Far from the Madding Crowd

A Quiet Place: Our sailboat, Grace, moored in Brickyard Cove, Freeport, Maine

Mark 6:30-34; 53-56

First Baptist Church, Worcester

July 22, 2012

It is not a special morning. It is fairly routine. It’s the kind of morning that happens once every couple of weeks or so. It’s the morning when I have some meeting scheduled for 9:00 and I stay late in bed reading and then my dog, Zeb, takes a little longer to do his business during our walk; and then I can’t decide what to wear and I absentmindedly pick out a linen shirt that takes an extra 10 minutes to iron. I finally get ready and get in my car only to realize that I don’t have my ID badge. I can’t get into the parking lot without it, so I climb the three flights back up the triple-decker to our apartment and frantically look for it on my dresser, on my desk, in my jacket pocket from the day before.

Back in the car I have to wait for a line of cars to pass before I can pull out onto Pleasant Street. Then I miss the green light at Park; and then again at Main, and at McGrath, at Franklin, at Plantation, at Route 9. Every light turns red before me. Every pedestrian who can, steps out in front of me. Every driver who can, pulls out in front of me. The parking lot at work is full by now and I’m forced to park on the far reaches of campus.

And so now I’m angry. I’ve sworn at people on foot and people in cars. I’ve called them names. I’ve cursed the traffic light gods. As I pull into a parking space, I notice the time on my dashboard clock – not the time of day, but the time elapsed since I pulled out of my driveway. 14 minutes.

Now here’s the thing… on the days when I remember my ID badge, when I pull right out onto Pleasant, when I make all of the lights, when I pause to let pedestrians or other drivers go in front of me, when I pull into a parking space in the second row… on those mornings which are also not special, but fairly routine, when I note the time elapsed from when I pulled out of my driveway to when I pulled into the parking space, it is – wanna guess? – 13 minutes. Maybe 12.

The point is that it takes me, under any quote-unquote “normal” circumstances, between 12 and 15 minutes to travel by car from my driveway to the University Campus of UMass Medical School where I work. That’s a mean of 13.5 minutes, +/- 90 seconds.

It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, time? It dictates our lives like few other things and we collectively suffer the insatiable need to fill it – every cotton picking single last minute of it – with something. From meetings to errands to phone calls and surfing the Internet. To texting to gossiping to driving kids here and there, to planning menus and grocery lists and cooking meals; from eating at our desks to eating in our cars; to Zumba classes and detailed training schedules for road races, to watching talent shows on TV to doing homework begrudgingly to finding the right summer camp; talking while we’re walking, on the phone while we’re ordering coffee, reading emails while we wait in line…

It is GO! GO! GO! Go dog, Go! Because the difference between 12 minutes and 15 minutes is…

3 minutes.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Crowds followed them everywhere, sun up to sun down; always wanting something of them – of Jesus – fix this, heal that, tell us again that story about the shepherd. They had a lot of demands upon them. They had no time for themselves.

And so Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” Perhaps he says to us, “Put down your smartphone and follow me. Follow me up here to a quiet place for a while. Disconnect. Go offline.”

I fear that this message from the Gospel reading too often gets overlooked. It comes, after all, as a prelude to the story of the feeding of the 5,000. It’s just a couple of lines and we hardly see the period of the sentence before reading, “Now many saw them and recognized them” and chased after them and formed the great crowd that eventually had to be fed and had to be healed. It’s this great crowd that we focus upon, the crowd that Jesus looks upon with compassion; the crowd that he sees as lost, as sheep without a shepherd.

If you read this same story in John’s gospel, you’ll see it’s presented much more clearly as a metaphor – Jesus is the shepherd and it’s much less about feeding people with real loaves of bread, and more about feeding them with Jesus, the bread of life. Either way, it’s a great message – whether we’re called to feed people literally or to let Jesus feed our spirits – likely, both – it’s a message to give some attention to.

But rather than rush right over those first verses while preparing this sermon, I settled in on them, because I think that there is something very important in them, a message that you can’t do the latter; you can’t take care of others, teach one another, help one another; you can’t look upon others and the world with compassion without regularly going away to a quiet place, a deserted place, an un-harried place where you can think and meditate and pray; for it’s in the thinking and the meditating and the prayer that we find the energy we need to then return to the world and do all that it requires of us. As Henri Nouwen, the French cleric, wrote, it is “In solitude we discover that our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared. It’s where we recognize that the healing words we speak are not just our own, but are given to us; and that the love we can express is part of a greater love.”

