Molly wandered through the aisles of the grocery store. She was making a dip for the party tonight, and couldn’t find the olive oil. She and her friends had wanted to get together before the holidays, but found that there was just too much going on, so they planned their party for January instead, hoping there would be a little more breathing room. She smiled at the fact that seven weeks after their first attempt to get together, she was still down to the last few minutes before the party started before she threw together the dip and chips.
As she wandered up and down the aisle, she had her phone in hand, recipe up on the screen, making sure she didn’t forget any ingredients. Every few seconds, there was another ping…another notification from social media, or a reminder of something that she had forgotten at work in her rush to leave early. Each few feet, she stopped to check another ping, and ended up walking past the olive oil twice.
By the time she finally saw the section, she was overwhelmed by her options. What must have been a hundred different bottles in various shapes and sizes and titles sent her head spinning. She was back on her phone to Google the difference between olive oils and figure out which one she should get. While she was on, she noticed how late it was. The party was starting in less than an hour.
She sighed. She would be late again. Her friends had grown to expect it, even smile when she walked in 45 minutes late. But she was starting to get tired of it. She figured that by the time she was this old, an adult on her own with her job and her own place, that she would have had her life together. But it never was. She always felt pushed to the edge. Overcommitted. Over-engaged. Overwhelmed. Over-hurried. Overworked. Overtired. When was it all going to slow down?
The tightness in her chest was back and her head was spinning. A couple of glasses of wine at the party and she’d be okay, right? Deep down, she knew she wouldn’t be. Tomorrow would be just as crazy and out of control. Before she knew it, she had sunk to the floor next to the olive oil. As the tears came, she wondered what it would take to get off the merry-go-round.
Does anybody know Molly? Perhaps you see her when you look in the mirror? Twenty-four years ago, in 1992, Dr. Richard Swenson wrote a book called Margin: How to Create the Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves You Need. His premise is that there are more and more Molly’s in the world, especially in our culture.
He wrote about the dark side of progress. We usually use the word progress to denote that which is hopeful and positive and healthy. But he suggested that because our society continues to progress, more and more of us find ourselves as overwhelmed as Molly. We are pushed to the edge physically, financially, emotionally, and in our schedules. When progress creates an efficiency, giving us more time or space, we rush to fill it with something else. And it is not just young people. I remember a senior adult from another church telling me that she never had bought a planning calendar until she retired. Now, she couldn’t imagine life without it.
Swenson suggested that this dark side is literally killing us. As a doctor, he saw the symptoms everywhere: depression, anxiety, paranoia, anger, headaches, heart disease, insomnia, overuse of alcohol or prescription or nonprescription drugs, compulsive shopping, exhaustion, violent behavior. The list went on and on. He wrote that there are plenty of reasons for these symptoms, including family history, diet, etc. But at the heart of so many of these problems is what Swenson calls “marginless living”.
It’s a simple metaphor. Those of you who are in elementary or middle or high school probably have to buy notebooks, those spiral-bound things that have lines on both sides. And all of us know about the blue lines that we right on. But how many of us also pay attention to the red lines on the sides? Running vertically, they mark when we are supposed to stop writing. When we are supposed to go to a new line, and leave some space on the edges of the paper. That space is called margin. In our computer generation, we can set the margins on our documents, determining if we want wide or narrow margins – or none at all. Of course, Swenson’s metaphor is that we need such margins in our lives – in our relationships, our finances, and our schedules.
Swenson wrote that this concept of margin is a requirement if we are to battle back this dark side of progress. He says this in the opening chapter:
We must have some room to breathe. We need freedom to think and permission to heal. Our relationships are being starved to death by velocity. No one has the time to listen, let alone love. Our children lay wounded on the ground, run over by our high-speed good intentions. Is God now proexhaustion?
Of course, in the last 24 years, Molly has just become worse. The coming of the internet to our lives, and the ability to access it in any and all places, has brought us to a place where there is even more to choose from, even more to keep us busy, even more stressed. In 1992, Swenson wrote that the problem was exponential…gaining speed and volume more and more quickly as the years go by. Twenty-four years later, the problem is not better. It is pandemic.
“Is God now proexhaustion?”
These haunting words by the Christian doctor and writer Swenson help us to ask “where is God in the midst of all of this marginless living?” What does God have to say about this pandemic and what our response to it might be? It turns out that we don’t have to look that far.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s early summary of the message and purpose of Jesus, we find today’s passage. “Do not worry,” Jesus says. Three times, as a matter of fact, as a part of this passage alone. But in our age of anxiety, surely Jesus wouldn’t understand what we have to deal with, right? “Easier said than done!” we might say.
