The communally encouraged state of being is dread and misery and rage. People who eat at restaurants, people who let their kids play on playgrounds, people who walk around the lake without a mask — all condemnable, contemptible. Selfish. How dare they?”

Who wants to be part of that kind of environment? Why continue to subject yourself to it if you don’t have to? Why continue to log in and camp out in social media environments that are stoking hatred for others while also bolstering your own feelings of self-righteousness?

Remember, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest are all algorithmically designed to show you more of what you want to see, more posts that confirm your biases, and more posts that stoke your outrage. It’s built to put the things before you that make you happy or make you mad, and we’re more drawn to the things that make us mad. Social media is well designed to make you angry.

Regarding Perry’s observation, Alan Jacobs writes:

A ray of hope, this thought. That what the scolds will achieve is to push the rest of us “to rediscover privacy.” To take photos that we share only with friends; to articulate thoughts just for friends. To leave Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to the scolds, who will then have no choice but to turn on one another.

Why not just go back to the way things were not that long ago, when we enjoyed our life in private, without social media? That doesn’t sound so bad. Wouldn’t we all be just a little better off?

We like to believe the myth that social media connects us, brings us together. The longer we go, the more that bit of ideology is exposed as patently false.

Spurgeon on Reading, Citations, and Learning From Other Minds

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The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Quoted from Thomas Breimaier’s Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of C. H. Spurgeon, who cites from Christian George’s Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon [affiliate links].

Don’t get hung up on the pronouns. The wisdom here is for both men and women. While I might not recommend the Puritans, you could certainly do worse. And while light literature may have its place, we are only given so much time, and there are so many books.

Capon’s Three Point Argument for the Dinner Party

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I’m the kind of guy who usually prefers a quiet night with a fire in the hearth and my family under my roof, good music coming through the speakers and a good book nearby. But the following argument for the full dinner party (as opposed to a cocktail party) by Robert Farrar Capon, outlined in The Supper of the Lamb [affiliate link], is one I want to remember.

1. The Session: Creating a Company

The dinner party, Capon writes:

[I]s an honest attempt to create a company, not a crowd. Persons matter at the table. We sit in real and estimable places marked with the most precious and intimate device we have: our names. Harry sits next to Martha not because he wandered to her side out of whim or loneliness but because, in his host’s loving regard, he is Harry and she is Martha, and that is where they belong. Place cards may be pretentious (they are, in any case, a dispensable formality); but assignment to place by name is the host’s announcement that he cares. I always take it as a compliment when a good man tells me where he wants me to sit.

He has, you see, been willing to take me on as God takes me–as a risk. He pays me the supreme tribute of putting himself in my power. The giver of a cocktail party is a man who hedges his bets and cops out of the dangers of entertaining. He requires nothing of his guests but their physical presence. If they turn out to be untempered duds or ill-tempered boors, it is no skin off his nose: They can simply find their own corner of outer darkness and fall apart any way they like. But when he sits me down at his table, he declares himself willing to let me into his life. He puts me into my place; but he also puts me in a position to make or break his party as I will. It is no small boldness; if you have such friends, treasure them.

2. Better Food, Service, and a Place to Sit

Capon calls the dinner party “merciful where the cocktail party is not.” He writes:

It provides us with better food, more attractive service, and, beneath it all, a seat to sit on. But it provides more than that. Early in the book I defied place as a Session, a meeting, a confrontation–of real beings. The old descriptions of heaven as the celestial banquet, the supper of eternal life, the endless convivium, hit close to the truth. Nowhere more than in good and formal company do we catch the praegustatum, the foretaste of what is in store for us.

3. A Proclamation of the Abundance of Being

A great meal is a chance to celebrate the goodness and glory of creation. Capon says:

Last, the dinner party is a true proclamation of the abundance of being–a rebuke to the thrifty little idolatries by which we lose sight of the lavish hand that made us. It is precisely because no one needs soup, fish, meat, salad, cheese, and dessert at one meal that we so badly need to sit down to them from time to time. It was largesse that made us all; we were not created to fast forever. The unnecessary is the taproot of our being and the last key to the door of delight. Enter here, therefore, as a sovereign remedy for the narrowness of our minds and the stinginess of our souls, the formal dinner for six, eight, or ten chosen guests, the true convivium–the long Session that brings us nearly home.

