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stand by

After months of not writing, I realize how much I’ve been thinking about it, yet not knowing where to start.

There has been so much to think and write about, including the London 2014 election heating up, and the stunning PQ defeat in Quebec last night. It’s not that I’ve lost my passion for politics or our city, but it seems like preparing and then waiting has consumed all of my mind and attention.

The winter (despite the weather) has gone fast for us, and I’m astounded to find us now waiting day to day for our baby to be born. We’ll be at 39 weeks tomorrow, Sarah is now off work and I’m on stand-by with mine to let them know the moment I’ll be gone to start the last part of the journey, and our new life with our child.

The nursery is ready, the hospital bags are packed…all there is to do is wait.

The strange thing is, even in our sleep-deprived state with a new baby, I think it will be a tremendous relief from this, and I hope that even as so much changes it will help us begin a new life with new routines as well as returning to parts of our lives that have been on hold. Every time I write I seem to re-affirm my desire to kick-start my writing again, but once again I hope to get back into writing in the weeks ahead (though the coherence level may go down at least for some time).

I look forward to re-connecting with the London #ldnont community, even though it may be digitally, at least for the first little while. There is always a wealth of things to think and write about, as I’ve returned to typing here I look forward to getting back into the habit.

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broken glass

Our home church of First Baptist London has launched a new congregation based on contemporary worship and meaningful community, called Maitland Street Church. It has been a massive undertaking, and since the launch in November has enjoyed a great start.

This should be a major cause to celebrate. In spite of this, I find myself asking – why bother?

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been part of online discussions with other Christians/theologians around the church’s stance on LGBT, and have been deeply troubled by what I have encountered – ranging from perspectives such as “what science teaches us about sexuality doesn’t trump the fact the Bible says homosexuality is sinful” to appeals to “natural theology makes it clear homosexuality is wrong”, with one person saying the idea of a homosexual Christian is something they hadn’t even heard of until very recently, and they find very confusing.

Yikes.

There’s absolutely no way to persuade someone if (their interpretation of) Scripture comes before everything else. Modern psychology and genetics teach that sexuality is not a choice, which to me would indicate to me that the entire sexual spectrum is intentional, yet so many in the church continue to refer to it as a “sinful lifestyle”. The longer the church holds onto these beliefs, the further it drifts into irrelevance.

What does this have to do with Maitland? Very little. But as part of the global church it is part of the massive upheavals happening across the world in respect to Christianity, and religion in general. CBC posted an article today called “Rise in new city churches bucks secular trend”, reporting on the rise and fall of churches in Canada and the demographics behind it. As well, NPR posted this article, “Sunday Assembly: A Church For The Godless Picks Up Steam”. CBC reports:

“…in Australia where, in late December, one in five residents identified themselves as non-religious. New Zealand numbers are even more stark. There, two-fifths of citizens identified as non-religious, pushing Christianity out of its longtime spot as the clear majority.

In Canada in 2011, about 7.8 million people — 24 per cent of the population — cite no religious affiliation, up nine per cent from a decade prior.”

I found this interesting, especially reading it in conjunction with the NPR article, which reports how a non-religious church is gaining attention by giving people a place to meet, dance, sing and have fellowship without religion. This is how they describe it:

It sometimes feels like church in the auditorium of the Professional Musicians union in Hollywood. It’s a Sunday morning, and hundreds of people are gathered to meditate, sing and listen to inspirational poetry and stories.

But then the live band starts up — performing songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jerry Lee Lewis. And instead of a sermon, there’s a lecture by experimental psychologist and neuroscientist Jessica Cail about the biology of gender identification and sexual orientation.

Churches across North America (and elsewhere) are tackling the massive question of how to keep people interested in going to church, and especially how to draw back the many people that have “strayed” – most churches see about a 1/4 rate of retention from youth to young adults/adult congregants. Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociology professor suggests in the CBC article “…many churches need to rethink their roles and become more family-focused, something evangelical churches have done right for decades, leaving them as one of the few not experiencing substantial drops in attendance. Evangelicals take for granted that they need to have a top-notch Sunday school for kids so the little kids are going to look forward to coming to church,”.

To me, these kinds of suggestions skate over the fundamental issues plaguing the church by making it sound like something as simple as shaking up Sunday School is the solution. As a young adult in the church, I’ve heard many snide remarks from senior congregants ranging from bemoaning “the moral laxness of this generation” to how the entire world is going to Hell via the unbelieving heathens. Not new sentiments, but one that young ears are sharp to pick up, especially when pointing at issues youth tend to care deeply about – issues like LGBT rights/equality and reproductive rights. Why would we put up this?

I know that by stepping away from an organization I am stepping away for opportunity to add my voice, and only contribute to the monoculture with my absence. But, I find myself starting this year wondering if I am really changing anything by being in church, and if it would be better to step away from it, even temporarily. I have been a hesitant Christian/churchgoer ever since I started about 7 years ago, but I seem to be finding especially few reasons to go now.

