The Blessing of Boredom
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
July 22, 2012
Texts: Psalm 139:1-18, Mark 6:30-33, 53-56
Mark 6:30-33, 53 – 56
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now, many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.
…When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
It is that time of year again. It is that time of year when the town of Larchmont lays quiet and somewhat dormant. The town itself seems to sleep, as so many are away on vacations or camps, visiting relatives or summer cabins or homes. In some ways it is deceptive, as those that have jobs are still commuting into the city, still getting up every morning and going to work. Those who do not are still as busy as ever – perhaps looking for work, caring for household or children, accomplishing regular tasks and then some.
But many of us use this time to slow down, to read a good book, to stop and smell the roses.
This past week, I was doing just that, as I had some time home with my two boys in the late afternoon; that day when the thunderstorms rolled in and darkened the skies. It was one of those rare moments when they were playing nicely and quietly, so I was taking advantage of the time to squirrel away in my bedroom and read a bit of my latest book. After a just few quiet moments my eldest found me, proclaiming his boredom and his desire to watch some television.
Longing for a little more time to myself, I told him if he could be patient for ten more minutes, he could watch a show. Ten minutes.
As you might guess, ten minutes is like an eternity to a six year old. But I could not convince him to go back to playing, or read his own book, or anything else that might help the time pass more quickly. So instead I explained that he could watch the clock, which read 4:50, and wait until the 4 turned to a 5.
At first, he did not like this idea at all; He complained and wiggled and whined. But then he calmed, and quieted, and began lying on his belly with his chin propped on his hands, to wait.
Soon enough his little brother came interrupting the quiet, jumping on the bed and calling, “C’mon, Let’s play!”
But by then my six year old had been transformed.
“I can’t.” He said, “I’m watching time.”
“I’m watching time.”
His response caught my attention, and I wondered how long it has been since I have simply ‘watched time.‘ No book or screen in front of me, no exercise or activity to keep me preoccupied. Simply quiet. Stillness. Peace.
It is no question that there is an inherent value in down-time, quiet stillness, even boredom, in and for our spiritual lives. Meditation and silence have been a part of the Christian tradition since it’s very beginning. Jesus himself seemed to encourage and advocate a practice of prayer and silence.
Our text for this morning is not the only time in the Gospels that Jesus stops and prays. He encourages it as well in his disciples, after they share with him the work and ministry they have been doing, after he sends them out two by two into the world to heal the sick and preach the good news. He tells them that it is time to take a break. Come to a deserted place, he says, to rest.
The disciples find out quickly that it is easier said than done. The crowds find them, just as my children found me squirreled away reading in a corner. The people hunt the disciples out for their needs and longings; They gather around them, they compel them to notice them, they do not let them rest for long.
It seems things have not changed much! Not only mothers with children but each of us, in our own ways, find ourselves busier than we hope to be, even in these quiet summer months. Perhaps these months make us even busier in some ways than usual, as we pack and unpack from travels, as we juggle kids that are not in school, as we try to cram in the things we can’t get done during the months from September to May. We need vacations from our vacations, and we find ourselves flitting about, rushing from one place to another, trying to see this person or tackle that project or accomplish that planned for goal.
Those that try to make space are easily found through the various devices we carry. There is no rest for the weary, especially since your smart phone can ping at all hours of the night or day, in virtually any place you can go.
Perhaps it is in our DNA… As a culture we tend to loathe boredom in general. When left with idle time it is rare that any of us might ‘watch time,’ as my eldest named it. Instead, we fill space with reading, watching, doing. Perhaps we fill it with gardening, visiting, shopping, calling. That day, when I asked for those ten minutes, I found that I ended it five minutes early, my own insides getting itchy and anxious with so much quiet. What would have happened if we had all just sat still and watched time for five more minutes?
Ironically, the book I was reading was a memoir called, “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis,” written by Lauren Winner. The book is a reflection on the “middle time” of faith, when the excitement or newness of conversion or youth has worn off, and faith becomes distant, ephemeral, even absent.
Winner explores the varieties of ways we distance ourselves or re-engage in faith practice, and has a short chapter on busyness in which she recalls a coffee-hour conversation at her church. She and a few others were casually trying to recall the seven deadly sins, in response to a lenten sermon they had just heard. They had succeeded in listing all but one, and were trying desperately to remember the seventh. When they finally remembered it; the sin they had forgotten was “sloth.”
