In 2004 some e-mails started circulating among the employees at a well-known accounting firm. People were troubled by the behavior of a new recruit.[i] In the middle of a busy and bustling office setting, she appeared to be doing nothing. She just sat at her desk and stared into space. When someone would ask her what she was doing, she would say something vague like “I’m doing thought work.” She spent one whole day riding the elevators up and down over and over. When a colleague asked if she was “thinking again,” she replied “It helps to see things from a different perspective.” The other employees became increasingly agitated, and their e-mails became increasingly urgent. Something had to be done about this new colleague.
As it turns out, unbeknownst to them, they were all participating in a performance piece called The Trainee. The alleged employee was actually a Finnish artist named Pilvi Takala, someone whose work often focuses on disrupting social norms with simple actions. In this case she was challenging the notion that we must be productive every minute of every day. We all know that there are many things that distract us from productivity throughout the day – text messages, phone calls, social media, conversations with other people, hunger, exhaustion, stress. But when someone so blatantly violates the expectation of constant productivity, it challenges so much of what we’ve been taught to value in ourselves and others.
Just a couple of weeks ago we heard how Jesus sent out the disciples two by two, telling them to travel lightly and to carry a message of repentance and hope to the surrounding villages. At the beginning of today’s gospel, they have just returned, eager to report to Jesus what they have accomplished, all that they have done and taught.
But wait just a minute, Jesus says. Before you do that, he tells them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Their plans for rest get thwarted by the crowds that follow them, as it turns out, but the invitation is important. Come away and rest a while. Jesus puts rest ahead of reporting what they might have accomplished in their recent travels.
Remember that Jesus, too, is in need of rest. We hear again and again in the gospel of Mark how Jesus looks for opportunities to rest. In this moment we can imagine that he is grieving the recent death of John the Baptist, wrung out by the moral failures of leaders like Herod and disappointed that he’s had to warn his disciples to be prepared for rejection everywhere they go. No wonder he has compassion on the gathering crowds, seeing them as sheep without a shepherd. He knows what it feels like to be disappointed and disillusioned, longing for connection.
We know what the need for rest feels like too. We can feel it deep down in our bones, when realities and responsibilities force us out of bed even though we don’t always relish that “to do” list. We get worn out from being available and accessible 24 hours a day – to friends and family, to colleagues and supervisors, to our own worries and fears.
We get caught up in the myth that our worth depends on our productivity – that our success as humans is measured in how much we get done for how many people in how little time.
The messages from the culture around us will try to persuade us that that’s just how things are – you either measure up or people will start circulating e-mails about you. But what a terrible way for our value to be determined.
I’m not saying that you should ignore your responsibilities and become a big slacker. I’ve known most of you for a while, and I have yet to meet a slacker. But how might we understand our sense of who we are and what we are worth as something apart from how much and how often we produce?
The people who decades ago decided what scripture readings would be assigned to each Sunday in a repeating three-year cycle – they made an interesting choice this week. In today’s gospel from the sixth chapter of Mark, they decided to skip over two big moments in the ministry of Jesus. The first is the feeding of thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. (To be fair, the Gospel of John’s version of that story is scheduled for next week, so I suppose they figured they had that one covered.) The other is the story of Jesus walking on water, which you have to admit has a certain dramatic flair. I can’t claim to know their reasoning for skipping those parts this week, but I think it’s interesting that it moves our attention away from Jesus doing these big, flashy, mind-boggling things. Instead we’re invited to see Jesus focus on the quieter things – looking after those who need rest and those who need healing.
In today’s gospel Jesus does travel – from villages to cities to farms. He moves from place to place to seek out the people who need his compassion the most. He’s not hanging out in some lofty place and expecting people to come to him. He finds those who are in need of healing.
And where are those in healing to be found in that last verse? They are found in the marketplace. Isn’t that an interesting detail? The marketplace, where things are normally bought and sold, where everything has a price, where worth is determined by your ability to bargain and negotiate and get the biggest profit with the least amount of effort. In that very place people bring those whose needs are great, those who can’t bargain or negotiate at all but want only to be healed. Those whose value was too often dismissed because of their illnesses or disabilities or maladies. Into that space Jesus enters to say: Your worth is not measured in terms of health or wealth. You are worthy because you are loved. And I love you no matter what.
The same is true for each and every one of us. Our worth does not depend on our perpetual productivity. Our worth does not come from our perfectionism, from our pluckiness, or from our plowing ahead while we ignore our own exhaustion and pain. Our worth comes from the love of Jesus, who longs for us to have times of rest and stillness so that we might truly experience what it means to know that love apart from anything that we do.
That rest sometimes comes in the form of vacations, but it can’t come only in that way. Our souls need quiet moments more often than that; even a few minutes of reflection can helps us receive an awareness of God’s grace washing over us.
Those small moments of grace can sometimes appear when we least expect them. Often others invite us to those oases in the wilderness of our lives. Or they come in small insights during moments when we manage to be still for more than a second.
Our furry friends often understand this idea far better than humans. A friend from California sent me a story this week about the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry.[ii] There are teams across the country, but this piece highlighted the nine golden retrievers from Florida, Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina, and Tennessee that were sent to Miami spend time with folks grieving for family members, friends, and neighbors lost in the condo collapse in Surfside. The dogs intuitively know that grief work is not about engaging in a frenzy of activity. It’s about showing up with empathetic eyes and furry paws to hold – it’s about being more than doing.
The people in our lives can be bearers of grace too. In her memoir, musician Brandi Carlile tells about Dolly Parton showing up at the Newport Folk Festival. “How are you?” Dolly asks. Brandi finds herself inexplicably honest and tearful, saying: “I bit off more than I can chew with this.” “Alright then,” Dolly replies. “Let’s pray.”[iii] So they prayed together. And then they went on to sing a rendition of “I Will Always Love You” that no one in that audience will ever forget.
Lately, when storms roll through, I try to sit for a few minutes on my tiny porch and watch it rain. It doesn’t magically make all my stress go away, but it does settle me. Those few minutes of stillness make me more aware that I am not in charge of the world any more than I am in charge of the rain or the thunder or the lightning.
This week, whenever you feel yourself overwhelmed by the pressures of productivity, I invite you to listen for the voice of Jesus saying to you: Come away and rest a while. Hear him say: It’s OK to be still. It’s OK to rest. I love you. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, pp. 62-64