I remember starting my brief sabbatical about ten days ago with somewhat mixed feelings. It was odd being at church on my final Sunday thinking that it would be the best part of two months before I got to see everybody again. However, I was also deeply grateful for it- especially as I am aware that it is a privilege that most people don’t get in their jobs. My first week away was mostly spent on holiday in Cornwall (scenery-great, castles-fascinating, golf-depressing) but I have done a bit of reading that has caused me to reflect.
Each autumn we run a thematic evening series, trying to bring biblical truth and personal testimony to bear on an issue in our lives. We’ve looked at the The World of Work and Relationships and Sexuality over the past couple of years. This year we are going to consider the question of busyness. For virtually all of us “Busy” is the answer to the question “How are you?”. Is that as it should be and what are the implications for our lives? We’ll ponder those questions in our autumn series. In preparation for it I read Kevin DeYoung’s book Crazy Busy last week.
It is a very helpful book, perhaps particularly for pastors but also of wider relevance. It is just very wise and sensible. It is also helpfully nuanced- it is clear (though it probably would have been better if the point had been made before the penultimate chapter) that Christians should expect to be busy. Although DeYoung doesn’t use this phrase it has always seemed to me that busyness it the price of compassion- if we have an awareness of people’s needs then we will want to be active in seeking to address those. The Christian should expect to be “hard pressed but not crushed.”
Nevertheless there are real dangers associated with busyness. DeYoung picks up the story of Mary and Martha to remind us of the importance of sitting at the Master’s feet. But it was the way he picked up the Parable of the Sower that was most telling for me- it is the cares and pleasures of this life that will choke out the seed of God’s Word. The real danger of being busy is this- it will drown out the voice of God in our lives. DeYoung rightly observes that our Christian lives are more likely to be derailed by the stuff of life crowding Christ out than us suddenly believing the latest heresy. I could resonate with that- I was conscious that the few months before sabbatical were marked by a kind of amorphous chaos in my life which felt far from spiritually healthy. It is one reason why I am glad of the break.
So what do we do about it? There are a variety of helpful observations in the book with an interesting chapter that parents might appreciate- essentially do what you can, don’t “overparent” and trust the Lord with the outcome. For me the two most helpful reflections were on forming priorities and internet use. DeYoung brings home the necessity of making priorities very helpfully- we know that we have limited money and so have to choose what to spend it on whereas we forget that we have limited time and assume we can do everything. Each of us needs to prioritise. What priorities we have will vary depending on the situation and gifts the Lord has given us. For me, it reminded me of the call on my life to pray and to pass on God’s Word and there are certainly ways in which I want to order my life differently when I return to work. In addition the chapter on internet use- “You are letting the screen strangle your soul”- was particularly useful. The benefits of modern communication are mentioned but as was the tendency, which I definitely have, to constantly be checking email and/or football scores which can lead to a sense of being busy but lifeless. Over the last few days I have been trying to avoid taking my phone into the bedroom and discovering that it is refreshing not to check email before I go to sleep and as soon as I wake up!
There is more that could be said on the subject. A few years ago somebody pointed me to the phrase that Jesus uses to describe the woman who anoints him prior to his death- “She did what she could.” Over the years I’ve found that a helpful phrase that I have used to pray for others- “Father, in this busy situation, help them to do what they can but trust you with what they can’t do.” Having a right image of God is also critical here- He is one who is compassionate and remembers that we are dust according to Psalm 103. Some of us end up too busy because we have a skewed image of a God who is always demanding more even when we are exhausted.
I am in a privileged position in these weeks- there is a sense of busyness having been lifted. One of the joys of that is I’ve found myself being able to reflect again on life and church- in the past couple of months I had been struggling to do that (hence the silence on this blog.) Two things have occurred to me as a result of having a less driven approach. The first is this- I need to use the phrase “Can I pray for you?” more and then pray there and then. It so happened that in my first 24 hours on sabbatical I ended up having three conversations with other pastors who were going through tough times. In the first conversation I simply tried to give advice, the second asked me to pray for them which meant by the time of the third one I was ready to initiate the prayer suggestion! I reflected that I’ve not been good at suggesting prayer when in an informal (as opposed to “official meeting”) context. One of the things I am keen to do more of- and see more of- is just pray with people as issues to do with life come up over coffee at church and so on. It is after all a way of expressing that we can’t do everything but we can look to the Lord who is omnipotent and unlimited by the constraints of time.
Relief from busyness has also given me time to repent. DeYoung makes the point that busyness can be used to conceal a rot in our souls. I appreciated being at Trinity Church on Sunday morning and was helped by a lengthy time of confession based around our failure to keep each of God’s commandments and a sermon considering, amongst other things, the backsliding of God’s people under Ahab. I was powerfully reminded of my half-heartedness and rebellion and it has been good to have the time to bring that to the Lord.
Time to pray and time to repent- those have been some of the privileges of sabbatical. Now I am very conscious in writing this that others don’t get the privilege of time like this. But, given that both of those things seem fairly important for us as Christians, I wonder whether there are ways in which we can find time even in the mid-term or make tweaks in our lives to make them a priority.