Learning To Be Still

winter lakeAs Christmas approaches I hear the same concern from all my friends: how to squeeze the additional responsibilities and activities into schedules already too full.  As we struggle to keep up, we may begin to question why we choose to live our lives at such a frantic pace in the first place.  We may not want to deal with the fact that such a tempo may be very expensive in terms of spiritual well-being.  We may have forgotten how to take ourselves apart to be still and listen for the voice of God.

Most of us have to juggle many hats all year round.  Whether you have devoted yourself to a career or have chosen the demanding role of full time wife and mother, or are trying to manage the impossibility of both, there never seems to be enough time.  If we have “spare” time, we begin to feel guilty.  Isn’t there something more I can cram into this few minutes which isn’t already programmed for some activity?

I can remember my mother-in-law standing in the kitchen in the morning.  She was the mother of eight children and mistress of a very large house.  She had learned that every minute counted. She would say to herself, “Now, what can I do while I am standing here waiting for the bacon to fry?  I know, I will bake a cake!” Within a few minutes she would have a box cake whipped up and in the oven, and go back to the bacon and eggs.  She called it “redeeming the time”, and it was impressive.

Most of us feel rushed and pushed for time, and when my children were young I often longed for just one quiet hour when I could actually think my own thoughts and let my spirit rest.  I don’t want to add guilt to already overburdened lives here.  I am really being just an observer, and wanting to point out the obvious: we may have lost something important in the process of becoming so busy and stressed, and perhaps we have put some of this burden on ourselves without thinking.  What is worse, we may be indoctrinating our children to follow our example.

When I was a child, we had time after school and homework to explore the neighborhood on our bikes, to play a quick pick-up game of baseball, to lie on our backs in the grass and watch the clouds.  Now many children are caught up in almost constant organized activity: taking extra-curricular classes in sports or music or a dozen other activities all designed to prepare them to excel in some way.  Being competitive has become a way of life.  Because some moms have to work, many children lose out on spontaneous kinds of activity because they must stay in after-school centers until a parent can pick them up.  While it is unavoidable, it may take something away from the inner life of the child.  There is no “quiet time”, either for the parent or the child.  Working moms must cram two full time jobs into one life.  If we are stay-at-home moms we seem to spend most of our time in the car shuttling children or ourselves back and forth or volunteering in our church or community as well as keeping our own households in order.  When do we have time to think about the really important issues of life?  Even if we schedule time to pray, do we also allow time to give the Lord a chance to answer, or are we too driven to get to the next thing on our to-do list?

I have a dearly loved friend who has what I call a “check-list” mentality.  She never really hears what is said to her because her mind is constantly anticipating the next thing on her list.  She doesn’t mean to be rude; she is just anxious to cover her own agenda.  She goes to an art exhibit, but only gives the beauty of the picture in front of her a cursory glance because she is already anxious about getting to the next picture.  She covers a lot of ground, but she misses out on the substance of her activity.  Unconsciously, her real goal is not to see and enjoy the art, but to be able to check it off her list.  All of her busyness doesn’t really expand her thought or understanding.

Sometimes we assume that our busyness demonstrates how mature and responsible we are.  Instead of judging our lives on the basis of spiritual and emotional growth and wisdom, we equate busyness with success.  We may assume that because most of our activity is church related we are doing what best pleases the Lord.  However, perhaps we might be using our busyness to avoid dealing with other problems in our lives, or even to avoid being alone with the Lord and having to face what is really in our hearts.  We can be very busy indeed, but if we are trying to hide things from Him through avoidance or denial, all our good works may be counted as merely wood, hay, and stubble.

Most of us have been taught that we need to keep busy at all times; we have the “redeeming the time” desire to be productive, the “check-list” mentality.  We just keep moving, assuming that all this will get us somewhere.  I suppose it all depends on our goals.  It is the same old Mary/Martha debate.  We all appear to have become Marthas with little remembrance that, in Jesus’ opinion, Mary had chosen the better part.

As believers, we are called on to have different goals than the world.  We sometimes may become confused when all around us the world is telling us our lives must be goal oriented, and always equates those goals with activity.  In the world, this activity is focused on achieving material success.  However, the goals of the life of faith may not take us in this direction.  Spiritual goals will have more to do with relationship with Him than with hyperactive lives and a whole litany of good works.  Whenever our primary goal becomes material success or high visibility or anything else that elevates the self, we are on the wrong track.  This is not the way of humility.

There are those who will tell us that activity and productivity is all there is to the Christian life; that the goal of faith is to live productive lives which honor God.  There is some truth in that.  However, if we look deeper we see that our lives are really driven by relationships: relationship with God, with others and with ourselves.  Our activities, positive or negative, only reflect the quality and character of these connections.  The flaw in the works argument is that many people do good works for reasons that have nothing to do with God; they are driven by guilt or altruism or family training in noblesse oblige.

While our faith certainly should be demonstrated by good works, I would suggest that there is also the need to develop our inner lives.  Faith is not just intellectual assent to a creed; it also must be an authentic and active relationship with God.  This bond is the main-spring which provides the impetus for all the good works.  The relationship is the root; the good works are the fruit ~ not the other way around.  While we must indeed reflect God’s grace through our acts, true faith and love are revealed even more significantly by the fundamental nature of our relationships. (See I Corinthians chapter 13)

If we have never acquired the characteristics of God’s love, then how can we reflect it to others?  These characteristics are generally developed by an intimate relationship with Him.  There is a time for activity, and there is a time for quietness and listening for the voice of God.  If we say we want to do God’s will in our lives yet never seek His guidance, never study and apply His Word to us, whose will do we actually think we will follow?  How many times do we run ahead of God and follow our own desires because we have not bothered to ask Him for the next step?

Regularly taking ourselves apart for a period of quiet meditation and prayer seems to me to be a good place to start in the process of learning to be still.  It might take a period of practice before we, with our habitual distracted pace, can do this without getting restless.  We know God through two major sources: the example of Christ, and His Word.  If I am too busy to pray or to read His Word, then how will He communicate to me?  How will I ever really know Him enough to fully appreciate Him?  We can all put on a visible cloak of good deeds and pious works, but the reality of a heart in full submission to God is even better.  May God help us all to be more aware of the joy of being quietly in His presence, and the need to make the time to seek Him.

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