Not that there hasn’t been liberal movements inside the modern church. Pastor Mark Sandlin has been instrumental in creating The Christian Left and The God Article, which among other movements have provided a liberal perspective in what is otherwise an oppressively conservative culture. Pope Francis has shaken the world since becoming the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming Time’s Person of the Year as he has challenged the Catholic Church to move in the world with compassion over condemnation, breathing fresh air into the church. Despite maintaining the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality, the Advocate LGBT magazine named Pope Francis their “Person of the Year”. From the CBC article:

The Advocate magazine said it gave Francis the honour because, although he is still against homosexual marriage, his pontificate so far had shown “a stark change in [anti-gay] rhetoric from his two predecessors”. It hailed as a landmark his famous response last July to a reporter who asked about gay people in the Church: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

I’m grateful to have met other liberal Christians through resources like The Christian Left. I shouldn’t expect to surround myself only with like-minded people, but at the same time, it has been an enormous relief to find a wider of community that have similar struggles to me. And they have helped me continue to see the value of being part of a church community, though there are times like this that I still wonder.

So this is what I continue to struggle with. Should I keep with church and attempt to be a progressive voice, or decide that my energy, time and sanity are better invested elsewhere? I hope to remain and to be a positive influence in the church, and to challenge myself to read scripture, research further and work to expand my understanding of different theologies/philosophies in and outside the church. I believe that scientific and spiritual inquiry can and should work together, and I hope to find ways that this can work, and explore methods others use.

Maitland

This morning in church, our pastor Sheldon announced that he had accepted a position with a major church in Mississauga, which he will be starting in December. He somewhat tearfully told us that after 25 years of service to First Baptist London, he feels this new challenge and adventure is his calling and next step. This was not entirely unexpected with all the major changes happening this fall already in the church, as we launch Maitland Street Church with the associate pastor Dave next month. This revelation has got me thinking this afternoon of just everything changing/shifting in my life and the city this fall, including…

  • The new church: As we transition from services at First Baptist to Maitland Street, everyone moving to the new church will be taking on stronger leadership, administrative and community roles as we try to see our vision realized of a relevant, community service-driven church in London. I and the rest of the launch team will continue working together to find roles/niches we fit into, and to find ways we can collectively make it happen.
  • Personal challenges of church: I continue find myself working between desire to use my time and resources in the church to connect the congregation and community (nearby as well as London as a whole) even as I struggle with times of deep scepticism and doubt in the (global) church and my faith. I find this deepening as I think about my future child, how exactly to teach them in all things, and perhaps especially in faith when mine is so…fragile? Shakeable? I’m not sure if I am more doubtful than others, my suspicion is that most everyone has times like these, but we tend not to talk about them. But speaking of…
  • Baby on the way: Sarah’s progressing pregnancy and the growth of our child is of course forefront in my mind, though I am still feeling all the feels in all kinds of ways, perhaps most especially confusion as I am still unable to talk to many people about it. Our parents have been wonderful listening to all our thoughts and questions through this, and we’re increasingly anxious (as are they!) to share our news with the rest of our friends and family. In some ways I think it will be scary because it will make everything all the more real, but more than anything it will I think be a wonderful relief to be able to share our news, and freely talk about it. We’re coming up quickly to the 12 week mark and Sarah’s ultrasound, after that we will let everyone know…honestly, can’t wait!
  • Community events/obligations: As the summer fades, community associations and service groups are gearing up for another year ahead. The Argyle Community Association and Strengthening Neighbourhoods Argyle are celebrating all of the summer events (especially everything under the Discover Argyle umbrella) while looking ahead to what this fall has in store. As well as looking at bringing the two groups together into one unified body, Strengthening Argyle is moving ahead to fulfill its mandate to create and present to Council an action plan for the community. As well, Barry and I as the communications team are looking at how to best move forward with all of our social media and communication tools (website, Facebook, Twitter etc.), which I’m hoping will make our work much more effective, as well as efficient. This is something I really want to be a part of, but have been finding is already taking up more time than I can manage, so I am hoping that in investing this time now, we may after be able to spread the word of all the great things happening in Argyle and across the city much more efficiently.
  • Business: It’s both been a hard and gratifying experience to start my own business drafting, though it has been a struggle with varying degrees of work/pay and managing all my different life priorities while balancing work projects through times of both too little and too much to do. I hope that as I approach the third anniversary that I have it more under control and managed, and hope that I will be able to re-connect with many things I feel I have neglected as I’ve worked on this.
  • Online course: Tomorrow I start an online community development course that I’m hoping will inform and shape my understanding of community and strategies we can employ in London to better serve our individual communities, as well as create stronger/more efficient connections between the different communities in our city, and beyond.
  • Budget 2014: Although it seems in many ways that the last budget cycle is only just over, it really is that time of year again. Although the final city budget deliberations and decisions won’t be concluded until the spring, in the fall Council will set the goals/targets that staff will be expected to fulfill as they shape the budget for next year, and start public consultations into what citizens’ priorities are. In many ways this time tests the resolve of Council and the numerous city departments as they must make tough decisions as to exactly how much money they will request and what services to maintain, expand or contract. This is also a test of London citizens and their priorities/expectations, which may only be the start of…
  • Election 2014: This is still the somewhat early stages in some ways, but really, the election is only little more than a year away. This would be the first local election I’ve closely followed/been very aware of the contenders and issues, and am very interested and excited to follow the process with at least somewhat familiarity of the situation, although the actual election season cycle will be new to me. About a year from the election seems to be when candidates start to declare their intent to run, as yet there doesn’t seem to be major opposition against the mayor, I think many are waiting anxiously to see who might step up, especially with all of the issues/scandals plaguing Mayor Fontana’s first term. I also hope to both follow/write extensively about the election and participate in campaigning, though as of yet for who/in what capacity is still completely in the air. This of course may be overly ambitious with our baby expected in April when things will likely be really heating up, but I will push to do as much as possible in this critical time.

