Caught in the Whirlwind
My deep longing for a manageable life began four years ago when I lived in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. Each Sunday morning I would drive 45 minutes to get to church. The first time I drove there I noticed something that continued to fascinate me. Every home I passed had a porch and on every porch were chairs or couches--like a living room on the porch!
What impressed me most was how these people managed to take time each Sunday to sit out on their porches and talk. They regularly welcomed me into their homes on Sunday afternoons; they wanted to know me and wanted me to know them. They showed me the value of truly connecting with people--a value I'd been missing in all of my busyness. I longed to have their "sit-on-the-porch" mentality.
I know I'm not alone in feeling that life is too hectic--that sometimes it can feel like a whirlwind of activity. About a year ago I began to make some changes in how I set my priorities. Several books were extremely helpful in changing my thinking and providing practical ideas: The Overload Syndrome and Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, both by Dr. Richard Swenson, and Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald. Let me reassure you that I'm not going to tell you how to organize your stuff or get your schedule into a hyper-systematic calendar. These efforts can be helpful but I do not believe they solve the root problem we face. The truth is, you cannot keep on top of it all by just trying to organize it. So...what does work?
Our Culture Encourages Overload
"Living in the world and not of it" has been a challenge for Christians in every age. There is however, something new happening now that is unique. Dr. Swenson calls it "accelerated progress." Technology keeps giving us more and more, faster and faster. When what we get is more than what we need, "progress" creates problems. Instead of giving us the drink we need, progress has become like a fire hose! In our culture, we're dealing with more details than ever before. If we continue to allow our culture to dictate our lives, next year at this time, we will be more overloaded than we are now! Having studied human nature for thousands of years, Satan has discovered that one of his most effective ploys is distraction. And, with the amount of things being produced by progress, he has more than ever to work with.
God's Design for Life
In contrast, God calls us to live strategically and intentionally -- motivated by Him instead of being controlled by our culture. I came to realize that the crazy, hurried life is not how God intends us to live when I took a look at the life of Jesus. First, I tried to imagine Him responding to life in the same fashion as I often do. But, I had difficulty picturing Him running from one activity to the next...constantly checking His watch...or telling the leper that "now is just not a good time" then checking His Day-Timer and scheduling him in at 3:00 p.m. the next afternoon.
In fact when we look at His life one of the outstanding features is the calm way He went about it. He never seemed to be in a hurry and His peace overflowed onto those around Him. It's easy to dismiss this, saying, "Jesus didn't live in modern America." The truth is, however, the pattern of His life and the principles He practiced are transferable to any age. He truly modeled God's intentions for us. And, if eternal results are our goal...then His way will certainly work.
How did Jesus Do It?
1. His public life flowed out of times of solitude.
In Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald reminds us that "We dare not minimize the fact that Jesus sought time in solitude with the heavenly Father before every important decision and action during His public ministry."
He demonstrated that solitude allows us to reconnect with God and His ways. Gordon MacDonald says "Sabbath means a deliberate acceptance of personal rest and tranquillity within the individual life. Sabbath means a rest that brings peace into the private world. As Christ pressed stillness into a storm, order into a being of a demon-possessed maniac, health into a desperately sick woman, and life into a dead friend, so He seeks to press peace into the harried private world of the man or woman who has been in the marketplace all week. But there is a condition.We must accept this peace as a gift and take the time to receive it." In other words, Sabbath rest is a necessity not a luxury. We would be wise to leave room in our lives for God's gift of rest.
Not only should we set aside time for Sabbath rest but we should leave space between activities each day. Dr. Swenson calls this "margin time." He says, "we all need time in which to rest and some space in which to heal. Our relationships desperately need some margin in which to be revitalized. Being marginless means that we are expended, depleted, and exhausted with no oasis in sight. Having margin however, means that when we are drained, we have someplace to go for our healing...Only then will we be truly available to the purposes of God."
2. Jesus lived within His limits.
In addition to placing a priority on times of solitude, there is no indication that Jesus tried to "do it all" in His times of activity. He didn't attempt to meet every need and teach every person. And...if anyone was aware of the needs out there and the urgency of the message, it was Him. It wasn't that He was unconcerned but rather that He understood what it meant to be human and have limits.
Many of us act as if limits do not exist. Or if they do, that Christians are given a special exemption from God. There are occasional times when it is right to "push the limits" - when God wants us to go out on a limb... to serve in spite of our exhaustion so that He can get the glory from our weakness. But to live like that all the time is to live as if we are "limitless." God has given us limits to remind us that He is God and we are not. In The Overload Syndrome, Dr. Swenson said, "He is the creator the one without limits. We are the created the ones with limits."
God also gave us limits for our protection and He is not obligated to rescue us when we attempt to do more than He asks. Living within our God-given limits equips us to respond correctly to our God-given life. At one point in my life, I decided to face some of my struggles by seeking counsel from a godly woman. After pouring out my story I waited anxiously to hear what great wisdom she would offer me. Much to my surprise, she asked, "Are you getting enough sleep?" I admitted that I usually didn't. After that, I began to honor God by getting the sleep that He designed me to need, and my perspective on life became clearer.
3. Jesus lived in response to God's plan - not the plan of others or the culture.
Much of our lives are lived in response to what we believe is expected of us. We're expected to be intelligent, beautiful and charming. We're expected to have a growing collection of nice possessions. We're expected to grow from the perfect child into the perfect adult. And we often make it our life goal to try and measure up to all of these things.
