Sabbath and the Idolatry of Being Busy

The following was preached as a sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on July 19, 2015. 

Mark 6:30-32

6:30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.

6:31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

6:32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

We are all busy.

Would you agree with that statement? And even if you don’t agree with the “all”, would you at least agree with it in regards to your own life? Are you busy? And do you sometimes feel as if you don’t have a minute to spare, as if the hours and days of your life are so over-scheduled that you have no control over them, as if you can never get to the end of your to-do list?

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

It does to me. I keep my calendar on my phone, and before I schedule anything I have to check it. And I have in my mind a list of things I would like to do if only I were not so busy. I promise myself I’ll get around to them someday, when I’m less busy, but of course that time never comes around.

I even start many of my phone calls and emails with this apology: “I’m so sorry for my delay, I’ve been really busy.” And that never feels particularly good to say. But at the same time, I know that sometimes, in some twisted way, that busy-ness is almost a source of pride.

Because, part of me believes that if I’m busy, I’m important. If I’m busy, I’m not lazy. If I’m busy, my life matters.

My Puritan ancestors, with their strong work ethic, would be proud.

But the thing is, I’m not so sure I should be.

This morning’s reading comes from the Gospel of Mark. It’s a story of how the disciples all came and gathered around Jesus, and they told him all about what they had been doing. Scripture tells us that they were coming and going and not even eating. They were saying to him “look at how many we have taught, and look at all we have done”.

So, what they were really saying to him was this: look at how busy we have been.

And Jesus, this is how he responds; he doesn’t hand out awards, or raises, or corner offices. He doesn’t make one the senior disciple. He doesn’t even say “good job”. Instead, he says this: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Wouldn’t you have loved to have seen their faces just then? Because I’ll bet they were disappointed. I’ll bet they’d been gearing up for the biggest pat on the back ever, and all they got was “yeah, you need to take a break”. Jesus, didn’t seem to care about whether they were busy or not.

It’s almost like he was saying you couldn’t work your way to salvation, or something.

Of course, that’s what our faith tells us. We don’t earn salvation by working hard. We don’t earn God’s love by being busy. We get those things anyway solely because of this reason: God loves us, and God gives us grace.

IMG_6067In response we are called to live lives of gratitude to God. That means that whatever we are doing in our lives is supposed to be a sort of “thank you” to God for the grace we’ve already received. We’re asked to live not busy lives, but good lives. Lives that glorify God.

So, where did we get our wires crossed? When did good and meaningful lives come to mean over-scheduled and stressed out ones? When did our worth somehow become tied to the fullness of our calendars? And when did we ever get the idea that this is what God wants from us? Because Jesus makes it pretty clear what he thinks his disciples need most, and it’s not an 80-hour workweek.

But that’s the culture that we live in. One where a spare minute is wasteful, and everything comes down to billable hours. And one where even our kids are over-scheduled. One where they have to sacrifice sit-down family meals or play time or, yes, even church on Sunday in favor of travel sports teams or Mandarin lessons or oboe practice.

And for so many of our kids they do this all not because they truly love the sport or the language or the music, because the adults in their life want them to have a good life. A worthy life.

A life in which they can have children of their own. Who will miss their own family dinners, and go to their own practices and lessons instead.

I’m not preaching this because I am blameless here. Because, I confess, this has been a hard lesson for me to learn. In my first few years of parish ministry I worked 70 hour weeks. I took less than half my vacation time, and even then it was usually to do things like officiate a friend’s wedding or bury one of my relatives.

Because I wanted to be a good pastor. And I was willing to kill myself to do it. It took my Dad, one of the hardest working people I know, saying “you need to slow your life down” before I realized that maybe, just maybe, I could do just that.

I still struggle with workaholism. I always will, I think. But now I look out for it. And when I find myself writing my sermons on Saturday afternoon because I’ve been too busy to work on them all week, for instance, that’s a cue to me that something is wrong. And that’s a sign that something is wrong spiritually in me too.

Because the reality is this: our busy-ness, our need to do more, to work harder, can be an idol. And idols never deserve the worship we give to them.

It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Three times in fact. Have no other God’s than me. Don’t make false idols for yourself. And remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.

I happen to think those are all pretty good rules for life, but if you are not a rule person, and if you don’t want to listen to that, then listen to Jesus. Listen to him saying “stop…come away for a little while”.