As I write this I think of everything I regret having to set aside as I’ve worked out all of these things happening, most especially friends I haven’t seen in far too long. I haven’t been out to Pints & Politics (one of the highlights of the month!) since the spring, and deeply miss all of the community there. I really hope that as these different parts of life somehow come together, I’m able to connect again with everyone, especially before next spring and our baby arrives.

After that I’m excited to see where our new little person will fit into all of these responsibilities. It will be fun to have a little one to take with us to Argyle events, to show off at community events. I’m sure they won’t be the only person to sleep in the gallery during city hall council meetings, though being an infant is a pretty good excuse. I’m excited that they’ll grow up in so many different communities of amazing people, and can’t help but hope they can absorb the energy of helping others and working for the good of the community from a young age. I’m grateful that this boom in my work is coming at the best time (before the wee Gibson arrives), and that we have a strong family support network.

panic about babies

Sarah and I started to try to conceive, and after a test in mid-August found that she’s pregnant!

So I’m very excited. And very, very nervous.

We’ve been married almost 4 years, and I’ve resisted the idea of being a parent for a long time, mostly through anxiety of all of the massive challenges of parenting, and plunging into the great unknown. We’ve both wanted to be financially prepared, and fairly well grounded in our work. While I’m still working from home contracting, we’re about as stable as we can be, and being in our late 20’s we thought it was a good time to start trying.

So I was technically mentally prepared when we started trying, but I’m discovering that no one is truly ready, perhaps especially for fathers. I’m trying my best to learn as much as I can before now and the due date (will likely be mid-April)…the hard part is parenting books are a sure-fire way to raise my blood pressure, but thankfully Sarah bought several (including the one above) that are a terrific combination of hilarious and informative.

The biggest thing is, I’m feeling all the feels. All. The. Feels.

Without being able to tell many people about it…

We’ve told our parents (though not first, our bosses were the first to know to give them as much of a heads-up as possible, followed by the Cheese Poet…because Sarah is on a sudden unpasteurized cheese hiatus), and am very glad to be able to share our joy/excitement/nervousness with them, but we’re also looking forward to being able to tell everyone else. We’ll aim to tell everyone by around the week 12-14 mark, but it’ll be tough to wait until October!

The strange thing is feeling so much, but not being able to even really place what the feelings are. I’m really looking forward to being able to share our news, and to talk to others about it, and ask for thoughts, experiences and advice. Some of the things rolling around seem to be:

  • Accepting that I’m entering a new stage of life, and to really face that I’m getting older, moving from being a young man only responsible ultimately for myself to a father jointly responsible for our child. I’ve heard that a man often doesn’t truly become a father until he holds his child, and all parents feel they won’t know what to do…but I often feel like I’m in over my head, I can only trust that when the time comes we’ll manage.
  • A new appreciation of all my parents did for me. I know this will only grow as we take care of our new child and see how much hard work and dedication it takes…
  • Concern for Sarah’s health, and for the baby. Concerned knowing that it’s not safe yet to assume the baby can be carried to term as Sarah is only about 7-8 weeks pregnant right now, so feeling like it isn’t really real, and yet incredibly real at the same time. Waiting with trepidation for when the baby is further along and more fully developed.
  • Strange sense that life is getting both smaller and bigger. I know that in the short term our life will shrink as we focus on caring for our new baby, but also have the sense that this new adventure will help expand my perspective and hopefully see the world through fresh eyes.
  • Being aware that we’re bringing a new person into the world, without knowing what they will be like at all. Sarah keeps reminding me that they’ll love us as their parents, and we’ll raise them sharing our interests with them, but it’s okay if they don’t share them, they’ll develop their own.
  • The sense that all of this is impossibly big, I don’t even know where to begin or what to think. I’ve been very preoccupied, and haven’t known what to write about. It feels strange as I write this to know that I won’t publish this for another month, but am glad to at least get these thoughts out in some way, and look forward to sharing them as well as writing more once we’ve been able to announce that we’re expecting.
  • Feeling a weird kind of stasis, in that our world has changed though everything around us goes on much like it has before, heightened by the fact we can’t yet tell many people that our life has changed.
  • I’m sure every parent goes through this, but I feel that since we knew Sarah is pregnant I have been following the news particularly closely, and as I watch things like the looming threat of military action/invasion of Syria, I wonder about the world we’re bringing a child into. I’ve often thought of resource shortages, overcrowding, mass starvation in a world of 7+ billion people and wondered about the morality of bringing another person into the world, but my hope is that our child may be someone that contributes greatly to the world, even as I still try to find what it is I can do with my life to make my existence worthwhile and meaningful.
  • All of this forces me to face and examine my life in a way I haven’t before. I feel as if my life, my priorities and goals are in a new light, in a good way. In many ways, I’ve lived contributing in ways I am glad of but without any long plans or aspirations, I hope that this may be prioritize and shape my life with new vision and direction, and make the best use of the time I have left.
  • I fear that I will be less physically/mental available for the next while, and hope to make the most of the fall and winter to spend time with friends and family. We’re entering an especially busy time as community associations and City Council start in earnest again, and we move into the Budget 2014 and Municipal Election 2014 year. Though I may not be physically available as much after the spring next year, I am hoping that I can continue to follow everything happening, and keep in touch with everyone involved, and to keep writing through the process.

