If you are an average teenager you are apparently on track to spend almost a decade of your life on your phone. The problem is that your phone wants to control you mind. A couple of weeks ago the CBC ran a piece by Virginia Smart that described the way app designers make use of the latest in neuroscience to grab our attention and keep us coming back to their products. I doubt this only applies to teenagers.
What Smart says is that many apps have three key parts: a trigger (something to get our attention), an action (something we do) and a reward (something we get). The reward isn’t usually an actual prize, like a dog treat or a million bucks. It is usually something virtual that connects with some need you feel. It might just be an increase in your score, or a ‘like’ or a notification that someone shared what you posted. Or it might just be a notice that you are on a streak. Sometimes it’s just fun, sometimes it’s a corporate way of profiting from your sense of insignificance or loneliness. Whatever it is, the reward triggers a release of dopamine in your brain.
You feel good. You do it again. You don’t always get your little imaginary reward, algorithms decide the best time in order to keep you hooked. This is a part of a whole mass of psychological design and technical wizardry deployed to get your attention, keep it and make money off you. Sometimes the compulsive behavior this creates affects your mood, your sense of being included or excluded. It can make you fearful and agitated. And of course it can make you want things you wouldn’t otherwise want.
I share this with you, not to bemoan our world yet again. I, for one, appreciate some of the things my ancient smartphone can do (even though it failed to teach me French). And in reality this sort of intentional manipulation, these voices playing off our needs and competing for our attention, they come from a whole host of sources. Yet, now more than ever, these sorts of technologies pervade our lives. What’s startling, if you ever step back and think about it, is that they are the medium through which we have our relationships. They want to control our minds. The upshot is that our minds (our hearts and souls as the ancients would have said) are contested spaces. The ancients sometimes described the contest in terms of demonic activity; maybe this is the modern equivalent. These are the powers that assail us. The things we use want to shape the way we think; they want to define how we are in the world. To slip into an ancient biblical metaphor, they set themselves up as our shepherds. They offer us protection, community and guidance.
Today, on this last Sunday before Advent, we traditionally are reminded that Jesus the Anointed One, the Suffering One, the victim of state violence—this One is the king. That Jesus is the true king is a truth worth taking seriously. Nevertheless, today I want to lift a different metaphor out of our assigned texts. It’s one that I think addresses the contested nature of our inner space. It’s the metaphor of Jesus as our shepherd. Christ the king Sunday is, it seems to me, is about action. Yet, what catches my attention in Psalm 95 is the flipside of action. We are the people of God’s pasture, says the poet. We are the sheep of God’s hand and God is our shepherd. Having God as our shepherd is about stillness, not harried action; rest, not achievement; satisfaction, not worry; centeredness, not distraction. It is about being individually known, not being reduced to a demographic, as Ta-Nehisi Coates would say, a “one-of-one.” If God is our shepherd, if we are the people of God’s pasture, the sheep of God’s hand—then we have a place where we can relax.
Of course resting in this isn’t easy or we would have already done it. Your smartphone isn’t the only thing that wants to control your mind. The expectations that come with your work or your study or your social context want to do that too. Admit you need a shepherd and you’ll notice a dozen already knocking at your door.
Do you remember the old days when you went to a bookstore? You walked down the self-help aisle or the management aisle, or you wondered into the spirituality corner—there was no shortage of shepherding voices. Or maybe you can’t remember the old days of bookstores. Then think of your smartphone and its buffet of apps. Think of the magazines or the TV screen in your dentist’s office—maybe your dentist herself. Think of the professional badges and honors you never thought you would care about, yet which you now struggle to achieve. Would-be shepherds come at us unbidden. They guide us and ‘nurture’ us without our even asking.
This is the nature of our modern lives. I think that’s true. Yet this itself is not what separates us from the psalmist or those who heard Ezekiel. The voice of the divine shepherd was not the only one ancient Israel heard. There were false shepherds then too. Listen to this line from near the beginning of the Ezekiel 34: “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.” Then in verse 10 (immediately before our reading) “Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds . . . I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.” Isn’t that interesting? God, the true shepherd, nurtures the sheep; the false shepherds consume them.
One of the deep questions of the spiritual life is this: How do we hear God’s voice? How do we experience the presence of God? The truth is that God speaks to us in a myriad of ways. What we can count on is that we can recognize the divine shepherd because God’s voice is the one that always wants the truest and deepest best for us. God is not the one that only wants us to get that shot of dopamine, that fleeting sense of wellbeing, so shareholders can profit.
