Idle and Blessed

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson on August 27, 2017


Back in my twenties, I lived in Washington, DC. Despite what some politicians say about lazy bureaucrats, I found Washington to be a city filled with hard-working people. Even at a party, it seemed the primary conversation was about work—how hard people were working, and how busy they were. One summer I went away on vacation, and when I came back, I was feeling happy and relaxed. But my first day back, the client I was working with said, “You are way too laid back. We’ve got to get you wound up again!”

She was only speaking aloud what is a pervasive message in our society. Hurry up! Do more! Act busy! The message is that success means being on the move, running things past people, getting things done. I’m afraid that, over the years, I’ve bought into this focus on doing. My wife would tell you that I can have a hard time sitting still. We could be just relaxing on the grass in our backyard, and pretty soon I’m plucking weeds out of the lawn. 

Maybe I’m the only one who needs to hear this sermon. But I think there might be a few of you who could also benefit from being reminded, especially this time of year, of the blessings that come from doing less for a change. Of stepping back from our busyness and being more present to this moment. To this world and this day, and to the people whose lives are closely linked with ours. We just heard Mary Oliver describing how she would spent a summer day, strolling through the fields, being idle and blessed.

I’m not sure that I would want to spend a whole day falling down in the grass and strolling through the fields. But put a trout stream in that meadow…. What I love about the hiking and fishing I do is that I can get lost out there—lost in a reverie of moving water and clouds floating by, where I lose track of the time and my petty worries, where I am at home in my body on this good earth. 

These summer days offer the promise of this kind of spaciousness. The warmer weather invites us into all kinds of simple but sacred moments, whether it’s an outdoor concert or a visit to an ice cream stand, time at the beach or in a park or in your own back yard. It’s like the world is saying to us right now: “This is all here for your appreciation and enjoyment.” You know, sweet corn and ripe tomatoes, open windows and birds singing.

Listen to what Parker Palmer says about this season of abundance. He writes, “Summer is the season when all the promissory notes of autumn and winter and spring come due, and each year the debts are repaid with compound interest. In summer it is hard to remember that we had ever doubted the natural process, had ever ceded death the last word, had ever lost faith in the powers of new life. Summer is a reminder that our faith is not nearly as strong as the things we profess to have faith in--a reminder that, for this single season at least, we might cease our anxious machinations and give ourselves to the abiding and abundant grace of our common life.”

I don’t want to be a downer, but you know that summer isn’t going to last. The days are getting shorter, the nights are cooler. But I don’t want this to simply be a carpe diem sermon: seize the day before it’s gone. I want to see if there is something we can learn from summer, that we can carry with us into the days ahead.

A long time ago, Jesus reportedly said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-29). Maybe even back then, people needed to be reminded to not run around so much, to slow down and appreciate the gifts of this moment and this day.

There’s a new book out, called The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down. I haven't read it, but I love that title. This summer I slowed down enough to see that hurrying through life is not how I want to live. I have to admit that I like being busy because it makes me feel important and valuable. I am coming to see that my hurrying and busyness come out of a place of emptiness. Who am I, if I am not doing things? Would inaction make me lazy, unimportant, selfish? When I slow down and look at my life, I see that what’s driving much of my action is the unexamined idea that I need to earn God’s love and people’s approval by doing things; i try to prove my worth and justify my existence by how busy I am.

Parker Palmer calls this “functional atheism, the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen.”

I don’t want to pathologize being productive. I love getting things done, and I’m all for people leading useful lives. There is so much good we can be doing! But we need to balance our doing with being. In a culture geared so much toward action, it can be hard to find support for doing nothing for a change. And if we want to lead spiritually deep and satisfying lives, then we need to make time for rest and stillness, time to just be. 

And if you have a hard time with that, I invite you to look inside yourself. To ask, “What is it that is keeping me from slowing down? What is preventing me from being idle and blessed?” Let me know if you want to talk about this. We could start a support group here, called “People Doing Less.” Limited meetings and no homework!

And if you have enjoyed some idleness this summer, I encourage you to find ways to carry that with you into the fall and winter. Make space for it in your daily life. Find little ways to savor the present moment, to engage your senses. Make time to be still, and time for what brings you joy.

And if you have had a too-busy summer, then I encourage you to find some time to be idle and blessed. Head over to the beach and feel the sand between your toes. Lie on your back in the grass and look at the clouds, the way you did when you were a child. Do whatever it is that feeds your soul.

The English poet Andrew Marvell wrote a poem that’s a classic in the carpe diem genre. He’s coming on to a young woman, and he wants to seize the day with her. The poem is called, “To His Coy Mistress,” and it begins, “Had we but world enough and time,/ This coyness, lady, were no crime.” The poet goes on to say, but we don’t have time—we need to hurry up and love right now! It may be a a good dating strategy, but it’s no way to live. 

From his cabin at Walden Pond, Thoreau asked, “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” He understood that the hurried life is a waste. Because you miss so much when you’re moving too fast. The trouble with multitasking is that you end up paying attention to nothing.

If you want to live a fuller and deeper and more connected life, it helps to believe that there is world enough and time. Paradoxically, it is when you slow down, that time seems to expand, and you start to see the present moment for what it is, a wonderful gift, full of possibility. That time is just an idea, and there is plenty of it, right here, right now.

If I had only had one sermon to preach, it would be this: “You are part of a great Love. So, please act like it.” This is something I myself need to hear: that you don’t need to do anything to earn that Love. It comes as a gift. All you have to do is accept it. To believe that you are worthy of it. And let that knowledge guide you through your days. When I bless babies here, as I touch water to their foreheads, I say to them, “Know that you are beloved on this earth.” Who among us doesn’t need to be reminded of that?

So in the days ahead, which might include some busy ones, will you seek after spaciousness and look for ways to do less, and be more? Will join me in practicing being idle for a change, trusting that there is blessing, for us and for our world, in not-doing?

Let’s end with these words from Mary Oliver, and hear them as a prayer and blessing for us on this summer day:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?