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I looked at the digital clock on my desk and saw the red numbers reading 12:04. My day had been backed up from the start when my stress level increased with each passing train car making me an additional ten seconds late for my nine o’clock appointment. My earlier breakfast meeting had been difficult to draw to a close despite having set two different audible alarms on my PDA. I arrived at my office at 9:10 apologizing for being tardy. In the middle of trying to get caught up on correspondence before an 11:00 commitment, an interuption came – someone’s printer wasn’t working. If technology is not doing what is promised, I am the first call in my office. In fact, I am the first call when my extended family sees the ‘fatal error’ screen. (Chances are, since you are online reading this blog, you are the resident computer guru in your circle too, right?) After a reboot, all is back on track and I try to get my train of thought back to where it was. Soon I notice the 12:04 signaling that I am late for our weekly staff lunch appointment. I look at my PDA with disappointment wondering where the customary reminder tone went.
Halfway to the restaurant I became painfully aware that I had spent yet another morning too busy to take care of even the most basic of physical needs. As we entered the restaurant I hurried to the restroom.
Dr. Richard A. Swenson, in his book Margin describes margin as “the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits.” I am operating outside the bounds of the personal constitution I wrote a number of years ago at a Franklin/Covey personal coaching seminar. My Christian values of desiring time with God, Sabbath rest, prayer and relationships with others have been pushed aside by what Covey calls the “urgent but unimportant” in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The space between myself and my limits has disappeared. Has yours?
Swenson notes past generations’ bravery in the face of challenge and is careful to point out some key differences existing today that increase our stress levels. We travel faster, we tote computers and PDA’s to remain connected wherever we go, specialization drives us to achieve, debt and materialism undermine security, crowds surround us most everywhere we go and the exponential speed of change forces us to try to keep up.
I have had a few pivotal moments in life when I have had to face the fact that burnout is not God’s plan, it is man’s. Man is impressed by packed schedules and even elevates the insanely busy and declares them “hard-working” and “dedicated.” We Christians outwardly scowl at the workaholic ideal but then hand out the accolades to those around us who work non-stop. We admire them. The man who says, “I am sorry, I just can’t do any more” is seen as weak. Others gather to encourage him to press on, tell him how valuable he is and then say, “Hey, we’ve all got it tough.”
Swenson echos the same counsel that doctors have been preaching for years. He demonstrates the consistent result of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke and points out the weakened relationships in the marginless life. The institution gathers briefly to offer a few words and then quickly moves to fill the gaps and find the next person who will give their very lives for the cause. That cause can be anything from selling widgets to preaching the gospel of Jesus.
What? The church? Surely if any organization had the idea of the importance of Sabbath rest, balance and time for meaningful relationship, it would be the church, right? Wrong. Consider James Dobsons’ newsletter article of 1998 where he wrote,
“Our surveys indicated that 80 percent of pastors and 84 percent of their spouses are discouraged or are dealing with depression. More than 40 percent of pastors and 47 percent of their spouses report that they are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules and unrealistic expectations. We estimate that approximately 1,500 pastors leave their assignments each month…”
Shouldn’t we know better? In The Church You’ve Always Wanted by Wagner and Halliday, the authors devote a large portion of their work to encouraging leaders to buildchurch environments where believers are not exhausted by demands but instead find rest, peace and are re-energized. It is the same principle of margin that Swenson presents. The number of Christian books written on the topic would easily fill several bookshelves.
Swenson indentifies three major costs of progress saying we have suffered relationally, emotionally and spiritually. That is true of my life. Is it true of yours? The hectic pace of our days and the unrealistic demands of our jobs leave us angry and exhausted not wanting to spend time with people. Deadlines squeeze out exercise, bible study and prayer. Hobbies are shelved and relationships are stunted as we look at people as appointments and blocks of time.
What do we do? I am thanking God for pointing out the cause of my pain and am planning change (repentance) by trimming the time commitments that are standing in the way of relationships. We must trust the Lord to take care of us as we begin scheduling down time for life and relationship to happen. We have to budget our time and let our employers know our limits. When the piles continue to be pushed to our desks, we’ve got to leave them behind at the end of the day. If it doesn’t get done in the 40 hours we have committed to working, we’ve got to let the chips fall where they may. If that’s a pink slip, perhaps we need to trust our Father enough to thank Him. A termination is not terminal but burning out can be.
We’ve never heard tell of the man who, on his deathbed, says, “My only regret is that I did not spend more time at the office.” Instead, we’ve all heard the wishes of our elders saying had they had everything to do over again, they would have spent more time in relationship. In fact, isn’t that what Jesus is all about too?
When we don’t even have time to use the bathroom, something is very, very wrong.