I changed my phone number before going on sabbatical and Sharon, who is God’s gift to any church staff agreed to manage my email which is a kindness I can never repay. These two simple choices became a game changer in the amount of noise I experienced on Sabbatical.

I think most people grapple with email, social media and correspondence in general. Even on days where I intentionally reduce noise or even turn off communication, it piles up waiting for the next morning. You are probably in much the same situation. But during sabbatical, it didn’t pile up, it was managed by someone else, so it wasn’t a cumulative noise waiting for my return, it simply wasn’t there.

We live in a communication age where all of us have more on our plate than we can manage. Our communication forms and scope have massively expanded even in the last decade and we feel the pressure of keeping up with people, returning correspondence, managing tight schedules. But it wasn’t always that way – remember the first time you sent an email from your phone? It wasn’t that long ago. Remember when your phone had a cord and you couldn’t move more than 3 feet away from the wall? Ok, fine, some of you had the crazy long 40′ cord so you could talk to that boy in the other room while Mom cooked in the kitchen. You hung up the phone and then spent 5 minutes untwisting the coils of cord. The point is, it wasn’t that long ago.

Sabbatical gave me an incredible gift of silence. A gift of not-much-to-do in the morning for a whole lot of mornings in a row. It heightened my awareness that before sabbatical, I woke up every day to a base line pressure of returning correspondence – an inbox waiting for replies. Emails would arrive all throughout the day.

The ever present trickle of “ding.”

Like Pavlov’s dog, it slowly built an automated response in me. I’m not remotely alone in this – all of us, regardless of vocation feel this baseline pressure. But what was most surprising to me was the cumulative effect that this gift of “not-much-to-do” and a sheer lack of tech pressure had on me. It wasn’t just a nice reprieve, I really noticed my soul slowly opening up to God through the course of the summer. I had foolishly assumed that I’d hit the ground running spiritually speaking. That starting right away, my soul would be in a posture to listen to God, talk to God and be able to reflect deeply. Nope. It took several weeks of silence and un-pressure for that to really kick in and a few things occurred to me:

  1. Most followers of Jesus I know live with a baseline guilt at how little they read the Bible and pray. And no doubt, most of us objectively should read and pray more, but I don’t think we consider how this ever present low level “tech noise” affects our soul. I wasn’t aware of it until I unplugged from it for an extended time. I literally started craving more time with God, more connection the further away I was from communications pressure.
  2. If the cumulative effect of silence and ‘not-much-to-do’ opened my soul up. What is the cumulative effect of communication pressure and tech noise doing to our souls? Tech pressure was just a ‘given’ before sabbatical but I now eye it with a greater suspicion.
  3. Email, phone, calendaring, Facebook, twitter, instagram. This is scratching the surface of an exhaustive list. We could make a whole other list of tech distractions: netflix, hulu, pokemon go…the momentum of our culture is to more forms of communication and more opportunities of tech noise, not less. Tech noise is ever increasing. How are we going to balance it? How are we going to nourish our souls amidst it?

Back in my long dead youth, I took a trip to Haiti – my first ever experience with grinding, developing world poverty. I was there during a very tumultuous time – Aristide was overthrown by Cedras and the whole country was on edge. Electricity was also rationed – they didn’t have enough for everyone so their solution was to only offer it from midnight to 3am. Makes sense – if you don’t have enough, offer what you have when very few people need it. The first night of no electricity it got dark and I couldn’t sleep – too used to staying up under artificial light. I lay in bed wide awake and there was absolutely nothing to do but pray. I prayed for an hour, maybe two and fell asleep. That morning, the sun rose and the roosters crowed to greet the morning and I was up. Not much to do, so I read my Bible.

The temptation is to over simplify this, but it was true: prayer came easily and flowed. Scripture reading was a delight. Underneath all the distractions of the first world was my soul, longing for a connection to its creator.

Haiti’s lack of electricity reminded me that for most of history, like before the Industrial Revolution, humans went to bed at dark or soon after and they woke at first light or soon after and had very simple communication streams and zero tech noise. It really wasn’t that long ago.

On the final Tuesday of my sabbatical before returning to church, I drove to Rocky Mountain National Park and spent several hours in prayer. I very much needed a word from God and it was a rich time of gratitude for people in my life, for the sabbatical break, for the very many blessings I enjoy. It was also a powerful time of God inviting me to repent of my worries and anxieties. In those hours my soul connected with God in a deep and profound way. I still can’t speak about it without tearing up – it was such a gift. Many dynamics led up to that wonderful day, but one of the dynamics was an extended season of no tech noise that had cultivated room in my soul for God to speak.

I am not a Luddite and I am not suggesting you become one either. I embrace and benefit from many technological conveniences. I also recognize that living in this society requires participating in these communication and tech options. But sabbatical certainly got my attention. Tech noise was a spiritual appetite suppressant.

One final story: when our church moved into our building, we designed a balcony that in our opinion had the best seats in the whole place, but very few people sat there. We had installed our projector just in front of the balcony, out of sightline, but it omitted a constant whirring fan noise at around 60 decibels. It was difficult to hear a soft spoken preacher from the balcony with that fan noise and the worship experience felt a bit detached as well. Over the course of a year, I asked several of our “balcony people” if the projector noise bothered them. To a person they replied some form of, “at first maybe, but then you get used to it and don’t really notice it. I don’t think its a problem.”

But very few people were sitting there.

Last Fall we were finally able to replace the noisy projector with a much quieter one. You can barely tell when it is on. The balcony is now packed with people every week.

And I think it is because of one simple change: we reduced the noise.