Blogging Through ‘Living Into Focus’

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Living into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distraction, by Arthur Boers (published 2012)

Update: 9/16/14: I am sticking this post to the front page of the blog for easier reference. Please let me know If you think we need to make a second home-base (after a certain number of comments) to make comments easier to navigate.

Update 2: 9/17/14: I will make a separate home-base for section 2 (ch. 5-11). We could also discuss whole chapters at a time if it will help.

This is my first ‘blogging through’ done by request. A few of us will be discussing this book here on the blog for the next few weeks. We’re going to learn together how to live ‘focally’ – finding significant “focusing activities” that allow us to focus in on what’s important in the midst of the bells and whistles of our modern technopoly. This post will serve as home-base for our discussion. Feel free to post quotes or subjects that need special attention in individual posts. And if you want your own thoughts shared in an individual post, just let me know.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

In today’s high-speed culture, there’s a prevailing sense that we are busier than ever before and that the pace of life is too rushed. Most of us can relate to the feeling of having too much to do and not enough time for the people and things we value most. We feel fragmented, overwhelmed by busyness and the tyranny of gadgets.

Veteran pastor and teacher Arthur Boers offers a critical look at the isolating effects of modern life that have eroded the centralizing, focusing activities that people used to do together. He suggests ways to make our lives healthier and more rewarding by presenting specific individual and communal practices that help us focus on what really matters. These practices–such as shared meals, gardening, hospitality, walking, prayer, and reading aloud–bring our lives into focus and build community.

Want to join in? You can get the book HERE.

The Deepest Thing I Know

I resolved to live differently, ‘to pay attention to the deepest thing [I] know,’ as Douglas Steere evocatively described prayer.

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, p. 48

The Psalter paraphrase of Psalm 65:1-5 says this:

Praise waits for Thee in Zion; all men shall praise thee there
And pay their vows before Thee, O God Who hearest prayer.
Our sins rise up against us, prevailing day by day,
But Thou wilt show us mercy and take their guilt away.

How blest the ones Thou callest and bringest near to Thee,
That in Thy courts forever their dwelling place may be;
They shall within Thy temple be satisfied with grace,
And filled with all the goodness of Thy most holy place.

O God of our salvation, since Thou dost love the right,
Thou wilt an answer send us in wondrous deeds of might.
In all earth’s habitations, on all the boundless sea,
We find no sure reliance, no peace, apart from Thee.

In this psalm King David describes a group of people waiting, primed, to pay attention to God.

In Psalm 27: 4, David puts it this way:

One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD And to meditate in His temple.

The old word, rarely used these days, that captures the idea is ‘behold.’ To behold, to see, to pay attention. This type of language has been missing from my vocabulary about prayer.

Cruising Into Oblivion at 70mph

Motorized transportation, he argued, eats up miles and makes surrounding scenery small and insignificant. ‘You’ve seen it all; yet, you’ve seen nothing.’

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, p. 26

We spend so much time in vehicles.

I have had profound experiences while driving: like the first time I realized that as I was driving home from work, I was also driving toward Venus; or when, while driving during sunrise, my then six-year-old daughter explained to me that the only reason we can’t see stars during the day is that the sun outshines them (thus shedding new light on Rev. 21:21: “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp”). I told her she should start writing a commentary on Revelation. I ‘read’ G.K. Chesterton for the first time while driving (I actually listened to an audiobook of Orthodoxy). I’ve traveled with Aslan and Mr. Tumnus and Bilbo Baggins and Ratty and Mr. Toad and Napolean the pig and Major the horse. I’ve rolled down the windows to smell the saline-ocean-air during much needed vacations.

Yet, with all those great experiences, I often find myself in a stupor. I read somewhere that we essentially turn on mental autopilot within a couple of minutes of beginning a drive that we are accustomed to. I’ve experienced it.

C.S. Lewis has been described as “a mind awake.” I resonate with that description, because that is one of the things I learned from Lewis: to open my eyes and be awake at all times. I have learned the same lesson from G.K. Chesterton. Don’t be content to see without seeing, or hear without hearing. Give yourself over to quiddity whenever morally possible, even when driving.

A couple of months ago I was coming out of a grocery store, about to head home after a long day of work. I was tired. A few minutes earlier rain had begun to pour down hard. As I crossed the threshold of the door and stood underneath the overhang of the roof, a young man ran by screaming curse words at the rain. In that moment I realized that in my heart I was about to do the same thing. I didn’t want to get soaked before a long drive.

