Slow Down!

Have you ever done one thing at a time? Ever done the washing up without also planning what you’ll do next, watching the telly, talking on the phone, or having a conversation?

Have you ever walked without talking, texting, or pondering your next move, your newest scheme, or what you will make for dinner?

I think that multi-tasking in our lives has become the norm. Maybe we need to invent a new word – mono-tasking – to describe that strange behaviour of doing only one thing at a time.

I have to begin by putting all my cards on the table. This is the sort of sermon where – if it were about not worshiping idols, I’d be up here talking with a little golden calf in one pocket and a statue of Baal in the other.

if it were about temperance – I would be hiding a bottle behind the pulpit.

If it were about honesty – I’d be lying my way through the whole thing.

We’re talking about slowing down. Today, we’re talking about the way so many of us feel we must move faster and faster and do more and more with every free hour, minute, and even second.

And when it comes to the sins of hurrying, doing too much, and multitasking to excess, your minister is as guilty as they come.

So, this sermon will be the testimony of a person who knows the right path but hasn’t quite been able to get onto it.

Hearing the story of the businessman and the fisherman, we can hardly fail to recognise the pattern of pushing to do more and more only to find in the end that we could have achieved what we really wanted without making ourselves miserable in the process.

It is easy to nod knowingly at the foolishness of a society that seems to push people to go faster and faster and faster and to get more and more stuff.

Most of the time, we’re not even aware of the frantic race we’re running. It takes going away – being in a remote place or on a silent retreat to recognise what is truly going on – to see the craziness of the life we sometimes lead.

And what a remarkable change can happen then.

Busyness doesn’t begin to capture the depth of the experience of frantic-paced life. You see, doing too much and going too fast is not just an external thing – it affects your internal life.

In the mind crowded with doing and achieving and efficiency and more and more and faster and faster and talking on the phone while typing, and working while eating, and walking while talking on the mobile, texting, and listening to music… there is very little space left for being. There is very little space for being connected to others. There is very little space for listening to the wise voice within. There is very little space for recognising and touching the ground of your being.

The pace is not only wearing us out physically. The pace is killing our spirits.

And then, somehow, we have the opportunity to slow down or it is imposed upon us. We go away or we are out of work or we go silent. Our minds don’t want to slow down – we fight it. But we eventually slow down.

And when we do, we gain a new clarity about our lives. We often find new direction, a new sense of centre, a new understanding of our connections and our purpose.

But we – or at least I – don’t slow down in any way that lasts. I always come back and – placed back in the raging rapids of this life – the allure of speed and efficiency is irresistible.

The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered…

"Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money.

Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.

And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future;

he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived."

Why is the speedy life so alluring?

Yes, there are some justifications for rushing.

Often, we feel a need to produce and accomplish a lot just to survive. For some, that is true. They need to work more than one job just to keep a roof over their head and food on the table. But often, our definition of ‘survive’ is distorted. Someone once told me that he felt he had to work harder to provide a safety net for his son – an only child. How much of a safety net? 5 million dollars! And how many of us are working to have money to spend to recover from the consequences of working?

Maybe a better reason is working for a great cause. My work is mostly for this amazing congregation and for the faith that I believe to be so important, but do I need to work as hard as I do? The 80/20 rule might be helpful for me to remember. It’s the idea that 20% of your efforts yield 80% of the results. 80% of your effort generates more heat than light. What happens if you slow down enough to notice which activities really are productive and which are just keeping you busy?

And there are some not so good reasons for the frantic pace.

The one that I recognise in myself is the fact that efficiency, speed, and busyness make me feel valuable. I can often wear busyness and tiredness as something of a badge of honour.

I learned a long, long, time ago that I would be valued for what I accomplished. But more than that, I learned that it was always good to be busy – I would never be criticised for being busy, but seeming to be doing nothing was a dangerous place to be.

That was the beginning. As I grew out of childhood, the world continued to reinforce that message. Education said produce more. The workplace said produce more. And whatever you produced, the boss wanted to see busyness. My bosses liked people who worked long, long hours. They liked people who sent emails in the small hours of the morning. They liked people who were ready at a moment’s notice to put aside family, friends, recreation, and just being – to fit in some more doing.

Something has been happening in New York for a while. It’s called Occupy Wall Street. And that movement has been spreading throughout the US. Yesterday, it arrived in London with Occupy the London Stock Exchange. A phrase that has come to represent this movement is ‘the other 99%.’ In the US, the richest 1% of the people control 42% of all wealth.

The Occupy movement wants to see an end to horrendous income inequality. At the early unformed stages of such a movement, it is difficult to imagine where it will lead.

I hope that this new rising up will also help us recognise that those who are putting in seemingly endless work weeks and being busier and busier are not doing it for themselves. The only ones who ultimately benefit are the ones at the top, who get to enjoy the benefits of increasing productivity – more work for less money – that is gained by the loss of any real meaning in workers’ lives.

Putting that hope aside for the moment, there is something we can each do for ourselves. There is something we can help each other do.

And that something is to switch out of automatic. Automatic is following what we are told by our culture. Automatic is buying into the notion that doing more is always better. Automatic is accepting the premise that being busier will get us what we want.

We often fail to examine that connection between our frantic action and what we actually want. What do you want?

It seems like an easy question at first. You can just point to your Christmas list, or maybe link to your wish list.

But whatever you first come up with, there is likely to be another layer beneath it that can be exposed with the magic shovel of the word ‘why’. Why do you want that new car? Why do you want a bigger place to live? Why do you want those trainers? Why do you want to move to the country? Why do you want more education, more money, more friends? Those are not ends in themselves. What is it that you really, truly, deeply want?

I invite you to join now in a time of reflection. In the stillness – with peaceful music playing - simply ask yourself what it is that you want. Using the magic shovel of ‘why’, attempt to go down a layer and then another and another as you get close to what it is that you truly seek in your life.


Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas
opening into acres of sky along the road.

Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,

how the natives ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers' hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?

And you - what of your rushed
and useful life?

Imagine setting it all down -
papers, plans, appointments, everything -
leaving only a note: "Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I'm through with blooming."

Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.

Even in sleep your life will shine.

Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.

Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.

What if you, like the lilies of Lynn Ungar’s stunning poem, could be content just to be lovely rather than always useful? What if you could remember at every moment that within you is goodness and beauty beyond measure?

What then would your work be? With what would you seek to fill your time?

In this way, we begin to bring our hearts into a place that is truly holy.