I have a Facebook friend who regularly posts about the inner peace he finds by avoiding the news like a plague. He has a kind of evangelical fervor about it (you too can enjoy this serenity, and all you have to do is turn off that CNN), which irks me a bit because I start my morning with NPR, Talking Points Memo, CNN, and Politico. I relax when I get home from work by tuning into CNN or MSNBC. Before I head to bed, I catch the last headlines of the evening, and a smattering of international news.
I admit it freely. I am a news junkie. I remember watching Huntley and Brinkley as a small child and when I was a paper boy, I always read the papers before I delivered them. I flirted briefly with being a journalist, and went as far as to attend Journalism school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Although I don’t always appreciate my friend’s public disavowal of keeping up with the events of the day, I can understand his reasons. The events of the day can be pretty depressing. It appears that things are getting worse on a daily basis.
But should that surprise us? In A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean wrote, “As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace.” Being part Scot and mostly Presbyterian, this resonates with me. The old timey guys called it Total Depravity, the doctrine that none of us are as good as we could or should be. So being shocked at discovering the world is a mess is like being shocked to learn there is gambling at Rick’s bar in Casablanca.
My news-avoiding Facebook friend is a gardener by inclination and trade. He chose his profession well. A colleague of mine in ministry would retreat to his garden as often as he could, especially when the craziness of ministry started rearing its head. “You put the right plants in the right soil, and nurture the way it is supposed to be nurtured, and it grows. People aren’t like that,” he once told me. “You do all the ‘right’ things, and you never know what is going to happen.”
The world is a mess because people are a mess. Spending a life constantly surprised by sin and chaos in the world is a terrible way to live. It’s like walking out in the streets and being surprised by cars that whoosh by you.
That knowledge inoculates me from persistent outrage.
If I were prone to outrage, I would have to turn the news off, or learn to live in a perpetual state of shock and awe. But the lingering scent of total depravity in the air keeps my inner jets from continually burning out. I stay informed, but I do not despair. Nor am I jaded. In fact I consider myself an optimist. Being a realist about human nature does not mean you have to pessimistic about it.
The flip side of Total Depravity is redemption. While the world is a continual mess, it is also continually being redeemed. The new is not all bad news. Given the “If it bleeds it leads” mentality of many media outlets, it is encouraging to see hope spontaneously breaking out in unpredictable places. Watching the news informs my prayers because I believe that in a world turned nutty, God is still at work. Whether it is young people confronting the powers that be on climate change or gun control, outbreaks of compassion for the homeless, or the consistent effort of people trying to do good, cheerfulness keeps breaking through (in the words of Leonard Cohen.)
Paul wrote, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. The operative phrase in that sentence is “all things.” We tend to jump over that, and interpret Paul’s words to mean, “Everything is good for those who love God.” But no. “All things” means the good and the bad, the sublime and the mundane, the works of charity and the works of self-interest. God does not sort through “all things” before they come to us. We experience it all. The promise is that in the hurly-burly of all things, God is at work. We may want the results of God’s work to be instantaneous, but they often are not. Sometimes we have to wait a while to see the final outcome. There are some things we will not see on this side of the grave. But the promise still stands.
So I watch the daily news, and try to sort it all out. I react to the things I see, sometimes through prayer, sometimes through writing, sometimes through action, and sometimes I just have to wait it out. I’m not shocked by what I see, nor am I depressed by it. In fact I often get energized, motivated to fight the craziness by clutching to sanity, to respond to the evil in the world by doing good where and when I can. Total depravity is eventually superseded by redemption. And I try to do my part to make that happen.