Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Concentration

I just silenced my cell phone and closed out of my browser's tabs.  I'm trying to concentrate all my focus on writing this sentence that you are reading.  And this one.  As I do so, I realize that my brain is not used to doing this.

Is this just part of growing older?  As a child I used to read or play for hours at a time with no difficulty. Even in college, I would practice piano in 50 minute chunks with short breaks in between.  

Or is my lack of focus a prevalent problem that is due, in part, to our use of technology?  James Hamblin made a video on this topic, in which he suggested disciplining himself to what he dubbed "tab-less Thursdays"; days on which to practice focus by only ever having one tab open at a time.

Some would argue that the deterioration in concentration due to technology has been going on longer that the advent of tabbed browsing or smart phones.  Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline written in 1978 (rev. 1998), claims:
We live in a culture that does not value concentration.  Distraction is the order of the day.  Many will, for example, go through all the activities of the day and evening with the radio on.  Some will read a book and watch TV at the same time. [...] We are lesser for this dissipation of our energies.
Now, 36 years later, I would turn his argument a little to say this: our culture does value concentration, precisely because it is so hard to come by.  At the very least, we value the results of concentration. Pause to think of people that you respect and admire.  How much of what they have done, of who they are, is the result of their ability to concentrate?

Focus is something we need to cultivate.  I'm glad multi-tasking seems to be going out of vogue.  Let's do more than lament our lack of concentration.  Today I challenge you to try retraining your brain's ability to focus.  Here are a few ideas:
  • Close your tabs.
  • Silence your phone when you're working, or face to face with other people.
  • Don't click on the articles with the loud titles that you don't really need to read.  Instead read something worthwhile, something that might take time to understand.
  • Close this article, and decide on what you want to do for the next two hours.
Does this resonate with you? What do you do when you want to concentrate, and is it easy or hard for you?  Share in the comments!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Scarborough Fair

Remember me to one who lives there.  The line from Scarborough Fair spins in my head these days, as I practice an arrangement of it in preparation for an upcoming concert.

Things have changed, haven't they?  "Say hello to so-and-so" is more of a formality than a necessity in these days of email and social media.  We might as well just say hello to them ourselves.  What does this mean for our relationships?  It is worth considering.

For once she was a true love of mine.  He sings in the past tense, speaking of a relationship that ended because of separation (probably distance), and which he proposes could continue (if she can perform some impossible task).  The strange story aside, there is a natural and logical thread here concerning relationships: they ebb and flow with distance.

While this is still partly true of our world today, I find myself feeling a bit guilty when I pass along greetings to someone I have lost touch with.  Why?  Because with technology at my fingertips, I feel that I could have done better.  It's true - partly.  Yet the other part is true as well: that we each have a certain relational capacity, that friendship and romance change with time and place, and that there is value to knowing the people you share a space with that goes beyond convenience.

How are we to navigate this?  What are our expectations when we meet someone, when we say goodbye?  Do I write an email to a friend today or do I sit down and have dinner with a neighbor?

I do value certain relationships enough to write those emails and letters.  Yet there are many wonderful relationships that stretch thin with distance, and I must let go in favor of being present where I am.

What are your thoughts?  How do you connect with exploding social networks on a finite-time basis?  Do you make decisions about which relationships to cultivate, or does it more often "just happen"?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

upward and downward glory; a lenten prayer

Lent this year has once again been enriched by reading Henri Nouwen's writings.  Here is an excerpt from the compilation Show me the Way.  It dovetails nicely with a study I have been doing with others on John's Gospel, and thus was particularly meaningful to me.  I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on it.  I hope it will be helpful to you as you prepare for Easter:

I have gradually become aware how central this word "glory" is in John's Gospel.  There is God's glory, the right glory that leads to life.  And there is human glory, the vain glory that leads to death.  All through his Gospel John shows how we are tempted to prefer vain glory over the glory that comes from God. [...]

Human glory, based on competition, leads to rivalry; rivalry carries within it the beginnings of violence; and violence is the way to death.[...]

John shows that God chose to reveal his glory to us in humiliation. [...]  Every time Jesus speaks about being glorified and giving glory, he always refers to his humiliation and death.  It is through the way of the cross that Jesus gives glory to God, receives glory from God, and makes God's glory known to us.  The glory of the resurrection can never be separated from the glory of the cross.  The risen Lord always shows us his wounds.