Yet, we live in a world that praises busyness much more than quiet solitude. Work makes us busy and being busy makes us important. The cartoonist and author, Tim Kreider, wrote an opinion piece in the NY Times last month that went viral on the Internet. It was called “The Busy Trap” (June 30, 2012) and in it he didn’t hold back when describing his beliefs about how and why we’ve come to cling to this mantle, this “Badge of Honor” of busyness:

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness (he writes); obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” He calls it “institutional self-delusion. More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scary book, I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”

His thoughts struck a chord. Funny, I heard him interviewed by Tom Ashbrook on “On Point” last week and Kreider said that he wrote the piece mostly because he was mad at his friends who couldn’t seem to find the time to have a cup of coffee with him. Maybe the reason the piece resonated with so many people is because we’re all a little put off by the busyness of our friends. Maybe we don’t always see it in ourselves, or we don’t hear ourselves saying it, but when someone else says to us that they’re too busy, we think, “Well yes, my feelings are a bit hurt, too. Why won’t anybody come out and play with me today?”

The title of this sermon comes from a novel by the British author, Thomas Hardy that he originally wrote as a series of stories for a newspaper in 1874. Hardy borrowed the line from a poem by Thomas Gray, published more than a century earlier, in 1751, called “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Gray was writing to a friend who had died, reminding him that there is a place beyond the busy, frenzied, madding crowds and their tendency towards meanness and bitterness and violence; it is that place, the quiet place, that helps us stay on course. Perhaps that place for Gray was the country churchyard where he wrote the poem. For Jesus it was “a deserted place.” For Jesus it was also 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism by John. It was the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified. Quiet places, far from the crowds. Without them, we cannot do all that we are called to do in our lives.

But where are they? Where are our quiet places? We seem to want them so much, we want to get away, but we just don’t know how. We don’t know where? Or do we?

Have you noticed the rise in international movements devoted towards slow living? They’re out there. Have you seen more and more stories of yoga classes booming, mindfulness seminars being sold out, stress reduction classes offered, life coaches all around? You know what these things have in common – besides their popularity? They all promote time out. In our society that leads the industrialized world in lack of vacation time, we’re scrambling to find other ways to get what we intuitively know that we need. Whether we’ve heard Jesus’ message before or not, we do seem to know that we absolutely must have some time to ourselves, some time away in that deserted place to rest a while. “A life without a quiet center easily becomes destructive.” Henri Nouwen

When I first thought of this topic and started to put the pieces together for this morning, I thought of the horrible spate of incidents in the 1980s that garnered the phrase “going postal.” Several workers, most notably for the US Postal Service, went on violent rampages in their respective workplaces, killing managers and colleagues. The thought was that their work – the never ending, day after day after day nature of mail – drove them literally insane. When I heard on Friday the horrible story of the young man in Aurora, Colorado, a med school student earning his PhD in neuroscience, so much like a bunch of young people I see every day, I couldn’t help but wonder what drove him to this break of sanity. And knowing nowhere near enough details to even begin to factually state anything, I can only think of this world that we live in – this society that we’ve created – a non-stop pressure cooker to do and to be; to constantly push towards measures of success that are either realistically unattainable OR completely beyond our reach under our current circumstances. We cannot help but become sick.

What happened to that young man, we do not know, but we do know – we empirically know – what happens to each and every one of us when we neglect and/or refuse that quiet place. We get high blood pressure. We gain weight. We develop heart disease. We develop clinical depression. “A life without a quiet center easily becomes destructive” to itself and to others.

It hardly comes across as a warning like some of the other teachings of Jesus, but maybe these words to his disciples were just that. Maybe “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves” was Jesus way of saying, “You are NEVER going to make it in this disciple business unless you take care of yourselves, too.”

You’re not going to make it – not as a teacher or a student, not as a doctor, an accountant, a salesperson, a social worker, a librarian or a minister. You’re not going to make it as a parent, a spouse, a friend, a caregiver or a coworker. Unless you take that time away, says Jesus, you simply cannot do those jobs or fill those roles – not to your best.

