Tag Archives: making space

Advent and the Spirit of Joyless Urgency

urgencyI’m reading Marilynne Robinson’s relatively new collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, and came across this elegant and weighty phrase, “the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency.”

She’s found words to describe what I see going on in my own life and around me. My to-do list is long and always growing. We crave relationship and intimacy and yet make no time for it, allowing Facebook and such to become a false and diabolical substitute. We neither make nor allow space — not for thinking, not for silence, not for people, not for God. It’s always on to the next thing. In fact, the urgency of the next thing makes it hard to focus on the now thing.

A few years ago, I convened a group where we talked about ancient spiritual practices and what they might look like in our highly technological, fast-paced world. When I talked about making space in our lives for silence, for doing nothing, for sitting and reflecting, for being with our loved ones in an unhurried, no-thought-given-to-productivity kind of way, one of the persons in the group responded that they simply could not do that. Their brain and their body would not allow it. And neither would their bank account. They had to be constantly busy and working. Alas.

Advent offers a profound antidote to urgency. We’re invited simply to wait with the prophets for the coming of the Messiah, prophets who waited for centuries, who did not see that which they were waiting for, but trusted in the promise that it would come.

Even the shortened days (at least in the northern hemisphere) of these last weeks of the calendar year invite me to sit in the quiet dark and wait and think and reflect and pray.

And when I do? I find that the image of God in which I have been created is more apparent when I slow down and when I make space. I am more generous to people, more gracious about their faults, less fearful about a broken world, more inclined to see things from the perspective of faith.

And what of the joy?

I sit in my reading and writing place on a gray morning. I’m tired from a long weekend of heavy responsibilities, sitting with a long list of things that need to get done, and little energy to get up and do any of them. This is just the kind of day to ignore the joy around me.

Yet, to see and experience those things around me that could bring joy is a decision, a choice. I think of some pretty amazing Advent worship on Sunday, of the buzz after the services about what people found meaningful. To know that people were touched by God is one of the reasons I do what I do. Surely, there is joy in that.

At one of those services, a husband and wife who had two days earlier lost their 30-something son to death by cancer were in church. I watched as they wept, as they smiled at the ways their young granddaughters engaged in the service, and as countless numbers of their fellow pilgrims shared hugs and tears with them after the service. Surely there is joy in deep human connection.

Last night as I laid on our bed reading, our 40 pound poodle mix jumped up and threw herself against me, pawing at my hand until I began to scratch her neck. As I did so, she began to relax, and laid her head down looking into my eyes as she fell asleep. A mysterious moment of connection between man and beast. Surely, there is joy in that.

The point here is not that there is no chance for moments of joy. It’s that I have not become very adept or practiced at noticing them, countless numbers of them day in and day out. Perhaps too consumed by the urgent?

So, this will by my advent discipline. To step away from urgency. And to find joy.

Making Space

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 8.36.36 AMDoes it require more than just the disposition to live the Christian life?  What happens if we have the desire and the intention, but not the space?

Social psychology talks about two difference classes of explanations for why people do what they do — dispositional and situational. The dispositional explanation relies on the fact that people are who they are; they have certain traits that at least in part, govern how they behave. Situational explanations recognize that certain circumstances in the moment contribute to a response and can override dispositional traits.

In his book, , Daniel Levitan recounts a famous study whose subjects were divinity students at Princeton Theological Seminary. The subjects were asked to come to an office to provide their opinions of “religious education and vocations.” After completing a questionnaire, the interviewer explained that the instrument they had just completed was a bit simplistic and that the second part of the interview would be a three to five minute recorded response to a reading they would be given. One group was given a reading on whether ministering is possible anymore; the other was given the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Here’s where it gets interesting. Half of each group was told they needed to hurry because the assistant in the next building over had expected them a few minutes earlier. The other half were told, “It’ll be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head over.”

Between the two buildings the experimenters had placed a research assistant sitting slumped in a doorway in obvious need of medical attention. When each student passed by, the confederate coughed and groaned.

What happened? The students who were in a hurry were six times more likely to keep on walking and pass by the visibly injured person without helping than the students who had plenty of time. Even the ones who had just read the Parable of the Good Samaritan!

I know this experiment is not about the spiritual life, so I’m not going to suggest any scientific conclusions about the life of faith. But it does prompt some reflections.

What we believe about the life of faith is that the Holy Spirit, at work in us, continually shapes and molds us into the mind and life of Christ. With the daily remembrance of our baptism, we are called to daily conversion, leaving the old incurved life behind and embracing the life of service to the neighbor.

But what happens when we don’t make space for that? What happens when our lives are so full of tasks and self-satisfying external stimulation that we don’t even notice the injured one at the side of the road or the groaning student in the doorway. What I see around me (and also in the mirror!) are people who are working way too much, spending way too much time on devices and entertainment, carting kids around to a hundred different activities. When it’s all over, we collapse into bed exhausted, only to get up and start the same thing over again six hours later. Who can blame folks if they aren’t coming to church as often as folks did 30 years ago? Maybe Sunday morning is the only time in the week they don’t have to run off to something else — unless it’s a little league sports event.

No wonder the church is anemic in it’s mission. We members of the Body have filled our lives with so many things. The situation overrides the disposition. The slow work of paying attention to what’s going on around us, noticing the opportunities to be kind or helpful, stopping to listen deeply to someone, and caring for creation has become get pushed to the edges. There is no space anymore to live the Christian life.

Which makes me wonder. Maybe the priest and Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan were not the callous, uncaring, cold-hearted characters we have portrayed them to be. Maybe they were just on their way to an important meeting, a few minutes late.