People seek glory by moving upward.  God reveals his glory by moving downward.

Prayer:
... How can I ever really celebrate Easter 
without observing Lent?
How can I rejoice fully in your resurrection 
when I have avoided participating in your death?
Yes, Lord, I have to die -
with you, through you, and in you -
and thus become ready to recognize you
when you appear to me in your resurrection.
There is so much in me that needs to die:
false attachments, greed and anger,
impatience and stinginess.
O Lord, I am self-centered,
concerned about myself, my career, my future,
my name and future, my name and fame. 
I see clearly how little I have died with you,
really gone your way and been faithful to it.
O Lord, make this Lenten season
different from the other ones.
Let me find you again.
Amen.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

2013 in Books

Happy New Year! It's time for my annual post on books I read this past year. Thoughts, recommendations, cups of tea, etc welcome!
this is what moving looked like this summer

  • Abide in Christ, by Andrew Murray.  This book was a close companion and teacher for me during most of my time at Trinity Forum Academy (TFA).  Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

advent reflection 2013.2 Wait for it...

http://www.thedorinfamily.com/
I'm terrible at waiting.  Waiting for a late bus, waiting in line anywhere, sometimes even waiting to fall asleep - these are not the parts of my day that I enjoy.  Yet whether I like it or not, there is a lot of waiting to be done in life.  Daily I must wait in both short and long time frames: 30 seconds for a light to change, or years for my self to change.  In fact, often my deepest desires require me to wait.

If time is money, then waiting is expensive.  Thus lack of patience is easily justified.  But focusing on the bad parts of waiting and becoming frustrated is the wrong attitude.  Perhaps that is why we need a whole season of the church to learn a better posture.

Advent is about waiting.  To anticipate a coming - or an advent - implicitly requires waiting.  Just as the people of Israel waited centuries in exile, longing for a Savior, for their God to remember them, so too Christians await the return of Christ.  During this season we deliberately place ourselves within both of these narratives.  We wait.

A few times in the last week Advent broke into my daily waiting.  "It's ok, Bethany," I reminded myself, standing in a coffee shop line, "it's ok to wait.  This is good practice."  A few seconds later, however, I found myself wishing I had picked a different time to get coffee.  Clearly I need to let the Advent mindset sink deeper.

It is in the long things, the big things, that I feel it most acutely.  For example, I don't feel I have "the gift of singleness" (whatever that means!), but here I am, quite unmistakably single.  Some days waiting - and trusting God that this timing is best - is difficult.

Trust.  Two people suggested to me last week that God uses the waiting in our lives to bring us closer in relationship to him.  In this way Advent is about a much richer waiting than we might first imagine.  During Advent we wait for something.  But I think we have reason to hope that there is also something to be gained through the waiting.

p.s. some interesting facts about waiting in line.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

advent reflection 2013.1

the road home
While driving this week to visit my family for Thanksgiving, I listened to a sermon from Church of the Resurrection in DC.  Preaching on Mark 1, Matthew Mason spoke of repentance as a turning in allegiance to Christ the King.  For me it was a fitting beginning to the season of Advent.

Beginnings
As we anticipate the coming of Christ, it is good to remember how Mark prepares his readers to receive the gospel of Christ:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, 
 “Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
 who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
 ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
 make his paths straight,’”  
John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. [...]
 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:1-4,14-15)
Why start this way?  This prophecy is a proclamation of a coming King, a King who is God himself.  As a messenger running before a victorious king, so John came to tell God's people the good news that their king had come.

It is good to reflect on this good news during Advent, and to prepare the way in our lives.

Turnings
This repentance is a turning in more ways than one.  It is, in the sense above, a turn in allegiance.  If there was any previous sovereign, now that king must be turned away from, for now the true King of all kings has come.

It also involves a turning of the heart and mind.  We must turn from those things that once captivated, that held our love or fear or allegiance.  Turning, we hope to find ourselves facing Christ.

Returnings
Each year I am grateful for this season of repentance and preparation.  For me this year it looks to be one in which I reflect upon my allegiance.  Am I living like the King has come?  Do I hope for his return?

I pray that God would graciously help to turn me.  Where I have false allegiance, that he would have mercy.  Where I need to change, that he would help to bring it about.

I return to the old favourite hymn sung in church this morning:
Come, thou long-expected Jesus...
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.