Goes In… on this Journey

Reflections from Dr. Howell

The spiritual life, as I suggested on October 5, is about tossing things out – both literal things so we can travel light, and mental things, thoughts, feelings and idea that muck up the works. Equally important in the spiritual life is to be attentive to what’s going in.

To grow spiritually, you have to be attentive to what you watch, where you surf on the internet, things you check out, the music you hear, the conversations you find yourself in, whom you hang around with, what you buy, eat and drink. You become the sum of all of that.

You don’t have to be a prude; no need to segregate yourself from the world. And don’t tumble into that ugly pit of finding your tribe of those who think they know what’s vapid and icky in our culture – and together you savor priggish bashing of others. But it’s true: garbage in? vapidity in? rat-race in? You become an unsightly, superficial fretter, with a little religion stuck on the outside – spiritually speaking.

You encounter a negative, grouchy person, or a racist remark, or demeaning chatter about some of God’s children. Don’t get drawn in. Test how you are responding: returning the serve? Or a non-anxious calm, some compassion – and maybe embodying a better way (1 Corinthians 13:12), without implying smug superiority?

A racy novel, or a podcast about murder and mayhem might be a fun distraction – but what is being built in your soul? What if I only eat at fantastic restaurants or drink only the finest wine?

I once heard someone suggest that, for many good, well-meaning religious people, television has occupied the place the Holy Spirit could / should play in our lives. It’s set up like the high altar, the focal point, in the temple of our living space. We lose ourselves in its world, we’re told what to buy and what the good life looks like.

And now, we have the Trinity of TV, laptop screen, and smart-phone. These are not evil in themselves! You’re reading these words on one. Grandparents can Facetime with their grandchildren. You can Google the troubled places in God’s world.

Enjoy! But be aware that these devices exist, not to bless us, but to grab our money from us – and that they deploy algorithms that invisibly grab you by the throat. Advertisers and our gadgets don’t breed contentment. Their sole obsession is to make sure you are not content – so you will watch, consume and become their prey. We are cognizant of this, and moan a little – but then check for messages. Your phone is like those little household gods from ancient times, a small deity you clutch in your hand – and just as unable to deliver the fulness of life. If you are always available, then you are never available – to God and to others.

What’s addictive for you – beyond the well-known substances that plague us? Shopping? Grousing about other drivers? Golf? Bingeing on… {fill in the blank}? Even helpful things like eating well or exercise can become obsessive.

The spiritual life is about centering on nothing besides God’s Spirit, and being liberated from the hold other obsessions have on you.

Try this: The would-be spiritual person might try some little disciplines – like no TV for a couple of days, no gadgets on Sunday, or even for a blessed two hours on a Tuesday night. Find somebody who’s wise, or spiritually intrigued. Make a lunch date. Visit and talk. Or rather, listen. Read about noble women and men, spiritual giants. Block out time to soak in quiet and the out of doors – which put TV and your phone in the shade, literally.