Because what we all need is a little sabbath. If you want to think of that in the strictly one day a week sense you can, because for centuries people kept a sabbath day each week. Christians generally did so on Sunday, the day of Resurrection, and our Jewish brothers and sisters, for many millennia more than us, have seen the wisdom of a Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.

One of my favorite memories from living near the Orthodox Jewish community in Atlanta was seeing the shops shut down on Friday evenings, and then watching the faithful walking to temple, and walking back home where they would eat meals together and celebrate the sabbath. There’s a reason why Jewish sages have long said that “sabbath is like a taste of heaven on earth”.

So right now you might be saying, that’s great, but I can’t give up one day out of my week. If I do that, I’ll be busier than ever the other six!

Maybe. But I tend to think our busy-ness is a choice. And I think that setting aside sabbath time might actually teach us an important lesson. It might make us look at our obligations and appointments and think a little more clearly about what is essential and what is not.

Because the reality is that making time for sabbath means that we have to do some spiritual discernment. We have to make choices about our priorities. And we have to decide what we will worship. Because when we give time to something, in a small way we are worshipping it.

But if you still say, I can’t do it, try this: try an hour. Try one hour when you will take sabbath. Try one hour when you will set aside all work, all obligations, and all busy-ness. And instead, do the thing your soul is calling you to do. Take that walk with your kids. Go to the beach with your spouse. Do something to rest yourself, and quiet your soul, and to connect with God.

And when you’ve done it for a while, you might even find that you can’t afford to not take a sabbath. Maybe you even need to take more. Because sabbath, paradoxically, makes us more efficient. It helps center us. It rests us. It takes our dull edges, and it sharpens us. And it shows those around us, even our kids, that life is more than being busy. There’s a reason Jesus insisted his disciples take it: he was preparing them for some big roles, and he needed them ready.

And so, here are my questions for you: First, who or what do you really worship? To answer this, take a look at your calendar. Or, look back at your last few weeks, think about how you’ve spent your time. If someone observed it, what would they tell you that you value the most?

And second: Do you want things to keep worshipping those things, or do you want to make a change?

You have to answer that question for yourself, but I can offer this advice: if you are giving your heart and soul and time to something that can never love you back, if you are worshipping at the altar of the false gods of busy-ness or material success or the fear of its loss, you will never be truly happy.

But if you want something better, then I know this guy. And he says that our worth doesn’t come from working ourselves into an early grave. It comes from the one who loved us first, the one who will love us even on our final day. And he’s asking us all to stop, and come away with him, to a place where we can remember what really matters. I’m ready to go there. And I hope you’ll join me. Amen?

New Year, Old Me: Five Things I’m Going to Keep Doing in 2014

528599_10151161854801787_1430087781_nIt’s that time of the year when every website, magazine, and Twitter feed is selling January 1st-dated potential. Headlines like “New Year, New You” or “Ten Ways to Lose Weight/Get Rich/Find Love/Be the Best Person Ever in 2014”. And, hey, if that kind of inspiration works for you, more power to you. Go with it. May 2014 be your best year ever.

The only thing is, New Years Day, and the companion resolution-making process, has never been all that exciting to me. If anything, it’s always a little depressing. I have made resolutions but, truth be told, I’ve never really felt all that motivated to keep them. I used to think that was a character flaw. Now I just think that maybe resolutions tied to the date of January 1st just aren’t right for me.

I grew up in the South surrounded by Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God and other churches that emphasized the need for having some sort of big religious experience where you turned your life immediately over to God. The only thing is, that never happened to me. My extended family was mostly Catholic and Presbyterian, and those aren’t exactly the sort of traditions where blinding light conversion stories take center stage.

Instead my coming to faith, like most things in my life, was a gradual process. I didn’t become a Christian by “making a decision for Christ”. I became one because gradually I was drawn by the story of Christ and I wanted to live my life following him. I can’t tell you the date that happened, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t January 1st. It wasn’t any one day.

Really, no significant change has ever happened in my life because I have set a date for it to happen. I fell in love gradually and unexpectedly. I got sober because gradually I realized I had to do it. And one day in college I decided to trade my law school applications in for seminary ones, not because that day was special, but because it had just come to the point that I knew that was what I needed to do.

