“Liturgy of the Ordinary: Stuck in Traffic”
January 28, 2024
I recently came across some studies done by psychologists and mental health professionals who are talking about a new epidemic in the modern world. They call it “hurry sickness”.
Here’s one definition offered for hurry sickness: A behavior pattern characterized by continual rushing and anxiousness…or a “continuous attempt to achieve more and more things or participate in more and more events in less and less time.”
If you want to know whether you suffer from “hurry sickness”, here are three telltale symptoms. You probably suffer from “hurry sickness” if you:
Move from one check-out line to another because it looks shorter/faster.
Multi-task to the point of forgetting one of the tasks.
Count the cars in front of you and either get in the lane that has the least or is going the fastest.
Anybody, or is it just me? Now, I don’t want to play armchair psychologist, but I’m pretty sure we all have hurry sickness.
Like, this last week, I was driving home from Cheney to pick up Iona and there was a backup on the freeway that started about a mile before the exit I needed. So I got off earlier, adding in all truth, probably more time to my commute than if I had just sat in traffic, but moving felt so much better than sitting in traffic. And because I was already running late to begin with, I was more irritable, more frustrated and it’s amazing how a little traffic that in reality would probably add five minutes to my commute can completely throw my mood out of whack.
But most of us just accept this as normal behavior. We get stuck in traffic so we get mad. We have to wait in line at the store, so we get annoyed. And we always feel it’s justified…because why? Because we’re busy! We have important places to be and important things to do. We just accept hurry as a normal part of modern life.
But we never slow down long enough to ask: what does this pace of life do to our souls? One pastor, John Mark Comer, suggests that hurry is a form of violence on our souls. Just think about that for a minute…
In our story today, our friend Martha, seems to have a bit of hurry sickness I would say. Jesus has come over to her house as a guest and Martha is hard at work preparing everything…probably sleeping arrangements, a meal. And as Martha is running around trying to get everything ready—I mean she has Jesus in her living room, I’d be freaking out too, making sure everything is perfect and ready—she notices that her sister isn’t helping out. She’s sitting listening to Jesus teach.
And Martha has a problem with this. I mean, I would too. If I’ve been at home watching Iona all day, the moment Meghan gets home I hand her off because it’s only fair. So Martha looks to Jesus for help saying, “Haven’t you noticed that my sister has left everything for me to do. Please tell her to help!”
Now, Martha gets a bad rap. Her name is sometimes used by people as an insult.. “Oh don’t be such a Martha”. But in her defense, she was doing something really important. Hospitality was a big deal in the ancient world—like a really big deal. And so Martha is busy providing good hospitality to a teacher of great notoriety. Everyone in her culture would agree with her. Mary should be helping Martha.
And I mean, Martha is busy serving no less than Jesus, the Son of God! Jobs don’t get more important than that!
And yet, Jesus doesn’t side with Martha, but with Mary. Martha looks to Jesus, expecting him to back her up, but he doesn’t. In fact, he says that Mary is doing the most important thing that can be done and it can’t be taken away from her.
Huh. That makes me think.
I’m curious, when someone asks you: “How are you?” How often do you respond, “Busy.” Or, “Good, just busy.” How often is that the response you get from others?
How often do you notice yourself running from thing to thing, trying to fit more into your day, feeling by the end of it that you should have accomplished more or been more productive? How often do you feel hurried, rushed or annoyed waiting on something? And How often do you feel like your soul is running on empty? That your schedule is full, but your soul feels dry and empty…feels like you should be happier or more content than you actually are, because your life is full of all of this stuff? If we’re honest I bet most of us feel this in our most reflective moments.
And we might wonder: how did we get here? Why does our culture insist that doing more and more will lead to a good life? Why are we so ok with the hurried frenetic pace of our lives?
We all know our world has sped up. We feel it in our souls, not to mention on the freeway. But it hasn’t always been this way.
To give a very brief history of speed and our current frenetic pace to life, we’re going all the way back to the Roman sundial.
As far back as 200 BC, people were complaining about what this ‘new’ technology—the sundial— was doing to society. The Roman playwright, Plautus complains in a poem: “[May] the gods confound the man who first found out how to distinguish hours! Who in this place set up a sundial to cut and hack my days so wretchedly into small portions.”
Fast forward fifteen hundred years to when the first public clock tower was erected in Cologne, Germany. Before that, time was natural. It was linked to the rotation of the earth and the four seasons. You went to bed with the moon and got up with the sun. Days were long and busy in the summer and short and slow in winter. But the clock changed all that: it created artificial time—the slog of nine-to-five all year long. We stopped listening to our bodies and the seasons and started rising when our alarms droned—not when our bodies were done resting. We became more efficient with the invention of the clock, yes, but also more machine, less human being.
Then, fast forward a few hundred more years and in 1879 Edison invented the light bulb, which made it possible to stay up past sunset. Before Edison, the average person slept eleven hours a night. Yes: eleven!
Now, at least in America, we’re down to an average of about seven hours a night.
And then about a century ago technology started to change our relationship to time yet again, with all these brilliant inventions that save us time and energy. We used to walk everywhere; now we have cars; we used to make our food from scratch; now we have takeout; we used to write letters by hand now we have email; if we were cold we used to have to walk out into the woods and cut some wood, now we take a couple steps and turn up the thermostat.