In contrast, Jesus was constantly doing--or not doing--things which surprised and sometimes disappointed those around Him. That didn't concern Him because He was living in rhythm to the drumbeat of God, not His culture. A.W. Tozer said of living up to the world's expectations, "Such a burden as this is not necessary to bear. Jesus calls us to His rest and meekness is His method. The meek man cares not at all who is greater than he for he has long ago decided that the esteem of the world is not worth the effort." When we, like Jesus, take the time to be in tune with God, He will give us the courage to carry out the plan He has for us.
4. Jesus focused on the person standing in front of Him at the moment.
Jesus cared for people by giving His attention to whoever was in His path at that given moment. In my case, however, the person in my path is often an obstacle in the way rather than the focus of my attention even if that person is someone important to me. The truth is that "at any given moment, the most important thing in life is the person standing in front of us" (The Overload Syndrome).
Jesus' life teaches us that we do not have to "be all things to all people" all of the time, all by ourselves. But, what we can do is focus on the person in front of us at the time; whether it be the gas station attendant, the grocery checker or one of our own family members. When the people around us become a priority, God uses us to meet needs we would have otherwise missed.
I was much better at noticing people back in high school, before life had begun to crowd in on me. About two weeks before graduation, I headed to the mall with some friends to celebrate at Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor. On our way in, I noticed a young woman sitting outside who had tears streaming down her cheeks. We got in line at Farrell's but I just couldn't stay there. I told my friends I'd be back and went out to talk to the woman. As I walked up to her I said, "I know you don't know me but I noticed you were upset and wondered if there was anything at all I could do for you?" I sat down beside her and for the next ten minutes she poured out one of the most painful stories I had ever heard. My heart filled with compassion as I simply listened to all she had been through.
We did not have a whole lot of time as the ride she was waiting for soon arrived. It was no accident that earlier, I had been prompted to slip a tract in my pocket explaining how to have a relationship with God. Before she left I said to her, "I can't say I even begin to understand the pain you must be feeling, but I do know that God knows and that He loves you. Knowing Him has made such a difference in my life and this little book will explain how you can know Him too." She took the booklet with a look of gratitude and hope, said she would read it and thanked me for listening. I blinked back my own tears as she walked away, and thanked God for allowing me to be a vessel He could use.
I had to wonder how many others I could reach out to if I was simply available and willing to notice. Jesus was aware that our greatest need is for connection...in relationship to God and to each other. This need became His mission and "interruptions" from people the opportunity to fulfill it. In fact, if we are not careful, organization can become an obstacle to our mission. When my schedule rules my life instead of God, His "interruptions" become a source of frustration, not an opportunity for ministry. I am learning that it is possible to be extremely organized and not at all Christ-like.
How do I do it?
By now you may be convinced. You would love to slow down, within your limits, responding to God and meeting the needs of people around you. But you are wondering how it can happen in your crazy, hurried life. How can you handle all that our culture throws at you and somehow respond correctly? How can you live "in the world and not of it"? Following are a few practical ideas.
Create space in your life by...
- Limiting your availability. Block out times for you and your family when you cannot be reached. Despite what our culture says, it is not rude, it is necessary. A cell-phone or pager may not be a wise choice for you. Use the technology that helps you control your life and not the kind that controls you.
- Limiting your choices. New choices require decisions, decisions require evaluation, evaluation requires time. So, from the meals you serve your family to which phone company you select, pick some favorites and stick with them.
- Limiting your commitments. Schedule times of solitude by writing them in your calendar. Pray about everything you are asked to do before you say "yes". Make sure that it lines up with God's strategic plan for you. Realize that most things take more time than we expect and plan accordingly. Redefine spiritual activity as anything you do in response to God's desires for you. This means that sometimes the most spiritual thing is getting enough sleep.
- Using your Sabbath time for rest. Instead of filling your open spaces with leisure activities (a bit of an oxymoron), use it to help your soul get refreshed and ready for what God has in store. I have found that time spent in reflection brings rest to my soul. I begin by taking a look at my past activities and allow God to evaluate my motives. Then, I fasten my soul back onto His truth and His presence and recommit myself to pursue a Christ-centered tomorrow.
- Committing yourself to doing things slower. It's hard to hear God and see opportunities when I am living at 110 mph.
- Learning to laugh when life brings the unexpected. One person, after a southern Florida hurricane devastated his house, put up a sign in the front that read "Open House." It may not have helped solve the problem but it surely helped him make it through it. God is worth taking seriously, but life is often worth a good laugh.
- Giving God permission to organize your life...one day at a time...and permission to rearrange it a moment at a time. You'll have to listen for God's rhythm His drumbeat is different than that of the world. His plan will include making room in your life to connect with people.
- Choosing commitments and activities in light of the goals God reveals to you during your times of rest. Figure out with Him what His plan for you is today...this week...this month...this year. Say "no" to the things that are not strategic.
- Partnering with others in the body of Christ. I have discovered reordering our lives is a terribly difficult task on our own. We need to help each other create margins and preserve them. We can give each other permission and reminders to leave margins in our lives providing the encouragement that the world never will.
Christ has said to us, "Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest." And He adds that the load He does have for us will be light. I am finally finding His promise to be a true experience instead of just wishful thinking. Living life according to His plan, in addition to making a difference for eternity, is also a restful and remarkable experience.