It’s here. This time make sure you slow down and enjoy the presence of Jesus.
Addicted to Adrenalin
There is a meme in which an adult asks a child, “So is your family ready for Christmas?” The child responds, “No, my parents are musicians.” Every musician and pastor can identify with this. Advent in the local church is a stress-filled season with far too rapid a tempo. Advent and Christmas will be different, but the season is likely to be no less stressful (maybe even more stressful!) because change is stressful. In light of the pandemic restrictions, will we come back to the heart of worship (namely, communion with Jesus) or will we just develop new bad habits that support our adrenaline addiction? This is what I want to address. But before we consider this, let’s lean into the question:
Why are we addicted to adrenalin, unnecessary programing, and out-of-control busyness during this season when we should be slowing down?
Pressures to Perform
Those in church leadership roles often feel tremendous pressure to perform. We feel compelled to offer amazing programing all four Sundays of Advent along with dynamic Christmas Eve services. And if Christmas Eve falls on a Saturday, we also feel the need to have Sunday morning programing on Christmas Day.
Secondly, there is continuous pressure to build critical mass. Countless times, I have felt pressured to pray and plan for drawing crowds during this season. There is an unquestioned assumption that if we work ourselves to death, we will produce successful results. The world’s values are then further embedded into our hearts, and we easily miss the fact that we then become part of the problem instead of the solution.
Finally, what drives us at times is we really want to see people come to Jesus. But what if our goal was not merely to “see people come to Jesus” or “hear the gospel” or “make a decision for Christ,” but to “catch a glimpse of the real presence of the risen Christ?” What if we cared more about Presence over performance? Glimpse over glitz?
All of this begs the questions: “Could this year be a gift from God to slow down?” “Will the coronavirus help us adjust the groove?” Billy Collins said, “The virus is slowing us down to the speed of poetry.”
Could the virus also be slowing us down to enjoy the presence of Jesus?
Learning to Slow Down
In the Gospel of Luke, we are told a story:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.
She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Martha usually gets a bad rap when we teach this story, but let’s discuss what she did right. First, Martha was the one who welcomed Jesus into her home. This is significant. Martha was the one who demonstrated hospitality, a highly esteemed virtue in this time and culture (Rom 12:13; 1 Tim 5:10; Heb 13:2; 1 Pet 4:9). For example, an overseer must be hospitable (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:8). And to preserve the integrity of the Gospel, believers were to refrain from showing hospitality to those peddling false religion (2 John 1:1-11). So, hats off to Martha. She was doing a noble deed by welcoming Jesus into her home.
Martha seems to be doing the correct thing, but Jesus doesn’t praise her. Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Does this bring to mind an experience? For me, I’m reminded of every church workday. You’re laboring, trying to create something great, but in your heart you are angry, wondering why more people aren’t helping out and chipping in. You are muttering, “Where on earth is everyone?” This is exactly how Martha was feeling.
In the Revised English Bible, Jesus tells Martha, “You are fretting and fussing about so many things.” Herein lies the problem: it was the fretting, the fussing, the worry, and the agitation about so many things.
When I recognize this is happening, I know that it is time to slow the tempo down. This agitated disposition serves like a check engine light. If I neglect these warning signs, I’m on a path to burnout and self-destruction. I need to learn to be like Mary and sit at the feet of Jesus. I need to enjoy the atmosphere (Mary) that I have created (Martha).
In light of the Advent and Christmas season, it is good to be reminded that God the Son became flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone in order that we might abide in His presence. God fulfills His covenant promise in Jesus, “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev 26:12). James Torrance said, “The church which takes her eyes off Jesus Christ, the only Mediator of worship, is on the road to becoming apostate. There is no more urgent need in our churches today than to recover the Trinitarian nature of grace—that it is by grace alone, through the gift of Jesus Christ in the Spirit that we can enter into and live a life of communion with God our Father.”
