Sermons

Tempo; Rev. Dee Ledger, March 10, 2019

Truly living life deeply can be an art form, and our choices can often affect the pace and depth at which we live our lives.

In the immensely popular song “Shallow” sung by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, we hear:

“Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself”[1]

Lady Gaga, in commenting on the song, said “I really believe in my heart that the unfortunate truth is that our cell phones are becoming reality. It’s become reality for the world. And in this song we provide not just a conversation, but also a very poignant statement: ‘I wish not to be in the shallow, but I am.’”[2]

Cell phones have changed the way we interact, but human beings have chosen to live in the shallows even before the advent of cell phones.  When I was younger, I did not think much of living life deeply, much of life was spent going thru the motions of what society expected and simply yearning for the next moment. That moment always promised to be better than the present: the next achievement, the next birthday, the next anticipated milestone, and it offered the next checkmark next to the boxes that society had already drawn.  If we are not careful, our life-speak becomes overly focused on the verb of “get”: get an education, get a job, get married, get pregnant, get that promotion, get a bonus, get to the weekend, get that lucky break…get, get, get.  And we are tempted to “get” faster, bigger, and better with each year.

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the hero arrives on Earth to find a merchant selling special pills that will supposedly satisfy one’s thirst.  Pop this pill each week and the need to drink disappears. “Why are you selling those?” the little prince asks. “Because it saves a lot of time,” replies the merchant. “Experts have worked it all out. You save 53 minutes a week.” “[But] If I had 53 minutes to spend,” says the prince, “I would walk very slowly towards a spring of fresh water.”

The traditional story shared on this First Sunday of Lent is that of Jesus, as a young man, at the start of his vocation, driven to a lonely place in the wilderness.   Both physically and spiritually hungry, earnest, and likely ill-at-ease, Jesus could be a model for our discontent. Jesus is tempted by Satan who decides to prey upon Jesus’ vulnerability and human desires.  Most of the Devil’s temptations are centered on the use and misuse of power.

“Jesus,” the Devil says, “command these stones into bread.” 

“Jesus,” he says, “stand high up here where you can gaze upon all the kingdoms of this world.  If you will worship me, I will give you all their glory and authority so that you may take possession of all you see.”

And then, “Jesus,” tempts the Devil, “stand here on this pinnacle of the religious establishment, cast yourself down, and command the angels to serve and attend you.”

Each time we read these temptations we are reminded of the myriad ways that we humans can abuse our power when we choose to live in the shallows.  We, too, know full well the temptation to do more and more, and to run ourselves ragged while simply skimming the surface of life.

But let’s look more closely at the Devil’s temptation to command stones into bread.  Some have said that this temptation is about the misuse of social and cultural power to attain acclaim for oneself.   In Jesus’ day, obtaining one’s daily bread was not taken for granted.  Famine and hunger were real – just as they are for those today who are unable to secure the necessities of life.  Satisfying both his own hunger and the people’s hunger with bread would have appeared to be a very real good, elevating Jesus in the process.  But Jesus replies that human beings do not live by bread alone.  Jesus’ mission will be about something more than food.

But what if the Devil had said to Jesus, “Command these stones to become all the time you want”?  In our modern society, this is a very real temptation.  We tend to treat time as more valuable than food itself.  We skip meals while we work at our desks longer and longer. We view time as a commodity and equate it with money lost or gained.  There are countless apps that you can employ that promise to save you time in shopping for groceries, making travel arrangements, prioritizing your appointments, and even finding a mate.  But with this power to turn stones into additional time, we simply cram more into our schedules.  With added efficiency, we lose the ability to truly connect to each other, to notice our environment and neighborhood, or to appreciate fully any moment that isn’t productive or useful, but is just as necessary to our well-being.

When we worship value time over relationship, we increase the tempo of our lives and live with unrealistic expectations for the pace of our lives.  We measure people according to their efficiency, their productivity, and their ability to multitask.  Particularly in America, busy-ness is seen as a badge of honor and a mark of achievement.  We revel in our  ability to turn time into a commodity—to maximize  billable hours, to squeeze more and more tasks into an already burdened day, and to justify our time to others in the form of our accomplishments or ability to juggle tent things at once and faster is our modern day version of turning stones into bread. As Gandhi once said, “There is more to life than merely increasing its speed.”

