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Margin in Our Time

I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.

Walden (Chapter 4)

If someone told us that this is what their day looks like, what would be our general impression? Shiftless? Lazy? Good for nothing?

We probably would not have them pegged as one of the foremost thinkers in American history, but this passage from Henry David Thoreau in his classic work, Walden is an example of just that. Thoreau used this concept of margin to talk about ways that we spend our time. Now, I cannot say for a fact that if you began to live like Thoreau did that you would become as prolific of a thinker and writer as he was. But it seems pretty clear that if he did not live in this way, that he would not have been so prolific, either.

This week, we continue our series on Margin asking “where do we find margin in our schedules?” If you were not here last week, a quick reminder of the meaning of the metaphor. Imagine with me a piece of notebook paper, with the lines marked to write on going across the page. But going down the page, on each side, are the margin lines. These are the lines designed to keep you from going all the way to the edge of the paper. A report or a document will have margins on the top and bottom and sides. Likewise, in our lives, there is a deep need for us to have that margin – that space – in our lives. We cannot go to the end of the line all the time and expect to have room to breathe.

This morning, we pause to explore that margin in our schedules The busy-ness of our schedules is often the end result of failing to build margin into our lives, and it becomes the reason why Americans are overly aching, overly medicating, overly obsessing on Web-MD. So often, it comes back to a lack of margin.
Dr. Richard Swenson, author of the book that inspired our series, writes of a fascinating history that helps us put time margin into perspective. He writes that in the 1960’s, there was legitimate concern by scientists that our progress was going to create a significant problem in our lives. We were going to have too much free time. In 1967, testimony in a Senate subcommittee predicted that because of our growing efficiency as a society, by 1985, Americans would be working only 22 hours a week and could retire at 38 years old. There was widespread concern from futurists that we would have so much time that we would not know what to do with it! What happened?

Of course, it doesn’t take long to see that as soon as have we created these efficiencies, we have filled them with more activities, more expectations, more requirements, more need to achieve.

Tilden Edwards claims that we find ourselves today trapped in a pattern of achievement and escape. The expectation to achieve is so high, we spend our time, our money, our energy, our lives, in the pursuit of that goal. We want more stuff, so we have to make more money, so we have to work more hours to be able to afford it. Or we want to achieve a certain level of social standing, so we go to events that we don’t really have time for, work on projects that run us into the ground, and destroy all the margin in our lives because we want to live to up others’ expectations. So much in our lives is about bowing down to the god of achievement.

But eventually, we can’t do it anymore. We have to stop. And so, Edwards writes, we escape. During the course of the day, we escape into our phones…watch the next time you come to a stoplight, and watch the heads drop as soon as the light turns red. At night, we escape into worlds of entertainment or sports or fantasy…though our TV’s or books or tablets. On the weekend, we escape into overindulgence of food and drink. Then a couple of times a year, we escape into a vacation, hoping that it will give us the peace that we seek. I remember a commercial a few years ago from an investment firm, with an actor holding a kayaking paddle, with arms raised in victory…proclaiming “now I am finally able to relax!” For an investment firm! What is the message here? Achieve so that you can escape your life of achievement.

Isn’t there another way?
Of course, there is. We find it in the life of Christ, and today’s passage helps to paint a picture of Christ’s model of time. I read portions of the passage of the raising of Lazarus from John 11, and I don’t want to bury the lead here. Of course, the big deal of the story is the fact that Jesus raises a man from the dead. It is a powerful story about the triumph of life over death, a precursor to Christ’s own resurrection, and a symbol of the victory that a life in Christ will bring.

But now that we know what the lead is, I want to look more closely at a part of the story that might get overlooked. It is the passage in which there is this interesting exchange between Jesus and Mary and the outsiders who have gathered to grieve. The exchange is actually set up earlier in the passage, when both sisters send word to Jesus that Lazarus is sick. While their request is not explicit, it is implied. They want Jesus to come and do something.

At some level, we can understand what Jesus is experiencing here, can’t we? How often are there explicit or implicit requests on our time? Expectations laid upon us by others? Hopes or outright demands that we use our time in a specific way. And for Jesus, the pull must have been great. The family was very important to him – Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are dear family friends and it must have been difficult to not drop everything and rush to his side. He must have known that he had the power to do something about it, to fix the situation, to make a difference.

But Jesus resists exactly that very temptation. He does not drop everything. He does not go. He has a mission that he is currently engaged in, and he will not abort that mission for the tyranny of the urgent. This was Jesus’ quandary most of the time. He was always expected, pushed, demanded to do something with his time and his power. It had to be one of the most difficult things about being Jesus – who he served and how he spent his time. Everyone he helped, he necessarily had to choose others who he did not. There were not enough hours in the day to do it all.

Can we relate? Of course, we cannot relate to the unlimited divine power of Jesus: the ability to heal, exorcise, and help in the way that only Jesus could. But we can understand the very human limitation of only having 24 hours in the day. It was something that Jesus had to deal with, and so do we.