Pause, Breathe, and Be Still
There is a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) called “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” that is displayed in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ve seen this painting twice in my life, and both times I sat in front of it for about an hour mesmerized by its details. Martha looks over the shoulder of Jesus, and the distress on her face is vividly depicted. She looks exhausted and, quite frankly, at the end of her wits. Meanwhile, Jesus lovingly looks at Martha, doing some soul care. This soul-deep look communicates, “If you keep on like this, you are going to collapse.” Also, there is Jesus pointing down at Mary’s heart. It’s as though He is saying to Martha, “the heart of Mary is where it is at.” There will always be opportunities to serve, but we can’t forget about our relationship with Jesus. Do not underestimate the value of the contemplative life. Do not underestimate the importance of enjoying Jesus—not just scurrying around doing things for Him. Finally, in Vermeer’s painting, I’m mesmerized by Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, with her hand on her cheek, not really looking up to the face of Jesus at all but simply lost in wonder at Christ’s love for her. Oh, how we all long for this kind of relationship with Jesus! So may I offer a few suggestions for slowing down this Advent and Christmas? Learn to pause, breathe, and be still.
First, we need to stop, pause, and ponder. There was a Japanese theologian by the name of Kosuke Koyama who talked about the Three Mile an Hour God (SCM Press, 2015). If you were a follower of Jesus in the first century, you would travel with Jesus at a pace of about three miles an hour. Following Jesus meant going quite a bit slower than our typical 21st century pace. What might slowing down provide for us? Would it give us time to reflect on what we’re doing and why? Would it help us recognize our agitation and the fears that drive much of what we do? Would it help us address what we are running from?
Secondly, we need to learn how to breathe. When my father was in rehab several years ago, he used to wear a Pulse Ox. This device on his index finger would monitor his heart rate and oxygen. When his heart rate started speeding up and his oxygen started dropping, the physical therapist would tell my dad, “Smell the roses and blow out the candles.” After a few moments of these deep, cleansing breaths, my dad’s heart rate would decrease and his oxygen levels would normalize. Friends, I don’t understand all of the physiological intricacies of breathing, but when you start fretting, fussing, and getting worried and upset about many things, pause and breath. Try it: smell the roses and blow out the candles. I guarantee it—it will relax your muscles and calm your heart and mind.
Finally, learn to be still. Read Psalm 25 and 62. Both of these psalms talk about waiting on the Lord in stillness. I’m actually becoming increasingly convinced that we can’t know that He is God until we learn to be still. We are not the Energizer Bunny. We are not meant to keep on going and going and going. We need to learn to be still.
Along with embracing stillness, I also suggest experiencing Abiding Prayer (John 15:1-17). Abiding Prayer focuses on the “being” aspect of prayer. When we hear the word prayer, we usually think about petition and intercession while only occasionally including thanksgiving and confession. There is nothing wrong with asking God to meet our needs—the Lord cares about our concerns. However, all this intercession was meant to happen within a vibrant friendship— not replace it.
So take some time to learn about different aspects of Abiding Prayer. Lectio Divina is where a short passage of Scripture is read slowly, prayerfully, and repeatedly out loud. Another aspect of Abiding Prayer is Ignatian Prayer in which a passage of Scripture is used to engage our senses as we place ourselves into the story, allowing the Holy Spirit to minister to our heart, mind, and imagination. Finally, experiment with wordless prayer. In the silence, we learn to be still and simply be with God without the need for words to enjoy our relationship. Our relationship with the Father is already mediated through Jesus Christ. So we can come to the Father and adore His presence in a way similar to how I sat in front of the Vermeer painting in Edinburgh silently and reverently beholding its beauty. Just enjoy sitting at the feet of Jesus and soaking in His presence.
A Season of Enjoyment
May I offer one finally suggestion for your Advent and Christmas season? Allow God’s love to pour into you and from that place, flow through you. Taking the time to pause, breathe and be still is the best way to sit at the feet of Jesus this holiday season. He loves you so much. As you allow Advent and Christmas to become a time of sitting in the presence of Jesus, you may just find that Jesus is sitting at your feet, cleansing you with His self-giving love.