But he did. Jesus had plenty to worry about, as did the Christians who read Matthew’s Gospel. They were oppressed by the Romans for their religious practice. They were ridiculed by the Judaizers for having a weak and sloppy faith. They lived in conditions that we could not begin to survive in. And then Jesus commanded them to go on mission, to leave behind their staff so that they had no protection, their extra clothes for comfort, with no provisions or shelter. Anxiety seems to be a pretty healthy response! By some definitions, they had a lot more to worry about than we do.
Yet, Jesus does not stutter. His words and Matthew’s repetition of them are pretty clear. “Do not worry about your life. What you will eat or drink or what you will wear.” He uses a couple of metaphors from nature. “Look at the lilies of the field or the birds of the air.” He paints a ludicrous word picture of birds using a plow and storing away crops in a barn, or of a lily sitting at a spinning wheel making winter hats for the coming cold. No, Jesus laughs, they don’t worry, but yet God takes care of them. Then he uses an a fortiori argument to extrapolate “if this small thing is true, then obviously a bigger thing will be true, too.” In other words, “if God takes care of these relatively meaningless parts of creation, don’t you think that God will take care of you, one of the highlights of creation?”
Whenever I read this passage, I think about those orange daylilies that many of us have in our yards, and can be seen all over the place, from woods to Kansas fields to the side of the interstate. It seems like you can hardly kill those things…they are everywhere! And if God is taking care of them, why do you think you need to worry?
It is a poetic, not scientific description – obviously there are birds and lilies who expend energy, and die anyway. But it is meant to be a beautiful picture of God’s providence. If God takes care of them, why are you worried? They are beautiful pictures of God’s overwhelming care. I imagine Jesus smiling as he teaches his hearers to spend less time frantically running around, and more time worshipping the God of providence and peaceful care.
Jesus is not encouraging laziness or inactivity or naiveté, “for your heavenly Father knows you need these things.” It’s not as if Jesus is foolishly suggesting that these things are not necessary, nor is he suggesting that we don’t need to work for them. But he is addressing the manner in which we work: “seek first the Kingdom of God and these things will be added.” In other words, don’t make them your priority or your purpose. Doing so will always lead to anxiety. Ben Witherington summarizes Jesus’ words that anxiety about such things is like a “slap in the face of God.” Instead, we live our lives aware that in spite of all of the things in this world that are absolutely worthy of anxiety, God is greater than all of them.
So, Swenson addresses this clarification in his introduction, as well:
I am not suggesting that we should strive to have a pain-free, stress-free life. The Christian walk will always be filled with problems and work. Many times, we must be prepared to suffer willingly. What I am suggesting, however, is that given the ubiquity of the overload, we need to carefully choose where our involvement should come. We must not allow ourselves to be hammered in distress in the many areas of life which have absolutely no transcendent importance. It is not the will of the Father for us to be so battered by the torment of our age. There must be a different way – a way that reserves our strength for higher battles. And indeed there is.
So, in response to Swenson’s question:
Is God now proexhaustion? Of course not. God is pro-provision and pro-abundance. They more we try to run around and care for ourselves, the more Jesus begs us “look to the lilies. Look to the birds.”
It’s a prescription that Dr. Swenson echoed 24 years ago. And it’s one that we still need to hear today. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will explore that way – the prescription that Swenson calls Margin. Next week, we’ll talk about searching for margin in our schedules, and then in our finances, and finally in our bodies and physical energy.
To whet your appetite, this morning, a few practical suggestions from Swenson about how this process of reclaiming margin might look. He has way more suggestions then we have time for today, but few that might give you an idea of what this process might look like, reclaiming margin from the dark side of our marginless progress. Pick one and try it this week. See what happens when you begin to build margin into your life.
Spend less time with people who drain you and more time with people who fill you up.
Enjoy family field trips.
Turn off the TV.
Fix broken relationships.
Say no (Swenson says, “To be able to say no without guilt is to be freed from one of the biggest monsters in our overburdened lives.”)
Learn to enjoy solitude.
Go to the library.
Wage war against advertisements.
Encourage simple worship.
Send someone a thank you note.
This is only the beginning. As I conclude this morning, let me offer a confession. I preach this topic, because I need to learn this topic. I could probably say that about everything I preach, but especially here. I am Molly, in a lot of different ways. And I can identify with what Swenson and Jesus have to teach us about worry and anxiety. In fact, I bought this book about 8 months ago, upon recommendation, because I knew I needed to learn what it had to share. And when did I finish reading it? Eight days ago. When I had to get it done in order to preach on it. I need margin. And my guess is that I’m not the only one. May God give us all the grace to hear and the wisdom to act.