Too Busy

Meeting with a group of clergy last Thursday, the conversation turned to prayer and the idea of teaching people to pray.  There was general consensus that prayer is a good thing, but it became quickly evident that most in the group view prayer as something we “have” to do rather than something we “get” to do.  The concept of spiritual discipline equals burden (instead of privilege or opportunity) in most minds.  When it came to talking about helping lay people develop a discipline of prayer, the general opinion was that people are “too busy” to pray.  Think about this for a minute.  What assumptions are contained in this sentiment?  First, prayer must be of lesser importance than other things  — like lunch, naps, the Packers game, work, school, sports, etc.  Second, there is a cumbersome time commitment involved — are we too busy for a five-minute prayer a few times a day?  30 minutes? an hour?  We might be too busy to spend the entire day praying, but too busy even for grace before meals?  Third, it would be a waste of time to teach people to do something they won’t do — ignoring the fact that generally people don’t devote a great deal of time to things they have never been taught.   A bit of a vicious cycle here.

Two days later, my wife and I taught a Disciple Bible Study training session.  When we talked about the challenges of the study, an almost universal complaint was that people will not devote 34 weeks of their lives to studying the Bible — especially when it demands daily Bible reading and reflection.  Once again, the “too busy” demon reared its ugly head — Disciple “doesn’t fit” into people’s busy lives.  There is no doubt this is true — you cannot add an hour of daily Bible study to an already packed schedule.  If you add an hour of Bible study, you have to give up an hour of something else (watching TV, surfing the net, talking on the phone, an extra hours sleep).  But the “too busy” claim simply means there are other things we would rather be doing.

And that’s the point.  It is a matter of priorities and values.  We make time for the important things (or the easy things) in our lives.  Where our treasures are, their our hearts will be also.  I recently heard the lament of a young mom saying how much she missed going to church.  When I asked her why she couldn’t go, she said simply, “Soccer.”  For her, letting her kids have some exercise with friends on a Sunday morning offered higher value than letting them get some spiritual guidance with friends — and her sacrifice was not getting some spiritual guidance for herself.  But she seemed to miss the fact that this was her choice — she placed the importance of soccer ahead of the importance of church when she decided that her kids would get more from the former than the latter.  Another instance, this time a father, made the decision for his daughter not to “do” confirmation because they would miss American Idol.  He remarked that it is “just impossible to do everything,” and he is right, but it is not a lack of time that is the real problem, but a matter of priorities.

Lest it seem I am being judgmental, let me confess to being first among sinners.  I need exercise, I need to walk, and I need to do it every day.  I broke my leg twice in three years and put on weight during my recoveries that I have never been able to shed.  When I walk, I lose weight and I feel better.  But, its been too hot, or I had a cold, or I twisted my knee, or I have been… “too busy,” and so weeks go by where I have only walked a few days.  What’s up with that?  I’m lazy.  I’m tired.  I’m sore.  I am a bundle of 1,001 excuses and not one good reason.  If it were more important to me, then I would find a way to make it happen.

Not praying, not reading the Bible, not attending worship, not participating in fellowship, not serving the needs of others — these things are not limited purely by time, but mostly by desire.  We find a way to make time for those things we truly love.  If we are “too busy” this is an excuse, not a valid reason.  Our growth as Christian disciples depends upon our willingness to put God first.  As long as we maintain our commitment to self, we will continue to be too busy for God.  It is that simple, and though many may argue I believe our motivation is guilt rather than reason.  We know we are not doing the things we should do.  Good thing we believe in a merciful and forgiving God, and that our journey of faith is a process and not a test.  We can be better, but only if we decide to be.  Our lives are not likely to get less busy.  Therefore, it rests with each of us to decide what will fill our time.  For Christian disciples, we can never be “too busy” for prayer, for study, for Christian fellowship, and for service to those in need.

14 replies

  1. I talk with colleagues about this subject on a regular basis. Sometimes we (myself included) wind up talking more about the problem than about solutions. So…lately, I’ve tried spending more time meeting people where they are. It might be a day hanging around the member who does landscaping, or showing up on a hunting trip, or having lunch with someone during their lunch hour, or wherever they may be. I’ve found that people in my age group (30-something to 40-something) are the hardest to reach. They are not only busy but lack a spiritual foundation that earlier generations had (exposure to Sunday School, regular involvement in church life, etc.). So they don’t really connect with God and church even if I do show up wherever they may be. Usually I just get a lot of information about whatever interests them. They are nice and even friendly but don’t make the leap to a greater commitment to their spiritual life (at least as measured by their outward behavior).

    So…I agree with your point. But *sigh* I’m tired of just talking about the problem. I think this is generally recognized as a serious problem in many congregational settings. I hope that our conversations about these issues will include some ideas about how to effect change. How can we help people to make the time for God. How can we adapt church without compromising fundamental spiritual habits? How can we meet people where they are and step up to the next level of greater spiritual commitment? Is the idea of “meeting people where they are” (“all things to all people”) an effective approach to addressing the problem?