Let’s say you had been feeling mixed-up, discouraged, dragged about. You decided to sit down, take stock of your consciousness and try to identify the various voices in your life. Which one is from God? You could start by ruling out every voice that treats you like something to benefit that voice. No voice that treats you like a consumer with a willing line of credit, even if it comes from the church—no voice like that is the voice of the divine shepherd. God wants the best for you. False shepherds want to use you.
Think back to the verbs that showed up in our reading from Ezekiel 34. The divine shepherd does things like this: searches for the disoriented, seeks them out; rescues those who have been scattered and abandoned; gathers them; brings them home to food and water. The divine shepherd feeds them and protects them so they can rest. The true shepherd bandages the injured and strengthens the weak.
Sounds pretty good. Or more realistically, it sounds necessary!
The implications of this metaphor of the Divine Shepherd would have been well-known in the ancient world. It’s a cross-cultural read for use, but for its ancient audience it was familiar, every-day and mundane. A shepherd, they would have known, made sure the needs of the sheep were met. Because of this the sheep recognized the shepherd’s voices. This was essential.
We probably all have people in our lives who seem to have no needs, at least none they can’t meet themselves. They seem confident and well-put-together, as though they desire nothing they don’t already have or can’t get. I’m learning—and this seems so basic—that this is never true. We are all limited and wounded and sometimes intimidated. Watch a really good interviewer talking to someone powerful and famous and you’ll see this to be true. We all need care, protection and guidance. We need a shepherd.
But, again, there are many would-be shepherds. Ezekiel tells us that the voice to listen to is the one that has our flourishing in mind. Here, though, is another clue for learning to hear God’s voice. This is a post-Ezekiel clue. It’s this: the voice of the good shepherd sounds like Jesus. Which voice do we listen to? Which one will lead us to confidence and rest? It’s the one that sounds like Jesus. I don’t mean that we actually know the tenor of Jesus’ locutions. What I mean is that the voice of the Good Shepherd is that of one who would place his body between us and our destruction. It is the one who knows us as one-of-one. It is the voice of one who knows us “by name,” as we read in John. It’s a voice of someone who knows us as more than a dot in a target demographic. It’s a voice of divine love.
Jesus says that the sheep know the voice of the shepherd. Notice that he doesn’t say his voice is the only one they will hear. He doesn’t say it will be the loudest voice, or the most alluring, or even the most exciting. If our minds and souls are contested spaces, if there are many voices out there, then it makes sense that hearing the Good Shepherd isn’t automatic. If God doesn’t compel our love, then it makes sense that discerning the voice of the true shepherd would take deliberate action. This is the reason for the great tradition of Christian prayer. Prayerful contemplation is one of the key ways we learn to hear the voice that wills us to flourish.
God’s Spirit allows us—through prayer, through deep reflection on Scripture—to notice the voice of the one who would lead us, as Jesus says, to abundant life. This is the invitation of these readings from Ezekiel and John’s Gospel.
Over the past months I’ve been encouraging us to think and dream about the future of this congregation. Today I can’t help but wonder what would happen if this congregation developed a reputation for being a community of people who heard God’s voice. What if the community here was known as a people who loved their city and the culture that made it vibrant, but . . . were critically aware of the forces that vied for control of their minds? Simply being such reflective and aware people would be a service to our neighbours. I’m sure of that.
We are naturally drawn to such things. I once met an inspiring older couple, they were former Mennonites, and they had moved from a busy city to a country home just to be near a certain Benedictine monastery. They moved from busy lives on the east coast to the edge of the prairies. They were drawn to the generous and artistic spirit of the place. They were drawn to the rhythm of prayer and work. It was life-giving to them. That sort of thing was common long ago. People were drawn to live near religious communities because in places like that some of the most pressing needs were met.
What do many of us, and many of our neighbours, need today? We need to find joy and confidence in the middle of a culture defined by change and consumption. We need a sense of stillness and satisfaction in a context where even our tools try to control our minds. Joy, confidence, stillness, satisfaction—that is the way of the Good Shepherd. It is a way the shepherd opens to us. And, if we can walk in it, if we can learn to hear the shepherd’s voice amidst the noise of the demons seeking control of our minds, it could be a way open to others. What a gift that would be.