The Marks of a Great Preacher

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A truly great preacher is marked by a combination of faith and fire–faith in two senses. The first is the faith was once delivered unto the saints. The sermons of great preachers are messages of substance. They are not merely frothy concoctions of sentiment and anecdote, but rather they find their center of gravity in the purity of doctrine, in the profundity of Scripture, and in the power of the gospel. The second is faith in the sense of personal conviction. This living faith is also fuel for the fire. Great preachers have convictions that are contagious. They speak existentially to the whole person, unleashing deep emotions and galvanizing the heart, the intellect, and the will. They move their hearers, and not merely in an ephemeral or superficial way. Deep calleth unto deep. The hearer feels located, as if the preacher is speaking specifically to him or her. The messenger provokes a response in the listener.

Timothy Larsen, writing in the foreword to Thomas Breimaier’s Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of Charles Spurgeon [affiliate link]

This sounds all of the right notes.

Church Attendance is Down. How Far Down Is It?

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The Baptist Standard has done a nice job piecing together data from LifeWay Research on church attendance trends in the wake of the pandemic. What did they find? Church attendance is down. That’s no big surprise. How far down is it?

A few key statistics:

A majority of African American Protestant pastors (60 percent) say their congregations did not meet in person last month.

Mainline pastors (31 percent) are more likely than evangelical pastors (7 percent) to say they did not physically gather in September. Denominationally, Methodists (22 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed (23 percent) are more likely to say they did not meet in person than Lutherans (12 percent), pastors in the Restorationist movement (10 percent) or Baptists (9 percent).

Social distancing may be easier in churches, as most pastors say their congregation has less than 70 percent of pre-COVID crowds.

One in 10 churches (9 percent) say their attendance in September was less than 30 percent of what it was in February before the pandemic spread to the United States. Another 20 percent say attendance was between 30 percent and less than 50 percent of what it was.

A third of pastors (34 percent) say it has reached 50 percent to less than 70 percent of previous levels. For 1 in 5 (21 percent) attendance is between 70 percent to less than 90 percent.

The mainline/evangelical split isn’t a shocker. What’s sobering is the percentage declines in attendance, especially considering that most church buildings do have space to make accommodations according to social distancing guidelines and that sensible measures such as wearing masks or tailoring liturgy to limit congregational singing are both reasonable and quite easy to implement. Several churches in our area, including the congregation I am part of, have chosen to meet outside, even before the cooler temperatures of autumn had arrived. Some mornings it was sweltering, but we gathered anyway.

This survey doesn’t tell us everything, only a few tidbits about who is meeting, who is not, and a few implications. I wasn’t surprised, nor did I really care much, to be told that one of the biggest changes church leaders have made in the wake of the pandemic has been to forestall a capital campaign or a building improvement project. That means very little to me.

There are wider considerations. Not every state has had the same regulations in place; politics, I’m certain, are a factor, and there is something to be said for church leaders who have actively promoted public health measures. Some states have employed Draconian measures; technocrats have tossed aside liberty. Government can overreach, and in some places, it most certainly has.

Polity differences matter, too. Baptists people are congregational, and thus, their people are more likely to put more pressure on their pastors to meet. Methodists, on the other hand, have an episcopate structure. Parishioners in those contexts may care that there church isn’t meeting, but know their pastor serves under the appointment of a bishop and cabinet. Decisions to refrain from meeting could be more regional than they are local.

African American pastors and their churches may not be meeting due to disproportionate effects the pandemic has had on their parishioners.

There are discipleship factors as well, though they would be nearly impossible to sift. For some, the pandemic might have relieved social pressures that kept some active in church, while their normal preference would’ve been to invest their time in other ways. COVID-19, then, has been a wonderful excuse not to meet, an easy out.

Down here in Waco most church leaders I know are back to meeting in some way, shape, or form. People wear masks, remain physically distanced, and have asked volunteers to increase efforts in the areas of sanitation. That’s good. That’s wise.

But I also know that people are tired of COVID. They’re ready to get back to normal. I think it will be tough to strike the right balance, to remain vigilant, while also opening avenues for congregational togetherness, fellowship, and corporate worship.

