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Sermon illustrations

Busyness

The Adversary Majors in Three Things

In contemporary society our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds. … Psychiatrist Carl Jung once remarked, “Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil.”

Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 3rd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998, 15).

The Creation of Artificial Time

We all know our world has sped up to a frenetic pace. We feel it in our bones, not to mention on the freeway. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Let me nerd out on you for a few minutes just to show you how we got here. We’ll talk about the Roman sundial, Saint Benedict, Thomas Edison, your toaster, 1960s sci-fi, 7-Eleven, and, naturally, Steve Jobs.

First, the sundial, aka the original Casio.

As far back as approximately 200 BC,[i] people were com­plaining about what this “new” technology was doing to society. The Roman playwright Plautus turned anger into poetry:

The gods confound the man who first found out

How to distinguish hours! Confound him, too,

Who in this place set up a sun-dial

To cut and hack my days so wretchedly

Into small portions![ii]

Next time you’re running late, just quote a little Plautus.

The gods confound the man!

Fast-forward to the monks, our well-meaning spiritual ances­tors who played a key role in the acceleration of Western society. In the sixth century Saint Benedict organized the monastery around seven times of prayer each day, a superlative idea. By the twelfth century the monks had invented the mechanical clock to rally the monastery to prayer.

But most historians point to 1370 as the turning point in the West’s relationship to time. That year the first public clock tower was erected in Cologne, Germany.[iii] Before that, time was natural. It was linked to the rotation of the earth on its axis and the four seasons. You went to bed with the moon and got up with the sun. Days were long and busy in summer, short and slow in winter. There was a rhythm to the day and even the year. Life was “dominated by agrarian rhythms, free of haste, careless of exactitude, unconcerned by productivity,”[iv] in the words of the French medievalist Jacques Le Goff. (And yes, I just quoted a French medievalist.)

But the clock changed all that: it created artificial time—the slog of the nine-to-five all year long. We stopped listening to our bodies and started rising when our alarms droned their oppressive siren—not when our bodies were done resting. We became more efficient, yes, but also more machine, less human being.

Listen to one historian’s summary of this key moment:

Here was man’s declaration of independence from the sun, new proof of his mastery over himself and his surroundings. Only later would it be revealed that he had accomplished this mastery by putting himself under the dominion of a machine with imperious demands all its own.[v]

When the sun set our rhythms of work and rest, it did so under the control of God; but the clock is under the control of the employer, a far more demanding master.

Then in 1879 you had Edison and the light bulb, which made it possible to stay up past sunset. Okay, brace yourself for this next stat: before Edison the average person slept eleven hours a night.[vi]

Yes: eleven.

I used to read biographies of great men and women from history who got up to pray at four o’clock in the morning—Saint Teresa of Ávila, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon. I would think, Wow, they are way more serious about Jesus than I am. True, but then I realized that they went to bed at seven o’clock! After nine hours of sleep, what else was there to do?

Now, at least in America, we’re down to about seven as the median number of hours of sleep per night. That’s two and a half hours less sleep than just a century ago.

Is it any wonder we’re exhausted all the time?

Adapted from The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World. Copyright © 2019 by John Mark Comer. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

[i] Encyclopaedia Britannica estimates that the first sundial used by the Romans was set up in 290 BC, with one designed for the city being built in approximately 164 BC; www.britannica.com/technology/sundial.

[ii] Aulus Gellius, The Complete Works of Aulus Gellius: Attic Nights (East Sussex, UK: Delphi Classics, 2016), attributes these lines to the Roman comic play-wright Plautus.

[iii] Carl Honore, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 22.

[iv] Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 44.

[v] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 39.

[vi] Arwen Curry, “How Electric Light Changed the Night,” KQED, January 20, 2015, www.kqed.org/science/26331/how-electric-light-changed-the-night.

Defining Hurry

In his introduction to John Mark Comer’s book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, pastor John Ortberg shares some thoughts from his mentor Dallas Willard on the subject of hurry:

The smartest and best man I have known jotted down some thoughts about hurry; I think they were posted in his kitchen when he died. “Hurry,” he wrote, “involves excessive haste or a state of urgency. It is associated with words such as hurl, hurdle, hurly-burly (meaning “uproar”), and hurricane.”

He defined it as a “state of frantic effort one falls into in response to inadequacy, fear, and guilt.” The simple essence of hurry is too much to do! The good of being delivered from hurry is not simply pleasure but the ability to do calmly and effectively—with strength and joy—that which really matters. “We should take it as our aim,” he wrote, “to live our lives entirely without hurry. We should form a clear intention to live without hurry. One day at a time. Trying today.”

