Becoming Unbusy

March 10, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Scripture:  Matthew 11:28-30


Reader: Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

As we begin this Season of Lent, our Worship will invite us to make this time a sacred time, if you will, a time to slow down, to pray, to reflect, to just be.  It is a reminder that who we are is far more important than what we do, although what we do is certainly important.  In this passage from Matthew, we hear these words… Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.  Jesus never promised that the yoke would literally be “easy.” This is a mistranslation. In this context of yoking oxen, the translation means “well fitting.” As we begin Lent, we discover that each of us has a tempo or a routine that fits well, that energizes us. We might consider these questions…What tempo gives you life and energy? What tempo of life feels toxic to you? What is the cost?  Let us pray,  O God of our days, we ask that you help us to slow down during these weeks of Lent, that we may find more time for the people whom we love, more time to spend with you.  Amen.

Last Friday, March 8th was International Women’s Day and this month is Women’s History Month.  I have read studies that show that for all the progress that has been made in our nation in terms of opportunities for women, women are working harder than ever…holding down a full time or multiple part-time jobs and then going home to continue their work day of caring for children or aging family members, make the meal, often doing most of the house cleaning and then falling exhausted into bed.  Women have twice the rates of depression and anxiety than men do, although men are suffering as well.  And, for the women who are single mothers, many are making heroic efforts to hold down work and care for their families, endeavoring to give their children better opportunities than they had.

I recall taking a graduate course a few years ago and the professor was an older woman, married,  with no children. She was on the faculty of Andover Newton.  I don’t even recall what we were talking about, but she made this observation that life today is so much easier for women with all of these modern appliances and conveniences that should make things so much better…and I couldn’t help but voice my opinion, as a mom with young children at the time.  I said to her that most of the women I knew didn’t stop working from the time their feet hit the ground in the morning until they finally made it to bed into the evening.  They had little time for themselves as it was often work, followed by chores and care taking at home.  Busy, busy, busy and exhausted.

Where did we learn the idea that staying busy all the time was somehow to be sought?  What is the cost to us as individuals and communities when people are too busy to connect to one another.

I read a piece written by a woman named Lettie Stratton on a website  called the unbusy life.  I have included the link in our News Insert today.  Her piece was titled, “How I settled into a year of not being busy” and in it, she describes a decision she made to leave her stable job and spend 14 months in New Zealand with no phone, no computer, and no agenda except to learn and enjoy the experiences. She notes that while it was terrifying to make this decision in the face of other people’s expectations, it was one of the best decisions she has ever made.  In the piece she reflects upon the toll that being busy had taken on her own life and how we have come to measure success in our country by how busy we or others are…with extra points for being stressed out and always on the go.

She observed that, “Being busy all the time makes it extremely difficult to find time for yourself, because most of the time, people are busy with things they don’t want to be doing like work, appointments, errands, meetings, obligations, and mindless tasks that just must be done. There’s often not time to prioritize healthier living practices like eating well, exercising, and getting enough restful sleep.”  It used to be that retirement was a time when people were able to slow down, and certainly some people do that, but I know many retirees who are busier than ever and as stressed as their younger friends.

Unfortunately, there is often a sense of privilege in having the ability to take time for yourself. For many, there is not much time left in the day after fulfilling work and family obligations.  In many parts of the world, girls are still taken out of school too young to stay home and help with chores and to help care for younger siblings.  Many people who are stressed to the max and working pay check to paycheck cannot imagine taking time to relax.  While I acknowledge that reality,  I do believe that most of us can slow down, consider our priorities and carve out time to step out of the fast-paced routine and reclaim time that is less hectic, less busy.

For many people, the need to unplug is central.  Too many people these days are in front of computers during most of the day and then in the habit of checking emails and social network sites etc…in the evenings.  We know that too many young people now consider themselves addicted to their screens and that has not been a healthy thing.

The writer of the article said, “I found that when I unplugged I felt happier, more present, and actually more connected than I felt when I was using email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google throughout the day. I could appreciate a beautiful sunset without feeling the need to capture a photo to post online. I could fully focus on the people I was spending time with instead of checking my phone repeatedly.”

She goes on, “Spending as much time as possible outside was another goal of my trip and my year of not being busy. Part of my view of living a decluttered life is doing away with the trappings that keep us indoors, sanitized, and thinking we need all sorts of gadgets and things to get by. After living out of a backpack for a year, I realized how little I really needed and how being outside emphasized that.  I really was happier with less. As long as I had food, water, shelter, and a good book, I felt satisfied.”

Some of you may have heard about something called forest bathing.  Nature literally has the power to heal. By slowing down and letting yourself notice the smell, sound, and feel of nature, you become present, aware, and often experience less stress. You become unbusy.  As part of our Lenten Offerings, we are offering the opportunity over the coming weeks to join others from our church for a quiet walk in nature.  The list is on the sheet that has been prepared for you at the entry to the church.

My husband has recently been reading an excellent book called The Shallows:  how the internet is changing our brains, and in the book, the author  speaks about the value of nature and its connection to overall well-being.  He writes that, “ A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition.  Their brains become calmer and sharper.”  He speaks about something called ART or ‘attention restoration therapy’ the idea that when people aren’t bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax.

He speaks of research that was done at the University of Michigan.  They recruited three dozen people and gave them a series of rigorous and mentally fatiguing tests, designed to measure the capacity of their working memory.  Then they were divided into two groups.  Half spend about an hour walking through a secluded woodland park; the others spent an equal amount of time along busy downtown streets.  When they took the tests again, those who had spent time in the park were found to have significant improvement in their performance on the tests, while walking in the city led to no improvement in test results.  I don’t think we need a study to convince us of the value of slowing down and spending time in nature.  Most of us can provide anecdotal info that would support the benefits.

I remember when people often spoke about time management, about the intentional ways we manage our time. This can also be done in terms of creating space to be unbusy.  We need to be deliberate in making choices to spend less time doing what we must do and more time doing the things that make us happy, that bring us peace, that free us up from the routine of constant movement and activity.  Balance is the thing we most often need to create, whenever possible.

The author of the piece on becoming unbusy, Lettie Stratton, reflected on her time of being unbusy in this way,   “My year of not being busy was incredible, but it was not without challenges. However, I look back on my trip as a time of intention and care — of living my life as fully aligned with my beliefs as I have yet. In recent years that care has slipped, and I yearn to get it back. Being unbusy must be a conscious practice. It is one that is well worth the effort.”

As we begin this Season of Lent, I invite each of us to give ourselves permission to slow down, to take a break, to re-set priorities about how we spend our time so that we provide ourselves with the opportunity for quiet, for nurturing our relationships with others and with God.  God is not in a hurry.  Are we?