The Greatest Danger We’ll Face in 2016

If you walked the streets of your neighborhood, or even the aisles of your local Target store, and asked the people you encountered what they believed to be the greatest threat to humanity’s development, what do you suppose they might say? Who or what would be the potential culprits?

No doubt some would toe the current media line and answer “gun violence” or “gun control.” Some might consider our country’s deeply divided views on immigration. Others might nod toward ISIS or other Islamic extremists. The most cynical might blame religion in general. A few germaphobes might point the finger at Ebola or some new flu you can get from armadillos or Canadian geese or something. There would probably be a handful who say, “Hillary,” while hopefully at least some reasonable people answering, “Trump.”

Donald-trump

Please, America. Please… just… just… no.

Here’s what I don’t think many people, if any, would say. I don’t think they would respond to the very problem studies show affects more people than terrorism or gun violence or immigrants takin’ our jobs. More people even than are affected by anxiety, depression, heart disease or cancer combined.

I don’t think anyone would say, “Excess.”

Our society is fanatical about speed and afflicted with the need for more. Year after year, we take great strides in productivity and efficiency, and while we may marvel at the industrial and technological advancements of the past two hundred years, we have ignored the tragically adverse effects such progress has wreaked on humanity.

The Inescapable Illness

“At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance,” wrote the 19th-century French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, as he described the bewildering social changes in America resulting from the Industrial Revolution. He observed men chasing after more money, more possessions, more abilities, while simultaneously less and less content despite everything they had acquired. “The spectacle itself, however, is as old as the world,” acknowledges de Tocqueville. True. Industrial America was only the latest victim of what many now refer to as “hurry sickness.”

I have no doubt felt the effects of such an illness. It surely no less than an epidemic in our country. We have becomes slaves to productivity and efficiency; we are incapable of ignoring the ticking of the clock. The comedian Louis C.K. makes us all laugh when he profanely fusses at human beings for being impatient for a picture to load on the technological wonders that are our smartphones, but the joke is that this is no exaggeration. We are all in a rush, and, if pressed to give a reason why, the only explanation we can really offer is, “So I can move on to the next thing I need to do.” Even if that next thing is a much-needed nap, rest itself as been tightly wedged into our congested and overcrowded daily schedules.

When you or I lament that there is never enough time in the day to accomplish everything we have to do, truer words were never spoken . If you’ve ever made that remark, guess what? You are afflicted with hurry sickness.

De Tocqueville goes on: “He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it.” As a result, what happens to us? If we evaluate our attitudes and behaviors honestly, we find that this pace of life quite often makes us anxious, irritable, non-present. He who suffers from hurry sickness finds he spins less and less time with other people without an agenda unfurled between them. Our relationships are weakened because they plummet from the priority list. Without realizing it, we isolate ourselves from others – few if any really know the real us. Even when we do kick back and have a beer with a friend, we find much of our conversation dominated by our respective job responsibilities and family problems in need of solutions.

A Costly Cure

And here’s the rub. The cure for hurry sickness is actually quite simple, but it is stubbornly rejected time and time again. Why? Because this cure is not like other cures. It isn’t adaptable to our current, normal lifestyles. There is no pill to pop, no energy shake to grab on-the-go so we may continue flitting from one meeting to the next and multitasking only so we can multiply our productivity. No, the cure for hurry sickness is to slow down. To step out of the rat race. Not just two-week’s vacation from it – that’s nothing more than a Band-Aid. To be cured of this addiction to productivity and efficiency is to no longer bow to the power it exerts over us.

rat

Is it even possible to escape such a thing?

As a minister, I am nonetheless susceptible to the great temptation of our modern culture. I, too, want to accomplish just as much as everyone else as quickly as possible. I, too, complain there is never enough time in the day. I, too, have found myself snapping at people who hold up my progress by raising questions or disagreeing with me. And I, too, have given in to anger and uncharacteristically “gone off” on someone about an unsolved problem. All of this is indicative of hurry sickness – of a soul under stress, not at peace.

But I’m trying. I’m attempting to slow down this year. To resist the ever-present urge to rush, to accomplish or complete a large number of tasks every day, to produce results quickly, to cook dinner as quickly as I can, to ferry my children off to bed with as little lethargy as possible. I’m trying to avoid feeling like I never take any time for myself – for reading, writing, praying. There are more important things than feeling productive. Of course there are.

Slowing down and doing less doesn’t mean I shirk all my responsibilities. It doesn’t mean I show up late to meetings and tell the people I’ve put out, “Deal with it.” It doesn’t mean I indulge procrastination.

bedtime

But it also means this shouldn’t be my go-to bedtime book for my kids.

