Much of what I will share in this blogpost comes from Dr. Kent Smith's paper entitled "Ecosystems of Grace: An Old Vision for the New Church". Dr. Smith is a professor at Abilene Christian University and has been involved in the development of missional communities for many years.
I will begin with the somewhat shocking statement: "We are simply too busy and distracted to be available for the attention and discernment that love requires." While we are well aware that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all of our heart and to love each other as we love ourselves, the practical implementation of these commandments is all too rare. "Our attention has been stolen and the culture that we have inherited virtually ensures that we will have little room for love in our lives." According to 1 Corinthians 13:1-2, if we are too busy to love, our methodologies, programs, powerful sermons and good intentions are noisy gongs, clanging cymbals and amount to "nothing."
The following statistics illustrate how our attention has been stolen:
1. The average American spends 11 hours a day in front of a screen, with five of those hours dedicated to television.
2. In 1985, researchers learned that one person in ten did not know "a true friend" - someone with whom they felt safe to be themselves. By 2004, that number had risen to one person in four. Since then, one of the greatest attention-magnets of all time, Facebook, claims over 1.5 billion user "friends," while ironically, research shows that average measures of human empathy have plummeted.
3. The average American family spends thirty-five percent of its lifetime earnings on interest. Given the uneven earnings typical in most households, that thirty-five percent represents the full-time attention of one adult. This means that almost half of each family's working hours go to enrich banks and other financial institutions. Imagine the difference it would make if, instead of working outside the home, one parent were freed up to devote him or herself to the care of the children? Or to be more involved in the neighborhood or community?
Since love requires that we pay close attention to the needs of those around us, the above statistics demonstrate that our ability to follow the simple command of Jesus to "love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34) is under serious assault. The implications of this are enormous and go beyond the boundaries of our own churches as Jesus also stated clearly that "All people will know that you are my disciples if you love each other." (John 13:35) How can a hurting world understand the love of God if we, as God's people, are not modeling that love?
Of course, it is necessary to describe what this love is supposed to look like and why paying attention to one another is so important. In the New Testament there are 58 "one another" passages. In these passages we are told such things as to carry each other's burdens, serve one another, instruct one another, be kind and compassionate to one another, encourage one another, admonish one another, offer hospitality to one another, and build each other up. Obedience to these passages requires careful attention to those around us. How can I carry your burdens if I am not aware of what your burdens are? How can I be compassionate if I don't know what difficulties you are facing? How can I pray for you to overcome your sinful inclinations if I have not spent the time to earn your trust such that you're willing to share those sinful inclinations?
My experience tells me that many among us suffer in silence. It is all too rare for someone to take the time to truly understand what we feel, why we feel that way and how much we hurt. Even more rare is the love that still expresses a joy to be with us while we are going through the difficult times. Children thrive in an atmosphere where they are the "sparkle in someone's eye." We adults still need that kind of unconditional love. While we all need correction (also highlighted in the one another passages), we will develop and blossom when someone has taken the time to consider our point of view, "heard us out" and still counted it as a joy to be with us. This type of love occurs too infrequently and does not happen without intentional decisions to take the time that is necessary to truly listen to and spend time with one another.
This holiday season I would like to take the opportunity to encourage us all to take some time to put away the cell phone, turn off the television, stop using the credit card and take the time to deeply listen to someone. I do not doubt that you will experience a sincere warmth that will be a wonderful encouragement to you and those you love. God bless!
P.S. - In the coming weeks, we will continue this series on "Too Busy to Love" by exploring the dynamics in the first century church that made it possible for them to love one another as Jesus loved.