It was just over a year ago that Mrs. Poortenga and Mrs. Tellinghuisen submitted their application for a Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship. This week brought them to the CICW Worship Symposium where they continue to learn and plan for the remainder of our grant year. We wish there was a simple “download” button that would allow us to share everything they’ve experienced, but we will share summaries and resources you can use in the coming weeks. Watch for CCEC posts that will discuss the following workshops: Performing the Bible: Exploring the Performance Genres of Scripture; Discerning Leadership with Students; Faith Practices for All Ages. This week, we want to share from the panel presentation, “Fruits of the Spirit, Mental Health Crises, and Our Practices of Christian Worship.”
This workshop covered a number of the same themes we covered in recent CCEC posts. Angela Williams Gorrell and John Swinton began the presentation by drawing attention to the crisis of psychological distress that is intensifying across all age groups–stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and trouble sleeping all continue to rise at alarming rates. They pointed to both the lack of a coherent moral story and the dangers of many of our digital habits. If we see ourselves as mere individuals in this wide universe, as creators of our own identities, and as part of a world that is interminably in conflict, the natural result is a sense of meaninglessness, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. The pandemic showed us how much we need to be connected to others, but it may also have shown us how much we have come apart.
Gorrell, author of Always On, explained various ways our time in digital space can undermine our flourishing and contribute to mental distress. The pressures both to promote one’s “happiness” and success online and to constantly check one’s status creates a gap between that presentation and reality and drives stress. The collapse of context, that is, the need to present oneself to everyone all at once rather than in various familiar contexts like home, school, and church increases anxiety. Passive or inattentive scrolling and doom scrolling (scanning for bad news) make us more depressed. Passive following (following people you don’t know in real life) and hate following (following people who make you angry or feel superior) both serve to make us lonelier and more negative. Simply put, these practices are all bad for our souls.
Swinton went on to observe that the book of Romans shows us how tempting it is to substitute what we know about the world for what God knows. In digital life, we are often tempted to choose our own “truth” which undermines our capacity for discerning God’s truth. We also experience desensitization and compassion fatigue that leads to a significant drop in real empathy. He also pointed out the danger of what he called the “culture of absence” that we have created. We have gotten used to being absent while being “present;” we engage only in thin dimensions with others. Both he and Gorrell called the audience to relearn how to be present with one another and to recognize that multi-tasking Is a myth: we can only be present in one space, doing one thing, at a time. Gorrell said that limited digital experiences can help our flourishing if used more intentionally and actively, for example, if we incorporate good and bad news (from varied sources) into our prayer life and if what we see prompts us to reach out and actually connect with someone.
One way to deepen our connection with others and to see ourselves as part of the larger Gospel story is to both lament and rejoice with others. We need to carve out space and time for this. Listening and speaking about what grieves us and brings us joy (not mere happiness) deepens our sense of belonging and hope. Gorrell mentioned Luke 15—the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son all show us the close connection between loss and rejoicing. Scripture teaches us, she said, that “joy and sorrow can live in close proximity to one another, even in your own heart.” The Psalms also show us how deep this connection is. And when we pray them together, our connection to one another is deepened too. We encourage you to do this at home and to share those things that weigh on your hearts and also those things that lighten and lift them up. Gorrell also stressed the importance of having a mentor or spiritual director in one’s life, someone “you can tell the truth to” and be “wholeheartedly yourself with,” someone who will be honest with you in your spiritual journey. And, she said, “unplug” (it can be done). By sharing our stories and building these real-life connections, we are able to see ourselves as part of a much bigger story, the story of a broken creation that was first created good and is even now being restored to that goodness. There is belonging and meaning and hope in taking part in that restoration story.
Workshops and conferences can provide valuable information and insight. But, whether you attend in person or hear about them secondhand, follow up and action steps are needed to remember and internalize and apply that information. Here’s one way to do just that. Do you still have your Advent devotional? We encourage you to pick it up again and re-visit the Psalms resources listed at the back. Or just click here! And watch for resources for Lent soon!