Along with being a librarian at the Medical School, I also work as an exercise physiologist on some research with one of the obesity docs there. A couple of years ago, I worked with her on a study where I led some exercise groups for women who were both overweight and depressed. You’re probably not surprised if I tell you that the number one reason people give for not exercising is lack of time. Across the board. You ask anyone if they exercise regularly and for 9 out of the 10 who tell you no, they’ll say the reason is that they can’t find and/or don’t have the time. Time. There it is again.

Where that time goes, for women in particular, is interesting. So many women will tell you – as many in that particular study told me – they don’t have the time to exercise because their time is given to others; to their children, to their parents, to their husbands or partners. They also give time to work, as do men, but it’s this other piece where they leave guys behind. Women, far more, give up their time to others.

The sad thing – the damaging thing – about this trend for women (and men, too, of course) is that same irony that Jesus himself was telling the disciples. If you don’t give yourself the time you need to take care of yourself, eventually you won’t find the time to give to anyone else, either – in the saddest and harshest way – because you’ll be too unhealthy and/or too sick to do so. Maybe Jesus hadn’t read all of the writings of Jon Kabat-Zinn, our resident guru of mindfulness, or have the years of data the Mindfulness Clinic at UMMS has to prove the point, but he surely knew as much – stress will kill you and before it does that, it will keep you from doing so many of the things that you want or need to do for others, and for yourself.

And so I go back to time and the fact that the difference between 15 minutes and 12 minutes is … 3 minutes. Again, it’s a funny thing. Sometimes that 3 minutes seems like forever. Sometimes it’s just 3 minutes. And as we rush through all of those 3-minute segments of our days, what are we doing with them? Do we even notice?

Maybe noticing is where we start. Jesus reminded his disciples to take a break. We can remind ourselves. Some of our young folks and their chaperones are heading off to DC this week. They’re going to immerse themselves, figuratively and literally, in a different environment. Think about it – they might not be going off to that deserted place for quiet – it’s a youth gathering after all – but they are purposefully stepping away from a life that they know, one filled with so much – to something with a different focus. And I do bet that there will be time set aside for them during their stay when they can be quiet. When they can stop and think and reflect and listen. And I say to you now, those of you going, Lindsay gave you journals this morning to take with you. Take them and use them. Write down the things you notice and the things you’re thinking and the feelings you’re feeling.

Fill up every page with words and pictures – I say pictures, too, because I started drawing in my own journals a couple of years ago and it’s an amazing thing to do. It doesn’t matter if you can draw or not. The purpose is to give yourself another way to express yourself. And that’s the goal. Express yourself in your journals so that when you come back home, when you find yourself back in the every day busy life of classes and practices, of church and sports and music and art and volunteering and friends and family and all of the things that fill you up until you about can’t take it any more… you see that journal on your shelf or the table by your bed. And then you can pick it up and you can find your quiet place in it, because you will have to stop in order to look at it. You’ll have to pause.  And then hopefully you’ll see in those pages something that gives you the boost you need; you’ll remember something of the days at IMMERSE that means something special to you. And it will stay with you. And you’ll be better for it.

For those of us who will go to work this week – or errands or meetings or retirement or vacation or doctor’s appointments or whatever fills our lives – we can do the same thing. Maybe we’re not going to an event structured to help us focus on our spiritual lives, but we can make such for ourselves. We can go away for those few minutes here and there as we find them. We can carry a journal. We can take notes. We can take a walk to that place where we, too, can rest awhile.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Whether we are Melville’s Ishmael the sailor or Thomas Gray in a church courtyard; whether we are a young person or adult off for a spiritual immersion, or we’re running late for a meeting that may or may not make any real difference in the grand scheme of things; wherever we find ourselves today in our lives, may we each hear the words of Jesus to “Come away to a deserted place, to rest for a while.” And may we do just that.

AMEN

(Audio for this sermon will be available soon on the website of First Baptist Church, Worcester, Massachusetts.)

2 Responses to Far from the Madding Crowd

  1. Wonderful Sally! This is such a great topic to write about. My guru says that we must drink as we pour…fill ourselves up so we have enough to share with others.

  2. [...] have a tendency to think we’re a lot busier than we really are. If you know me or have read some of my other blog posts (both here and on my home blog), you’re aware of the fact that I find the “I’m so [...]

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