Thursday, 24 February 2011

Busyness and leaving space for God

Written as an editor's letter for the monthly Record magazine of Abington Avenue United Reformed Church, Northampton.

Busy busy busy. There’s work to do, children to look after, committees to serve on, people to visit, things to do at the church, cooking, cleaning… Many of us lead an over-busy life – me included (so this message is for me as much as anyone else).

In the Reformed tradition, it’s long been believed that salvation comes through faith and God’s grace, rather than through any action of ours. However, Reformed Christians have also kept constantly busy, following what the sociologist Max Weber called the Protestant work ethic. The Kingdom of God won’t come about by itself, you know!

Well actually, yes it will. Our minister, Alan Spence, reminded us in church recently of “the hope to which he [God] has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19, TNIV). God’s power is so great that our actions are small by comparison.

This doesn’t make our actions insignificant. There are great injustices in the world – poverty, hunger, violence, inequality, prejudice, environmental destruction. These injustices were created by people, not by God, and it is people who must address them. When confronted with the money-changers in the Temple, Jesus was enraged and threw over their tables. And as St Teresa of Avila wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours”.

But that doesn’t mean we need to be constantly busy with our work for the Kingdom. We will achieve more if we also learn to stop sometimes, to be still, to recharge, to sit and experience the power of God wherever we find it. I have long been fascinated by how active is the verb in Psalm 23 which says “he makes me lie down in green pastures”. The psalmist doesn’t say that God invites us to have a quick lie-down, just for a few minutes, if we’re not too busy. God does not invite, God insists.

If we are not constantly trying to do things, we leave more space for God to do things for us, to bring us into new states of being, to give us strength and wisdom. That way, we will be in a much better state to be able to take forward the work of building the Kingdom – and we will have a much deeper and better sense of what that work is.

Moreover, if we are not trying to do too much, we also leave space for other people to do things for us. If we see ourselves only as givers, not receivers, then we miss a huge blessing – and we don’t allow others the opportunity to become givers to us. When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and encouraged them to wash each other’s feet, there needed to be feet available for washing just as much as someone to do the washing.

The story of Martha and Mary is a familiar one about busyness, and it divides people strongly. For some, Mary seems idle, self-indulgent, unwilling to take her share of the household burdens; for others, Martha seems too busy, unwilling to stop and listen, uninterested in the things that matter. If Jesus is with you, what matters more – to attend to his teaching, or to do your work? Surely the answer is both. In our own lives, we must neither be just a Martha or a Mary, but a mixture of the two – a doer and a contemplator.

There is a piece of Quaker advice on this subject: “Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness”. So – work for the Kingdom, in whatever way God calls you to do, but leave space to hear his call too.

Now, what was I supposed to do next?

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