No, it simply means that I renounce the aggressiveness and stress that so often controls my days. Instead, I practice stillness, receptiveness, patience. I take time to reflect. By doing less, I create space in my day, and by slowing down, I do not surrender to the temptation to immediately fill those gaps. And I evaluate my progress in this not by how much I have produced and how quickly I get things done, but by how many meaningful conversations I’ve had in the past week, how many meals I recall savoring, how many times I’ve stopped to observe something beautiful. It is the very essence of “quality over quantity.”

The Root of All Sickness

This won’t be easy. The siren songs of our society can be terribly mesmerizing. I still have deadlines. I still work with people who need my timely input. I still carry a smartphone, and I still get “push” notifications from CNN.

cnn

So, North Korea has an H-Bomb. Thanks, CNN, for that late-night notification. I’m sure I’ll get a good night’s sleep now.

But I have finally come to see our hurry-obsessed culture for what it is. Idolatry.

I have listened to many a Christian offer that same “not enough time in the day” lament as an explanation for why they don’t spend more time reading their Bible, praying, or simply enjoying solitude with God. And I very often commiserated because their struggle was also mine. I would always agree: “Spiritual disciplines can be hard.” But deep down, whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not, I’ve always known that how a person spends his time reflects what he values most. It isn’t that there isn’t enough time in the day. It’s that there is not enough time after we have scheduled and done what we most value. Maybe it’s work, maybe it’s shopping, maybe it’s Facebook, maybe it’s our child’s soccer practice, maybe it’s another Law and Order marathon on USA.

 

Law & Order SVU home invasions ice-t

“Yo, you tellin’ me thisth dude wasth s’posthed to be a wapper back in tha day? That’sth ridiculousth!”  

Our idol is whatever we value most, and whatever we value most determines how we spend our time. This doesn’t mean that if we work a long-hour job or we spend our days taking care of our children that these things have necessarily become idols. That happens only if we allow these important, time-consuming things to control and direct our days – if we surrender to the assumption that everything else must revolve around these things. Just because you spend 9 hours at work and only 45 minutes praying and reading Scripture doesn’t mean your job is the most important thing in your life. That would be elevating quantity over quality. Rather, when you strive to protect your job within your schedule but fail to protect that 45 minutes you spend with God, that’s when you know which one you truly value more. That’s when idolatry rears its all too familiar head.

That’s the irony of this whole thing for me; a common assumption is that the minister would never make such a mistake. But I must confess I have often valued my job as a minister over my relationship with the God I am supposed to be pointing people to. I have put off meeting with a church member in order to complete a planned task. I have lingered at the office longer than I should have, subtracting time I could be at home with my family. And there have been many days when I have scheduled early meetings that caused me to neglect my own personal time of prayer and reflection.

That’s idolatry.

When you stop to think about this in light of the Ten Commandments, hurry sickness puts a believer at least two in the hole. We have essentially placed another god – our schedule – before our heavenly Father, and if we’ve done that, it’s probably been years since we’ve remembered the Sabbath day and kept it holy.

worship

What, you mean sitting in the semi-dark listening to music and a spiritual TED talk for an hour and the  rushing off to lunch before the Methodist church lets out doesn’t constitute keeping the Sabbath?

Trusting the Healer

And all the while, the God who saves us – who sent His Son that we might know peace – watches us run from one task to next, one consumeristic pleasure to another, wondering when we’ll realize that it will never satisfy us – we will never achieve this good life that society promises us is right there for the taking if we would just reach a little bit more

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives,” said Jesus. The Greek word is eirene, the Hebrew is shalom. It isn’t a passive thing – the absence of strife. It is a powerful, active experience. It means fullness, wholeness, to live well. Or, as Frederick Buchner puts it, shalom means “having everything you need to be wholly and happily yourself.”

To know the genuine, abiding peace of the Son of God, we must live as he did. He was certainly tempted by hurry and progress and efficiency and success, but he never bowed to those influences no matter how insistently they grabbed for his allegiance. And if we are to live as Jesus did, then we must make him the highest authority – the one, true God – of our life, and protect our time and pace with him at all costs.

This is what I am trying to do in 2016. I will no doubt produce less, become a bit more limited in my availability to others, have less acquisitions and professional attainments to show for the year, but all the while I will have gained something far beyond the cumulative value of hurry-driven accomplishments.

I will have gained fullness. I will be more wholly and happily myself than ever before.

What about you?

Do You Have Time for a Quiet Time?