I’ve heard some really silly biblical arguments as to why we should be gathering in spite of the risks, fatalistic accounts that negate human responsibility and involve strange and sinister conceptions of God’s sovereignty. I’m well aware that there are biblical commands to meet together routinely, and there are Old Testament commands that contain wisdom with regard to the observance of a weekly day of worship. But Sunday gatherings for worship are more the product of church tradition than they are an explicit biblical command, and the nature of our public gatherings can widely vary based on the leading of the Spirit and the needs of the community. Much more could be written on this topic, certainly.

On the other hand, some people think that it is wisest, and that there is little harm, in foregoing the worship gathering. I disagree. I think there is a level of risk, but not enough to forego public gatherings tailored to our present moment. My read on our region is that we are in a place where it is reasonable to meet together weekly, to do something. If churches aren’t meeting regularly, then pastors should be adjusting their approach to ministry, shepherding their people by reaching out, making phone calls, maybe even stopping by on doorsteps and having front yard conversations from several feet away. Zoom has limits. Physical presence matters.

The months ahead could look very different, not only because of a change in weather, but also due to a change in political climate. But the losses that have taken place this year will require hard and diligent work to recoup. The harvest is plentiful. The workers are few. Pray that God would raise up workers to labor in his field.

“In All Directions, There Was Only Silence and Emptiness”

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I recently finished Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove [affiliate link], a novel I heartily recommend. I didn’t want it to end. Augustus McCrae, a philosopher, warrior, Texas Ranger and restless romantic, is now one of my favorite characters in literature. Here is a passage I enjoyed, an invitation to silence:

That night Augustus stopped to rest his horse, making a cold camp on a little bluff and eating some jerky he had brought along. He was in the scrubby post-oak country near the Brazos and from his bluff he could see far across the moonlit valleys.

It struck him that he had forgotten emptiness such as existed in the country that stretched around him. After all, for years he had lived within the sound of the piano from the Dry Bean, the sound of the church bell in the little Lonesome Dove church, the sound of Bol whacking the dinner bell. He even slept within the sound of Pea Eye’s snoring, which was as regular as the ticking of a clock.

But here there was no sound, not any. The coyotes were silent, the crickets, the locusts, the owls. There was only the sound of his own horse grazing. From him to the stars, in all directions, there was only silence and emptiness. Not the talk of men over their cards, nothing. Though he had ridden hard he felt strangely rested, just from the silence.

I read this passage not long after being on a silent retreat, but even there I could hear the sounds of a nearby highway, ongoing construction, the comings and goings of families, children playing soccer, the hum of electricity, the blowing of an air conditioner, the creaking of doorways, the flushing of toilets.

But at least for a moment, through the reading of a novel, I could imagine a deeper silence, and long for it.

The Knife: Do You Carry One?

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Robert Farrar Capon, in The Supper of the Lamb [affiliate link], on the companionability of a good knife:

We commonly define man as homo sapiens, the knowing animal. Yet long before he left traces of his knowing, he was busy, as men have always been, misplacing tools. It is by the hammers and axes he never quiet could keep in sight, that homo faber, man the maker, betrays his presence in the depths of history. The oldest fingerprints in the world are those on tools; and of all tools, the knife reigns supreme.

No doubt it was not the first. In all likelihood, man bludgeoned and tore creation before he carved and sliced it; but precisely because he was man, it could not have been long before he acquired a preference for sharp stones over dull ones. With that, the knife was invented. The rest was only a matter of materials.

Equally certainly, the knife is not the last tool. We have gone so far beyond it that we forget its supremacy. Our implements have grown so complex that the word tool suggests machinery before it does hand tools–and, among hand tools, it suggests wrenches and screwdrivers (tools for fixing machines) before it does knives. But for all that, the knife remains more common than them all–the one tool used by more people, more of the time, than any other. All the kitchens, and half the pockets in the world, are filled with knives.

The Supper of the Lamb is a cookbook, of sorts. On Amazon, it is also the #1 bestseller in the “Episcopal Christianity” subdivision. I do not know what to make of this.

Nonetheless, Capon is a brilliant writer. This passage on the knife is followed by a digression on the pocketknife. I carry an Uncle Henry knife that looks like this.