Likewise, we might be able to relate to Jesus’ human emotion later in the chapter. He has chosen not to go. He continued on his mission, finishing his work in Galilee before his final journey to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Lazarus has died. By the time Jesus arrives, both sisters approach him with the same question: “why didn’t you come?” Martha asks it first, and then Mary asks the same question. But this second conversation takes place in front of a group that John calls “the Jews,” referring to the community members who had gathered to mourn, some of them maybe even professional mourners paid to be there. I like to call them the “busybodies”. They, too, ask “why didn’t he come?” But these are not grieving sisters, hurting while still trusting that Jesus could do something to alleviate their pain. These were outsiders, busybodies, poking their noses in where they didn’t belong.
And it makes Jesus angry. The Greek does a better job than the English at describing his anger. The NRSV translates it “deeply disturbed in spirit” but the better phrase would be “ticked off.” He was angry at being second-guessed for his choice. Angry at the power of death to destroy. Angry in his grief over the loss of a friend, especially knowing that he could have done something to stop it.

And, yet. In the midst of his humanity, Jesus still shows his divinity. Not just in his immeasurable power to heal and even bring back the dead to life. But even in his power to choose with integrity and wisdom, in the midst of overwhelming expectations and demands.

Jesus demonstrates the divine principle of Sabbath. That is the better way! When we think Sabbath, we think about the Sabbath day. But throughout his ministry, Jesus created a more meaningful understanding of Sabbath not only as set apart time, but as the leavening agent of time itself. It’s like Norman Wirzba says in his book Living the Sabbath:

We do not wait for one specified day of the week to offer our thanksgiving and praise, even if one day is set apart to shed a critical and corrective light on all our other days. The goal is rather to arrange our schedules and direct our choices so that they manifest at all times a deep appreciation for the diverse and costly ways of God’s grace.

This is what Jesus demonstrated again and again. More than the day itself, Sabbath was about a lifestyle of worship and grace. The Lazarus story is a perfect example; Jesus chose not to bend to the “tyranny of the urgent”, but chose what was right at the right time. And this was not the exception, but the rule. Throughout the Gospels, we learn that Jesus “went to the hills to pray,” again demonstrating that even when the need to heal and teach was great, at that moment, the need to rest and recover was greater. And often in the Gospels, Jesus gets dressed down by some religious authority or another for not doing what he is supposed to do on the Sabbath, for not observing Sabbath correctly. But even then, he was teaching that Sabbath is not only a day, but a recognition that all time is God’s time. All days are holy days. A Sabbath day is an important leavening agent in that it reminds us to have that deep appreciation for God at all times.

So what does that look like in our lives? I cannot presume how you might apply these principles to your own life. A few months ago, Kathleen Ames-Stratton offered some practical suggestions on time management, and we have printed a few copies of her presentation if you are interested. But in addition, I would offer a few suggestions, some practical words from Swenson and others, about how we might find that margin in our schedules.

One, stop bragging about being busy. I do it. You probably do it. It is a part of that achievement-centered lifestyle that Edwards writes about. We talk about being busy in ways that make us sound like victims, but we really say it so that we sound more productive or committed or needed. But let’s agree together today to call it what it is. When we are overly busy, we are not victims, and we are not special heroes. We are failing spiritually. And we need to stop bragging about it. Especially at church. We come to church to learn a better way. And that better way isn’t simply to escape. The church is not a place to escape an achievement-centered world. It is a place to learn how to deny the value of it and the cycle that traps us in worshipping the wrong things. Stop using busyness as a trophy.

Two, schedule Sabbath moments. Again, this is not a moment to escape, to distract. We do that all the time. But schedule instead a time for margin. Swenson quotes Meyer Friedman, who coined the term “Type A Personality.” He says that all of us, but especially type A folks, need to schedule moments to slow down. Go stand in the longest line at the bank. Browse in a bookstore, sit in a deserted church, go to a museum. As a doctor, Friedman had his assistant set up appointments with patients that did not exist…just so that he could have a moment of surprise margin during the day. Swenson reminds us that Jesus was notoriously unhurried when it came to his life and ministry. He made a point of looking for – and planning for – the interruption, the unexpected, the quiet moments of prayer. When we plan for these Sabbath moments, even schedule in expectation of them, we find that God speaks to us afresh. This is not simply escaping, this is disrupting the achievement/escape death spiral with moments of Sabbath.

Three, do less to do more. The Lazarus story shows us that we will always have to make choices. Jesus had to make choices. But he made the right choices. Instead of allowing the most urgent need to overwhelm him, he chose to do less in order to do more. To say no in order to say yes when he needed to. His priorities were Kingdom priorities. Swenson wrote that we need to assess our daily activities according to their “spiritual authenticity.” Again, it is Thoreau who reminds us of this: “it is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is ‘what are we busy about?’” Yes! What are we busy about?

I would be remiss to not share at least one Martin Luther King, Jr. quotation this weekend. In 1964, he stood before the capacity crowd at Oberlin College and told the students and faculty there, “The time is always right to do what is right.” When we do less to do more, make our priorities from the Kingdom, it will be the right time. There will be hard decisions and there will be things left unaccomplished. But when we make our priorities Kingdom priorities, we find that much of what keeps us busy is simply that – busywork. Today, and in the days ahead, let us be about Kingdom work. And let us never tire of doing that work together!

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