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Object Permanence ~ Jeff Crosno

Object Permanence

As something of a recovering megachurch pastor, let’s just say that I retain a very healthy measure of respect for the challenge we will face when trying to live as a De-caffeinated congregation in the midst of what appears to be an Attention-Deficit-Disordered culture. The simple truth is that it has always been easier to gather a crowd when there is some exotic sizzle to sell, but the down side of that bargain is that you are forever expected to maintain the same level of excitement and expectancy that first generated your crowd. In other words, it can prove pretty tough to come up with a new topper after all the kids show up for your initial Astronaut Sunday. So with some years of ecclesiastical experience under my belt, I eventually claimed for myself a kind of Conscientious Objector status regarding the whole megachurch approach after finally figuring out that nothing of any lasting benefit ever seems to occur as the result of a stampede. Now this is not to suggest that there is any sort of inherent spiritual advantage to be found in dispensing boredom when we gather for church. Nor do I intend to take the sort of cheap and snarky pot-shots at larger congregations that merely mask an all too familiar ministerial condition known as Steeple Envy. It simply seems true that just about all of us can at times grow restless and bored enough with our own lives to be seduced into fantasizing over the cleverly imagined and skillfully airbrushed enticements of Somewhere Else. And judging from the depressing tally of broken marriage vows as well as fractured families and congregations, I suppose those temptations can prove all but irresistible in comparison with the routine expectations and more prosaic demands of daily life Around Here. In short, it almost always turns out to be more difficult to live better than we talk, especially given the way that our culture seems to expect that the true benefit and long-term value of everything that we do should be immediately confirmed by our pulse. I know of course, that this kind of venal expectation is utterly and completely mistaken. But as one of my old teachers used to put it, it can be frightfully hard to remember that some things will still remain true even when we are asleep. May God help me, but I will endeavor to remember this when the preacher seems on some days to drone on far longer than I might want.

Because that first paragraph perhaps sounded a bit like an invitation to one of those Ministerial Pity Parties that we will all be wise to avoid, let me be quick to suggest that we’re actually talking about symptoms that have been widely observed by many others. For instance, recently I found myself laughing aloud while reading a New York Times report by that gimlet-eyed political observer, Mark Leibovich, who was noting the prevalence of what he is calling the “Bright Shiny Object” or “SOS – Shiny Object Syndrome” within this current bumper crop of available presidential candidates. It quickly struck me that Leibovich seems to have been noticing something of importance evident in our wider culture given the way our aspiring political leaders seem at times perfectly eager to distract us from the more substantive issues like so many circus magicians practicing sleight-of-hand by dangling some shiny object in front of their audience. It matters not, wrote Leibovich, what the particular “Bright Shiny Object” might be in any given moment (like the “touch-testing” of candidate hairstyles, objections to birthright citizenship and the sad and depressing dust-up over so-called “anchor babies,” or the very latest Tweet spraying antagonism toward the “loser” target of the day as designated by that Reality TV Star now running with serene self-confidence at the head of the herd). All that seems to matter is that like so many professional wrestlers hurled headlong into the ropes, “we find ourselves disoriented, careening against a turnbuckle: Where are we? How did we get here?” As Leibovich himself concluded in his article regarding this bizarre exercise in the politics of distraction, “In these dazzle-me-now days (italics mine), there can be grave consequences for a candidate who comes off as gray and plodding and bogged down in nuance.” Apparently we do like Bright Shiny Objects, even if we know deep down that we really shouldn’t. ​Or to put it theologically: We have met the enemy, and they are us!

Now I recognize that it is neither my role nor purpose to ladle out political wisdom, so let us move quickly to those matters of faith which lay more closely at hand. In my case, in just a few weeks the 30th anniversary of my ordination as a minister of the Gospel will come and go. But after all that time it strikes me that there may be no better description of this present age than the phrase Leibovich offers: we are living in theDazzle-Me-Now Days! Unfortunately, the terms of those long-ago ordination vows specifically prohibit me from suggesting to you that the path of authentically Biblical holiness will be found apart from a disciplined lifestyle that has more to do with self-denial and deferred gratification than instantaneous goose bumps and the roaring approval of some crowd. It was Jesus himself who first pronounced the definitive cautionary note on that score, helpfully pointing out in his Sermon on the Mount that a truly sanctified life can only be cultivated by carefully determining to practice the disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer completely in secret.Apparently the vitality and integrity of real holiness requires the development and maturation of an interior life of growing depth and capacity. Another way to put this is that Jesus calls us to live for an audience of One, knowing that no matter what we may say about ourselves, in the end we will only become that which we habitually practice when nobody else seems to be paying attention. But I suspect that will usually be far too quiet for those expecting to experience Dazzle-Me-Now Days. Then again, would you ever really anticipate that it could be possible to stand beneath a magnificent oak tree and hear its roots grow?

Much earlier in my own journey as an ordained pastor I took to heart a story told by Eugene Peterson regarding the very first visit paid by his infant grandson, Andrew, during the years that Peterson’s son and daughter-in-law were seminary students at Princeton. Apparently Andrew had a fluorescent yellow tennis ball which he would pick up and throw across the room, providing endless delight for Eugene as he proudly watched this new grandson pulling himself forward on the carpeted floor of the living room. But after a full ten or fifteen minutes of this fascinating display of athletic prowess, the ball that Andrew had been crawling after rolled under a sofa and disappeared from his view. Eugene said the moment that yellow tennis ball vanished from Andrew’s sight; his young grandson stopped, sat back on his well-diapered bottom and began looking around for something else to do, as if there had never, ever been any tennis ball to chase across the room. Let me allow Peterson himself to tell what happened next:

“I looked to his mother, ‘Lynn, what’s wrong with Andrew? Why did he quit chasing the ball?’ Was there a missing gene in his DNA? Was he showing early signs of dyslexia and a short attention span? But Lynn, not bothering to look up from her book, said rather coolly to me, ‘Andrew has not yet acquired object permanence.’

‘What does that mean?’ asked Eugene. And in reply, his daughter-in-law answered, ‘It means that if he can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.’”

Eugene said, “I had never heard the phrase before, ‘object permanence.’ Lynn told me that during those early months of being a mother, virtually everything in Andrew’s life required immediate gratification – feeding, comforting, diapering. There was no waiting. There was no reality for Andrew other than what he could see and taste and smell and feel and hear. And most of what he saw, tasted, smelled, felt and heard was his mother. If she was going to be a good mother, she had to be there physically with her body. She also observed that if she continued being a good mother in that way, past a certain point, she would be a bad mother. Her good mothering would become bad mothering if Andrew never learned object permanence – if he never learned to deal with her absence in the same way he learned to deal with her presence. Most of Lynn, to say nothing of most of the [rest of the] world, was not at that moment accessible to his senses. If she insisted on being indispensable to Andrew, she would narrow his life to only what he could immediately see and know of her.” For Andrew to grow and mature into the person God fully intended him to be, he would have to acquire object permanence. Andrew needed to learn that some things still exist, even when you cannot see them.

Peterson said it took a few seconds for this new concept to sink in. And then he told his daughter-in-law,“Oh, I’ve got a whole congregation just like that.”

Jeff Crosno