…To choose to live an unhurried life in our day is somewhat like taking a vow of poverty in earlier centuries; it is scary. It is an act of faith. But there are deeper riches on the other side. To be in the presence of a person where hurry has (like Elvis) “left the building” is to be inspired about the possibility of another kind of Life.

Adapted from The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World. Copyright © 2019 by John Mark Comer. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Distracted During Prayer

In the middle of a prayer, whether praying silently or aloud, my mind would bounce from one thing to the next. Dear God in heaven, I pray that you heal my friend who has cancer. Work in her life now in the name of . . . I really need to go to the hospital to see her again. Oh wait, I haven’t changed the oil in the car. And we’re out of cereal.

The kids are gonna kill me. And Amy has a doctor’s appointment today—did we pay that last insurance bill? I can’t believe how much it’s going up this year! Oh, yeah, this week’s sermon—still need to find a strong illustration  . . . Oh, I’m sorry, Lord, what were we talking about?

Craig Groeschel, Dangerous Prayers: Because Following Jesus Was Never Meant to Be Safe, Zondervan, 2020.

Haole’s in Hawaii

A native Hawaiian once told me the origin of the name that islanders use for us non-Hawaiians—haole. Haole is a Hawaiian word for “no breath.” The name became associated with the European immigrants of the 1820s. While there are varying explanations for this term, I like the one he gave me: “Our forefathers thought the settlers were always in a hurry to build plantations, harbors, and ranches. To the native Hawaiians they seemed short of breath.”

Max Lucado, Anxious for Nothing, Thomas Nelson.

“Hello, I’m Busy”

I read an anecdote once about a woman from another culture who came to the United States and began to introduce herself as “Busy.” It was, after all, the first thing she heard when meeting any American. Hello, I’m Busy—she figured it was part of our traditional greeting, so she told everyone she met that that’s who she was.

Kevin DeYoung, Crazy Busy, Crossway.

How Hurry Sick Are You?

In The Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness, Tim Chester has come up with twelve diagnostic questions to determine if and how much we’ve become sick with “hurry sickness.”

“Do you regularly work thirty minutes a day longer than your contracted hours?”

“Do you check work e-mails and phone messages at home?”

“Has anyone ever said to you, ‘I didn’t want to trouble you because I know how busy you are’?”

“Do your family or friends complain about not getting time with you?”

“If tomorrow evening were unexpectedly freed up, would you use it to do work or a household chore?”

“Do you often feel tired during the day or do you find your neck and shoulders aching?”

“Do you often exceed the speed limit while driving?”

“Do you make use of any flexible working arrangements offered by your employers?”

“Do you pray with your children regularly?”

“Do you have enough time to pray?”

“Do you have a hobby in which you are actively involved?”

“Do you eat together as a family or household at least once a day?”

Tim Chester, The Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness, Inter-Varsity Press.

Ikagi: The Happiness of Constant Busyness

The Japanese have a word, ikigai, that captures this sense of drive we all have inside us. Roughly translated as “the happiness of constant busyness,” ikigai reflects your awareness of your life’s purpose as well as how you go about fulfilling it. Do you know your God-given purpose? Is it really what drives you most days?

Or is it something else—making more money, pleasing your boss, achieving that promotion? We are all driven people, but when push comes to shove, not all of us are driven by our faith. When the storm begins to churn around you, when the police call in the middle of the night or the accidental email gets sent, when the account is overdrawn or the friendly smile becomes seductive, your faith will be tested.

Samuel Rodriguez, Shake Free: How to Deal with the Storms, Shipwrecks, and Snakes in Your Life, Waterbrook, 2018.

I’m not that Busy

I’ve yet to meet anyone in America who responds to the question “How are you?” with the reply, “Well for starters, I’m not very busy.” I suppose there must be a six-year-old somewhere out there who doesn’t “have anything to do” and some dear folks at the nursing home who could use a few more interruptions, but for almost everyone in between there is a pervasive sense of being unrelentingly filled up and stressed out.

Kevin DeYoung, Crazy Busy, Crossway. 

Keeping Time

Did you know that the first group of people to use clocks were Christian monks? Monks desired the ability to pray around a rigorous and exact prayer schedule. Benedict of Nursia, the great architect of monastic orders, required his followers to hold seven prayer services at specific times throughout the day. The Cistercians, who rose in prominence about 600 years later, required timeliness and order similar to that of the Benedictines. Their days were regimented into a sequence of activities, tardiness was considered a sin. Innovation being the mother of invention, it was in fact within the monastery that the first mechanical clocks were developed, directed by the swinging of weights.

