Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Be Still
distributed 2/10/06 - ©2006

Betsy told me about an unexpected "equipment problem" on a backpacking trip.

Her church youth group took a weekend trip to the mountains. The kids had been sent a packing list with the basic items of clothing and camping gear to bring. The list also detailed what not to bring, including cell phones, CD players, and other such electronic gizmos. There was some grumbling about those restrictions, but everyone agreed.

On the first day of the trip, about half an hour into the hike, one of the kids was getting quite anxious. After an hour on the trail, he was very seriously upset. As the adults tried to find out what was going on, the young man explained that he didn't know how to get along without a constant flow of music through his headphones. One hour in the woods without tunes was so anxiety-producing that he had to be taken back home.

It is an extreme case, but it is not unique. And that's a problem on two levels.

  1. There's an immediate problem when we try to foster environmental awareness and appreciation in our congregations and communities. We often urge people to get out and experience natural settings. We present it as a delightful, inspiring time. For some of the folk that we're talking to, though, being without constant cultural sound induces panic. It is hard for them to love nature, when the quiet places we take them to are terrifying.

  2. On a more profound level, the constant distractions of our high-tech world keep many of us from ever really coming to grips with our own lives. We're able to avoid our deep-seated fears -- about our relationships and jobs, about war and injustice, about ecological degradation, about our own mortality -- because there's always something else to occupy our attention. We may all be more like the boy in the woods than we want to admit. When the sound is turned off, all of the other stuff comes to the surface, and we panic.
I'm not suggesting that we all become hermits, living in silence. There is a problem, though, when we can't ever stand to be quiet or alone. There is a problem when pulling the plug on music, TV, or cell phones kicks us into an anxiety attack.

This is a new situation. Throughout human history, all the sounds came from nature, and conversations, and the activities of the local community. Every day included lots of quiet time, when people dealt with their thoughts and feelings. As recently as 100 years ago, there was no electronic babble. Portable radios only became common in the 1950s. A plethora of sound devices has emerged within the last couple of decades.

Like the boy on the backpacking trip, many of us never have a quiet place in our lives.

  • Many people always have music or talk radio or news playing at home and in the car. People jogging in the park or exercising in the gym wear headphones.

  • In many households, the TV is on all the time. It is background noise, something to hold the silence at bay. These days, it is hard to find a restaurant without a TV set in every corner, and there's even talk of installing TVs on Denver's light rail trains. Lots of people in our society aren't comfortable without that constant electronic distraction. They don't know how to be quiet with their own thoughts and feelings.

  • And there are the chronic cell phone users -- one hand pressed to their ear while they drive, walk down the sidewalk, go grocery shopping, anywhere and everywhere. Those of us who share spaces with them may be annoyed at having to hear one side of the conversation. There's a problem for the compulsive caller, too, though, when being away from the constant chatter is psychologically uncomfortable.

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"Be still," says Psalm 46. "Be still, and know that I am God!"

We can't know God when we're too busy to think, when we're being bombarded by sound, when we never allow ourselves the quiet time to feel deeply. We need space away from the noise and busyness to experience God.

We need that same holy space to address the painful stuff that we try to keep buried deep inside ourselves. Pastorally and psychologically, we won't ever be moved to take on the anguish of God's creation if we never allow ourselves the space to grieve and lament and find compassion. Creating silence may be an essential strategy for motivating our communities to eco-justice action.

What can churches do in this distraction-filled world to help people find quiet?

  • I know of some churches where the congregation has been trained in the discipline of silent prayer. Rather than the 10 second pause that so many churches have, these folk have learned to sit in complete silence for two or even three minutes of prayer. When you can do that comfortably, sitting quietly beside a gurgling stream won't seem so strange.

  • Activities for children and youth can have frequent opportunities for quiet time and meditation, and for outdoor experiences without electronics. As kids are growing and maturing, the church can help them become comfortable with nature, with themselves, and with God. Parenting classes can stress the importance of quiet, unstructured time.

  • Members of our congregation can be educated and encouraged in the practice of Sabbath, a regular time to step away from work -- whether vocational, volunteer, or around the home -- from shopping, and from the incessant babble of TV and music.
These are spiritual disciplines, not explicitly "environmental" activities. But these steps toward quiet centering are also necessary to entering fully into ecological relationships.

You might consider quiet time as a Lenten discipline for yourself and your family this year. Think of a place in your life where there is some sort of constant background sound, and turn it off for a few hours every day.

Be still, and listen to yourself, to nature, to God. Stick with it through the initial anxiety, and find peace and joy in the quiet.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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