August 18, 2014
“How ya’ doin’?” “Keeping busy.” Noting how often we hear and say this, a visiting friend and I explored how easily we let busyness pose as virtue. Being busy means you’re doing well, maybe even doing good. But, even leaving out busy people who are up to no good, busyness may not gauge how we’re doing.
If it did, we could invent devices to measure how fast we’re spinning our wheels or how much we’re cramming into our lives. Maybe a Cram-o-Meter. Or a Spindex. If “keeping busy” misses the mark, though, we might think of ways to avoid falling into its trap. I’ve been thinking about three ideas that might help.
The first idea is “margin.” I first learned this term from Richard Swenson’s book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. He writes in part from what he has seen as a physician and argues that we all need some margin between ourselves and our limits. That margin creates space for emergencies, for surprises, or for Murphy’s Law, “whatever can go wrong will go wrong.” (I’ve checked and can confidently declare that this is not named after our Bruce Murphy.) Margin also breathes in availability to follow God’s unexpected nudges.
The second idea comes from Richard Foster at Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions last summer. Annoyingly enough to me, he spoke of sleep as a “discipline.” It’s a way of noting our limitations, he said, a way of recognizing that we can never get it all done. Obviously that’s quite meddlesome even beyond calling some of us to better habits in sleep. Who says we can’t get it all done? But I think about it.
The third idea is keeping Sabbath. I’ve thought about this very old idea for a long time and have experimented with it in a variety of ways. Simply put, Sabbath is taking a day each week to celebrate God and God’s steady presence in our world and our lives. It’s a day to step back and relish the gift of life, of love, of family and friends, and of our wondrous world. It’s a day to live our trust in God. Abraham Heschel calls it a “sanctification of time,” a time set apart, a holy time. In contrast, it’s not a “day off” when we rush around doing personal chores, shopping, cleaning, and managing all of the personal work we have to do. That’s not Sabbath rest.
Of course, Christians widely neglect Sabbath and sometimes churches schedule so many Sunday meetings that it nearly wears you out. Our larger culture pressures us in many ways to live in 24/7 compulsive ways, pursuing consumption, achievement, fame and fortune, etc., or at least lots of gadgets and trinkets for body, home, and hovel. This is one of the reasons I like Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. The key word is “resistance.” Sabbath resists the lies of culture.
I connect this particularly with the version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5. In verses 12-15 God requires keeping Sabbath as a way of remembering the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt where they had to work as slaves 24/7. But it’s not just remembering; it’s living in the reality of a wonderful gift. God rescued them from Egypt with God’s “strong hand and outstretched arm,” and they are now to live boldly, knowing that God will continue to deliver them and provide for them.
The challenge of Sabbath is to learn to rest and rejoice in God. It is to act like we believe that God can and will care for us. It is to imagine that God might capably manage the world even if we’re not working 24/7 to make sure it all runs right. This will challenge many of us who are “keeping busy,” but I believe we can find creative and joyful ways forward to enjoy the freedom that God offers us.
[This essay first appeared in Your NFC, the newsletter of Newberg Friends Church, Newberg, Oregon, on August 8, 2014. I've included it here since I have a couple of readers who aren't part of my home church. Of course, you'd all be welcome.]
July 12, 2014
“And they never thanked me. After all that time! Not once!” These refrains, heard from several folks, have been echoing in my head. After all, people were still hurting from being used and taken for granted. No wonder they complained. Certainly someone forgot the cultural mandate that we should often say, “Please,” “Thank you,” and, when necessary, “I’m sorry.”
But please, I’m sorry, can’t we just get over saying “thank you” all the time? Sure, say it when it’s in your heart, when you really mean it. Say it with gusto: “Gracias!” “Merci beaucoup!” “Donkeyshine!” Otherwise, think of the damage it does. Just imagine how offering up easy thanks may deepen the sense of entitlement some folks have, thinking they should hear thanks and praise for the slightest effort on their part. We risk stirring people up to coax and control, refusing to do a thing until they’ve heard a “thank you.”
Actually, even more profoundly, they probably should be thanking you. You gave them a chance to do some good, and you might even have taught them how to do it. They can add it to their resume or add a merit badge to their outfit. When they catch on, expect a thank you note.
Saying thanks all the time also requires that you pay attention and notice what people are doing, and that can undercut your effectiveness. The work you do is important and demands efficiency and focus. You really can’t afford to be distracted by peripheral stuff. The people you hire, and even volunteers, should be on board with your importance and the great good you’re doing. Despite what people might say, staying focused is not the same as being self-absorbed or oblivious. You shouldn’t have to worry about whether you say “thank you” enough.
Sure, people like it when you say thanks, even when you overdo it. They hardly ever complain, except for a few who are really trying to pry still another thanks or two out of you: “You don’t need to thank me. I didn’t do much.” “Oh, but yes you did! Thanks again.” That’s all touchy-feely stuff that we eventually have to leave behind. Feelings are over-rated. You can’t kowtow to them all the time.