I am trying my best to see this as a new adventure, and look forward to being able to share it with everyone!

I’ve always been a nervous and anxious person, as long as I can remember.

Sometimes I wonder about how exactly I’ve gotten to where I am today, allowing to continue on as I have, but often simply thinking about being anxious…makes me anxious. It’s a vicious cycle that I’m realizing I’ve been inside for so long, it’s taken me this long to entirely realize I’m in it.

Instead of facing the issue head-on, I’ve created elaborate coping mechanisms that shield me from the types of situations I find most difficult, which have built up over the years. I’ve been fortunate to be able to lead a fairly normal life despite this, but it has also insulated me from facing my problems, and living my life to my full potential.

Even writing this has made me very anxious, anxious about what people reading this will think of me, anxious that it isn’t wise to talk publicly about my mental health issues when my work is so precarious etc.

But in going through this journey, I’m starting to see just how important it is to be talking about this, for everyone to be able to talk about their mental health issues publicly without fear of recourse.

Because so many people have some kind of mental health issue.

When I was a teenager, I was diagnosed as being depressed. I thought that it was only because we had recently moved (the first of my life) from my hometown of Wiarton to St. Thomas, combined with assertions that every teenager feels “a little crazy”. I fought against treatment, particularly against any kind of medication, and imagined in time that I was getting better.

And I did, more or less. But it was only in time that I realized that I hadn’t been really myself long before we moved, and that there were still periods of great darkness, though less extreme and less common.

One of the big problems I’ve come to find in myself and seems common for mental health issues, is how we understand “feeling myself”. As a teenager, with my self-esteem, self-worth and identity so fragile, I was scared that medication would make me “someone else”, someone I don’t recognize. But in times of terrible darkness my parents tried to convince me that the depression wasn’t me, that the son they knew was inside, and that medication and/or counselling could help me become myself again.

Looking back, ten years later, I’m wishing I had listened.

But another important lesson I’ve learned from this is, it’s never too late.

Two weeks ago, after years of wondering and anxiety about wondering, I went to my new family doctor and told her my fears. After a long discussion and a few quick written tests, she prescribed a very low dosage treatment for a combination of general anxiety and depression.

I’m still hesitant about medication, but wanted to give it a chance. I realized that no matter what I’m doing, I don’t tend to fully enjoy it, because I’m too nervous thinking about what could go wrong with plans etc., or once plans are carried out, what could continue to go wrong. Instead of anticipation of fun events, I’m often filled with dread, to the point of wanting to cancel out of them entirely, and feeling a sense of relief once they’re over. I’ve come to realize how abnormal and detrimental this is, and have found a determination not to continue living my life this way.

It takes patience. Since starting treatment I’m taking each day one at a time. Depending on treatment it can take a long time to feel any real change, and I imagine it will take even longer to come to accept how I start to feel as a new normal.

I hope to continue writing and sharing about this as I go forward. I’ve been less social this summer as I’ve made the decision to seek help and start treatment, I hope to get back out more and reconnect with friends soon.

The biggest thing I feel from this is, if you have any questions about your own mental health, please don’t hesitate to contact your doctor or even reach out to friends and family to talk about it.

Sarah notes:

There are tons of great resources online too:

  • MindYourMind.ca is a fabulous mental health website that is designed with young adults in mind, but I would recommend to adults as well. Their London team works out of Citi Plaza, and they’re active on Twitter. The website includes useful toolkits, activities, and is a very low stress way of educating yourself on mental health issues. This is my go-to mental health website at work at the college.
  • The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) provides a wealth of information on local support, information, and resources.
  • Mentalhealthfirstaid.ca provides training sessions on recognizing mental health issues and providing critical skills and information for helping others with mental health issues.
  • iCopeU is designed to provide information to students of Fanshawe College on campus resources available for mental health issues, but it’s a well-designed website with some cool stress busting/coping skills games that anyone can play (Gambling Zombies anyone?)

There are so many more awesome websites about mental health out there, and if you know of more good ones please share them with me. The day is coming when mental health issues won’t be enabled by stigma. We won’t second guess going to the doctor for depression, we would go as if we had a broken leg. We won’t second guess lifesaving medication, we would take it the way we would as if we had cancer. We won’t isolate those suffering, we will surround them with the love, care, patience and support they would get if they had any physical illness. Mental health issues are curable. Mental health shouldn’t dictate who we hire, who we date, who we hang out with, or who we love.

If none of this helps, try reading more Hyperbole and a Half. Kenny Loggins.

broken glass

Previous posts:

Last Sunday, our church met to vote on the direction we’d like to move as a congregation, collectively and separately. We debated launching a new church based on a framework of fellowship, community and service. After all the consultations and discussions over the spring, we voted 91% to approve releasing willing members of the congregation to launch this new church.

