I Guess You Had to Be There...
Updated: Oct 29, 2018
...that's a phrase we don't hear so often anymore. Every experience, or so we would like to think, can now be captured, stored, and translated electronically. We increasingly live immersed in realities which we never actually experience for ourselves.
In many ways, this is a wondrous thing. In previous centuries, our perspective was mostly shaped by the people, places and learning opportunities that were within walking distance. We could not even know for certain what any but the people we personally encountered looked like. Now, the range of people, places and opportunities we have at our fingertips seems limitless.
Yet, despite our technological advances: our ability to travel all over the world, and to virtually peer into the lives of practically anyone on the planet from the comfort of our homes, we are still limited by particularity, our unifocal perception of time and place. Every moment, another experience arrives and is gone before we know it. That is part of what it means to be human. To be human is to be limited.
This limitation was an aspect of existence that Jesus, the God-Man, experienced. He did not always know everything; Jesus learned. The fact that Luke tells us at all that he needed to learn--he "increased in wisdom"--implies that Jesus must have embraced his human limitations. Certainly, by the power of the Spirit, he was able to do more than the average human being. But like all of us:
he grew tired (John 4:6)
he needed to eat (Mark 11:12) and drink (John 4:7,19:28)
he seemed, at times, overwhelmed by crowds (Luke 5:15-16, Matthew 8:18)
he walked almost everywhere, like everyone else in his day (Matthew 4:18, etc., etc.)
Like us, Jesus only had 24 hours in the day. Unlike us, he respected the rhythms of work and rest imposed by human frailty and enforced by light and darkness (John 9:4). Also, while he often seemed to have a different idea from his peers about what this should look like, he set apart one day out of seven as holy.
One of the things we see him doing in the Gospels, and it's easy to overlook, is accepting the parameters of human existence. The Eternal Son--who had been omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent--acquired, perhaps even savoured, a particular time, place, and perspective. Limitation, in other words, is a divine gift, not something to scorn.
If anyone understood the urgent need of humanity, it was him. But he accepted what it meant to be a man tasked with saving it. He accepted that he would have a fixed number of interactions while living out his 33 or so years on the planet. When you consider that his public ministry spanned merely 3 years, roughly 1000 days to address the eternal needs of all of humanity (107 billion souls and counting...), perhaps it's no accident that the temptations the devil conjured before him would have had the added bonus of seeming to accomplish his mission more quickly and effectively:
"Jesus...you know that if you throw yourself down from the temple and are borne up by the angels that everyone will have to acknowledge your divinity, right?"
"Jesus...you claim to love these miserable humans so much...yet you know as well as I do that you'll only save them insofar as they acknowledge you as Lord. But they're mine to begin with! I can have them eating out of the palm of your hand! Like I said before...You bow to me, and they'll bow to you...it'll save us all some trouble, streamline your whole operation, and increase your yield. Or don't you actually care about them?"
In the modern era we have unthinkingly bought into similar lies. In our zeal to maximize ministry effectiveness, we've bit down hard on the lure of mass media. We've believed the hype that we can--indeed we must--embrace methods that give the Gospel greater reach, greater efficacy, greater relevance. In so doing, we've forgotten the truth that Jesus modeled.
As Eugene Peterson once said:
"...this is slow, slow work, this soul work, this bringing people into a life of obedience and love and joy before God..."
He continued: "...something backfires on you when you're impatient. How do we meet the need? The needs are huge. Well, you do it the way Jesus did it. You do it one at a time."
The work is personal, human to human. True, it is God-initiated, God-powered, God-effected. But he has entrusted it to us, to broken, leaky vessels:
...we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Cor 4:7)
In other words, God does all the work, but we have to be faithfully present: faithfully using the natural gifts he has given us, trusting him to make them count.
This is part of what lies behind my decision to use technology sparingly in SOLAS:Vespers services and to think carefully about how I use it behind the scenes. It is all too easy to forget who is doing the real work, to pry the glory that God deserves away from him, to ignore the fact that I am--we are--merely human.
How have I made decisions about what to use and what to avoid? More pointedly, how can I justify actively maintaining a web presence, while eschewing long accepted technological ministry aids like speakers and recordings? Don't both tempt me to ignore my God-given limitations? Yes. And no.
The Internet is obviously full of temptations. It is Vanity Fair 2.0. Like Bunyan's pilgrims, who could not avoid the fair on their way to the Celestial City, we must "set very light by all its wares".
But electronic amplification and recording occupy a different category altogether. The Internet is a virtual place, one which if we--as ministers of the Gospel--avoid we may as well "go out of the world". Amplification and recording are techniques, techniques with a host of applications that are undeniably useful. Yet at their basic level they exist to enhance our limitations and thereby distort natural perception.
Amplification magnifies. Recording distends. Amplification tricks us into thinking things are bigger (or closer) than they really are. Recording fools us into supposing that things last longer than they do. That which is louder and sticks around seems to have greater significance than that which merely passes by at a distance. Our perception of what is important is thus dictated to us by those with means and access to technology, and that bias is harder to disregard than we realize. When we use such technologies sparingly, we must work harder to sift out what is important and we may miss out on some things, but we are freer to make our own choices.
Of course, social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter rely on both amplification and recording technologies. When using them we must constantly bear in mind that recorded content is not real, but a curated depiction of reality. That's easier said than done. But they are focused, not broadcast to one and all. One can opt in or out. They can (and should) be easily switched off, ignored. Websites and social media are essentially signposts and storehouses. Used foolishly, they enslave us. Used judiciously, they contain treasures that can enrich us. Granted, these treasures are distortions of the real world. But they point us to places where we can have actual experiences.
The biggest problem with using amplification and recording technology in a public event is that we barely notice them. We take them for granted. The captivity of our perspective as passive consumers of entertainment now seems completely normal to us. The lack of amplification in public has now become abnormal. This is increasingly true of recording as well ("pics or it didn't happen...") The Enhanced: overwhelming, self-satisfying distortion, ubiquitously unreal, seems more compelling than the merely real: that which, with an irritating stubbornness, merely beckons, just out of reach, inviting us to take a step closer.
My hope is that not using a PA system will continually remind us that we are human, and no more than human, that it will restrain us from overreaching, and invite listeners to lean in. Not recording the services highlights the fact that every moment is an irreplaceable gift, a fleeting opportunity to worship, that every interaction is a unique instant in which to speak, to listen and to understand. Both are deliberate steps of faith, a commitment to walk trusting in God, who alone renews hearts and minds.
Soli Deo Gloria!