The thing about God’s grace, and the changes that it causes us to make, is that it rarely comes on our own schedules, and my guess is that it even less rarely comes on a date that has rather arbitrarily, at this place and this time in the whole of history, come to be the start of a new year. So my guess is that if something big happens in my life this year, it will come because of God’s grace, and it will come on some random unexpected time, and maybe all at once, or maybe little by slow.

So, this year I’m not making resolutions. I’ve decided I don’t want a “new year, new me”. Really, it’s taken a lifetime to get to this “me”, and I’m pretty happy with who I am, and all the little graces that have made me me. My hope is next year at this time I’ll be pretty happy to be me too.

So, instead of making New Year’s resolutions, I’m going to do something different. I’m going to list five things that I randomly started doing at some point this year that I’ve decided to keep doing. They’ve made my year better. My only hope is that 2014 will add to this list. Either way, I think it’s going to be a good year. Here they are:

1. Writing more notes and cards with my favorite pen. I’ve used fountain pens for years. I have this one that’s not a big, expensive, fancy one. It’s just a solid, black, medium nibbed fountain pen that feels heavy in my hand and puts ink down perfectly on paper. I’ve used it a lot this year. I’ve written more cards and notes to people I care about, and while I hope they have brought them joy, I have to admit that writing them has probably brought just as much joy to me. I’m going to do more of that this year.

2. Reading less theology and church leadership books, and more fiction. I have a college degree in religion, a Master of Divinity, and a second masters in systematic theology, along with half a PhD in theology and psychology. I’ve read a lot of theology, and a lot of church leadership books. This year I stopped doing that. I switched to fiction. I read “Great Expectations”. I re-read “Dubliners”. I kept a pile of the novels I had always wanted to read on my bedside table. And, honestly? I think I’m a better pastor for it. Plus, I don’t feel guilty for not reading every new church book that comes along. A win all the way around.

3. Letting fewer people live in my head rent-free. There’s an old recovery saying: Don’t let people live in your head rent-free. In other words, the world is filled with people who can’t stand the success of others, can’t control their temper, can’t see past prejudices, or can’t be positive. We still have to love them, but we don’t have to let their toxicity get into our head. Those folks don’t deserve energy you could be better spending on others. This year I learned a lot about how to not attend every argument to which I’m invited. Sometimes walking away, saying a prayer for the other, and then shaking the dust from your feet, is the most grace-filled and Christian thing one can do. I highly recommend it.

4. Valuing what I produce over the amount of time spent working. My first year pastoring I worked an unsustainable amount of hours. Sometimes ten hours a day without a day off. I got a lot done, but I still went to bed each night with a hefty to-do list. I’ve been gradually changing my work/life balance over the past few years. Now I take my sabbath day fully, turn off the phone for dinner with my wife, and go to bed at a decent hour. Now I work significantly fewer hours but, surprisingly, I’ve found I’m able to get more done. Even better, I’ve found that the quality of what I do, from sermons to pastoral care to writing, has gotten better. It’s been a great change.

5. Reading Scripture: Like many pastors, I have at times found myself getting away from the very spiritual practices that first drew me to consider ministry. With a busy schedule prayer time has felt like a luxury. Or, retreats have felt too inconvenient. One thing that had been getting away from me was Scripture reading. This year I changed that by making a commitment to read three chapters of Scripture a day; for me, a very manageable amount. And as I’ve re-introduced myself to Scripture, I’ve found myself falling in love with that complex, beautiful, and sometimes baffling collection all over again. It has deepened my faith walk, and it’s a habit I’m glad I developed this year.

So, those are my five. What are yours? How will the “old you” make 2014 even better?

What Really Matters: Sermon for July 21, 2013

120x120_8611183Sibling rivalries are big in the Bible. There’s Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, the Prodigal Son and the brother who stayed home. It’s a constant theme. And a lot of the time it’s about resentment, and about which sibling is doing the work, and about which isn’t doing anything worthwhile. In other words, the Bible is a lot like real life.

The story we read today from the Gospel is about another sibling rivalry. Jesus is visiting the home of two sisters; Mary and Martha. And Martha is well named, because she is like the Biblical Martha Stewart. She is in the kitchen cooking and cleaning and trying to make sure that everything goes exactly right. And she is stressed out and looking for help.

And, as it turns out, Martha has this sister named Mary. And Mary isn’t helping. She’s not even in the kitchen. Instead, Mary is sitting down, at Jesus’ feet, just listening to him speak.