We’re very excited for this new project, and to have such a high percentage of the congregation behind us. There is still a great deal of logistical work to be done (including further work with our association to secure funding for the venture etc.), but it seems like things may move forward fairly rapidly now. The basic goal that we’re starting from is “to build a new, casual, contemporary, neighbourhood church that embraces spiritual seekers in ever-enlarging circles of compassion”.

Our next steps will be to start meeting together to plan how exactly how this church would work, and strategies on how we would be a part of the community around the church, as well as ways to incorporate the frameworks of fellowship and service we envision in our own home communities.

I think this is what gives me the most hope and optimism for this venture…I feel as if different elements of my life are coming together in a positive way. As we’ve become more involved in our Argyle community and the greater community of London, I’ve come to crave a church that authentically strives to be a part of the city. In this past week at the Tamarack Institute neighbours gathering I feel I’ve also learned ways that community and church leadership can come together to collaborate, insights I hope to share soon.

That isn’t to say in any way that First Baptist isn’t already doing great work for the downtown community, but I’ve still found something lacking in my own goals and aspirations for community involvement as an expression of my faith. This seems to be a sentiment echoed by many I’ve spoken to that hope to be a part of this new church plant. It is my hope that in this work our desires may be fulfilled, and that we may be truly a positive force for good in the city.

Yesterday we experimented with a “pulpit swap” with two other churches, hearing messages from other pastors and sharing in their thoughts and perspective. Our contemporary service welcomed the pastor of our previous church (Egerton Street Baptist) and family friend Dave Snihur. His message centred on the idea of “thinking outside the box”, a familiar theme, but focused on what it can mean for our church plant. I greatly appreciate that he dove fearlessly into what is a somewhat sensitive issue as our church tries to find its direction, and he shared excellent thoughts on what the plant may mean for us.

The “box” he talked about is our comfort zone, where we would like to adapt God’s plan into our own plan. Dave reminded us that God’s path isn’t easy, and very rarely happens where we are comfortable. In particular, he and any others that have been involved in a church plant can tell you that the launch is both exhilarating and exhausting, and has to be a marathon instead of a sprint. It helped me imagine what life might be like for both Sarah and I as we work towards this new church, and to earnestly ask if this church will be something truly new to our community and the city, or if we are just leaving one box for another. It is also a challenge to examine our lives and weigh what is truly important, what our priorities are, and make sure that we don’t become burned out with everything we try to achieve.

I hope to continue to write on this as we work and think and imagine the church and community we’d like to build. There will be plenty of challenges ahead, as we work to find balance between the First Baptist community and this new church, and making sure that both are well supported and cared for. I’m excited for this new possibility, but never at the expense of the parent church. Continued thoughts and prayers as we move through this challenging but exciting process would be greatly appreciated!

broken glass

Previous posts:

Last month, I wrote this series of posts about major changes that may be coming to our congregation, and what it could mean for our entire church. We’re struggling as our contemporary service is rapidly growing, to the point it is at the limits of our capacity as we operate now, while our traditional service is in slow, steady decline.

This has been a very difficult process for everyone, as many solutions have been proposed and debated at length. A merging of the two services was tested last fall, but a vote to make it permanent failed by 3% at a congregational vote. Sharing of space by other means has also been brought forward and mostly vetoed, while many (including myself) question the amount of energy being devoured by debate about worship music style. I grow increasingly frustrated and weary with the entire process.

As this has happened, a new proposal came forward from our associate pastor, looking to launch a church plant from our congregation, lead by people interested in building a church on a foundation of community and service projects. Needless to say, this prospect excited me and many others, and ignited a fire in me that had been missing for a long time in the church. As I’ve become more involved in our community, I’ve come to desire a church that has a deeper connection with the city around it, and would gladly help launch this new church and serve in it, if our present congregation would allow us.

What appealed most to me is the goal to work closer with community organizations, charities, services etc. to better serve London’s communities. I’m disturbed at the thought that I may be participating in a thinly veiled social club. In a time when the credibility and reliability of the global church is crumbling, every effort has to be made to regain it. The church lives and dies by its relevance to the community that surrounds it. If we cannot be a meaningful, helpful, contributing member of London, why do we exist?

As this has happened, I’ve tried my best to examine my motivations, but cannot be certain I am interested in this new venture for the right reasons, or at least, entirely. I want to be sure that I’m not simply leaving the present church, but moving with energy, honesty and authenticity into this new project.

Our church is at another major milestone, and intersection. This Sunday we have a congregational meeting to discuss our collective future, the hopes and fears of all the members, and the direction we would like to take, together. It will be a very difficult meeting, but I hope, also one of great wisdom, honesty and sensitivity.

I’ll be away next week after the meeting at a conference in Kitchener on community and neighbourhoods, but I hope to write about my experiences in our meeting next week. Thoughts and prayers with our congregation for wisdom and discernment through this trying time would be greatly appreciated! It is difficult for all of us, but it is my sincere hope that we will complete this process renewed in faith and fellowship, and if not immediately then in time a more united and strengthened group.

Next post: Building Together

stand by

Previous post: Overwhelmed – Home of Refuge

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been writing this “Overwhelmed” series as I’ve thought about the connections between technology and stress, and reading through William Powers’ book “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building A Good Life in the Digital Age”. As I look back on the series, I continue to explore ways that I can live more meaningfully and peacefully on and offline.