Winner’s friend Geraldine remarks that it is no coincidence: “Laziness may have been a problem for nineteen hundred years but not anymore,” she says, “Busyness is the new sloth.”
The comment leaves Winner reflective and contemplative over her own busyness and the way it keeps her from God, from engaging in a life of prayer, or from attending worship, or from caring for her own health or soul. “There’s not enough time to hold body together, let alone soul.” she writes, “I am too lazy to do what’s important, or hard, so I stay busy with everything else.”(pg 104-105)
We are not alone in our constant need to keep moving and busy. As always, our own adult compulsions get passed down to our children. The number one thing I hear from our youth during the school year is that they are just so busy. Too busy to make space in their lives for a few hours of mission work. Too busy to make time for an hour of worship on Sunday morning. Too busy to come to youth group, which amounts to an hour and a half twice a month, to gather, talk, pray. Simply too busy.
Alongside of their busyness is the general critique that church is boring. And perhaps these two things go hand in hand. Author and youth ministry guru Mark DeVries suggests that this is partially a result in our culture’s continual expectation that we must be entertained at all times and at all costs.
He writes: “I have to believe that a generation that grows up believing they should never be bored, never be uncomfortable, never have to do without, will be severely limited in the transforming impact they can have in the world….Young people who develop a low tolerance for boredom will be unable to practice the disciplines necessary to grow in the Christian life. Prayer, bible study, fellowship, witnessing, fasting, and solitude are all disciplines that have at their very heart the facing of our own boredom and restlessness.” (kpg 152)
DeVries would likely appreciate the mom that Lauren Winner writes about who bucked the trend and chose not to place her kids in camp all summer. When Winner asked, ‘Won’t they get bored?’ The mom responded: I want them to get a little bored. I want them to get a little restless. When they get restless, they have the chance to slow down and notice something they’ve never noticed before, something they wouldn’t notice if they were entertained at camp all summer.”
It is not easy. Winner writes of her own acedia and depression over her lack of ability to pray, to feel connected, to sense the presence of the divine. But she also continues to push through that disconnectedness, putting one foot in front of the other as she practices again and again a prayer she struggles to pray, trusting in the discipline to reconnect her to her community and her God.
Jesus too, after he urges the disciples to come away to a deserted place and rest, after they are hounded by the crowds and made to feed them, heal them, care for them, Even Jesus steps away, goes off by himself to a deserted place to pray. If even Jesus had to do it, who do we think we are?
Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk, wrote that what we are attempting to escape when we try to flee boredom is only ourselves. Perhaps boredom is not unlike loneliness: the best response may not be to run from it, but to give yourself to it, to see it as an invitation to attend more carefully to the very thing that seems boring….
One of Merton’s biographers, Monica Furlong, put the matter like this: “Gradually…a sense of order overtakes the wretchedness of boredom, there is a movement towards stillness, and in the stillness we find God, and in God, our true identity.”
There is so much to do and see, so many people to stay connected with, so much living we want to do in the midst of our lives. It is not surprising that we try frantically to cram more in every day. Whether it is because of a internal compulsion to keep up with the Joneses or simply a longing to live life to it’s fullest, we so often fall into the trap of putting our connection with God, our life of faith, even our own inner souls aside as we seek to keep busy. We forget that when the prophet Elijah went to seek God he did not find God in the forceful wind or the fire or the earthquake, but in the stillness, in the quiet.
Perhaps this is what we need most desperately, in the face of our frenetic lives and crammed full schedules. Perhaps this is what we need, most intensely, in the face of tragedy like the one that occurred in Colorado this past week. Stillness, vigil, quiet, solidarity.
Perhaps it is in the face of such things we are most called to cultivate stillness. Rather than jump to arguments over political stances, healthcare, violence on the screen; Instead to practice prayer, silence, suffering together under the weight of our own fallen humanity, seeking together to be still and know God’s presence.
There is a fourteenth-century text from an unnamed English monk titled “The Cloud of Unknowing,” that seems to have been written just for us in our time. It reads, “You only need a tiny scrap of time to move toward God.”
Only a scrap. Only a moment. Just a few seconds, really, of watching time, of leaning into the quiet of your innermost heart. Small enough to sneak in between all that you have to do. It will be insignificant at first. Maybe a little boring. But that scrap may be the seed that grows into a blessing for you, for those around you and for the world.
May it be so… Amen.