Shouting from the Areopagus
Some days I don’t want to read the news. Too many pundits trolling out jeremiads while they winge over the future. I am not sure why the news is never good. I mean, NEVER. No one ever throws out a beacon of light saying things will get better. I give too much of my time reading the news of the day, and it almost always makes me crabby.
Noise is part of modern life. There is access to more distraction than you can shake a stick at. Take your pick of mediums: Twitter, SnapChat, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Tumblr, Tit Tok, the list is endless and seems to grow every day. People spend a lot of time cherry-picking through those mediums, for a bit of this and that to pass the day. Two of my kids recently uploaded a small dance skit. It was intended as about fifteen seconds of mirth. A day later they are over a million hits and counting. That’s a lot of people with idle time on their hands. It boggles my mind that what they created is now being viewed all around the world. It is cute, but it has no lasting value to build character or make you smarter. It’s just information.
A recent New York Times article noted that one of the most finite resources in the world now is human attention. Every given moment is a transaction in the attention economy. “Every single action we take - calling our grandparents, cleaning up the kitchen, or today, scrolling through our phones - is a transaction. We are taking what precious little attention we have and diverting it toward something else. It’s a zero-sum proposition. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.” Living in a global environment, the competition to get noticed is huge. Oddly, it does not drive people away from screen time. We generate our own content to feed the big machine, because we want just one scant moment to call our own. We want people to pay attention.
We can’t escape the attention economy. But we can explore its effect in our own lives. We can consider if our time is better directed toward more worthy pursuits. We can pay attention to how we pay attention.
It makes me better understand what is behind some of my own hobbies. It’s about control. Having a hobby lets you feel in control of your time. Oddly, the hobbies I cherish like reading, and woodworking, taking a bike ride, are all the kind that does not consult the clock. In the shop, something is done when it is done. The process will absorb you. It’s intentional focused time with nothing intervening. Because my client is myself, I can disconnect from the world. How long I take to wrestle over some detail like fitting a panel - matters only to me.
The annual question came up. What are you going to give up for Lent? The expectation is often tied with a growing list of things implicated as modern sins. Are you going to give up red meat? Alcohol? Bread? My wife once gave up on gluten for Lent. It was a sacrifice for God - and bikini weather.
I think my answer this year is NOISE. I am going to give up some noise. It means disconnecting more than I do currently. There is a portion of my day where very early, I have some quiet time. It may be the most fruitful portion of my day, and also the time I can best afford before I get on with other things. Down time is a precious commodity and to spend it offline and disconnected can be a good thing. A walk outside, a little reading and some time to reflect. This is what I need most coming into Lent.
I am thinking about Saint Paul’s sermon from Mars Hill. In the ancient hub of Athens, he took a look around and realized that he was a small fish in a big pond. He had to stand on the Areopagus and shout as people went by. The Greeks were democratic. They liked new ideas. They liked new ideas so much that they designated a place where any Joe with a soapbox could get up and claim his fifteen minutes of fame. They had some time for your ideas, if they were novel enough. Novelty ruled the day. There were simply so many ideas that none were considered very seriously. They were just a way to pass your time, a bit of mental stimulation.
Oddly, Paul shouted out to the passing hordes something they may not have considered. They had too many gods. A god for this, and a god for that, places and spaces to venerate and to placate those gods. And even a shrine to the unknown god, in case they had missed something. And so he shouted about who that unknown God was and why He deserved their notice.
Paul’s message is a good Lenten contemplation. It’s about less attention to those gods all around us so that we can concentrate on the One who will have no other gods before him. Maybe that is what Lent is all about. Giving some of that precious attention to the unknown God. Unknown because we have not given Him time of late. He cannot complete with everything else. Think about it. People can take some time out to watch two kids dance on Tumlr, but it would never occur to them to crack a Bible or pray.
Unexpected bonus. It’s GOOD news. Yes, good news. Coming into Easter, there is a passion narrative, but at the end is the promise of resurrection. It’s the good news waiting to be heard after all the noise subsides. Now that is worth a little bit of my time. And so the answer feels pretty good in my mind. Noise. I am going to give up noise for Lent. I am going to focus some of that time communing with the One in whom I move, and live, and have my being.