These are some of the areas that Powers covered in his book, and thoughts on how they can be used in our lives. He stressed that what he proposes are just suggestions not prescriptions, and challenges each of us to imagine ways we can be more intentional in our online time, and live our offline lives more fully.

Distance

One of the simplest ways (in theory) to detach from technology is to set it down and walk away…but this can be very hard to do in practice. I feel that we’re all becoming very conscious of just how many screens we’re exposed to everyday, and how often we view events now through a screen/lens, our own or someone else’s. In particular, whenever I’m at a concert I feel hyper-aware of all the phones held up, how many people are seeing the celebration before them through the minuscule eye of a recording device…we’re so wrapped up with recording, saving, processing, sharing, declaring “I was here!”, that we may miss what is right before us. I hope that as we learn how to live with our new technologies, we will in time learn to put our devices back in our pockets, and allow ourselves to again be, live to, just in the moment. Our mind, our attention, in the same place at the same time as our bodies.

Old Technology

In the post “Driven to Digital Distraction”, I explored Powers’ observations about old vs. new technologies. One way to be purposeful in our utilization of technology is embracing elements that are offline, including carrying a notepad and pen with us when we want to write, or a camera on an evening stroll instead of a phone that can take pictures. It can often be extremely handy to have an all-in-one device in our pocket, but it also stimulates the mental itch to check e-mail, texts, social media etc. in a time that could be better spent on inner reflection and relaxation. I find it very difficult to put my phone down, but as I’ve worked on this series I’ve tried to make time “off the leash”, free from digital distractions. It has been strangely liberating, and has made me realize just how much my dependence on/obsession with screens has changed my perception, without my even realizing it. It has also been liberating to realize that adapting to new technologies has always been a struggle for humanity, and gives me hope that as our digital life matures, we will find ways to find balance just as our predecessors have.

Positive Rituals

In the post “Ben’s Example”, I shared Powers’ exploration of the life of Benjamin Franklin, and a method he developed at the age of 20 that he believed helped him become the astounding politician, philosopher and inventor we recognize today. Though it is simple to think “today I’ll put away my phone and go for a walk”, we may find halfway through our stroll that it has still found its way into our pocket. Franklin stressed that we must find the root causes of our compulsions, and work at understanding ourselves to find ways to slowly change for the better. It isn’t an easy road, he warned, but he believed so strongly in his method that he touted “follow the Example & reap the Benefit”. The catch may be, we may need to put down technology and find a time of contemplation, to find ways for us to walk away from our gadgets.

Zones of Solitude

In the post “Home of Refuge”, I shared Powers’ thoughts on philosopher Henry David Thoreau, and his personal experiment of creating a “zone of solitude”, a home in the woods, away from the hectic bustle of town. His thoughts on what constitutes home, and the need for barriers against the pressing chaos of the outside world, can be instructive to us today as we imagine ways to disconnect today. The struggles Thoreau faced are all the more pressing today, as, instead of being connected by telegraph, the walls of in vs. out may almost entirely vanish in a digitally connected home, constantly offering diversions and distractions from all over the world. Today, we may want to create zones in our homes where we intentionally keep screens out (many families work to reduce or remove entirely screen use in bedrooms), or have “screen free” times, which can be hard depending on shifting needs of different family members. Though strictly enforced screen off times may not be welcomed, if time away from devices can be encouraged, it may become a welcome practice in time. The hard part is slowly developing these practices, something I am definitely still working on!

Reconnect, unplugged

One of our favourite ways of spending time with others is over board games (Settlers of Catan and Power Grid are our new favourites). With the distance often between us, it can be fun to play games like Scrabble online with friends and chat as we play, but there’s nothing like meeting together in a home, sharing food and conversation as we play. For the past few months, we’ve tried to make a Wednesday night games night a ritual with a group of friends. It can be difficult to find the time, and not everyone can always make it, and sometimes the day is shifted in the week to better accommodate everyone.

It takes effort to slice out the time from hectic lives, but we’ve found it extremely worthwhile! Is there a group of people you haven’t seen in a long time? A favourite activity away from devices you haven’t done lately? A social night away from screens might be a great way to bring some calm and fun to the week.

Beyond Overwhelmed

I hope that you’ve found this series interesting! It has been both fun and challenging to write, as it has been on a subject I find fascinating, but has also made me face many of the things bringing me stress, some without me even realizing it. With screens and distractions so readily available, it can be hard to switch off, both externally and internally. This process has helped me contemplate just how much time I spend online, and how little of it is of value…I find I have come to almost continually slide from one window to another, unfocused and retaining little. My goal from this writing and reading isn’t so much to spend less time online, but to regain focus and understanding of what I do take in. As I consider my digital practices, I hope to continue to refine how I connect, and disconnect. I also hope to continue to find ways to live a more intentional life online, and a more meaningful life offline, and that this series has helped point to ways others can too.

From here I’ll return to previous posts on community, about small communities as well as ways we can all connect over common causes and interests across communities. I’ll also be in Kitchener next week at a conference on community and neighbourhoods hosted by the Tamarack Institute, I’m very excited to participate, and share everything I learn there, here.

