Column: Crazy Busy And The Lost Art of Saying ‘No’
By Drew Williams
I descended to a whole new low in my parenting a little while ago. In a moment of paternal virtue, I offered an expedition to a local pottery painting shop to my elementary-aged daughter, Olivia, and she enthusiastically embraced my wonderful plan for her life.
She chose the playlist for the car and I taught her the lyrics of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” on the way to the pottery shop. We arrived holding hands. For a brief moment, I was indeed “Super Dad!” And then came my spectacular fall from grace.
Sitting at the table, working together with great artisanal dexterity on a new bowl for our dog, I literally fell asleep. Twenty minutes later I found myself with her coat around my shoulders (“Dad, I thought you might be cold”) and Olivia on my cell phone with my wife, asking for advice on how to wake me up. The pottery shop, crowded with kids and super moms, appeared to have gone very quiet. Perhaps it was an attempt to let me sleep? Less charitably, I have to say that not even the heat of the kiln could take the chill off a certain quality of icy condemnation in the air for my lapse of consciousness.
My falling asleep at the (pottery) wheel was a wake-up call of another type. There is something terribly wrong here. There is a crazy kind of busyness in my life that is just not working! Where do I go with this problem? What does faith have to teach me?
Well, you can’t make the case that Jesus does not know what it is to work absurdly hard and be exhausted. Jesus put Himself under incredible strain. In Luke chapter 4, we observe Jesus pulling an “all-nighter.” We are told that “When the sun was setting” (verse 40) people came to him for healing and then we are told “And when it was day, he departed…” (verse 42), the inference being that He had worked through the night. Jesus had not held back. But by light of the dawn, Jesus stopped what he was going and went to a deserted place to pray. Not surprisingly, the crowds followed. At which point, Jesus ostensibly said to them, “No.” Luke records “…[the people] would have kept Him from leaving them, but He said to them, ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.’” (verse 42b-43). Jesus said “no” that morning to a lot of hurting people, who genuinely needed Him and who had, literally, followed Him into the desert for their healing.
How did Jesus know not to respond with a “yes” at that moment? After all, He worked all through the night so He clearly did not lack compassion for the sick. Can we chalk it up to exhaustion? Here we see evidence that Jesus’ guidance was from His Father and not from circumstances alone. The Father evidently told Him, “It’s time to move on. I want you to go to Judea and preach there.” The Father said “No” so Jesus said “No.”
What would my life look if I got my guidance from my heavenly Father and not just from my circumstances, no matter how apparently urgent those circumstances appeared? Could the Father actually give me permission to say “no”? What if Jesus’ hope for me — His rescue from my state of “crazy busyness” — has a lot to do with my learning to say “no” to a whole lot of good things so that I can be freed up to say “yes” to the most important things? If so, how would I know the difference?
Have you ever noticed that during in-flight safety announcements flight attendants instruct passengers to put on their own oxygen mask before helping to put a mask on a child seated next to them? As a parent, this might appear a little cruel, save that airport health and safety studies have demonstrated that we are not in any position to help our child if we are not first properly oxygenated. What we see throughout Jesus’ entire ministry is exactly this priority of deliberately reconnecting with the “oxygen” of His Father’s love and guidance.
In our crazy busy lives making time to reconnect with the Father will no doubt feel counterintuitive. Perhaps it feels like God has just added yet another to-do to your long list! But if we are to allow God to break the hold that “crazy busy” has over us, this is where we must start. We are invited to bring our unmanageable lives to the Father — and tell Him the truth about how we are doing. I fell asleep in a pottery painting shop with my eight-year-old daughter! I confess the extent of my problem and my incapacity to fix it on my own! This step is humbling, but crucial. We must acknowledge before Him that we are powerless to throw off our crazy busy lives, that our own guidance system has crashed! This place of confession is where we start. If not, we are simply going to come back to the place where all we can do is try harder… which will bring us back to the same end, but in a deeper pit.
It is critical that we reconnect with our heavenly Father, to come before Him with our inability to be un-busy. What will I discover in this place of reconnection and confession? Jesus clearly knew what exhaustion felt like. And He knows each one of us so well. He knows of what we are made and where our particular breaking point is. “For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14). I was recently convicted by this verse from Psalm 127: “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil…” So, what is the Lord’s response? To berate us? The Psalm continues with His response, “…for He gives to His beloved sleep.” (Psalm 127:2). We expect condemnation, but what we find is mercy and compassion.
I find this deeply reassuring because it reveals that the Lord knows exactly what it takes to get us physically back on our feet and has the patience to restore us with exactly what we need, as we need it, however long that takes. Jesus said, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.” (Matthew 11:28-29). In other words, “I know you are weary. I know what got you here…I long for you to come to Me…And actually, if you will only ask Me, I will lift the burden of your self-propelled life and give you power to break the cycle of crazy-busyness.” He is the one who provides the strength and power to us in all our weakness. The prophet Isaiah wrote: “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” (Isaiah 40:29).
How does He do that? This is the role of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not just the Comforter / Advocate / Helper [how He is described in different translations of John 14:26] but the power. Here is our capacity and power to say “no” to the good things so that we might partake in God’s best for us. The Holy Spirit supplies the power for us to live differently — the power to repent when we don’t live differently, the power to live changed lives. And all you have to do is ask. Do we imagine that God would demand some four-month silent retreat in a horsehair shirt, drinking only rain water, before deeming us worthy of the Holy Spirit? No, all we have to do is confess our inability to cease being crazy busy and just ask for His help. Jesus told us, “…how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13).
So, having acknowledged my own power to change and having asked for the Holy Spirit’s help, I have suddenly found the inspiration and conviction to put into effect what Olivia and I call “The Saturday Plan.” This means I get up early on Saturday morning and complete whatever is still to be done for leading or preaching at our worship services on Sunday and then the day belongs exclusively to Olivia!
I can report that we have seen the animals at Beardsley Zoo, traversed an aerial forest park connected by bridges and zip lines at the Adventure Park at Bridgeport, and marveled at a live butterfly garden at the excellent Connecticut Science Museum in Hartford. And I managed to stay awake for all of it! I have on my iPhone priceless photographs of some treasured moments with my family where I am fully conscious – and I owe all of this to the power of God to say “no” to a few good things so that I might break free of being crazy busy and live in the moment.
I confess that I have slipped a few times. Some days “crazy busy” has a pull that is stronger than a black hole. Still, the power of God is greater and I have begun to recognize a process of repentance, compassion, mercy and His power to overcome that counteracts the gravitational pull.
I was struck the other day by how many times the Bible tells us that God does not fall asleep on the job. “He [God] who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” (Psalm 121:3b-4). This is, of course, the perfect model of the perfectly present Father. I am not Him, but I can ask Him for His help and I can be sure that in the perfection of His parenthood, He has mercy for my failings and will supply all the love, strength, wisdom and inspiration to all my best intentions to be a father after His own heart.
The Rev. Drew Williams is senior pastor at Trinity Church in Greenwich.