what i’m not doing today

Montreat: Lake Susan and Assembly Inn

I’ve been in Montreat all week for vacation, and this morning I’m sitting on the porch outside the Huck listening to the water cascading over the dam. My kids are enrolled in Clubs, and Robert is having a quiet morning back at the house, so this is my reading and writing morning.

Right now the Church Unbound conference is underway, and it seems like most people I know are either here, or not here but wish they were. Then there’s me—here but not here. Brian McLaren’s plenary session is only steps away. Workshops will take place throughout the next two days. Folks will linger over lunch tables, talking about things I care deeply about. The health and future of the church is bound up in the kind of stuff that’s being talked about and birthed here in this conference. And I am not a part of it.

This is my first vacation since March and I have to protect this time. I’m thinking about the recent New York Times article about clergy stress, poor health, and burnout. I’m thinking about a clergy colleague who serves a large church and recently quipped “A day off? What’s that?” and it made me want to weep, not laugh. And I’m thinking about Henri Nouwen’s thoughts on the temptations of Jesus, and how one of those temptations is to be relevant (turn these stones into bread), and how hard it is for us to resist that one. It would be so easy for me to slip into the sessions, to do a little networking, to pick up a great idea or two to take back to the church I serve. Instead I’m committed to Sabbath, which is a kind of blessed irrelevance, ordained by God.

David Wilcox has a great bit on stuff that bugs him for metaphorical reasons (among other things, the Blue Light Special at Kmart, and the Biltmore Estate). This week is also working on me, on a metaphorical level. I serve quite a small church in Northern Virginia, and I write from time to time, and I parent three children. I really like that rhythm, and it works, and I frequently can’t believe my good fortune. I’ve received all of two work related e-mails all week. People know I’m away and are taking care of things without needing to consult me (and in our church of 80 people, there’s just less to take care of).

But recently I’ve had a number of reminders of the road I’m not traveling. Friends and I kid about the size of one another’s steeples but there is something real behind the jokes. My second call has been a great move, and I love it, but it was not what many would have predicted for me. And the strangeness of that is crystallized for me as I sit here this morning with my feet up, writing a blog post and munching on a Pop-Tart from the General Store while people stride across the bridge wearing name tags and clutching folders and conference schedules.

One of the big tropes in certain spiritual and contemplative circles is the idea of abundance—the notion that there is enough manna for each day, that it’s just a matter of trusting that what is truly needed will be provided. Like Martha, we get distracted by many things, instead of focusing on the one thing needful, which is “enough.” In the theology of abundance, it’s our own scarcity thinking that gets us in trouble. We grow anxious and possessive, clutching that scarce commodity to ourselves, whether it’s time or money or prestige or power or whatever.

I think this idea works for a lot of people, and I’m sympathetic to aspects of it, but most of the time I think it’s BS. Video game makers have experimented with games that have unlimited lives or currency, and people find them profoundly unsatisfying. Abundance, in a word, is boring. It’s also unbiblical. Check out the Good Book: God’s drawing boundaries all over the place.

My father died suddenly several years ago. His last few years were spent in a very high-pressure job, until he himself was laid off, and I have no doubt that the stress of this work contributed to his death. There is nothing about the daily lack of him that speaks to me of abundance. The idea that his life’s work was completed, that he’d “done everything he needed to do in this life,” is an offshoot of the abundance stuff and is also BS.

At any moment, there are very real, very good things that we are choosing not to do. It’s great to be at peace with the roads not taken, but to blow those off as somehow “not needful” is to negate the goodness of those possibilities and the God who created them. I find it much more beautiful as a spiritual concept to live as creatively as possible within the scarcities of my life, which exist and are not to be trivialized.

The idea isn’t to trust that what is truly needed will be provided, as if God is somewhere dispensing our daily ration of stuff like one of those pet self-feeders that uncovers a fresh portion of kibble each morning. The idea is to live as a person of trust and hope, whether what we need is provided or not. The point isn’t to have faith in God’s provision, believing that whatever we give will come back to us. What kind of generosity is that, anyway? That’s not grace, that’s karma. The trick is to embrace the fact that maybe there isn’t enough, yet we are called to generosity anyway.

That feels more like the reign of God to me.

