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DEEP WORK

DEEP WORK

Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
1 Timothy 4:7b-8

It was the moment I had to finally face that I was addicted. It happened as I had just placed my order at a fast food restaurant and realized I had left my smart phone at home. What was I going to do without my smart phone? How would I while away the next minute or two without my smart phone? It would mean not checking the news I had checked ten minutes earlier. It would mean not checking for new emails. It would mean not scanning my favorite blogs. I would be reduced to having to read the calorie content on the menu items.

Really now, what was I to do without my smart phone? Could I pray? Could I meditate? Could I practice the presence of God? Could I be present to the person next to me? Or, could I, as the psalmist enjoins, “Be still”?

But in that hapless moment without my smart phone I remembered something I had read in Cal Newport’s important book Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World. Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University who investigates how technology is rewiring our brains. With empirical research to back him up Newport asserts:

“Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction…it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life — say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives — is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the ‘mental wrecks’ [in cited research] it’s not ready for deep work — even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.”

It was in that fast food moment I faced my addiction to “on-demand distraction”, the possibility that the smart phone and Internet were rewiring my brain. If continued, I would lose my capacity for the “deep work” of scripture reflection, sustained prayer, being still with God, and the serious discipline that all the spiritual disciplines require. Rather than using technology, I was being used. Bit by bit, byte by byte, my brain was being rewired by the dopamine fix it got by going to twitter, emails, texts, social media and the latest in late-breaking news. My gray cells’ capacity for doing deep work was being eaten by what Newport calls “shallowness”. “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness”, Newport warns, “and you permanently reduce your capacity to do deep work.” I don’t want to be a shallow Christian, a shallow husband, father, or friend!

That fast food moment led to today’s scripture. Here the apostle Paul calls on us to step up, to do the serious spiritual training required to be godly: “Train yourself in godliness…” It’s a striking Greek word Paul uses in calling on us to “train”. It is the word gumazo, which denotes rigorous, strenuous training. It was the kind of training Paul saw in the Greco-Roman gumnasia of his day. It is the origin of our word “gymnasium”. If that conjures up the image of lots of sweat and some sore muscles, then you get the picture of the serious training Paul has in mind.

Paul does allow in today’s scripture that “physical training is of some value.” So hats off to all of you on your treadmills, trips to the gym, and Pilates! But Paul reminds that even of more value is training in godliness that “is valuable in every way.” Because serious training in godliness holds “promise for both the present life and the life to come.

I felt Paul pressing hard on me that day in the fast food restaurant: “Train yourself in godliness.” I want to guard against the deadly shallows of shallowness and start rewiring my brain again for the deep work following Jesus demands. Admittedly, my smart phone and the Internet can be very helpful, but I must rein in my use of them. Here’s what I plan to do:

  • Set aside one day a week to be unplugged and as free as possible from my addiction to the Internet and smart phone.
  • Create a physical space where I put aside high-tech devices as a way of saying to God and others, “I am present to you.” Those devices remain there for the evening unless I have some “good reason” to access them.
  • Listen to music or silence when I drive in the car rather than always listening to news or talk radio.
  • Resist the urge to check my smart phone when I wake up in the morning or during the night.
  • Go for a walk. Read a poem. Talk to my wife.
  • Frequently recite the following rewording of Psalm 46:10

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.

Grace and peace,
Tim

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