And what’s fascinating, is that in spite of our smartphones and programmable coffee-pots and dishwashers and cars and laundry machines and all these other wonderful time-saving devices, not to mention that we are staying up later, most of us feel like we have less time, not more. What gives?
All this technology we have access to really does save time. So where did all that time go?
Well, we spend it on other things. We fill our schedules and our days until they’re bursting. We fill them with things like phone screens and TV screens, but also important things. Like Martha, we have a lot to get done and so little time. And I don’t know if you feel this, but there seems to be this unspoken competition to be the busiest person in the room, justify in some way your existence to the rest of the world. As a culture we’re hurried, we’re distracted, we’re exhausted.
As I reflect upon my own pace of life, I realize that pretty much all my worst moments as a father, husband, pastor and friend, even as a human being, are when I’m in a hurry—late for my appointment, behind on my unrealistic to-do list, trying to cram too much into my day. I ooze frustration and annoyance and become critical, trying like Martha to blame my stressed state of running around on someone else.
And usually when I get to the end of a busy day, I just feel empty. At the end of my too-busy week, I realize that I didn’t take any time to attend to the health of my soul.
I think it’s poignant that in Paul’s famous verse on love that’s quoted from 1 Corinthians 13 at every wedding…do you remember what the first descriptor Paul uses for love?
Of all the ways to describe love. What first comes to mind for Paul, is patient. The opposite of hurried. The opposite of agitated or annoyed. Love is patient.
There’s a reason people talk about “walking” with God, not “running” with God. It’s because God is love and love walks at a slow patient pace.
We don’t like to go slow though. We’d rather jump into the next line at the grocery store or drive faster than we should to make our appointment on time or do everything we can to fill our lives with stuff that we think justifies our existence.
In short, maybe we’d like to go slower, but we have so much important stuff to do!
Which is why Martha pleads with Jesus to see how important her work is and to make her sister be busy like her. Doesn’t Jesus get it?
I think Jesus does. Which is why, when he responds to Martha, I don’t hear a reprimand in his voice, I hear sympathy. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled by many things…”
Jesus sees all the important stuff she needs to do. He sees how it makes her anxious and distracted and troubled. But he won’t let her inflict that on her sister, Mary.
And he points to Mary as an example and says to Martha, it doesn’t have to be that way for you either.
If “hurry sickness” is a form of violence on our own souls, then imagine how our hurry inflicts violence on other people’s souls. I don’t know about you, but I don’t do much loving when I’m in a hurry. When we’re hurried we tend instead to use people and blame them and try to measure our own productivity and success against theirs.
If love is patient, then I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say it’s not possible to love when we’re in a hurry.
Pastor John Ortberg writes that “Hurry is the great enemy to a healthy spirituality.” Nothing will kill a healthy spirituality or suck a soul dry faster than hurry.
So how do we even begin to assess and remove hurry from our lives? How do we learn to walk at Jesus’ pace rather than run everywhere?
I think Jesus gives us a template here and we practice it every Sunday. Jesus points to Mary who has stopped to sit at his feet and listen. And immediately after this passage, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray.
Now I know prayer is a tricky subject for many of us and I think the way most of us learned to pray is busy. We say a bunch of words and ask for a bunch of things and say “Hey thanks God, bye.”
But real prayer, as modeled by Mary here, is a slowing down. It’s a posture of listening and being present. Sometimes prayer is being silent by yourself, sometimes it’s attentiveness to the person sitting in front of you sharing about something hard in their life, and sometimes prayer is walking around and soaking in creation or letting your soul rejuvenate from the frantic pace of your life.
Sometimes prayer is doing nothing. Sometimes prayer is doing something with great intention. Prayer takes many different shapes and forms, but prayer is always being present, it’s always slowing down. Being present to the moment, to the person in front of you, to the empty feeling you notice in your soul when you’re running around.
Mary is present to Jesus. Martha misses Jesus in her anxious hurried state. Mary slows down, and Jesus says this can’t be taken away from her.
This is part of what we practice each Sunday in our liturgy and prayers. Our prayer of confession slows us down to reflect on “how am I actually living”? Our time of joys and concerns slows us down to listen to each other. Our spiritual practices slow us down to rest. Maybe the sermon does that for you too?…
And it’s hard for us to slow down. It’s hard for us to be patient, it’s hard for us to embrace silence and doing less. We’re afraid of losing time or wasting time. But as Jesus shows us throughout his life and ministry,
our patience…our slowing down…our embracing of silence and sometimes doing nothing is actually active and purposeful. A fallow field is never dormant. As dirt sits waiting for things to be planted and grown, there is work being done invisibly and silently. Microorganisms are breeding, moving, and eating. Wind and sun and fungi and insects are dancing a delicate dance that leavens the soil, making it richer and better, readying it for planting.
The same thing happens in our souls when we give space to slow down, to be patient, to live presently. The soil in our souls is being tilled and made ready for love to be planted in it. Just as plants don’t take well to dry soil, Jesus shows us that love doesn’t take well to a dry and hurried soul.
So my prayer for you this week is that you would give yourself the permission to slow down, the grace to forgive yourself when you find out that it’s not that easy, and that you would make room for God’s love that is patient and slow and present, to grow deep in your souls. Amen and may it be so.