If you think of other reasons we should get over saying “thank you,” please feel free to post them in a response. Thanks.
June 14, 2014
For years now I have been searching for and collecting pictures of Jesus that hint that he might have been joyful, that he might once have smiled. It’s not easy. Most images of Jesus, historically and now, portray him as dour, morose, burdened, or, at best, flat affect. They seldom show him as happy, warm, or friendly. In The Joyful Christ, Cal Samra reports that the oldest picture of a joyful Jesus he could find was one commissioned for the Ohio State Fair about 1950. Between Samra’s prompt and my search, I think I now know of about twenty images of a joyful Christ, still a miniscule number, even though I’ve no doubt missed some.
So when my talented young friend Chris Breithaupt wanted to barter for an ancient (and terrific) Olds Ambassador cornet, we agree that he might create a new picture of Jesus as genuinely happy. After all, it helps to see that the person who promised us joy might actually have experienced it. Because of an earlier picture Chris had created for a mutual friend, I knew he could do it. So Chris got a fine horn, but I got the best of the deal.
I love his new “Joyful Jesus.” Because I want lots of folks to enjoy and share it, we’ve worked to make that possible. We’ve made quality prints of this image in standard sizes and at modest cost. Prints come in 4×6, 5×7, 8×10, and 11×14 sizes so they can be easily matted and framed. Prices range from $4 – 15, plus shipping and handling. We’ll eventually distribute prints through Red Nose Fun Publishing, but for now, if you want to inquire, please contact me at email@example.com
April 30, 2014
A Nissan Rogue ad flashes images of driving the car pell-mell through traffic, swerving recklessly, and jumping it onto and off of an elevated train. A short sentence low on the screen warns, “Fantasy, do not attempt.” Who needs to be warned? Apparently lots of folks, if you judge by how frequently such warnings show up in ads: “Professional driver on closed course.” “Demonstration only. Do not attempt.” “Do not try this at home.”
Use your imagination here. What shouldn’t you try at home? Stunt driving seems obvious enough. So do tricks in a Jackass movie or in shows about dumb things people do. Or anything you see on MythBusters. But what else? Sometimes I think you shouldn’t try things chefs do on cooking shows where they use razor sharp tools and open flames to create a feast out of odd ingredients like armadillo, wart hog, sacred mushrooms, and crested cockatoo. Some cake-making shows seem only slightly less dangerous. Or how about yoga, especially shows sponsored by chiropractors? I would also warn against using the Bible to predict when the world ends. This stunt is performed by professional interpreters in locked rooms. (There are reasons for the locked rooms.) What would you warn against trying at home?
But you might risk trying some other things at home. You could read Winnie-the-Pooh stories out loud to each other and let the laughter roll. You could sing Mr. Rogers’ “It’s You I Like” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-DsZMKYXzI). Where it’s needed, you might try forgiveness (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=MG_POR_20140404&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1388552400000&bicmet=1420088400000&_r=2). Or you might practice saying, at home, ordinary words of courtesy like “Please,” “Thank you,” or “I’m sorry.” Maybe it would be safe, even good.
So what do you think? What should be left to experts, risk-takers, and crazy folk? What should we try at home?
March 19, 2014
“Don’t be a jerk,” James Martin suggested as he explained how we could “Be kind” during Lent. He added “Always give people the benefit of the doubt” and “Honor the absent,” that is, stop talking (and joking) about people behind their backs.
I think I could be kind, mostly, for forty days. But what if it became a habit? Would I like it? Would I be boring? Would you like it? It’s worth taking a chance. Actually, I’m convinced that, not counting lousy jokes, we can habitually be both funny and kind and that it won’t bore people.
Martin’s “honor the absent” reminds me of one important way to be funny and kind: know your audience. Your audience, any time you speak or chat or joke, is bigger than you think. You have the audience you can see, whether an individual or a crowd. (You can actually see how big they are, but there’s a lot about them you still don’t know.) Then you have the audience you can’t see, the one at the next table or cubicle, or down the hall, or the one to whom you get quoted, live or on Twitter and Facebook. Whatever their size, it’s big.
We can’t choose “the absent,” the unseen audience. So to avoid being a jerk, the kindness habit makes sense. I suspect that some behind-the-back talk can be kind. You could brag on or say nice things about someone. You might even tell a funny story that the “absent” person would laugh along with, that would not feel like an attack or like being laughed at. These are brags and tales you could tell gladly and kindly with the missing person standing right beside you.
But more often, I’d guess, people say demeaning, even false things and laugh at the absent person’s expense. Attacks like that hurt both the target and those who talk and laugh. It sullies everyone who shares in the meanness. And it raises questions about the speaker. Even when they laugh, listeners must rightly think, “What will he say about me when I’m not around? Mental note: do not trust this person.”
Both our integrity and our unseen audience deserve the best we can give. The habit of kindness gives us a good start. You might try it for Lent.