Beneath busy: one way to slow down when the world is spinning

Busyness: it might be the single biggest threat to my vocation to listen to God’s heartbeat and help others listen. Busyness, or, rather, hurry—the soul counterpart that too often accompanies the body’s busyness. My body operates under restrictions, and so, compared to most other people’s schedules, mine will never be truly “busy.” I don’t have the externally imposed busyness of young children pulling at me, the 9 to 5 requirements of an office job, nor, as I once did, the 80+ hour a week demands of a medical career. Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t stop the soul-virus of hurry from attacking my system. Maybe I’m even more aware of its insidious attack because my schedule is necessarily limited, so I’m forced to admit that the problem lies inside me.

I remember again the advice Dallas Willard gave to John Ortberg when Ortberg, a busy pastor with a young family, called Willard long distance to ask what he needed to do to be spiritually healthy. There was a long pause, and then the answer came, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

“Ruthlessly eliminate hurry.” The words stick with me because I need them so badly.

The words of another wise pastor challenge me even more deeply. He’s speaking as a pastor to other pastors, but I’m certain these words apply to me too, and perhaps in some way to all of us who are set apart to be Christ’s bride. How can we who are his hear his voice if our souls are always running off in one direction or another? How can we follow the great commands to love God and love others if our souls are racing too fast to pause and listen and love?

“The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my waste-basket is the letter addressed to the ‘busy pastor.’ Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.

I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way it’s used to flatter and express sympathy.

‘The poor man,’ we say. ‘He’s so devoted to his flock; the work is endless, and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly.’ But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.” (Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, p. 17, bold mine)

Over the page, he challenges me further.

“Hilary of Tours diagnosed our pastoral busyness as irreligiosa sollicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.

I (and most pastors, I believe) become busy for two reason; both are ignoble.

I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? . . .

I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. . . .” (Ibid, p. 18)

For me there’s a third reason, perhaps tied up in the vanity he mentions, or hidden beneath it. That reason is fear. I fear rejection so I say yes to avoid disapproval. I fear I’m not enough so I try to prove myself by what I do. I fear missing out so, instead of trusting that what I have is enough, I hold out hands to take everything offered, even when it’s too much. Sometimes I don’t know exactly why I’m tempted to say yes when I probably should say no. But here I find a lovely gift, because no matter what the root issue is, I’m finding one simple practice that helps me more than any other to settle and rest: a return to the truth of my smallness. A return to the joy of my smallness, and the freedom of it.

I picture myself sitting on Jesus’ knee, or held gently in his hands, treasured. Or, as I prepare to sit and listen with another, I picture myself as a little girl holding the hand of my Father who is taking me to work with him. This is his work. For this hour, he’s giving me a front-row seat and a little part to play, but the work is his and the weight of the responsibility remains with him. As I smile up at him, my smile mirrors his own.

Here in this place of smallness, I know myself treasured, so there’s no need to race around trying to earn love.

Here in this place of smallness, I remember that someone else is in charge, that it’s not my job to meet all the needs in the world, only to take the hand of the One who orchestrates it all and show up with him at the places he invites me to join him.

And only here in this place of knowing myself small and loved do I begin, slowly, to find myself free enough to say the yeses and no’s that let me live fully without succumbing to the soul-numbing race of hurry.

I don’t have all the answers for how to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry.” I don’t always faithfully live the answers that I do have. Drivenness runs deep within me, and the call to ruthlessly eliminate hurry will be for me a daily process of listening and choosing for the rest of my life. I do know that here, small and held, is the only place I can hear clearly enough to sense the moment-by-moment invitations, and know myself safe enough in God’s love to dare to follow.

When you can’t see the way ahead

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Last Monday was a disappointing day. Within a few hours, a knee which had been bothering me got suddenly worse, I received a “not a good fit so have to pass” email from a potential publisher, and I ran into major complications with the new website I’m trying to set up. It seemed like in every area, the path on which I’d been running was blocked, and I couldn’t see the way ahead. Clear skies had changed to fog.

But in the fog, a picture came. A little girl faced her father, her hands in his, each of her feet on one of his. Each time he lifted his foot and took another step, she bent her knee and allowed her leg to move along with his. She was not walking on her own, yet she was still moving forward. And she didn’t have to know the way to keep moving in the right direction. She only had to keep her feet on her father’s, her hands in the hands of the one who knew the way.