The Bells in the church tower first sounded the hours to let monks know it was time to pray or move on to their next activity. Eventually, as David Landes has described it in his book Revolution in Time, a history of timekeeping, “Bells sounded for start of work, meal breaks, end of work, closing of gates, start of market, close of market, assembly, emergencies, council meetings, end of drink service, time for street cleaning, curfew, and so on through an extraordinary variety of special peals in individual towns and cities.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Lacking Presence

In his excellent book, An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling describes the challenge of experiencing God’s presence, even in the relatively slow world (in comparison to our own) of the fourteenth-century:

It is said that fourteenth-century philosopher and theologian Catherine of Siena once asked the Lord why he seemed so present to his people in the time of the Scriptures but seemed so absent in her own time.

God’s answer is as true today as it was then: [God seemed so present to people in biblical times] because they came to Him as faithful disciples to await His inspiration, allowing themselves to be fashioned like gold in the crucible or painted on by His hands like an artist’s canvas, and letting Him write the law of love in their hearts.

Christians of [Catherine’s] time acted as if He could not see or hear them, and wanted to do and say everything by themselves, keeping themselves so busy and restless that they would not allow Him to work in them.

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Monk and The Cup of Tea

The story is told of a learned professor who went to visit an old monk who was famous for his wisdom. The monk graciously welcomed him into his temple and offered him a seat on a cushion. No sooner had the professor sat down than he launched into a long, wordy account of his own accomplishments, his own knowledge, his own theories and opinions. The monk listened quietly for awhile and then asked politely, “Would you like some tea?”

The professor nodded, smiled and kept right on talking. The monk handed him a teacup and began pouring tea from a large pot. The tea rose to the brim of the cup, but the monk kept right on pouring while the professor kept right on talking. Finally the professor noticed what was going on, leaped to his feet and demanded, “What are you doing? Can’t you see that the cup is overflowing?” To which the monk replied, “This cup is like your mind. It can’t take in anything new because it’s already full.”

Taken from Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton Copyright (c) 2009 by Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The #1 Obstacle to Growth

Recently I was running the vision of our church by my thera­pist, who is this Jesus-loving, ubersmart PhD. Our dream was to re-architect our communities around apprenticeship to Jesus. (That feels so odd to write because what else would we be doing as a church?) He loved it but kept saying the same thing: “The number one problem you will face is time. People are just too busy to live emotionally healthy and spiritually rich and vibrant lives.”

What do people normally answer when you ask the custom­ary, “How are you?”

“Oh, good—just busy.

Pay attention and you’ll find this answer everywhere—across ethnicity, gender, stage of life, even class. College students are busy. Young parents are busy. Empty nesters living on a golf course are busy. CEOs are busy; so are baristas and part-time nannies. Americans are busy, Kiwis are busy, Germans are busy—we’re all busy.

Granted, there is a healthy kind of busyness where your life is full with things that matter, not wasted on empty leisure or trivial pursuits. By that definition Jesus himself was busy. The problem isn’t when you have a lot to do; it’s when you have too much to do and the only way to keep the quota up is to hurry.

That kind of busy is what has us all reeling.

Michael Zigarelli from the Charleston Southern University School of Business conducted the Obstacles to Growth Survey of over twenty thousand Christians across the globe and identified busyness as a major distraction from spiritual life. Listen carefully to his hypothesis:

It may be the case that (1) Christians are assimilating to a culture of busyness, hurry and overload, which leads to (2) God becoming more marginalized in Christians’ lives, which leads to (3) a deteriorating relationship with God, which leads to (4) Christians becoming even more vulnerable to adopting secular assumptions about how to live, which leads to (5) more conformity to a culture of busyness, hurry and overload. And then the cycle begins again.[i]

Adapted from The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World. Copyright © 2019 by John Mark Comer. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

[i] Michael Zigarelli, “Distracted from God: A Five-Year, World­wide Study,” Christianity 9 to 5, 2008, www.christianity9to5.org/distracted-from-god.

A Prayer for Busy People by Ted Loder

Holy One, there is something I wanted to tell you

but there have been errands to run,

bills to pay,

arrangements to make,

meetings to attend,

friends to entertain,

washing to do . . .

and I forget what it is I wanted to say to you,

and mostly I forget what I’m about,

or why. 

