The demands of life are increasingly frenetic, propelling us into ways of existing that are contrary to our human nature. We need a balance of work, rest and play, yet most of us are going too fast, rushing from each activity but never really stopping to reflect on who and where we are. Sometimes we run just to stand still. Part of that is necessary of course, mortgages to pay, kids to feed and clothe, cars to run. Nevertheless many of us are beguiled by the notion that by going faster we pack more in, and so get more out of life. Some of our pointless busyness shows there never was a more pernicious and crafty lie as that one.
In reality, speed like death shortens life. We end up doing too much, but all at the shallow end of the pool. We fail to spend time feeling the textures of life, the good times and the painful times and miss the depths of experience and character formation they bring. We remain shallow people, skimming across the surface of life. Fast, yes, but in reality having little or no impact on the world around. Speed for some becomes a wonderful excuse for evading the issues that populate their lives and need attention.
This frenetic busyness has also crept silently beneath the radar of many churches. Instead of offering windows onto heaven, they offer a mirror of the world around. Many church leaders are some of the most industrious and hard working people I know. Often their commitment and drive and passion are amazing and unequalled. But too often those same leaders confuse the phrase ‘This is God’s work’ (who can argue with that?) with a workaholic tendency. How many marriages and families have been sunk on that iceberg? As a church leader myself I’ve discovered how easy it is to be so busy with the work of the Lord that I forget the Lord of the work (and the family that the Lord has given me). In the past I’ve walked perilously close to the precipice sign-posted burnout and breakdown.
Preachers often tell us that we should be like Mary, who sat listening at Jesus feet, rather than her sister Martha who busied herself preparing the meal. But I think we have to get real and that means getting in touch with how we are hard-wired as individuals. Each of us is in reality a combination of both Martha and Mary, which often creates tension within us. For example, I’m more Martha than Mary. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a bit of a Mary in me, it’s just that I’m at my happiest when I’m busy doing something, whatever that something is. I feel out of my depth when I have nothing to do. That’s how I am. There’s no sense in pretending I’m anything or anyone different. Others will be the complete opposite, being more Mary than Martha and they will find fulfilment in being rather than doing. And others of course will be a fine balance between the two character types (and don’t some people just make you sick!).
Recognising my tendency to be dominated by the Martha side of me, I have invested time in developing the Mary part, cultivating what I call ‘Mary Moments’. These are times that take seriously the discipline to withdraw from the rush and busyness of daily life, when I try and ‘be’, rather than ‘do’; slowing down and centring in on my relationship with God, whom I know as Father through Jesus Christ. Times when in the wonderful words of Eugene Peterson I ‘…interrupt my preoccupation with myself and attend to God, placing my self intentionally in a sacred space, in sacred time, in the holy presence and wait’.
I don’t have a set number of these times of prayer each day, they are more spontaneous, but nevertheless I do sometimes plan the spontaneity, as I imagine Mary might. So for example mid way through the morning if I’ve been working in the study, I will go into the lounge, away from the distraction of the phone. I will sit on a comfy chair, back straight, legs together and hands on my knees. Sometimes I will simply lie down on the floor or kneel, though as I get older kneeling for any length of time has become more difficult; the getting down is fine, it’s the getting back up which is the problem. I then visualise myself going into the presence of my Heavenly Father. Once in that imaginary room I pray the following prayer:
‘Heavenly Father, I come now to be with you. I want to hold you and be held by you. I want to hug you and be hugged by you. I want to embrace you deeply and be deeply embraced by you. I desire to feel the protective warmth of your arms around me and to look up into your accepting, affirming and smiling eyes. Thank you that you love me. Thank you that you have time for me. Thank you that you are interested in me and my needs. Thank you that I can trust you and that this is a safe and secure place. So speak now for your servant is listening’.
I don’t rush through all that, but often linger over certain phrases and try to visualise what I’m praying actually taking place, such as being embraced by God. I then remain in silence for a short time. Sometimes I have experienced a tangible sense of God’s presence. Occasionally I have a very real sense of God speaking to me in some way. Once I saw a picture of a large eye in front of me. This induced in me a sense of deep and tangible peace. I believe it was a symbol of God’s eye picking up the thought expressed in Proverbs 15:3: ‘The eyes of the LORD are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good’. The picture spoke to me in the following three ways:
Firstly it was a reminder that God as Father is close to me. This then was the eye of the loving parent watching over a child. Secondly it was a reminder of God’s protection around me. This then was the eye of the sentry, watching out to guard and protect; God’s eye never tires, never sleeps and never blinks. And thirdly, such eye-contact is a thing of mystery and intimacy. This spoke of the eye of the painter, focused on the protracted task of developing something of beauty.
Sometimes of course I don’t feel any tangible benefit from ‘Mary Moments’, but I still believe them to be a good discipline. On other occasions I am left with a sense of having been marinated in God’s peace, which has become a precious commodity that I believe is a sign of much needed spiritual refreshment. But whether I feel anything tangible or not, the truth is that ‘Mary Moments’ aren’t just about me and my needs. They are surely about God and God’s desire for us to develop a deeper intimacy with God. Perhaps this often overlooked facet of Christ’s life is in reality one of the most important and precious elements of Christian discipleship.
My Mary Moments are eminently transferable to any context. So, for example, I’ve prayed like this in my study, in a car wash (I was in the car!), on a train, whilst driving (with eyes well and truly open of course), out walking, on a park bench, in church, on a beach, in the bath, beside a swimming pool etcetera.
They have become a wonderful way of trying to take God with me (as it were) into each day, rather than leaving God in my quiet time before breakfast. They are punctuation marks in my days, ways of creating godly rhythms to buttress my life against the cut and thrust of daily life. They are a constant reminder to me of the need to re-orientate my life towards the light and life and warmth and wisdom of God’s kingdom.
The call to withdraw from busyness and speed, to switch off the mobile and TV and computer, to swap all the ‘doing’ for some ‘being’ is a radically prophetic one. As is the willingness to relax in Jesus’ presence, as Mary did, and practice unconditional attentiveness towards him; to wait with him, rather than expecting him to be a ‘waiter’ meeting all our needs.
The concept of the Sabbath day has well and truly gone from our week here in the UK, a change which seems irrevocable. All the more reason then, for us to take the concept of Sabbath into our lives and to create space for rest and spiritual renewal. Mary moments are one way of cultivating such important values. They remind us of the need we have in life to slow the pace, create some space, and find a place to seek God’s face, just as Mary did.
Mary Moments are not about slowing down in order to go faster, a phrase used by some contemporary management gurus. Mary Moments are designed to slow us down to go slower. That way, I firmly believe, contrary to popular opinion, we can live more deeply the life God wants.