Next post: Sharing Community

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Previous post: Overwhelmed – Ben’s Example

I once read that someday the walls of the typical American kitchen will be constructed of enormous digital screens. The report had a sanguine tone, a perky world-of-tomorrow certitude that this will be a brilliant addition to any modern home.

“How long you figure  before we save up and get the fourth wall torn out and a fourth wall-TV put in? It’s only two thousand dollars.” “That’s one-third of my yearly pay.” It’s only two thousand dollars.,” she replied. “And I should think you’d consider me sometimes. If we had a fourth wall, why it’d be just like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s rooms. We could do without a few things.”

This is another post that somewhat got away from me. I meant to continue talking about “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age” by William Powers, and the chapter “The Walden Zone” on Henry David Thoreau and making the home a “zone of solitude”. But something from the chapter got me thinking about Ray Bradbury’s classic “Fahrenheit 451”, and the post took something of a life on its own.

The first quote above is from the opening of Power’s chapter “The Walden Zone”, while the second is a conversation between “fireman” Guy Montag and his wife Mildred in “Fahrenheit 451”.

Powers’ chapter reflects on the work and life of Thoreau, and an experiment he performed by himself as he developed his philosophies of simplicity, living in relative isolation, creating a “zone of solitude” where he by turns lived in quiet contemplation, and in companionship with visitors when he desired them. Thoreau for a time built a place of reflection and relaxation where he carefully measured and examined what truly matters to him, and what can be discarded.

So what is home? Powers offers these definitions:

“Home” means so many things. On the most basic level it’s simply a location, a place where one lives. It’s also the physical structure, the house or apartment that is home. Last, home refers to the environment that is created inside the structure, a world-away-from-the-world offering refuge, safety, and happiness.

He goes on to say that it is this third definition that is sadly lacking in our understanding and appreciation of home now, and how we balance our use of technology, as demonstrated by the quote at the start of this post.

In “Fahrenheit 451”, the main character Guy Montag seems to live his life “thinking little at all about nothing in particular”, working as a “fireman” burning houses instead of saving them, destroying books wherever they are found. It is revealed in time that the firemen are thought to be “protectors of happiness”, keeping things nice and simple by burning down all those inflammatory, angering, grievous words. Thought brings confusion, sadness, anger…unhappiness. Who could want that? In fact, he never even really thinks about all that thoughtlessness, until he chances to meet a young girl named Clarisse after a night of burning.

She tells him all kinds of bewildering things, including the fact that her family often sits long into the night, talking. No TV, no radio, nothing but earnest discussion and sharing. Guy asks if this is healthy, and she admits it has her teachers very worried. Bewildered, he doesn’t know what to think…but he soon realizes that he is thinking. In fact, it feels as if this little girl has quietly thrown a rock through the burnt mask he didn’t even realize he was wearing.

They continue to talk every day when he finishes work. He wonders what she does for fun, she admits sometimes she just watches people, watches all the automaton thoughtless people, and wonders what is to be done. She ends one conversation with:

“I’ve got to go and see my psychiatrist now. They make me go. I make up things to say. I don’t know what he thinks of me…they want to know what I do with all my time. I tell them that sometimes I just sit and think. But I won’t tell them what.”

This is in stark contrast to Guy’s home. The Montag home imagined by Bradbury, multiplied a millionfold across the country, gives a frightening illustration of a possible future, where people obliterate their minds with entertainments, where thought is shunned as dangerous. A thinking person cannot be trusted, a zone of solitude and contemplation to be feared and hated. Thoreau observed in his time:

Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip…In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while.

So, what can this teach us about our use of technology today? Ray Bradbury was extremely sceptical of the new technologies developing, to the point of fighting against the publication of his work on eReader devices. Are we to forsake all new technologies? Are we to attempt to disconnect ourselves from the world to regain our sanity?

Thoreau may give a better illustration of a life of balance.

In his experiments, his life was one of seclusion and social in turns, as fit his moods and needs. He learned the value and need both to commune with the self, and to be in and of the greater world, that too much of either could be destructive. Home should be a place both of fun and frivolity and of calm and contemplation; he suggested that with enough room, smaller “zones” could be built, perhaps on a spectrum of calm to chaos. Home should be able to accompany places of being together, and places where we can be truly on out own and “ourselves”, and discover what being our self means.

It’s easy to be continually distracted, to move feverishly from one thing to another. It seems it has always been a feature of humanity, and the ability to be constantly connected furthers this fever. With a phone always in our pocket, with a computer or mobile device always near at hand, the world always beckons, and the refuge of home doesn’t exist.

Why are we so eager to be connected?

Bradbury shows us the consequences of thinking. As we read and contemplate only in the world of our own imagining, we may find a frightening place. In this solitude, thoughts and questions will come to us to be considered as the noise and confusion of the outside world falls away, questions and wonderings of meaning, the hows and whys of our existence. In the silence, the big questions press close.

Thoreau teaches us that it is important to have times of social and digital connection and disconnection, and to be very intentional in how we do both. Perhaps in incorporating Benjamin Franklin’s example into our lives, we can learn more about ourselves, who we truly are, and what drives our needs. Once we know ourselves, we can understand why we are so hungry to connect, and find a natural rhythm for our lives, alternating from the internal to external worlds and back for our health and happiness.

