The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 9, 2017
Being busy is a good thing; but – if we don’t watch it – busyness can degenerate into a stampede of hyper-responsibility and frenetic activity that will ruin our health, undermine our relationships and render our actions unfruitful in important regards.
The Bible commends three practices that guard against this possibility.
The first is to embrace stillness on a regular basis. “Be still,” the Lord says in Psalm 46:10, “and know that I am God!” To be still is to abandon doing for a while and to luxuriate in the grace of just being, of just existing as a wonderful creature made by a wonderful and loving God. It is to heed the wise adage in A.A.: “Don’t just do something; sit there.” It is to keep the fourth of the Ten Commandments and to take Sabbaths of some sort.
“Everything works better if you turn it off for a while,” poet Annie Dillard observed, “including yourself.”
How does turning ourselves off and embracing stillness make our lives work better? Let me suggest a few ways. To begin, it enables us to notice some important things that only become apparent when we stop, look and listen – that is, when we step out of that stampede and just attend.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman poses a simple puzzle to show the importance of pausing. The puzzle goes like this: A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Almost always, even the brightest people come up with the fast answer of 10¢. That answer is quick, intuitive – and wrong. Do the math. If the ball costs, ten cents, then the bat costs $1.10, and that adds up to $1.20. The correct answer is 5¢ for the ball (and thus $1.05 for the bat).
Kahneman notes that solving this puzzle doesn’t depend on intelligence but on slowing down, focusing and paying attention.
Likewise, solving the puzzle of life doesn’t depend on intelligence but on slowing down, focusing and paying attention. Without such unrushed stillness, we continue to act, but it becomes less likely that our actions, no matter how many or how varied, will be telling, decisive actions that truly matter and are crucial for us in particular to perform. A multitude of actions can never substitute for the right actions.
In an over-subscribed, ever-hurried life, we lose touch with our own unique set of priorities, and fall prey to the culture’s delusion we can have it all and do it all. If we try to do everything, we do nothing at our best. And when we make all aims equally important, we get caught up in a tangle of competing and conflicting desires that diminishes our effectiveness in getting anywhere at all. Only a fool pursues, with the same fervor, both developing godliness and tasting all life has to offer, attaining depth of spirit and watching a lot of TV, serving the poor and seeking every material comfort for oneself.
Stillness give us opportunity to take stock, gain perspective, weigh options and make conscious decisions in light of our specific life purpose.
Such moments are called “Schultz moments” by New York Times columnist David Leonard. Two months ago he wrote about the practice of George Schultz when he served as Secretary of State in the 1980’s. Schultz would carve out each week an hour of stillness. He sat down in his office with a pad of paper and pen, closed the door, and told the secretary to interrupt him only if one of two people called: the president or his wife.
Schultz claimed that those hours were the only way he could keep the main thing the main thing in his life’s work. Without those hours, he said, he would’ve been pulled in countless directions by moment-to-moment tactical concerns, and lost his focus on the larger, strategic priorities of his mission as Secretary of State.
We may not carry a weight of responsibility of the size George Schultz carried, but each of us has a crucial role to play in God’s big plans for the whole world. Each of us has something to do that no one else can do as well as we, even if only because of our relationship with someone. After all, even if I am a nobody to the world, to somebody I am the world – and thus my doing for them what any number of others could makes it a better, more meaningful gift to them.
Thus, all of us must make sure we make our special, decisive contribution. That means that all of us must guard against getting caught up in the thick of thin things and ending up majoring in the minors – especially with our smart phone supercomputers always within reach. They’re always there to distract us from our core agenda and disperse our attention with the next Facebook posting or the latest Dodgers score.
We don’t need to do more things but less, for the sake of insuring that we do the crucial things that are uniquely ours to do and that God and others are looking to us to do. If we do too many things, we’ll use up our strength and dissipate our energy, and not be at our best when we are called upon to apply ourselves to our main thing, our significant contribution. In moments of stillness, we sort out with God what is ours to do and what is ours not to do. Thus, stillness enables the actions that really count.
At one point in his novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville describes the turbulent pursuit of a whale. Though he writes fiction, he writes true to the actual practice of 19th century whaling. Melville writes of how all the sailors in the whaling boat but one labor fiercely, every muscle taut. But the one idle man does nothing. He doesn’t put his back to the oar; he doesn’t sweat with strain; he doesn’t shout. He is still and poised, quiet and waiting. He is the key man, the harpooner, the only man who can finish the job. Melville writes, “To insure the greatest efficiency…the harpooners of this world must stand to their feet out of idleness, and not of toil.”
To make our unique and decisive contribution, we must save our strength, let go of other tasks and take up our uniquely crucial task out of idleness, and not of toil.
The Bible commends our embracing stillness on a regular basis. It also commends our entering silence on a regular basis. Lamentations says, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord…it is good…to sit alone in silence.”
It is good to close our mouths, shut down the self-talking in our heads, turn a deaf ear to all but God – and only listen for the whispering voice of the Spirit, a voice that is incessantly addressing us but rarely heard.
To listen well is to listen with long, leisurely patience, patience with ourselves and patience with God. We can’t listen like that when our schedule is always tight and crowded, and the next task of the future is always pressing itself into the present. We have to provide margins in our life. We do that by creating and protecting blank stretches on our calendars, empty spaces which the voice that speaks from the other side of silence might fill with its messages.
When we regularly embrace stillness and enter silence, we are able to carry out the most important practice of all: Waiting on God, waiting for God to act that we might follow His initiatives, waiting for God to speak that we might know what to say, waiting for God to give us His life that we might live beyond ourselves. Lamentations says, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him.”
Often, however, when we think we are waiting for God, it is truer to say that God is waiting for us – waiting for us to grow up enough to make good use of the empowering gifts He aches to bestow, and waiting for us to become trustworthy enough to carry out faithfully the jobs He aches to delegate to us.
God makes us wait out of love. God makes us wait to receive those gifts and assignments in order to give us the time and the struggles to mature and to develop the kind of character that will enable God to act in and through our acting – and enable us to fulfill our destiny and make the difference we desire.
For the sake of the realization of that beautiful dream, let us embrace stillness, enter silence and wait for God. Let us pray.