Experiences of burnout, exhaustion and busyness abound in our society, and congregational life is often no exception. Where do we find quiet, renewal and oasis from the hectic nature of contemporary life? What would it take to find and maintain balance? We’ll explore together.
The complete sermon can be read below:
In 1987, John Cage composed a piece titled As SLow aS Possible (ASLSP). A typical piano performance of the work lasts 20 to 70 minutes. Cage didn’t specify a tempo – just as slow as possible. A conference of musicians and philosophers decided to take Cage literally, and started a project to play the piece on an organ over a period of 639 years. Not minutes or hours or days or months. 639 years.
The performance commenced in the St. Burchardi church on September 5, 2001, with a 17 month rest, followed by the first chord, lasting 29 months. The last note change occurred on October 5, 2013. The next change will not occur until 2020, with the performance expected to conclude in 2640.
Suffice it to say, this is not the usual interpretation of “as slow as possible.” Nor is ‘slowly’ an instruction we receive very often. Our pace of life is fast, far faster than the natural rhythms of our planet. Cars and planes transport us between places at enormous speeds, and we’ve adjusted so much to that speed that we feel impatient, or at least I do; are we there yet? And when we fear the depletion of one resource such as oil, we doggedly look for alternatives that will provide equal amounts of energy. We think of a healthy and sustainable world as someplace we need to get to, and get there as fast as possible.
Our society and technology not only allow, but seemingly compel this pace from us. Busyness is assumed. Parents are busy. Working people are busy. Retirees are busy, and even children are busy, rushing between school and extracurricular activities. We don’t rest when it’s cold and dark; our ancestors would have slept longer in winter, and relaxed after sundown. Now we have fluorescent lights and backlit screens to make our time more useful and productive. Or destructive, if, like me, you've ever found yourself wasting hours near bedtime browsing the internet. We’ve evened out the cycles of days and years to be as consistent as possible, removing cycles of rest and renewal from our lives.
And people who aren’t busy are often left out. We reinforce this for one another: in work environments, we don’t want to be the unproductive ones; as parents, we don’t want to give our children fewer opportunities; in order to afford housing and food and other basic necessities of life, we become part of the global economy in some form. We define dignity by productivity, and being constantly busy can be an expression of status: being busy means we have important things to do. The people I know who live on social assistance get this message loud and clear; they know they are not important. If we step outside these systems as individuals, we suffer the consequences. It would take a critical mass of people challenging the busy system to create a new balance.
As you may remember, I’ve always been someone who takes on a lot; balancing work or school with volunteering, sitting on boards, multiple sports teams, yoga, running, guitar lessons, time with friends and family, and more. When confronted with wait times, such as at a bus stop, I’ve been known to walk or run to the next stop, preferring to keep moving than to be still. Though to be fair to myself, I do find stillness much more meaningful and accessible sitting by the river than standing by a bus stop at the corner of a busy intersection, breathing in car exhaust. When my loved ones would gently suggest that perhaps I was overtired and doing too many things, I would always counter that I love my activities and I'm happier on the go.
And our congregations are often the same - places of busyness and burnout. I notice that as Unitarians, we often talk about abundant programs and events as evidence of our vibrancy. Or feel like we should always be doing more. And I wonder, are we confusing activity with depth? Are our congregations called to replicate our culture or offer an alternative, a haven or sanctuary from the rest of our hectic lives? Earth time is slower.
Joanna Macy says: “Both the progressive destruction of our world and our capacity to slow down and stop that destruction can be understood as a function of our experience of time.… It can be likened to an ever-shrinking box, in which we race on a treadmill at increasingly frenetic speeds. Cutting us off from other rhythms of life, this box cuts us off from the past and future as well. …
Until we break out of this temporal trap, we will not be able to fully perceive or adequately address the crisis we have created for ourselves and the generations to come. … By opening up our experience of time in organic, ecological, and even geological terms and in revitalizing relationship with other species, other eras--we can allow life to continue on Earth.”
Our song lyrics say:
There’s a river flowing in my soul.
And it’s telling me that I’m somebody.
It is the river in my soul, and not my productivity or success, that gives me inherent worth and dignity. By circumstance and choice, I've been experimenting with a slower pace of life the last year and a half or so. Living first in Calgary, then to Montreal for Curtis' last year of seminary, without many of my regular activities from home, life has been much slower. We've have cooked more meals at home. We’ve given up our car and biked and walked instead of driving, though it was a bit too much to bike here this morning. And we’ve spent more hours reading, chatting, or throwing a frisbee, and realized, to our surprise, that we found fun and contentment in the cycle of throw, catch (or run after errant frisbee), repeat, day after day.
