This is a reality identified and lamented ad nauseam: we run too fast, we do too much, we multi-task all the constantly, we are always connected and our phones are always pining for our attention. We can have anything that we want, anywhere, anytime: fast food, speed dating, expressways, quick convenience at every turn. Conventional wisdom gives us a consistent spiritual antidote to this break-neck speed of life. We are told to quiet down and slow up, breathe, then breathe again, let go of the lists and the errands and become present.
I think of the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus over for dinner one night. Martha is bustling in the kitchen and Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching. When Martha asks for Jesus to corral Mary into the kitchen to do her part in helping, Jesus refuses, instead identifying that “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” I celebrate Mary’s desire to learn from Jesus and am deeply grateful that Jesus overcomes gender stereotypes of the time to grant her that.
But I question how this story gets used to give the raw end of the deal to those, like Martha, who are busy with the hustle and bustle. Mary may have picked the better part, but she did not pick the only part. What about “the harvest is great, but the labourers are few?” What about God, revealed throughout Scripture as the ultimate errand-giver? What about the hard work and the thoughtful organization that has, along with prayer and vision and God’s grace, built our churches? Have we nothing to offer the women and men out there meeting deadlines, multi-tasking, and rushing from one tightly packed item on their agendas to the other, other than suggesting that this way of life is spiritually bankrupt? Meanwhile, the secular world is happy to ply them with a myriad of solutions for managing their busy schedules: caffeine and other stimulants, phone apps, and endless rewards (tv, social media, alcohol, sweet and salty foods) for the end of each busy day.
I am one of those people on fast forward, and I want more than caffeine and phone apps. I have two small children, and I am in charge of one large church. I write a blog, and I sign my kids up for activities, and I get asked to be part of interesting work, and I like to be able to say ‘yes’ to those opportunities. I make a lot of lists. I meet a lot of deadlines. I have a minutely organized schedule. What I want are resources that will help me remember that this arrangement is not an overwhelming burden, but rather that each component of this hectic life is a gift from God, and that I am blessed by these pieces of work and these particular responsibilities. What I don’t want is to spend the next ten years recharging my spiritual batteries only when I’m on retreat or vacation. I don’t want to wish away the rushing.
In fact, I find that my busy life regularly resonates with the wisdom of Scripture: that there is, in the fast lane, constant opportunity for growing more deeply into my relationship with God. I offer these pieces of my own experience as ways of noticing, naming, and reclaiming a piece of my own soul away from the guilt associated with running too fast and doing too much. Maybe there is something for your soul here too, and maybe there is a piece of your experience that will, in turn, allow many more of us to know that waiting for life to slow down is not the only option in hoping to walk with God.
Tell the world of weight and woe that we are free to move!
(from the hymn Come Join the Dance of Trinity)
When I go out running, I carry as little with me as possible. The lighter the clothes, and the fewer items brought along, the better the run. So it is with embracing the hectic pace of life. You have to shed the baggage. But this becomes easy to do when moving on is built into your schedule. There simply isn’t time to dwell on regret and guilt, to obsess about what could have been or what might have gone better. If something didn’t go exactly the way you had hoped, you have twenty-five opportunities immediately in front of you for things to go better, and those twenty-five things are what captures your attention instead. This doesn’t mean an unexamined life or one that ignores the Gospel need for repentance. It means that when Jesus says, “your sins are forgiven, pick up your mat and walk!” that we listen and we get going.
Let my prayer rise before you as incense (Psalm 141)
It is important, regardless of the pace of life, to take time for prayer each day, to review the events behind me and ask for strength for the tasks before me. I like to pray at the end of the day and I like to kneel. As poet Mary Karr says, “It makes you the right size. You do it to teach yourself something. I kneel to put my body in that place, because otherwise, my mind can’t grasp it.” But when I’m rushing through my days, I find that my arrow prayers increase too. Arrow prayers are the quick one-off prayers that you shoot upward as a name comes to you, as a challenge lies before you, or as a blessing hits you. And interestingly, as I shoot my arrow prayers up to God, I find that God shoots plenty of arrows back at me. I will literally be running from one thing to the next, and God will nudge me to give someone a call, and that person indeed needs that call. Or an idea or solution to a problem will bubble up unbidden, and it’s the right solution, the right idea. I listen differently and rely more fiercely on these intuitive and unplanned moments of prayer because I have to.
Dieting from the Bread of Anxiety
“Why do you worry?” Jesus asks his followers. “Can worry add a single day to your life?” I am naturally a worrier. I take things too seriously and I assume that if something has gone wrong, it is my fault. Here is the gift, and it surprises me every time: as the volume gets cranked on my life, worry diminishes. The more that I have going on, the less that I have to grasp onto.
I can’t always go into every meeting and pastoral situation already planning out what I am going to say and how I am going to handle the people around me. So instead, I surrender. Jesus promises, “The Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”
If I were going to stay up at night worrying, I wouldn’t know how to pick where to start. So I sleep. “It is in vain that you rise up early and so late take your rest, eating the bread of anxiety,” the psalmist says, providing the ancient context for Jesus’ own call to worry-free life. “For he gives sleep to his beloved.”
I have long measured my self-worth based on my achievements (or lack thereof). And in the fast lane of life, I must discover that it isn’t about me, and at the end of each day, I can, one by one, place back into the hands of God all of the cares and concerns that have piled up on me over the day, and I can place myself back into God’s hands too. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” Paul notes in his letter to the Philippians (4:13).
A radical hospitality
In the end, I can’t believe that Martha’s hard work in the kitchen wasn’t also valued and affirmed by Jesus. My hope is in a Lord and Saviour who can affirm a diversity of gifts and needs a variety of ways of serving. “Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, “You are worried and anxious about many things. There is need of only one thing.” In my mind’s eye, I can picture Jesus smiling, chuckling even a little, at my busy ways, and at the same time strapping on his own running shoes, stretching out a hand, and being prepared to run alongside. Perhaps that “one thing” invited of Martha, and affirmed in Mary, isn’t a judgement on the hustle and bustle at all. It is the offer of hospitality: God welcoming us into partnership in all of the vast and various ways of work and service; the possibility that we can, in turn, welcome The Spirit as helper in any slowed-down or fast-paced version of our lives.