But that young man’s cursing at the rain was a bucket of ice water on my soul. My mind went to Chesterton’s essay about a man running after his hat on a windy day. Chesterton’s words rolled around in my head. I then proceeding to walk, and twirl, through the rain while loudly quoting,

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

I stood outside my car for an extra minute to make sure I had absorbed the full quiddity by getting fully soaked. My drive home turned out to be one of the most enjoyable I had had in a while. And my kids loved hearing the story, and fully wished that they could have been with me. Soak it all in, my friends. Live.

In What Ways are We Present?

The Lord’s Supper binds us not just with people who receive elements but also with farmers and food, creation and creatures. It connects us to the past, the present, and the future: ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,’ we proclaim with conviction…

But we frighteningly distort and hollow worship. I watched a famous ‘Christian’ talk show where hosts invited viewers to get bread and grape juice from their kitchens so that we would be able to celebrate the Lord’s Suppers. Now there are churches experimenting with ‘online communion.’ As Gordon Mikoski notes:

In the digital age, it may be the case that the classical debates about the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist have been inverted. The question with which we may now have to wrestle is not ‘In what way is the Lord present in the Supper?’ Instead, the question is ‘In what ways are we present?’

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, p. 39

I haven’t even begun digesting the implications of this line of reasoning. Any thoughts? Does this have ramifications for tv church? For satellite churches? For our doctrine of the Lord’s Supper?

Whenever We Do Work Together (Living Into Focus)

Adopting technology often deeply affects our relationships and interactions. Maggie Jackson notes that even in the difficult and tedious labor of taking care of homes and families, whenever we do work together, ‘we’re creating the glue that binds us to the humans we love.’ She is concerned that the relationships may be thinning out so that we are ‘roommate families’ rather than having intimates with deep, intense interactions with each other.

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, p. 16 (emphasis added)

Leah comments:

What really stuck out here for me was when Maggie Jackson said “…whenever we DO work together…” On a daily basis I struggle with involving my oldest son, who is 3, in some of the chores around the house. He likes doing it, but my desire to be “productive” fights against including him. I think “I could get this job done so much faster without him, and then get even MORE stuff done.” Yet, as Maggie points out, these experiences provide the “glue that binds us to the humans we love.” There are deeper objectives that must take priority. I hope to remember this.

I thought this was a great observation.

Today at work we had a down-time conversation about children. One of my co-workers just became a grandparent for the second time. He made the comment that two was enough. I began to ask probing questions at that point and found that his reasoning was basically that it is too expensive to have a bunch of children. I find that most people tend to reason that way nowadays.

This lead to me pontificating for a few minutes about the evils of our cultural system, which has become such that it wants us all to act like kids, but at the same time is not child-friendly. In generations gone by children were looked at as practical assets. In the Old Testament, for instance, male children were the greatest possible asset a family could have, because male children meant more hands to work in the farms and fields and to serve as protectors of the the family. Not so these days. We have built a culture in which children primarily exist to be served and and are not given the opportunity to serve.

Christians, seeking to live counter-culturally, and, more importantly, for the good of our children, must find ways to allow our children to serve. This may mean that we must allow them to make some messes with flour and eggs, and it may mean a few headaches for us, but it is vital that we allow them to serve. If we do not give them such opportunities, they will never be allowed to develop in their sanctification. Yes, kids need sanctification too. And a major part of our sanctification is learning to lovingly and joyfully serve others.

Ironically, no one ever serves others more willingly, lovingly, or joyfully, than when they are a child. My kids love to do things for me. It delights them. There’s just not a lot they can do from my perspective. But who cares about my perspective? Helping me scramble the eggs isn’t much from my perspective, but it’s huge from the perspective of a five-year-old. I need to serve my children by allowing them to serve. And these moments of service provide moments of familial intimacy, ‘the glue’ that binds families together in love and joy.

Did I mention that I can learn a lot about service from simply watching how joyfully my kids are willing to serve? Let’s remind our families that we are more than roommates with similar genetics.

Hearths Everywhere

…what Albert Borgmann calls focal practices-activities that center, balance, focus, and orient one’s life…

Focal living… helps us identify and perceive the ‘something more’ that people seek. When our existence seems shallow and unfulfilling, he commends focal concerns that ‘center and illuminate’ our lives. The word ‘focus’ comes from the Latin word for ‘hearth’-a woodstove or fireplace, an essential item for comfort and even survival in many climates. A hearth – as its name implies – is often at the ‘heart’ or center of a house. A lot of attention goes into maintaining a hearth, keeping it in good and safe working order, supplying it with fuel.