As much as I’ve enjoyed a slower pace, I’ve also missed things like sports and activities with friends and family, and it might be easy to get sucked back into the busyness. Will I be able to maintain my commitment to a simpler, less busy life as we transition back to Ontario, especially as we think about starting a family and a new ministry?
You may have heard of the slow food movement, connecting ecological principles to food production, emphasizing local, organic, and traditional food, as well as enjoyment of food in community. There’s a slow church movement, too. In their book ‘Slow Church,' the authors invite churches to leave the fast lane of many programs, efficiency, and busyness and choose quality over quantity.
More than effective programs, we need time to simply be together. To play together. To laugh and cry together. To learn and grow together. Creating time to be means saying no to some doing. It requires sacrifice, doing less. Just as I may need to choose between soccer, ultimate frisbee, and time in the garden, congregations may need to choose between more special events and committees on one hand and time for simple spiritual practice and relationship building on the other.
Saying ‘no’ is complicated. And many of us aren’t good at it. In saying ‘no,’ we fear we may disappoint or inadvertently reject the person asking. When we say ‘no’ to a long-standing program, we worry about hurting the leaders who have worked hard to make it a success. In choosing bikes over cars, I’m conscious that others may feel unintended judgment for saying ‘yes’ to driving. And then there’s always FOMO – fear of missing out if we don’t attend every event, every party, every tourism site, if we don’t take every opportunity to learn and connect and grow and be where the action is. Fear that if we don’t take on every cause in this hurting, reeling world of ours, we are lacking or collectively doomed.
My early attempts to add ‘no’ to my vocabulary began with requests for babysitting as a teenager. I generally enjoyed babysitting, but there was one family. The kids wanted to watch TV and play videogames the whole evening, and I struggled to connect with them. At bedtime, they simply refused to go. When I babysat my own siblings, my strategy for getting them to go to bed was to turn it into a playful race to see who could get into their pajamas fastest. It worked every single time with them, sparking a frantic scramble up the stairs, with ever increasing roughhousing as we got older. When I tried it with these kids, they gave me blank stares that asked, “Do you think we’re stupid?”
I wanted to say no when this family called, but would find myself answering the question “Are you available” with the factually accurate ‘yes’. Finally, realizing my automatic programming, I resorted to saying I would need to check my calendar and call back. I needed the moment, the pause, to find my voice and my respectful, hopefully gracious but firm ‘no.’
I still work hard at saying no, both to things I don’t want to do and things I don’t have time for. When I’m tempted or pressured to say yes, I’ve come to recognize the feelings of anxiety and frustration that rise in me. As a usually calm person, this is a warning sign that I’m losing my carefully cultivated but always fragile balance. And, hardest of all, sometimes it means saying no to fun or meaningful activities.
In church communities, we might benefit from saying no even to some good programs. Carey Nieuwhof, a church growth expert, cautions that good programs are the enemy of great programs, dispersing effort and attendance. If you feel too busy or at or near burnout, here at UUCD or elsewhere in your lives, what would it take to lift the weight and embrace slowness?
Frederick Buechner proclaimed that we are called to the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. ‘No’ takes practice. And it takes thoughtfulness and commitment. And I hope it also frees us to say ‘yes’ to those precious places where our skills and passions can make the most difference in the world. What is the place where your passion meets the deep hunger of the world? Where this congregation’s passion meets the hunger of the world?
The sustainable agricultural system of permaculture is based on several principles; One of them is recognizing that the richest, most bio-diverse ecosystems are those at the edges or meeting places between two other ecosystems. The intermixing of characteristics creates something that is not entirely one or the other but is unusually vibrant and alive. For example where forest ecosystem meets grassland or a river mouth meets the ocean. Coral reefs, where ocean meets land, are among the richest of ecosystems, and the most fragile and vulnerable. Or the habitat of redcrowned cranes in the middle of the demilitarized zone, protected from destruction not by peace but by war.
I hope that our Unitarian Universalist communities are and can become places of the edges between the calm and the hurried. I yearn for spiritual communities that offer not just monastery refuge from the world, nor a brief hour of sanctuary to inoculate against another week of chaos, but one that offers practical tools to navigate the busyness of life, to find new ways of being. A community that helps me slow down, build connection, and from that rooted place, work for healing in my life and in the world. A community where social justice isn’t one more thing on the agenda, but integrated into the fabric of living life together.
Environmental educator David Orr says “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
Like a coral reef, it is vulnerable to sit at the edge between two worlds.
Between calm and chaos.
Between war zones and wildlife sanctuaries.
Between success and it's alternatives.
Between fast and slow.
Between yes and no.
It is at the edge that spiritual transformation awaits in the vulnerable and creative possibility of the pause.
A chance to find a new way.
Perhaps a slower way.
May we have the courage to pause at the edge.
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