Sunday, November 28, 2010

Signal-noise distinction

November 18, 2010

Dear friends,

This week I have been thinking about change in the context of response to stimulus. What are the factors that lead people to change? And, to bring the question home, how aware am I of those factors that influence change in me, the therapist, the woman, the practicing Christian?

As I often do, I began thinking by looking at my environment. Everywhere I looked I found advertisements for not-to-be-resisted “bargains” that would become available on Black Friday. What, I wondered, were the carefully placed “carrots” in these advertisements that were designed to change savers into spenders, to change “satisfied with what I have” into “have to have more”? Some “carrots” were easy to spot; others were less obvious, more subtle, more indirect and seductive.

I was reminded again that discernment is a learned skill. It is not easy to distinguish the real ore from “fool’s gold,” the valuable from the merely expensive, classic innovation from the temporary fashion of the moment, the “elegance and parsimony” of truth from the convoluted syllogisms of logic.

In the language of communication theory, we have to learn to distinguish the signal from the noise in which it is embedded.

On this first Sunday of Advent, I am challenged again by the old story that is ever new to me. Mary and Joseph went to register in response to Caesar’s edict, but they went to Bethlehem because Joseph was of the house and lineage of David. It must have been difficult—very difficult—to hear the signal “You are my chosen people,” in the noise of Rome’s “You hold life itself only at Caesar’s pleasure and power.” It must have been nearly impossible to hear God’s signal “Immanuel!!!” in the noise of that helpless baby’s cry (it came, you remember, from a Jewish peasant’s infant born in a barn). So far as we know, it was only the shepherds—simple rural folk, minding their flocks in the dark—that heard that angel chorus, and saw for a blinding moment those incredible, terrifying beings who had come from heaven itself to signal Messiah’s earthly birth.

Distinguishing signal from noise has never been easy, then or now.

In this harried holiday season, what God-signal are you seeking to distinguish from the noise of the world around us?

Seeking with you to hear the only signal that, in the end, really counts.

See you next week.


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