O God,

don’t forget me, please,

for the sake of Jesus Christ. . . .

O Father in Heaven,

perhaps you’ve already heard what I wanted to tell you.

What I wanted to ask is

forgive me,

heal me,

increase my courage, please.

Renew in me a little of love and faith,

and a sense of confidence,

and a vision of what it might mean

to live as though you were real,

and I mattered,

and everyone was sister and brother.

What I wanted to ask in my blundering way

is don’t give up on me,

don’t become too sad about me,

but laugh with me,

and try again with me,

and I will with you, too.

Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, Augsburg Fortress Press.

Our Preoccupations

More enslaving than our occupations, however, are our preoccupations. To be pre-occupied means to fill our time and place long before we are there. This is worrying in the more specific sense of the word. It is a mind filled with “ifs.” We say to ourselves, “What if I get the flu? What if I lose my job? What if my child is not home on time? What if there is not enough food tomorrow? What if I am attacked? What if a war starts? What if the world comes to an end? What if . . . ?”

All these “ifs” fill our minds with anxious thoughts and make us wonder constantly what to do and what to say in case something should happen in the future. Much, if not most, of our suffering is connected with these preoccupations. Possible career changes, possible family conflicts, possible illnesses, possible disasters, and a possible nuclear holocaust make us anxious, fearful, suspicious, greedy, nervous, and morose. They prevent us from feeling a real inner freedom. Since we are always preparing for eventualities, we seldom fully trust the moment. It is no exaggeration to say that much human energy is invested in these fearful preoccupations. Our individual as well as communal lives are so deeply molded by our worries about tomorrow that today hardly can be experienced.

Henri J.M Nouwen, The Spiritual Life, HarperOne.

The Pressures of Modern Life (Written Almost a Century Ago)

The problem we face today needs very little time for its statement. Our lives in a modern city grow too complex and overcrowded. Even the necessary obligations which we feel we must meet grow overnight, like Jack’s beanstalk, and before we know it we are bowed down with burdens, crushed under committees, strained, breathless, and hurried, panting through never-ending program of appointments. We are too busy to be good wives to our husbands, good homemakers, good companions of our children, good friends to our friends, and with no time at all to be friends to the friendless.

But if we withdraw from public engagements and interests, in order to spend quiet hours with the family, the guilty calls of citizenship whisper disquieting claims in our ears. Our children’s schools should receive our interest, the civic problems of our community need our attention, the wirier issues of the nation and of the world are heavy upon us.

Our professional status, our social obligations, our membership in this or that very important organization, put claims upon us. And in frantic fidelity we try to meet at least the necessary minimum of calls upon us.

But were weary and breathless. And we know and regret that our life is slipping away, with our having tasted so little of the peace and joy and serenity we are persuaded it should yield to a soul of wide caliber. The times for the deeps of the silences of the heart seem so few. And in guilty regret we must postpone till next week that deeper life of unshaken composure in the holy Presence, where we sincerely know our true home is, for this week is much too full.

Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Harper & Bros., 1941.

The Problem with Simplicity

In his excellent little book, A Testament of Devotion, written almost a hundred years ago, Thomas Kelly describes the true heart of the problem related to the complexity of our lives:

Let me first suggest that we are giving a false explanation of the complexity of our lives. We blame it upon the complex environment. Our complex living, we say, is due to the complex world we live in, with its radios and autos, which give us more stimulation per square hour than used to be given per square day to our grandmothers.

This explanation by the outward order leads us to turn wistfully, in some moments, to thoughts of a quiet South Sea Island existence, or to the horse and buggy days of our great grandparents, who went, jingle bells, jingle bells, over the crisp and ringing snow to spend the day with their grandparents on the farm.

Let me assure you, I have tried the life of the South Seas for a year, the long, lingering leisure of a tropic world. And I found that Americans carry into the tropics their same mad-cap, feverish life which we know on the mainland. Complexity of our program cannot be blamed upon complexity of our environment, much as we should like to think so.

Nor will simplification of life follow simplification of environment, I must confess that I chafed terribly, that year in Hawaii, because in some respects the environment seemed too simple.

We Western peoples are apt to think our great problems are external, environmental. We are not skilled in the inner life, where the real roots of our problem lie.

Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Harper & Bros., 1941.