    • I think the solution is fairly simple, but unpalatable. We need to decide to do it. No one is going to do it for us. No one is going to make it easy. The more we try to make it easy, the more we undermine the basic intrinsic value. I think the solution at the leadership level is to focus in on the value and importance. Generally, people will not give time to things that do not produce tangible benefits. If people do not experience value, then they won’t invest themselves in the endeavor. Prayer, study, service, etc., produce intrinsic rewards, and we don’t value these enough. For me it all comes down to core values — what we treasure, we invest in.

  2. I think the problem stems from a lack of understanding that Christianity is a counter-cultural movement–even (especially?) in *our* culture. We want to keep our engagement with the culture and add church as something on top of it, and the world encourages us to think this way.

  3. Teaching to the test is no fun for anyone. This statement, applied to prayer disciplines comes out at the same point. Prayer, too often, seems to have some inherent purpose – to garner results (that G*D will feel praised and that we will get what we want – the two are interrelated). Therefore prayer is something that you get right or you don’t. That’s a lot of pressure.

    Today’s quote from “inward/outward” from The Church of the Saviour [http://inwardoutward.org] is from Mark Twain:

    “Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it–namely, that in order to make a man or boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.
    “If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would have now comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
    Source: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

    At stake is the obligation one has to pray. Some are motivated by a releasing outward pressure (play/work) and some shaping inward pressure (work/play). Whether more in the forefront or a background energizing our work, play has gotten short shrift in the pray business. Whether a prayer tradition is oriented toward ritual (plug in a prayer form) or “free” expression (“I just…”) there appear to be conventions in every tradition that let’s us know prayer play has transgressed an expected prayer boundary. Expectations of the community are a hinderance to expanding prayer expressions. We may need to spend teaching time here, before doing so on a specific such as prayer.

    I would like to see us set up some prayer play stations (how else do you get to the station of the cross expressing forgiveness for one’s crucifiers) to help break our perceived obligation to pray correctly and constantly. Perhaps we will develop a game of prayer hide-and-seek where we play and pray to find G*D and find Our Self as well as One Another, Neighbor, and Enemy. Every so often, we will cry out “Olly, olly, oxen free” (reveal yourself).

  4. I affirm the clear, simple description of the issue and the solution. The pain comes from the fact that the culture used to make it easy for Christians to practice our faith. Now that the culture has moved on, we are left wanting it to be easy like the “old days”; however, choices and sacrifice are the path to adult Christian discipleship. On my better days, that is my choice and my actions. Thanks for the reminder and affirmation.

  5. Dan,

    “Just do it” is an essential starting place.

    Thanks for saying that so clearly.

    But if they’re going to do more than start– if they’re going to be able to sustain practices of prayer, I think Peter Berger is right that there must be a “plausibility structure” that makes sense of that for them (and us!).

    US culture provides no plausibility structure for sustaining Christian prayer. We have to supply that in the church. What helps to supply that includes concrete teaching about practices of prayer, small groups that ask each other how each is progressing in practices of prayer, and the modeling of prayer in public worship in ways that both are truly prayerful and that ratify or in some way connect with the practices of personal prayer taught and supported in the congregation.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

  6. I think Wesley’s “on” to something above, but sometimes I have trouble figuring out what he’s saying! (Keep saying it, though, Wesley.)

    Does the Biblical admonition to pray constantly (1 Thess. 5) offer any help? For example, prayers of gratitude to God and prayers for fellow creatures can be offered while walking…. Prayer is at least in some part a consciousness-raising practice so that I will focus on God and God’s Way rather than me and my way.

    • If you think you have trouble figuring out what “he’s” saying, you ought to try it from here.

      In some sense prayer levels the playing field from the hierarchical
      Creator
      |
      |
      |
      v
      Created

      to a Partnership.

      But that requires present responsibility for a future beyond the past, and who wants that. For the survival of the little we have, good church folk have adapted good defenses against “praying in a new way”. Play is based on assurance and abundance that runs contrary to any economic system, particularly our current American one. Mess with prayer too much and apportionment dollars will be withheld. (How’s that for a “wha’d he say” jump .)

      • Hmm – I tried to put two smiley faces in the previous message and apparently didn’t do it correctly. The first was to go at the end of the 1st sentence and the second at the end of the last parenthetical statement (between the word “jump” and the period). See, don’t play too much or your best laid intentions will be misinterpreted and lost!

        I’m sure they would have helped clarify, but for the moment mere dead-pan words will have to suffice. Anyone have a hint about emoticon technique here on WordPress?

  7. Thank you so much for this post. On Sept. 26 I will be preaching on Luke 12:22-34. May I use some of the points/examples you’ve referenced here, up to using some direct quotes?

    You have a way of getting right to the heart of the matter, which I find most enjoyable reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s