On my next post, I’ll explore everything covered in this series, and seek to find practical ways to disconnected from the digital world and reconnect with ourselves and the things that matter most, the things that may be slipping away from us.

Next post: Beyond Overwhelmed

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Previous post: Overwhelmed – Driven to Digital Distraction

As I delve deeper into the conundrum of what it means to live in this perpetually connected digital world, I’ve come to a point in the book “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age” where author William Powers describes how the personal regimen of one man in the 18th century can teach us valuable lessons for mastering our 21st century life.

That man is Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, as well as being one of a few truly outstanding polymaths, excelling in many fields including politics, science, invention, music, civil activism, statesmanship and diplomacy.

He was a deeply social and active person, so much so that one of his early writing pseudonyms was “Busy-Body”. He was constantly on the move, thinking, reading and connecting…Powers says that Franklin was a master of “doing the eighteenth-century equivalent of social networking”. Everyone that observed him saw that he was a man going places…but it wasn’t until he had a moment of profound “disconnection” that he realized he didn’t known where that place was.

At the age of 20, Benjamin Franklin voyaged from London, England to Philadelphia, leaving him with a great deal of time for philosophical soul-searching, of his life so far, and where he wanted to go. This is an excerpt of his journal from the travel:

Man is a sociable being, and it is…one of the worst punishments to be excluded from society. I have read abundance of fine things on the subject of solitude, and I know ’tis a common boast in the mouths of those that affect to be thought wise, that they are never less alone than when alone. I acknowledge solitude an agreeable refreshment to a busy mind; but were these thinking people obliged to be always alone, I am apt to think they would quickly find their very being insupportable to them.

Despite this, Franklin reflected in his voyage that too many things in his life weren’t going at all the way he wanted. He was pulled in too many directions, and far too busy to properly put his life in order. Despite our hectic lives often seeming to be a very new, digital age phenomenon, Franklin’s writings give us a stark reminder that this type of busyness and “quiet desperation” (next post will examine the life and work of Henry David Thoreau) have always been with us.

From these reflections, he built a philosophy and personal regimen that he attributed to building the man he would become.

Seeing Franklin’s teachings and his own personal struggles in a rapidly expanding and connecting world gives me hope for us. How simultaneously empowering and frightening it is to consider that we are really all the same people! As much as we like to distance ourselves from many of the murky chapters of human history, I find it reassuring to know that there is so much already lived and written behind us to draw from in our own often torturous lives.

I found Franklin’s teachings as shared by Powers deeply interesting, both as a period study, as well as a broader examination of human nature. Take a minute to consider these 13 virtues he developed at the age of 20, and how it can inform us today:

  1. Temperance: Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to Elevation.
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
  3. Order: Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality: Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself i.e. Waste nothing.
  6. Industry: Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
  7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice: Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
  9. Moderation: Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no Uncleanliness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.
  11. Tranquillity: Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity: Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.
  13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

With some small modifications and updating of language, it can be easy to image how these goals could speak to us here in the 21st century. Franklin was confident that with discipline, anyone could follow his philosophy, so much so that he exhorted his readers “follow the Example & reap the Benefit”.

One of the things that I hadn’t considered on first reading that Powers points out is that, though the wording is austere, the goals are positive aspects to work towards, noting as one example “who doesn’t want tranquillity?” Instead of things like “The No Ice Cream or Any Other Goodies Diet”, he gives 13 targets to aim towards (noting in writings that he never comes near to the centre of any of them, but that it is the effort that is rewarding).

It has a great deal to do with attitude, as well. Franklin apparently moved through life and his philosophy in an easy and affable manner, not becoming undone by each failure to live up to these massive ideals, but in quiet congratulation and good humour with each success.

Powers also notes that the power in Benjamin Franklin’s example and challenge is not an easy path to walk, but can be truly transformational…in fact, that is the reason the path isn’t easy to walk. We want to change for the better, and talk about transformative experiences at great length, but how many of us truly want to experience it?

I’m not so sure I do. Not really.

But if we find the courage to work at it, we may be astounded by the results.

To push back against the seeming onslaught of activity and information in our hectically connected lives, many groups (including families, companies and organizations) have tried to enforce e-mail/digital device free time. However, this puts only external pressure on us, instead of enticing us to discover what it is that drives us, and to through personal examination and reflection to reshape ourselves.

This is something I hope to continue to reflect on and practice as I write this series. My first thoughts on this is a goal to reawaken my appreciating and enjoyment of simple pleasures – though sad that it takes such concentration to do. As I move through this process, I realize that many things I used to enjoy are done without the pleasure I used to feel. I realize that, though my desires and passions haven’t changed, I am always thinking on things I feel I should be doing, and often, that the mental itch of social media and online activity are distracting me from the physical present and the now.

How simple it can be to say “cherish life”, but realizing, with the haste of everything that life can entail, how little we actually do it. I hope that we can each, in small steps, recapture our lives, our meaning and ourselves. As we do this, it will empower us to step out into the digital world refreshed, rejuvenated, and more able to enjoy it as a tool and not as something that controls us.

In my next post, I’ll examine the example of Henry David Thoreau and building a zone of solitude in our homes.

Next post: Overwhelmed – Home of Refuge