That picture reminds me of Eugene Peterson’s wonderful chapter, “Is Growth a Decision?” in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. In it he wrestles in wonderfully helpful ways with the question of how our wills and God’s will fit together. One of several tools he offers to our imagination and understanding is the grammatical middle voice, which we have almost completely lost in English. He writes,

“Active and passive voices I understood, but middle was a new kid on the block. When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: ‘I counsel my friend.’ When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: ‘I am counseled by my friend.’ When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: ‘I take counsel.’” (p. 103, underscore mine)

He goes on to say,

“Prayer and spirituality feature participation, the complex participation of God and the human, his will and our wills. We do not abandon ourselves to the stream of grace and drown in the ocean of love, losing identity. We do not pull the strings that activate God’s operations in our lives, subjecting God to our assertive identity. We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice). We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice). Prayer takes place in the middle voice.” (p. 104)

How that looks will vary from day to day. But in this foggy week when the path ahead is not clear, living in the middle voice looks to me like choosing to keep my eyes on my Father rather than straining to find the path, putting my hands in his and my feet on his, enjoying him while I wait to see what the next right step is, and then willingly bending my knee when he bends his.

It’s not easy, I’m finding. I keep trying to turn around to see the path. But fear is my best clue that I’ve stepped off my Father’s feet and am running around frantically trying to find the right path myself. And when the weight of anxiety reminds me to turn back to him and I admit to him that I don’t have a clue and see him smiling down at me, reminding me that he knows the way, that he is the way, I feel like I can breathe again. I even find myself smiling back at him.

Walking on the feet of my Father doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly or that I don’t have to do the hard work. Together we have walked into physiotherapy, researched website hosts (again!), and made numerous calls to gain technical assistance. It does mean that instead of feeling alone in the fog, I remember that I am accompanied. Instead of panicking because I can’t see where the path leads, I am able to relax (at least a little!), knowing that I am small and loved, and that Someone bigger than me is with me and is faithfully leading the way to the best and truest destination.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Vines and umbilical cords: on growing up while staying small

I’ve been feeling the tension lately between the invitations in Scripture to stay small and the ones to mature.

On the one hand, we’re told to become like children (Mat 19:14; 18:3). We hear God say, “Don’t be afraid, little Israel, for I myself will help you” (Isaiah 41:14), and we hear him promise, “Even to your old age and gray hairs, I will carry you” (Isaiah 46:4). We’re told to cling close because “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

On the other, we’re entrusted with huge gifts and called to invest them (Matt 25:14ff). We’re called to step out courageously (Joshua 1:9), to join in the work to be done (Matt 28:18-20), and to grow up (Eph 4:11-16; Col 1:28-9, 4:12).

I talk about it with the friend who helps me listen, and I leave our time together wondering whether it is significant that Jesus pictures our dependence on him as a vine rather than an umbilical cord. Vines and cords both represent essential life-sustaining connection, carrying nutrients and allowing growth. Both are fairly resilient and hard to cut.

But there is this: The cord, though essential to survival for a time, must ultimately be cut to allow the baby to grow into maturity and fruitfulness. A human baby must leave the womb.

But a branch? It must remain in the vine, the connection growing ever thicker and stronger as it moves from the fragile baby stage to bearing weighty clusters of fruit. For a vine, (and for a Christian), growth into maturity and fruitfulness requires a strengthening of the connection, not a severing of it.

There are, to be sure, parts of the Christian experience that serve as umbilical cords, sustaining life and nurturing growth for a time, but needing to be cut to allow further growth. For most of us, there comes a time when we’re asked to rely less on what we feel or sense, when we can’t find words to pray, when old images of God or ways of relating to him seem to dry out and shrivel up. We may cry like a babe pushed from its warm, comfortable home into the cold, bright world, and that’s okay. Birth hurts.

But as painful and scary and new as it may feel, the cutting of these cords does not equate to the severing of our true life-sustaining connection but invites us into the strengthening of it. At the heart of the Christian life is dependence on the only One who can do for and in us what we cannot do for ourselves, and growing up as a Christian is growing up into Christ (Eph 4:15). Growing up as a Christian means not less but more dependence. It means being okay with our smallness and living more freely and confidently within that dependence.

Here’s to staying small and growing up at the same time, living freely in the security and life-giving dependence of being tightly connected to the Vine.

‘I am the vine; you are the branches.

If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.

Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Make of me something small enough to snuggle

I snuggle close, safely swaddled. It’s warm here, and safe. These arms are my whole world, and whatever might be going on outside them is, to me, a distant dream. The one who carries me will take care of all that. Lub-dub, lub-dub: the heartbeat against which I’m held soothes me with its steady lullaby, and I feel myself move as the chest to which I’m swaddled rises and falls, my secure world—my Rock—rocking me. I drift between waking and sleep, held.