This is the final post in a five-part series on the problems with keeping a personal, daily “quiet time.” Click herehere, here and here to read the previous installments.

I have not written on this blog in quite a while. I blame the world, but I know it is my own fault.

The thing about living in a world that everyday seems to spin a little quicker on its axis is that unless we’re willing to be mindful of our time, time will pay us no mind at all. I can blame the world, but that means I must also blame myself, because seeing myself as the center of the world is my default setting. And, like the world, my life is pitched forward into a swirling sea of stress, hurry and expediency. Sometimes I feel like I’m plunging down the slope of a ravine – not so much running as barreling headlong, with a point of collision racing to meet me.

rod-falling_366239_GIFSoup.com

The older I get, the more I seem to feel this way. Now, five days shy of thirty-five, I feel as if I would do anything to slow my pace, to reach out and grab hold of something stationary in a desperate attempt to slow my rate of descent.

The previous four posts were born out of a lingering, nagging concern that I have spent too many years going about this whole “quiet time with God” thing all wrong. As I’ve already mentioned, I grew up in a church culture that placed an incredible amount of emphasis on keeping a personal devotional time with God; unfortunately, though, it did not produce many leaders and teachers who knew how to properly shepherd a young person in such a commitment. As I got older, I found that some of these leaders were dealing with their own quiet-time struggles, others weren’t sure how to go about expressing their own methods, and still others never really practiced any of the disciplines they preached. When I first stepped into the life of a minister (specifically, the life of a youth minister), there were times when I typified each of these lifestyles.

And now, despite still being referred to often as a “young man” by many a member of my church, I recognize that I am a full-fledged adult. And I have had to declare false the assumption I and so many other kids had throughout our childhoods that once we crossed that ill-defined developmental Rubicon into actual adulthood we would understand all those mysteries that so irked our younger selves. There is no instantaneous “I know Kung Fu” moment for us. Very little of the why’s and how’s in this life are received fully realized. We must learn them. And if we are to truly retain what we learn, we must practice them.

The world is our dojo.

The world is our dojo.

I was talking to a gentleman in a bookstore the other day who was telling me about teaching his thirteen-year-old son how to build a simple pair of shelves. He wanted his boy to learn some of the same skills that had been handed down to him from his own father. As they worked, the man asked his son if he agreed that it was important to learn skills like building shelves and basic construction. His son replied, “Isn’t that what Google is for?”

We are all moving so fast, faster than fifty years ago and faster even than fifty days ago. And rather than inventing things that might slow us back down even a little, instead we improve on tools that can keep pace with us. We microwave our food, order coffee from drive-thrus, and pay an annual fee to Amazon.com just so we can receive our purchases a couple of days sooner. We text more than we call, and we call more than we sit down together. We have multiple e-mail addresses, but haven’t sent a handwritten letter in decades. Why? Because we have little, if any, time to spare.

My dearest Helga, I would have thrilled to send you this humble correspondence, but you wouldn't believe how much stamps cost these days!

My dearest Helga, I would have thrilled to send you this humble correspondence, but you wouldn’t believe how much stamps cost these days!

In an age of convenience the likes of which we have never seen before, we are more rushed, more stressed, more frazzled, more impatient, and more inattentive than we have ever been.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate quite a few of these conveniences. I like that I can get an answer to a question from Google that used to be reserved for the reference section of my library. I’m embarrassed, though, that I cannot tell you what any section of my neighborhood library looks like. I appreciate that I don’t have to wait until 7 PM to find out the latest news of the world. I’m wearied, though, by how long I can stare at CNN despite knowing in thirty seconds they have no new information worth reporting. I love having thousands of movies and television shows available at the click of a button. I’m mortified that sometimes, when a somewhat long-winded person is talking to me, I feel an unmistakable desire to fast-forward, as if the conversation was stored in my cable’s DVR.

What does all this have to do with spending time with God?

Simply that, despite a million little conveniences designed to save us time, we usually find ourselves unable to offer God any of it. We’re sleeping less as a society, so waking up a little earlier has become a sacrifice too great for some. Lunch breaks are often taken at our desks rather than in an office atrium or the park across the street, and the average mealtime has dwindled from one hour to fifteen minutes. And what about the end of the day? I don’t know about you, but by the time I get my two preschoolers to bed in the evening, I feel as if I’m running on fumes. Even if I were to give God that hour or so before my own bedtime, would he really be getting the best of me?

"Do you have any devotional Bibles that are shaped like pillows?"

“Do you have any devotional Bibles that are shaped like pillows?”