Rush Hour, Ireland

On the fridge in our home is a little magnet that shows a flock of sheep meandering down a country road. Underneath is a caption: “Rush hour, Ireland.” It reminds me of a story of a Spanish professor visiting the west of Ireland where the sense of time used to be the slowest of all. Interviewing an old gentleman he observed sitting for hours outside a pub, he asked him if the Irish had an equivalent for the Spanish word mañana. The old Irishman thought for a long while, and then answered, “No, we don’t have any word as urgent as that.”

That, of course, was then. Ireland more recently has been Europe’s “Celtic Tiger,” and it is beginning to suffer from the same pressures of advanced modern time that we almost all do. In our 24/7 modern world, we say the time is five or six or seven o’clock, which is quite literally “of the clock,” as opposed to the timing of the sun, the seasons, or the birds and the bees. We are in fact ruled and run, first by clock time as we live in our industrialized clock world, and second by electronic time and “life at the speed of light.” We all know the craziness of the pressure of life’s “speed, stuff and stress.” Social scientists talk of “fast life,” psychologists talk of “hurry sickness,” and business people of “turbo-capitalism.”

Taken from Fool’s Talk by Os Guinness. ©2019 by Os Guiness.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

The Sacred Alters of Modern Life

Our 24/7 culture conveniently provides every good and service we want, when we want, how we want. Our time – saving devices, technological conveniences, and cheap mobility have seemingly made life much easier and interconnected. As a result, we have more information at our fingertips than anyone in history.

Yet with all this progress, we are ominously dissatisfied. In bowing at these sacred altars of hyperactivity, progress, and technological compulsivity, our souls increasingly pant for meaning and value and truth as they wither away, exhausted, frazzled, displeased, ever on edge. The result is a hollow culture that, in Paul’s words, is “ever learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2Tim.3:7) — increasingly so.

Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, Baker Publishing Group, 2018.

Solitude has a Learning Curve

In his excellent book, Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted WorldMike Cosper explains the value in persevering through the difficult realities of practicing solitude.

Solitude has a learning curve. It’s a practice we embody, and like anything worth doing, our first efforts will be pained. The “terror of silence” (as David Foster Wallace called it) will tempt us away from the quiet.

We will long for email, to-do lists, a sink full of dishes, the unread messages on our phone—anything that can turn our attention away from that quietly simmering something that makes solitude so troubling. So we practice solitude like a beginning violinist; we practice poorly. But poor practice—marked by a wandering and restless mind—isn’t bad practice.

Done with some regularity, it can become rich. We can discover a space in our hearts and in our world where the Lord meets us. As we’ll see, it’s the beginning of the end of our religious efforts, a chance to face both the reality of our spiritual poverty and the wealth of God’s spiritual blessings.

Taken from Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World by Mike Cosper. Copyright (c) 2017, p.79. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Struggling to Rest

Rest has never been one of America’s greatest strengths. According to one study, only one in seven adults (14%) have set aside an entire day for the purpose of rest. For those who do set aside an entire day, can you guess how they fill their time? Mostly with work.  Over 40% say they do enjoyable work, and an additional 37% say they will do non-enjoyable work, if it has to get done (Raking leaves anyone?). Out of the 14% who set aside a day of rest, only 19% say they will won’t work at all on their day of rest.

Stuart R Strachan Jr.

Stuck in Deadline Mode

Of course, speed has a role in the workplace. A deadline can focus the mind and spur us on to perform remarkable feats. The trouble is that many of us are permanently stuck in deadline mode, leaving little time to ease off and recharge. The things that need slowness—strategic planning, creative thought, building relationships—get lost in the mad dash to keep up, or even just to look busy.

Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004)

The Time Warrior

Somehow I stumbled upon a book that initially looked promising, called Time Warrior. It must have been well reviewed on Amazon, or maybe it was the endorsement on the back from Jay Adams (different Jay Adams, turns out). For whatever reason, I ordered the book expecting a practical nugget or two on time management. What I found were paragraphs like this one from the preface:

This book takes you on a 101-chapter journey intended to transmute the base metals of ordinary linear time-consciousness into the gold of the Time Warrior’s non-linear vision. You will learn to create for yourself a newfound and more powerful cognitive style that will make time tracking, multi-tasking and other clock-subservient behaviors an unsavory and distant memory. Right.

All I have to do is transmute the base metals of time consciousness. It’s all coming together. Actually, I’m not sure I understand the essence of a time warrior, other than that he thinks really positive thoughts, believes in himself, gets going right now, and does cool things like “dismembers procrastination.”

Taken from Kevin DeYoung, Crazy Busy, Crossway.

See also Illustrations on Rest, SabbathSleep

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Busyness. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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