1 Kings 19:14, 815a; Psalm 43; Luke 8:2639
One of the best commentators on contemporary life I’ve encountered in a long time is a three year old girl named Olivia, the daughter of the New Yorker magazine writer Adam Gopnik. In an essay by Gopnik called “Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli,” it’s clear that Olivia has picked up the feel of our lives these days. You see, little Olivia, who lives in New York, has an imaginary friend named Charlie Ravioli, but the problem with Charlie is that he is always too busy to play with her.
Olivia will hold her toy cell phone up to her ear and say, “Ravioli? It’s Olivia… It’s Olivia. Come and play? O.K. Call me. Bye.” Then she snaps her cell phone shut and complains to her mother, “I always get his answering machine.” Or she will tell her mother, “I talked to Ravioli today.” “Did you have fun?” her mother asks. “No,” the girl replies, “He was busy working.”
On a good day she “bumps into” her invisible friend and they go to a coffee shop. “I bumped into Charlie Ravioli,” she announces at dinner, on a day, of course when she stayed home all day. “We had coffee, but then he had to run.” Or later she ran into him, but “he was working.” So they “hopped” into a taxi and “grabbed” lunch. After awhile a new person appeared in Olivia’s world. It was Laurie, who is Charlie Ravioli’s imaginary assistant, and her main message to Olivia when she calls for Charlie is that Mr. Ravioli is in a meeting and won’t be able to play today.
That’s the world this three-year-old sees around her. Everyone is too busy to get together. So they communicate sporadically with their voice messages and cell phones, they “grab” meals, they have to “run,” unless by chance they “bump” into each other.
Needless to say, the father was a little concerned about Olivia’s imaginary life, so he contacted his sister, a child psychologist, who said that it’s perfectly normal for children ages three to five to have imaginary friends. But, he asked, is it normal to have an imaginary friend who doesn’t have time to get together with you? No, she said that seems to be something new.
“Busyness is our art form,” Gopnik says, “our civic ritual, our way of being us.” We’re always running to the next thing, grabbing a meal, reading our e-mails while we eat a sandwich at lunch. Sometimes we might actually bump into a friend, but often there isn’t even time for a quick cup of coffee. So we say, “Let’s do it soon. Give me a call. E-mail me when you have a minute.”
Gopnik reflects on life in urban America and says that we’re constantly juggling two demanding grids of existence—the physical world of cars, sidewalks, traffic, encounters with real human beings. That’s exhausting enough in the city. But then we go to our desk or we come home to another whole grid—the endless e-mails, voice-mails, and faxes. And the problem with this world is that the communication never seems to get to closure. Every e-mail wants another. “Get back to me. Give me a call. What’s the next step?”
“Perpetually suspended communication,” he calls it. You have instant connection; you’re never quite finished. Gopnik tells of a moment his wife recalls when she got a telephone message from a friend, asking her to check her e-mail about a phone call she needed to make, regarding a fax they had both received asking for more information, about a purchase they were making that would require an online bed company to exchange phone calls, e-mails, and faxes with the shipping company.
James Gleick wrote a book entitled Faster, with the subtitle, “The Acceleration of Just About Everything.” The book talks about the nature of time, and how the meaning of time has changed. Now it’s all about hurry, efficiency, getting on quickly to the next thing. We’ve become multitaskers. We are worried about how to be most productive. We want to make every minute count. We see books on sale such as 30 Second Bedtime Stories, marketed for parents who just don’t have time for a full 15-minute bedtime with their child.
‘Why do we speed up more and more?’ an interviewer asked Gleick. “Because we can,” he answers, “and we get a visceral thrill from speed…It gives us a rush.” That’s the word. Rushing gives us a rush. And we can’t deal with finitude, limits, not being able to do it all.
The Catholic monk Thomas Merton summarized our situation when he said,
The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence.
Our Old Testament lesson today takes us to another world and another time, but to a problem not so different. The Old Testament prophet Elijah has been called to bring the people of Israel back to faith in their God. Elijah has labored mightily for God, but in the lesson today he is exhausted, depressed, worn down by pushing relentlessly and never coming up for air.
And so he goes on a day’s journey out into the wilderness, sits down under a solitary broom tree, and in despair says, ‘I can’t do it any more.’ “It is enough; now, O Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Haven’t we all known times when all the busyness takes its toll? Times when we’ve worked so hard, pushed ourselves to the limit, seen that there’s still more to do. Times when the well runs dry, when there’s no more water down at the bottom, when it is hard to move on.