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, pp. 10, 11, 13

He continues,

Though some have opted to live ‘off the grid’ and find the lifestyle rewarding, my point is not that we should abandon contemporary technology and naively take on previous hardships, and all become- using familiar biblical terminology- ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ (Josh 9:27). Nor do I believe we should pine after the ‘good old days.’ Rather, my hope is that we consider which hearths can hold us together, which wells can help us drink in abundant life (p. 16).

That raises the major question of the book so far: what are we going to place at the heart of our lives?

I titled this post “Hearths Everywhere” because the phrase has a possible double meaning. Modern people are trying to center their lives around everything that buzzes and glows. The problem with that is that it doesn’t allow for centrality – it tears our hearts in a multitude of different directions (we’re not only double-minded, we’re dozen-minded). If our hearts are given over to a thousand transient things, then we have no chance of retaining any sort of deep focus. But, on the contrary, if we can focus on a few ‘centering’ things, then we can find ourselves centered everywhere we go and in everything we do. Call it worldview integration if you like. Everything becomes related. We can find a hearth anywhere we go, because our ‘centeredness’ allows us to maintain our primary focus.

For a Christian this means at least that Colossians 1:18 has to be at the very heart of the hearth: “That in all things He [that is, Christ] might be preeminent.” With that unifying focus, we can see all focal activities, whether reading, or walking, or playing chess, or having conversations, as means of deepening our focus on the true hearth. We don’t have to simply ‘put off’ new things, we have to put on Christ. We have to find ways to allow new technologies and the like to serve the purpose of keeping us focused on the main things.

Technologies (And People) Tend To Produce Their Opposites (Living Into Focus)

The simple fact, as philosopher Albert Bormann reminds us, is ‘that people regularly make choices that are counterproductive to the happiness they want’…

Something’s not working. ‘Labor-saving’ devices make us busier. The faster computers go, the more time we give to them. As highways and cars improve, we drive farther and vehicles become increasingly expensive. Email speeds up communications but eats up greater amounts of time. With the ongoing invention of ‘essential’ devices (even energy-efficient ones), we consume growing quantities of power. I don’t know about your house, but we have power strips in numerous rooms; wall outlets no longer suffice…

Gregg Easterbrook convincingly shows that ‘society is undergoing a fundamental shift from ‘material want’ to ‘meaning want,’ with ever larger numbers of people reasonably secure in terms of living standards, but feeling they lack significance in their lives.

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, pp. xvii, xix, xxi

Brian put these quotes together. “Something’s not working” is right.

I often quote Martyn Lloyd-Jones (who was quoting someone else), who often said that ‘every institution tends to produce its opposite.’

Boers is not talking about institutions per se. He is talking about people and their devices. But people and devices do tend to produce the opposite of what they intend. This is a theme that Boers will return to, and I am sure we will as well. Here’s an example:

Communication devices were supposed to bring us closer to family by allowing us to work at home; instead, they often detract from time and attention for spouses and children. Computers and cybercommunication were going to help us become paperless, but we consume growing quantities of paper…While computers and online connections get faster, the time we spend on them keeps going up. The better we are at responding to email, the more we are inundated by it. While it gets easier to assemble meals and food becomes convenient, our society shows greater problems with obesity (p. 70).

This is the case in virtually every realm of life. Sin has so turned things upside down that we often get the opposite of what we want. The question, then, becomes, how do we respond to this fact? My only answer is that we must be constantly checking and re-checking; constantly taking inventory. I think that many modern folk understand this. That’s why ‘vision’ and ‘goals’ and ‘instructional design’ have become so firmly entrenched in our vocabularies. But we are not talking about business models here. We are talking about life.

But, as I run the risk of sounding like I want to professionalize life, I think it is absolutely essential that we question our motives in virtually everything. Why do I need the new iPhone? Why do I need to get fast food today? Why do I need to check my email right now? If the answer is simply ‘to save time,’ then we need to ask ourselves if we are really saving time; and if we are, where is that time going? Is my ‘save time’ going into other actions that are also done for the sake of saving time? Am I so busy saving time that I don’t actually have any time left? Has my ‘saving time’ actually become its opposite?

So, here’s my bottom line: take the time to ask yourself what the opposite of your goal or purpose is, ask yourself how your pursuit of that purpose could lead to that opposite, and take inventory regularly to see if you are veering toward that opposite.