Finally Martha has enough. She says, “Jesus, tell her to get in the kitchen and help me.” That sounds fair enough to me, but Jesus has a surprising answer: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

In other words: back off Martha…Mary got this one right.

It’s easy to sympathize with Martha. No one likes to be doing all the work while someone else gets to just sit down and relax. It reminds me of a story I heard once about a college mission trip. A bunch of students traveled to a reservation in order to help a tribe to rebuild their community center. And everyday they got up on ladders, and painted walls, and worked on the roof.

But there was one student who didn’t. Every day while all the others were working away, he was down playing with all the kids on the reservation. He taught them games, had fun with them, and entertained them. And all the others in the group were so frustrated with him, the same way Martha was with Mary.

And I probably would have been too. But the mistake here is to think that Martha is the only one doing anything of value, and that Mary is doing nothing. The mistake is to confuse being busy with having your priorities in the right place.

Now, let me stop here to say that I can sympathize with Martha. When I was first engaged, Heidi made an observation. ”Do you know,” she asked, “that you never stop doing something?” At the time it was around 10pm, and we were watching a movie together while I sat with my laptop, typing away at some work.

I didn’t know what she was talking about at first, but slowly I realized how addicted I was to being busy. Like, instead of being fully present in a conversation, I’d be washing the dishes too. Or instead of making sure that I was taking Monday as my sabbath day, I was returning calls that could have waited until Tuesday. Somehow I had convinced myself that not multi-tasking was a waste of time. To not be busy was some sort of sin in my mind.

Now, you might get that. Maybe you have several to-do lists and full calendars. You might feel like you never reach the end of what you are supposed to do. That’s not uncommon. And as a culture we are passing it on to our kids. Even they have become over scheduled. Productivity matters more than ever, and we have become a generation of Marthas. It’s not hard to imagine that most of us would have gone out to Jesus and said, “hey…tell my sister to stop doing nothing and get to work.”

And, in the end, there’s nothing wrong with hard work. But there is something wrong with having skewed priorities.

Here’s what Martha was missing: Jesus, God incarnate, was literally in her living room. And she is too busy doing dishes to stop and notice. He is teaching, but she is entertaining. He is talking about the greatest work one can do, and she just can’t stop working.

But that’s not all that different from us. Jesus is often a lot closer to us than we realize. Though we are wrapped up in the busy-ness of life, God is around us, waiting to show us something more. Waiting to spend some time with us. And sometimes that means we have to put down the to-do list, and just stop.

Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with hard work, but sometimes I think we use it to avoid focusing on what matters. A lot of times I’ll meet people who have a sense of faith or a sense of belief and they’ll tell me, sort of apologize, for why they’ve never been to church. And, without provocation, they’ll give me a long list of reasons and tell me, “you have no idea how busy I am. I wish I could make it, but I don’t have time.”

And that’s okay…I’m not mad at them or judging them.

But mostly, I usually just feel bad for them. Because usually they are coming to talk to me when something in their life has gone wrong, and they are finding that they don’t have the spiritual community they need or the prayer life they want or sense of comfort that faith can give to you.

Something bad is happening and prayers are like a Hail Mary pass, sent down the line to Jesus, a wide receiver you vaguely know, but haven’t really ever spent any time with. And all of a sudden, all those things that kept us too busy to spend some time with God, don’t feel all that important at all.  And that’s when you know that maybe your priorities have been a bit out of whack. If you’re lucky, you figure it out before it’s too late.

It’s a challenge, though. And that’s why sometimes we need to be conscious of giving ourselves the time and the space we need to connect with God. There’s a word you might have heard of before: “sabbath”. A few generations back Sunday was treated by Christians as a time when the work stopped, and you focused your attention on God. Stores were closed, youth soccer games weren’t played, and you took the time to be with family and with God. In some religious communities, such as the Orthodox Jewish community, this still happens, though on Friday and Saturday.

That’s what Mary was doing. She was setting aside time for God. She was having Sabbath. And Sabbath isn’t about doing nothing. Sabbath is about being deliberate about what we do, and saying that cultivating a relationship with God comes first on our list of priorities. Mary got that. And she was saying, “tonight the dishes can wait…Jesus is in my house, and how often does that happen”.