Should it really be this difficult to cut an hour, or even thirty minutes, out of our daily schedules so we can spend it with God?

Realizing the difficulty of this leads me to a recognition of something else. According to Scripture, what God required of his people was not thirty minutes per day, or an hour here and there during the week. Smack dab in the Ten Commandments is a decree that God’s people would devote an entire day to him. They would honor him by putting aside every effort toward productivity, and instead be present. The Sabbath wasn’t something crammed into a daily planner; it was a sacred period of time, declared “holy” because it was set apart from the rest of a week so diligently focused on labor, development and output.

The Sabbath was a time to rest, and growing up I thought that meant the Israelites had built into their weeks a day to sleep-in and take a nap, like some sort of super-siesta at the end of each week. It wasn’t until later that I realized what the Sabbath was really about. I re-read Jesus’ statement, “The Sabbath was not made for man, but man was made for the Sabbath,” and it occurred to me that the “rest” referred to in the commandment was more about being present and being still than it was about catching up on sleep. The rest God desired for his people wasn’t so much about replenishing energy from all the work that had sapped their strength as it was about taking stock of the glory that lay behind the work itself. Just as God “rested” on the seventh day of Creation, surveying all he had made and declaring it good, so also he wanted his children to avoid getting so caught up in production that they failed to marvel at their God-given ability to produce anything at all.

How else would we be able to deal with all the messes that happen on day 8?

How else would we be able to deal with all the messes that happen on day 8?

I recognize this – a decree so important it was cooked into the center of the Torah’s Ten Commandments – and I shake my head at how meager a thing it is to scrape and strive to spend a full hour with God every day. I mean, hey, if that hour is life-giving for you, and you walk away feeling in deep communion with the Holy Spirit, then more power to you. But if you have been striving for years to commit an hour – or even a half-hour – to God only to feel more wearied by, or disappointed with, your quiet time, maybe your real problem isn’t how you’re spending that hour. Maybe the problem is how you’re spending the other twenty-three.

I haven’t been able to write on this blog in more than a month not because I’ve been too busy, but because writing on this blog has unwittingly tumbled down multiple notches on my priority list. Trying to reestablish a beloved and life-giving activity to the top of your priority list – even a time for communion with the Creator of the universe – can be as difficult a thing as Baylor trying to get the College Football Playoff committee to notice them after losing to West Virginia in October.

34 points? Is that all?

You beat Oklahoma by 34 points? Is that all?

The more we pack into our lives, the harder it becomes to manage, organize, and prioritize those things. Growing up, I was warned about all the dark, ungodly temptations that lay in wait for me out in the world. What I’ve found is most of the temptations I face are not ignoble vices, but noble endeavors. Most of the things we fill our time with are good things. There is nothing wrong with productivity. There is nothing wrong with success. There is certainly nothing wrong with hard work. But like the workers in the vineyard who become incensed at receiving only a standard daily wage for their day’s worth of labor, the majority of us have lost sight of the truth that what matters even more than being productive is the ability to be present and still and thankful before a holy and generous God – a God who wants much more than mere hours of our weeks.

After many years already, I have come to realize what this means for me. It means I have to scale back. I have to simplify. Not Thoreau, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” simple, but I need to at least be more mindful of my priorities, and faithful to maintaining that list. Maybe I’m not the kind of person who can wake up at 5 AM to spend quality time with my Creator. That means I mustn’t allow the rest of that day to be so chock full of tasks and duties and responsibilities that I am either exhausted or perpetually distracted, unable to live in the present. If I constantly find myself arriving somewhere with no time to spare, or several minutes late, I should consider what tasks (or distractions) force me to depart late. If it seems I am often anxious, or unprepared for meetings, I must reflect on how many other concerns I allowed to pull and tug at me during that day. The more I have to think about, the less I can think.

If every day you blame your tardiness on traffic, that's the same as saying, "I have no short-term memory."

If every day you blame your tardiness on traffic, that’s the same as saying, “I have no short-term memory.”

It is going to take sacrifice, and tenacious attention to the undercurrent of our lives. It is going to mean severing ties with some responsibilities that don’t measure up to a revitalized priority list. It is going to mean a lessened focus on being productive in a world that demands productivity above most everything else. Until we slow ourselves down, we will never truly experience the kind of joy God desired for his people. But, once we do, quiet times become simply a happy accident of being alive.

Our hard work, ambition, and efficiency are not the problems. But our “love” of them (i.e., enslavement to them) are. The good news is Christ came to set us free from a yoke of slavery. The shackles have been broken, and the cell door stands open. The choice to walk out into a free and open world is up to us.