Then Elijah goes on a journey of forty days to Mt. Horeb, the same mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and there he glimpses a possibility beyond the exhaustion. ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord,’ a voice says. And when Elijah does, he faces a blasting wind, and then an earthquake, then a fire, all signs of God’s powerful presence. But then, after the fire, there is “a still, small voice,” as many translations put it, or a “gentle whisper,” or a “hushed sound.” He hears, just barely, the voice of God.
What exactly he “heard” in that “still small voice,” we can’t know. It seems to have been only a brief time of profound awareness of God. And it only came after forty days of stepping aside from his labors, breathing deeply, clearing his head and his heart, and listening for God to speak. It took him some time to be able to listen to God.
And is it any surprise that we need time too? Real time, to step out of the fast lane, the endless stream of busyness, to let our wells be filled with living water again and to be able to listen to God. It isn’t easy to clear our heads of the tensions, the endless high expectations, the desire to prove and achieve—worthy things themselves, until they begin to sweep away the balance and depth our days are meant to hold.
Summer is upon us. Over the next two months most of us will have some chance to slow down the pace of things, at least a little. Elijah took forty days, which is more than most of us can get. Still, many of us will have a chance to step out of our routines, at least for a few days. And even if that isn’t possible, summer is a calmer, less pressured time of year for nearly everyone. And so I want to offer you two proposals.
First, find some way to stop and do nothing. Or, to put it another way, learn to float. Most of us have been swimming hard all year. We have been churning up the water, stroking our way forward with every ounce of energy we have, trying to do all the important things we are expected to do, and not surprisingly, we are tired. And so the age-old advice is, when you can’t swim any more, then it’s time to float. Let the water, let God, let your life, hold you up. Stop trying so hard. Or, as Psalm 46 puts it, “Be still and know that I am God.”
The problem for us often is that we work so hard being earnest, responsible people ourselves, that we forget that finally it is God who is holding us and our world together. It’s not up to us to do everything right and to achieve all the right things. If it’s up to us, it’s never enough, because there is always more to be done. It’s up to God, and it’s our job to do what we can, and then trust God with the rest.
So sit on a beach. Climb a mountain. Sail a boat. Ride a bicycle. Hit a tennis ball. Catch a fish. Read a book that feeds our spirit. But no agendas, please. No accomplishments. Stop churning up the water and let it hold you. Know that your peace is in your place, right where you are.
That’s of course what maybe the most violated of all the Ten Commandments is all about: Remember to keep holy the sabbath. Sabbath has become just another day for soccer leagues and music lessons for the young, and for shopping and running errands for the old. What if you really made one day a week this summer a real sabbath—no work, no stores, no cleaning out the basement—just being. Summer can be a time to help us relearn the grace of doing nothing, the reality that everything we need is here. And if we can experience the goodness of being even a little this summer, maybe we can begin to shape a different rhythm as the fall returns.
And second, I want to urge you to pray. Listen as Elijah did for God’s voice. There are so many voices around us that we need to be willing to enter silence fully to hear God’s “still, small voice.” For example, if we do nothing else in the morning but sit for five or ten minutes and read a psalm slowly, we will at least be starting our day with a stake in the ground that declares that there is someone else in charge here and we don’t have to do it all. Thirty minutes could really refocus our day.
Why not try fifteen or thirty minutes of silence? In that time, let go of the anxious, fretful thoughts that dominate our minds and spirits. Don’t push them away, just let them come and go, like boats floating down a river. You can look at them, notice them, just don’t cling to them. Let the words of the psalm, or a simple prayer like “Lord, have mercy,” or “The Lord is my shepherd” flow through your mind, maybe aligned with your breathing in and out. And begin to discover the peace that comes simply in being a creature in the hand of God.
The answer to our busyness will never be external. No matter how many pieces of our lives we move around, the deluge of messages and demands will always be too much. Elijah went back to work after his time away at Mt. Horeb, with conflicts and demands waiting for him, and whatever breather we have, we will go back too.
But Elijah went back grounded, refreshed, clearer that he was part of God’s great work, and that God was with him. Getting beyond busyness is an inside job, learning more and more to be a creature in the hand of God. If you’re looking for a task for the summer, I can’t think of a better one than that.