sacred, unproductive space

In a nutshell: The production-addicted cycle of being reactive and proactive threatens to squeeze out the space for being attentive to the stuff that really matters. So what can we (not) do about it?

A few days ago, my day started like this:

[6:30AM. I’m still asleep. I slowly come to, realizing my oldest son is leaning over me telling me something in a rather urgent manner…]

Son: Dad… Dad… DAD!!! The dog’s did it again…

[We have two outside dogs that occasionally spend the night inside if the weather is bad. They were inside that night.]

Me: Did what?

Son: IT!

Me [a little more awake and fighting irritation]: WHAT?! What is IT!?

Son: They messed on the floor…


And just like that, I was fully awake and moving. Down the stairs, grab the paper towels, plastic bags, ammonia. And deal with the problem.

Then it’s the general mayhem of getting the kids off to school and myself out the door and to the office. I hit the chair. Turn on the computer, and begin planning my day and week. Then I get to work making that plan happen.

In a society that defines success by how much we get done, what we produce, what we accumulate, and the status we achieve, this is the basic formula for success. There are a lot of other techniques, formulas, and habits that we might mix and match in order to be more successful–but they are basically add-ons. There are really only three things that are essential: (1) Deal with stuff that comes up; (2) Plan ahead; (3) Act on the plan.

If I were to boil it down even further, I might argue that there are only two postures involved: Reactive (dealing with stuff that comes up) and Proactive (getting ahead of the game).

What’s missing? Well, God.

Actually, God is always present and active, whether we notice or not, but we are often oblivious to God’s presence, will, and activity because we get so distracted by what we need to get done. Here’s what it looks like on my worst days:

When I’m working, I’m less productive because I’m tired and wishing I were somewhere else resting or playing. When I am resting or playing, I feel guilty because I’m behind on my work. When I’m with my family, I’m preoccupied by thoughts of stuff I need to do, so I’m irritable and distracted.

And if you were to ask me what it means to live out the prayer that God’s will be done in my life as it is in heaven, I wouldn’t have a clue how to answer. How can I know what God’s will might be if I never take time, space, or quiet to listen?

I hope you don’t sympathize with this, but I suspect you do. Can you see how crazy it is?

We need to make space for a third posture: being attentive. The Buddhists call it mindfulness, and it’s kind of trendy to say mindfulness. But the practice is older than Buddhism. Jews and Christians have been practising it for millennia. Psalm 46 claims that God has the power to deal with the worst stuff of life, and that in the midst of the chaos–when we are most prone to want to ‘deal with stuff’–instead we should be still, recognize that God is God, and give him praise.

In Exodus and Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are charged to keep the sabbath. In Exodus 20, the reasoning is that God is holy, and God created everything and rested. We rest as an act of participating in God’s holiness. In Deuteronomy 5, the idea of sabbath is powerfully attached to God’s liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It’s like saying: “take time to rest and remember that you are not slaves–even to your crazy culture’s definition of success.”

Elijah found himself caught between being productive (both defeating the prophets at Mount Carmel and very effectively praying for rain in 1 Kings 18) and reacting to a crisis (fleeing from Jezebel in the very next chapter). It’s so striking that God’s voice wasn’t in the wind, earthquake, or fire. For nearly five years, my family lived in a place constantly battered by harsh sea winds and violent earthquakes. We even had a streak of arson in the neighbourhood. Let me tell you, it doesn’t matter how busy or productive you are, you notice blasting winds, magnitude 6 earthquakes, and burning buildings. But God’s voice wasn’t in those. It was in the silence. In order for Elijah to hear it, he had to be attentive.

Jesus reflects on this extensively in Matthew 6 and 7. He tells us to get our priorities right in terms of what and where our treasure is (6:19-21), to make sure our eyes are pointed at the right stuff (6:22-23), to God and not serve (or be a slave to) wealth (6:24), not to worry and fret (6:25-34), and to seek his kingdom first–letting all the other stuff fall in line behind that (7:7-11). In his own life, Jesus repeatedly took time to get away from the crowds–and even his disciples– in order to be quiet and alone with the Father. His ministry flowed out of this.

It seems, then, like we should allow there to be space in our lives where we aren’t dealing with problems–aren’t fixing something–and neither are we planning and acting.

We need some sacred, unproductive space to simply be.

This is not the same as being lazy. It takes persistence and determination to hold still. It takes trust that God will follow through on his promise to take care of us. It’s not easy.

This is also not the same as actively studying the Bible–that is certainly a good thing, but it is also an active, productive thing. And being still is not the same as praying, so long as we define prayer as ‘us telling God stuff.’ That is also a good thing, but in my own experience it’s pretty difficult for me to listen to the other so long as I’m the one talking. (Just ask my wife.)

I’m not advocating for being attentive instead of being productive. I still need to get stuff done. I like keeping my job, living in a house, having clothes to wear, and seeing my family eat regular meals. It takes planning and action in order for those things to happen. And things come up that I need to deal with (it’s certainly not a good idea to ignore a dog mess in the middle of the room). But what I am arguing is that I need to be careful those two impulses don’t dominate me–that they don’t totally crowd out space for me to reflect on what is most important: God, God’s will, my place in that will, the relationships that God has put in my stewardship, the health of my soul, and what’s really going on in the world around us.

There are a lot of resources available to help us be still. There is a resurgence of interest in contemplative Christian practices, spiritual disciplines, and spiritual formation. Here’s one simple thing to try for starters: before praying for a meal, try being silent–individually or as a family–for 60 seconds. It might be harder than you think. It also might be more rewarding than you think. Try it for several days and see what happens.

What are the resources that help you be still and pay attention to God, the people in your life, and your own soul? Please share. I’d love to learn from you.