We are addicted to faster living and tempted to live life at an un-holy tempo.  And this affects our ability to go deep and to appreciate a more nuanced discussion or ability to examine a problem from multiple angles. Dr. Stephanie Brown writes, “Researchers have noted that our push for speed is changing the way people think. The need to be efficient and instant leads to a dumbing down of information intake so that people become scanners and “decoders” of information, cruising horizontally across the screen to pick up bytes, rather than delving towards a deeper understanding.”[3]

To go deep, one needs to reclaim time for one’s health and well-being.  Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Eugene Peterson paraphrases:  “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

To go deep, Jesus suggests learning to move at a different pace, moving to an unforced rhythm of grace.  We can begin by truly examining why were are trying to maximize time in the first place.  Do we want to spend more time with our families?  Do we want to listen to the needs of our bodies? Do we prioritize our work over our other needs for a fulfilling life?   Do we want to transform a small corner of this world?  Do we want to enjoy the present moment without racing ahead to the next event?  Judy Wajcman argues, “Rather than read the plethora of self-help guides to time management, it is perhaps more advantageous to understand the pressure to maximize time. Saving time should not be venerated as an end in itself, nor taken as the divine doctrine of technological progress. Instead, as we learn from the little prince, the question should not always be how do we save time, but what do we want to save time for?[4]

Tell me something, friends, are you happy in this modern world?  Are you happy with the pace of your life?  In what ways are you tempted to increase the pace of your life in unhealthy ways?  In what way might you reconfigure your tempo so that you are not held hostage to unreasonable expectations from yourself or others regarding the amount of time you need to complete a task, to experience Sabbath, to dream, to imagine, or to spend meaningful moments with your loved ones?

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist who has taught at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard.  He suggests that we can slow down through a few simple choices built over time:

  • “Do a few things more slowly than usual. Leisurely lift the cup to your lips, don’t rush through a meal, let others finish talking before jumping in, or stroll to a meeting instead of racing. Finish one task before moving on to another.
  • Back off the gas pedal.
  • When the phone rings, imagine that it is a church or temple bell reminding you to breathe and slow down. (This suggestion is from the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.)
  • Resist the pressure of others to get things done sooner than you really need to.
  • Find what’s good about this moment as it is, so you’ll have less need to zip along to the next thing. For example, if you’re stuck on hold on a phone call, look around for something that’s beautiful or interesting, or enjoy the peacefulness of simply breathing.”[5]

Sisters and brothers, Jesus does not bow to the Devil’s demands but responds out of his identity as a child of God.  He knows who he is and his identity is secure as God’s beloved.  Which means that his identity isn’t wrapped up in what the Devil thinks he should do or be.  He knows his limits and limitations.  When we are tempted to maximize time at the cost of our sanity, our health, our relationships, or our well-being, whose identity and whose interests are we serving?  Who would we be without the constant pressure to fill time or to be overwhelmingly busy?  Can we say no to this temptation to maximize time for purposes contrary to God and our own well-being, and find rest for our souls?

 

 

 

 

 

[1] “Shallow,” Songwriters: Andrew Wyatt / Anthony Rossomando / Mark Ronson / Stefani Germanotta  “Shallow” lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Downtown Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group, Concord Music Publishing LLC

[2]Peggy Truong, “The Real Meaning of ‘Shallow’ from ‘A Star Is Born,’ Explained,” Cosmopolitan, Feb 25, 2019. https://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/music/a26444189/shallow-lady-gaga-lyrics-meaning/

[3] Dr. Stephanie Brown, “Society’s Self-Destructive Addiction to Faster Living,” The New York Post. Jan 4, 2014. https://nypost.com/2014/01/04/societys-addiction-to-faster-living-is-destroying-us-doctor/

[4] Judy Wajcman, “Moving too fast? Books to get to grips with the pace of life: From The Little Prince to a study of advertising, five books to explain why we’re moving so fast – and how to slow down,” The Guardian, October 2018, , https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/oct/01/books-to-understand-pace-of-life-further-reading

[5] Rick Hanson, “IS LIFE MOVING TOO FAST?  April 22, 2016. Accessed 3/9/2019 http://vividlife.me/ultimate/55659/55659/