Giving yourself Sabbath time can be a wonderful tool because it can help you to look at what you are trying to fill that God-sized hole in your heart with, and it can get you to stop filling it with stuff that really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be on Sundays, it doesn’t even have to be a day. It’s just about giving yourself some space, maybe every day, to connect with what really matters. It’s about saying that God doesn’t get squeezed in at the end of the day, but that your relationship with God shapes the day instead. It’s about getting your priorities straight.

When I was a hospital chaplain, my supervisor told us a story about a college professor once. The professor stood in front of a class with a big Mason jar. And next to it he had some golf balls, a bunch of ball bearings, and some sand. And he gave his class what at first seemed like an easy assignment: put them all in the jar, and put the top on.

It was, of course, harder than it looked. They tried putting in the sand first, and then the ball bearings. They tried to mix them all together. They tried to squish everything in. It never worked.

The professor took his turn. He put the golf balls in first. Then he put the ball bearings in, and they trickled down to fill the space around the golf balls. And finally he poured in the sand, and had plenty of room to put on the top.

He explained to his students that life was a lot like that Mason jar: we only have limited space, and we have to make room for the things that matter first. He explained that the golf balls represented the big things in our life: faith, family, and what matters most. The ball bearings were things like work and other necessities. And the sand; that was the stuff that doesn’t really matter. He told his students that only by placing the things that matter the most in that jar first would they ever make it all fit. The things that matter define the space. The sand just fills the spaces.

The same is true for us. When we put the things that matter the most first in our lives, things like our relationship with God, we find ourselves less and less defined by the meaningless things.

I’ll close with this. At the beginning I told you that story about the college group that went to serve on a reservation, and the one guy who never seemed to be doing any of the work. On the last night, the tribe held an event to thank them for all they had done. And they were incredibly appreciative of the new community center. But then, all of the children, and even the parents, began to come up to that one young man who had never seemed to be doing anything except play with the kids. And they put their hands on him and blessed him. And it became clear to his classmates that he had been doing something extraordinary during his time there, and that in the end, that is what the tribe would remember. His priorities were in order, he was there to serve, and he was the one who left with a blessing

That’s who I think all Christians want to be in the end: the ones who gets their priorities straight, and who leave with a blessing. And the only way for sure that I know how to do that, is to turn to God before all else. Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Days 35-37 (Monday through Wednesday of Holy Week)

Today is my weekly pastor’s sabbath. It’s the one day each week that I try to keep completely devoid of parish-related work. Except for emergencies, I don’t do anything pastoral. But tomorrow my “work week” starts again. And this is my busiest week of the year. It’s Holy Week, and in the run-up to Easter there are Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services to plan an officiate, Easter egg hunts to organize, Easter Sunday preparations to be made, and a seemingly never-ending list of details that need to be crossed off between now and Sunday.

It’s hard to sit here and not do any of those things. I know I could get a head start on them. I could maybe even knock out the special worship bulletins for all the services in the next few hours. Or, I could call the Scripture readers and make sure they are all ready. I could go over the hymns with the organist. I’ve already slipped once and emailed a parishioner back anyway.

But I’m resisting. Because the point of Holy Week isn’t about being as busy as possible. It’s about making room for God in our lives. And no matter how many important things that I think I have to do, nothing is more important than that.

The gift of sabbath, whether we take it on Sunday, or on another day of the week, is that it allows us the chance to not bow down to false idols. Money, demands on our time, and anxiety all take a back seat to the time we spend with God and those we love. And during Holy Week in particular, we have a chance to take small sabbaths along the way.

Maundy Thursday worship might cut into our usual evening routine, but by going anyway, we tell ourselves, and the world, that nothing is worth more than our time with God. The same is true on Good Friday, when services might cut into our workday, or on any other day this week when we feel torn between the demands of work and chores and the opportunity for sabbath.

I know it’s a struggle. I live that struggle every Monday on my days off. I’ve gotten better, but I’m nowhere close to perfect. But, when I really take my sabbath, I find myself more focused, more energized, and more ready to handle the demands of the rest of the week.

During Holy Week, that sabbath time is even more important. If we really pause to worship, and to pay attention to what is spiritually happening, we will find ourselves ready for Easter in ways we could not have imagined. It’s tempting to dismiss Holy Week services as “one more thing to do”. So, think about this instead. Think about Holy Week as “one more thing not to do”. Think of it as a chance to break the chains binding us to what doesn’t really matter, and choosing instead a life free of that bondage.

And then, take a night off…and come to church.