Monday, November 24, 2008



For the next couple of days I am on vacation, which provides an opportunity to break out of the usual patterns of living and attend to some of those things that otherwise suffer from lack of attention. (I also realize as I write this that that sounds more like switching tasks than taking a vacation, which may be an indication that the pathologies in my life are more deeply ingrained than I realized).

One of the first things I have done is undertake the task of clearing my desk. I am not exactly sure how it gets to be this way. I have done this before, and vowed to keep on top of it, but little by little things begin to encroach, and like water quietly seeping into a leaky boat, by the time I begin to realize that I'm not keeping ahead of it and major bailing is required, I am defaulting to slipping on a pair of water shoes and trying to make the best of it. Thus, when vacation comes, instead of taking the opportunity to relax a bit and enjoy a quiet peaceful cruise, a good share of the time is spent hauling the boat into dry dock and making repairs.

I have now cleared from my desk 46 books (all of which are in the process of being read), 10 journal articles, 3 notebooks, multiple stacks of various kinds of papers, notes, and items needing attention (or having received attention, have not yet found their way to the place where they need to be filed, if indeed such a place actually exists), and an odd assortment of other items too diverse to describe that have been placed on my desk by other members of the family who simply didn't know what else to do with them. I still have an odd little pile of things off to one side that I can't quite figure out what to do with, but for the most part, I have most everything attended to, filed, and the surface of my desk back. It is a good and freeing feeling.

What I find myself struggling with is that my desk too often is an apt reflection of my life. The problem is not so much any one thing that is on the desk, or even a lack of organizational skills (although I am sure additional skill in this area would be helpful), but rather something more deeply rooted and systemic than that. I don't think it's even, entirely, a matter of priorities, at least to the extent that priorities involve putting things in the right order . . . but rather a matter of too many things to order.

As difficult as it is to say in this culture (and actually be heard when saying it), clutter is, to some extent, simply a matter of too much stuff.

It would be much easier to deal with if clutter were simply a matter of taking out the trash or tidying up - where you are dealing with things like accumulated bits of dust, junk mail, or stuff that inadvertently gets tracked in. Far more difficult are the things that seem to need attention, that you are interested in, committed to, wanting to pursue or address, that seem to be valuable in some way, which you would like to file for future reference, etc. . . . but all of which require a certain about of time and emotional energy to deal with, which at the moment is already going toward something else. And so things get stacked on the desk (or some other nearby flat surface) until you can finish thinking about them, or get back to them, find the energy to tackle them, or figure out where to to put them. And then . . . soon . . . before you realize it . . . like in the parable of the sower, so much stuff has grown up that it blocks the sun and chokes out the life of the seeds that are trying to germinate. The major problem with the clutter that accumulates on my desk, is not so much that it is present, but rather what it crowds out, it's tendency to distract, and the energy it absorbs in the process.

And so as I sit here at my newly cleared desk, I think about what might be different this time? Not so much, what new organization technique do I need to employ to manage all the stuff that accumulates here, but rather, what are the patterns of life that need to be addressed and altered in order to step out of current that keeps washing me up on the same shore?

This is one of those moments where, once again, I am reminded of the patterns of living reflected in the life of Jesus, and which are encouraged by the Christian practices that have been preserved and engaged down through the centuries. Patterns and practices that have to do with

  • engagement and withdrawal
  • living out of stillness and rest, instead of allowing stillness and rest to be what we collapse into when exhausted
  • simplicity and generosity
  • the recognition that I have limits, and that it is perhaps better to connect with a few people (or do a few things) well, than a lot of people (or do a lot of things) superficially
and numerous other life patterns which have more to do with helping us to live a certain kind of life that brings healing and wholeness to those around us, than one that gets caught up in the patterns of the culture in which it finds itself (whether or not it can state it's doctrinal convictions accurately).

As I write this, a passage from Wayne Muller's book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight In Our Busy Lives, comes to mind which describes a bit of the problem we find ourselves in when we get stuck in the cultural patterns that keep us from actually living lives that reflect the rhythms and patterns of what God intends.

In the relentless busyness of modern life, we have lost the rhythm between work and rest. . . . Our culture invariably supposes that action and accomplishment are better than rest, that doing something -- anything -- is better than doing nothing. Because of our desire to succeed, to meet these ever-growing expectations, we do not rest. Because we do not rest, we lose our way. We miss the compass points that would show us where to go, we bypass the nourishment that would give us succor. We miss the quiet that would give us wisdom. We miss the joy and love born of effortless delight. Poisoned by this hypnotic belief that good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort, we can never truly rest. And for want of rest, our lives are in danger. . . In our drive for success we are seduced by the promises of more:: more money, more recognition, more satisfaction, more love, more information, more influence, more possessions, more security. Even when our intentions are noble and our efforts sincere -- even when we dedicate our lives to the service of others -- the corrosive pressure of frantic over-activity can nonetheless cause suffering in ourselves and others . . . work in the world rarely feels light, pleasant, or healing. Instead, as it all piles endlessly upon itself, the whole experience of being alive begins to melt into one enormous obligation. It becomes the standard greeting everywhere: I am so busy. . . . We say this to each other with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a mark of real character. The busier we are, the more important we seem . . . to be unavailable to our friends and family, to be unable to find time for the sunset (or even to know that the sun has set at all) . . . this has become the model of a successful life. (excerpts from pages 1-3)
Perhaps the tendency of my desk, like my life, to gravitate toward clutter is more symptom than disease. While there is something to be said about managing the acute symptoms that can make it difficult to function, dealing with the more chronic patterns of living that give rise to the symptoms may indeed be what makes the most sense in the long run, and is, interestingly, what I feel most drawn to when I take the time to slow down and listen carefully and reflectively. It may also be significant that the patterns that God has built into our lives through things like Sabbath keeping are designed to give us regular opportunities to do just that.

And so I wonder what it might mean if Adventists became known, not just as a group of people who can correctly identify the 7th day on a calendar, but also as those whose lives have been transformed by a different way of living altogether that Sabbath represents? But perhaps a better question might be, what it might be like if this particular Adventist became known for that? Being the change you would like to see in the world is maybe a good place to start. I wonder how it might impact my desk?


Michael J. Bennie said...

I'm laughing out loud as I finish this bullseye-hitting post, because I spent yesterday cleaning up clutter, including the contents of my car. And among the accumulated goods in the old Accord was your sermon, "Tired?"--on a cassette tape (never mind that I have not had a working cassette player in that car for a couple years). It was about Sabbath and the call to rest from the compulsive sort of doing-centered life we tend to live. It got lots of listening through the years when I did have a player in the car, but alas, it fell victim to some sticky substance poured on it during one of many baby-shuttling adventures. Thanks for revisiting the theme here.

Our weekly incarnation of the larger Sabbath principle is sure a gift, because even with that, life gets off-enter so easily.

I heard a good example of what we struggle with in an NPR story on the self-storage business, booming thanks to Americans' "affluenza," which has allowed us to buy bigger-than-ever houses that still can't hold all the goods we acquire. Here it is: It's easy for me to look down my nose at this sort of materialism. But I'm as acquisitive as anyone when it comes to stockpiling what makes ME feel valuable, safe or powerful--ideas, accomplishments, commitments, contributions, respect, admiration, praise, and the like. Thus, my desk STILL looks like your photo.


Jared Wright said...

Doing lots of things superficially rather than a few things well...ya. Me too.

Whenever I get to thinking about what it means to find rest that extends a bit beyond Sabbath's usual activities, I invariably think about this phrase from the 23rd Psalm:

He restores my soul.

Now I'm thinking about that again.