Shout for joy, o heavens; rejoice, O earth;

Burst into song, O mountains!

For the LORD comforts his people

And will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,

The Lord has forgotten me.”

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast

and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”—Isaiah 49:13-15

Ted Loder’s words once again become my prayer:

“. . . Come, find me, Lord.

Be with me exactly as I am.

Help me find me, Lord.

            Help me accept what I am,

                        so I can begin to be yours.

Make of me something small enough to snuggle,

            young enough to question

                        simple enough to giggle,

                                    old enough to forget,

                                                foolish enough to act for peace;

            skeptical enough to doubt

                        the sufficiency of anything but you,

            and attentive enough to listen

                        as you call me out of the tomb of my timidity

                                    into the chancy glory of my possibilities

                                                and the power of your presence.”

—Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, p. 32

______________________

Title of this blog post borrowed from a line in Ted Loder’s prayer-poem, “It Would Be Easier to Pray if I Were Clear,” quoted in part above. I am loving his book, Guerrillas of Grace.

Loved in our frailty

I’ve just returned from ten days in the Rockies—ten days of feeling small. Majestic mountains towered over the towns where we stayed and lined both sides of the highway. A road was closed because of an avalanche.

I loved the mountains, loved running up the mountain trails in the early morning and discovering the vista at the top. But as much as I’ve thought and written about smallness, there were moments on this trip when the exterior landscape imaging my interior one left me unsettled by my smallness.

The trip took place just after graduation. I’ve been slowly working away at my Master’s for eight years—the last few of those spent writing a book. I’ve learned many things, chief among which is my smallness, and my lovedness in my smallness. And now? This is where that learning gets tested, here where I step out of studies and into the real world. Here is the place for trust, here where I face the world and feel my smallness and vulnerability. Sometimes, to be honest, it’s terrifying.

But as I settled into my window seat yesterday on the flight home and let my heart and mind run back over the trip, I realized something important: my fear was not the result of facing my smallness, but of forgetting that I’m cherished and tended in my smallness. Fear accompanies not the mere awareness of smallness, but the attempt to carry responsibility meant for Someone bigger.

The plane rose through the clouds, the wind shaking our small plane and reinforcing my sense of smallness.

In this world that so often equates bigger with better, it’s not hard to equate smallness with insignificance. Small is frail, small is vulnerable, therefore small is insecure and out of control and scary and to be avoided or upgraded or supersized. But as I panned back over the trip, two moments stood out, inviting me into a truer view of my smallness.

The first came when we climbed the stairs at the Banff Cave and Basin National Historic Site. At each landing, we leaned over the railings and peered into the pools and streams, searching for the apple-seed sized Banff Springs Snails that now survive only in this one place in the world. Each time we were disappointed.

And then, at the final stop, we saw them clinging to dead leaves and bits of wood in a partly shaded pool. The joy I felt was more than the joy of finding something we’d been searching for. For a moment the curtain lifted and I sensed myself on holy ground, feeling for an instant the worth of these tiny creatures. Their smallness and vulnerability didn’t negate their significance; it made them candidates for special attention and care.

 

The second invitation into a truer view of smallness came through an encounter with an elk. Two consecutive days we saw her on our morning walk as she lingered in the same patch of woods, separate from the herd and moving slowly. She lifted her head to look at us but didn’t run away. Was she old? Sick? But she looked too plump to be ailing.

Then we learned that when the time of their delivery nears, mama elk leave the herd. The third day we did not see her. Was she in labor? Had her calf been born? We’d been running on that trail because the trail on the other side of town was closed while a grizzly feasted on the carcass of an elk. Would this mama and her calf survive this vulnerable time of their lives?

And then I remembered God questioning Job as Job wrestled with his own vulnerability:

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?

Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?

Do you count the months till they bear?

Do you know the time they give birth?

They crouch down and bring forth their young;

Their labor pains are ended.

Their young thrive and grow strong in the wilds;

They leave and do not return.” (Job 39:1-4)

Comfort is found not in overcoming our smallness, but in knowing the One who sees and tends us in our smallness.

Tiny snails, big elk, and we humans in between—all as frail and vulnerable as wildflowers that bloom for a day or two and then wither (Isaiah 40:6-7).

And all of us loved and tended in our frailty (Psalm 104).

________________

Photos #1, 3, and 6 by Marny Watts.