So… I am not at Church Unbound, even though I’m sure it will be amazing in many ways. I will not have a late-night ministry conversation at Theology on Tap. I will not make a new friend. I will not receive a critical insight into ministry. And I’m going to be OK with that. Not because I trust that those insights or relationships will come to me some other way, but despite the fact that they may never do so. Not because those things are not important, but in spite of the fact that they are deeply important.

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14 thoughts on “what i’m not doing today

  1. anne says:

    this morning i trimmed maybe 20-30 feet from a variety of philodendron growing in the same pot. we all need to know when to grow and know when to trim . . . and know when to prop up our feet w/ a pop tart. (haven’t had one of them in awhile. what’s your flavor choice???)
    when i redraped the philodendron it didn’t immediately look at home with itself. trimming sometimes does that, doesn’t it?
    soak in your sabbath time.

  2. I’m not entirely sure I follow your critique of abundance, or perhaps I don’t understand abundance as a concept the same way the people you are referring to do.

    One of my regular mantras is “We live in an abundant world” (from The Soul of Money, by Lynne Twist). I use it as a way of moderating my own behavior — less stuff, fewer commitments, smaller meals. It reminds me that if I pass on something, there will be another opportunity for it later on. So I use the concept as a way to allow myself (some) simplicity.

    And abundance is definitely boring! If all you do is shop and consume, your life is boring… and it’s easy to get caught in that trap. Creating, thinking, participating in rituals, being with people — that’s where a lot of the pleasure/happiness in life comes from.

  3. MaryAnn says:

    I think simplicity and abundance are related, though not the same. To me, simplicity is about realizing that a lot of stuff we think is ‘needful’ isn’t, and in fact makes our lives more complicated and less joyous. Abundance as I understand it is the idea that there is always enough, if only we just have the right idea of what “enough” is, and that scarcity is a state of mind rather than an ever-present reality of our lives. I reject that.

    With that said–I also would disagree with the thought that if we “pass on something, there will be another opportunity for it later on.” I used to believe that very strongly myself, but have found too many counter-examples, such that I have come to reject it. Few opportunities in life are infinitely open to us. My own spiritual work is seeing as much grace in that as possible.

  4. Stephen Smith-Cobbs says:

    MaryAnn,
    This post really speaks to me and makes me want to be sure you know that through your writing your ministry definately impact way beyond the 80 saints who are members of your congregation – and one of those people is me :). I especially appreciate your comments about abundance and totally agree with your notion that the trick, so to speak, is to embrace the fact that maybe there isn’t enough, and still we are called to generousity anyway. Good stuff for me to be thinking about before leading a stewardship campaign meeting tonight … Thanks for this post and may your vacation be restful and renewing for you and yours. God bless!

  5. the normally lurking Montreat Alumna :) says:

    *jealousy*
    (based on simply the mention of Montreat)

  6. kathrynzj says:

    Sitting on the porch of the Huck listening to the water cascade down is never a bad choice in my book. Well played!

    I forget where I first picked it up, but something that has helped me say ‘no’ and help others say ‘no’ was the realization that we usually cram our schedules with good things, not bad. In your case, Church Unbound is a good thing but in this moment saying ‘no’ to it was the better thing.

  7. Deb says:

    Thank you. Sometimes, taking the road less traveled is the God-designed journey we are supposed to be on.

  8. Ruth Everhart says:

    Glad to read these words, MA, and I agree with them all. It’s not easy to choose a path and yes, the unchosen path continues with us not on it and that’s a fact. Having peace with that is huge. Glad you have it.

  9. Susan S, Pendleton, SC says:

    Wow. Totally wow. Great post, MAMD.
    Thought of your dad today as another CTS alum(Abby Cole Keller) was attending her father’s funeral today. Really makes me sad that we know too many people who die from (or partly from) the stress and pressure of whatever jobs they are in.
    May God bless your sabbath time. Enjoy!

  10. Sarah says:

    Much wisdom in your reflections. There is not always enough – for everyone/everything/at the time/place/form needed at the time. Choices are difficult – HARD – and take work. Discernment – trimming (thanks, anne!) – intentionality – being mindful of God’s work and grace in the world – is a practice – and you are a faithful practitioner. May it always be so.

  11. Kelly says:

    Remember when we took the afternoon off and hiked Lookout Mountain? At first it felt weird just to abandon our small groups in order to take care of ourselves, but boy, was it ever worth it!

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