Earlier this week I was thinking to myself I had done a pretty good job of keeping it peaceful and calm and not cramming too much in among all the special events that show up on the calendar this time of year.
Okay, I was feeling just the teensiest bit smug.
Then on Monday night I realized I had quadruple-booked myself for the next day. I knew I had a MOPS meeting and then a friend and her son coming over to bake cookies, but I had forgotten that I was also supposed to volunteer in the garden at my son’s school. On top of all that, over the weekend the washer had broken down, and in the midst of trying to fix it, brilliant me had also broken the dryer. And so I also had a repairman coming at some inexact time that morning.
As I stared at my calendar, suddenly I felt oh-so-far from smug. I felt instead like all of the things I hadn’t done yet were crashing down on my head. The Christmas cards I hadn’t even ordered, the cookies that remained unbaked, the gifts I had yet to organize.
When was I going to do all these things? Or, perhaps more to the painful point for me, what was I going to leave undone tomorrow?
So often I judge my day in terms of what gets done and what doesn’t, in terms of how productive I am. It reminds me of something my three-year-old Thomas the Tank Engine fan occasionally says to me, “Mommy, you are a really useful engine.” In Thomasland, also known as the Island of Sodor, there is no higher compliment.
Thomas is a British import, but the sentiment is certainly a very American one. We want to be useful and productive. We want our children to grow up to have useful and productive lives. We often measure our days, our weeks, our years by what we accomplished or checked off our to-do lists.
So that’s why the way Dutch priest Henri Nouwen describes prayer, as being “useless before God,” is such a corrective.
In The Living Reminder, Nouwen tells us that prayer is not a time to be busy with God instead of with others. Instead, he writes, prayer “unmasks the illusion of busyness, usefulness, and indispensability.”
We cannot come before God, he cautions, with an expectation of being useful–that we will be solving something, answering something, learning something important. Such an expectation fools us that we are in control, not God.
Nouwen tells us that if we go into a time of prayer expecting to get something out of it, then it is much more likely that we will not. He writes, “Prayer is being unbusy with God instead of being busy with other things. Prayer is primarily to do nothing useful or productive in the presence of God. To be not useful is to remind myself that if anything important or fruitful happens through prayer, it is God who achieves the result.”
I find this idea of being intentionally useless difficult to accept. In fact, it is so far out of my wheelhouse that it seems almost ludicrous. I’ve noticed that even my relaxation time seems to be subject to a cost-benefit analysis–i.e., I’m relaxing now intentionally to save energy for maximum output later.
Except… isn’t it freeing to just let yourself be useless? To release yourself from finishing all that stuff, even if just for a few minutes.
It is exhausting to always be in charge of all the stuff we have to do. Being a parent has compounded the amount of decision-making I make on a daily, even hourly. basis. Even more than recognizing my own uselessness, I need to remember that I am not really in charge of much. Not much that matters, anyway.
So on Tuesday I stayed home from MOPS, and then the garden class at school was cancelled at the last minute. Instead of running around like a lunatic, I cleaned the house and baked cookies with my friend while I was waiting for the repairman. Turns out I am not so indispensable to the world as I sometimes fool myself into thinking that I am.
The ocean often reminds me of this truth. When I stand in front of the waves, I start to remember how small I am and how big God is.
Coming before God to waste some time in prayer brings home this point even more strongly. How refreshing to spend some of my quadruple-booked day instead being useless before God.
As I try to move past my focus on being useful and productive, I am also reminded of something else Nouwen writes about how we view time. He describes how we need to move from chronos to kairos, from the chronological view of time where we never have enough time to do all that stuff we need to do to a more intentional view of time as each moment having within it the power to transform and re-create us and the world around us.
As we move through the last few days before Christmas, let’s remember that the transforming and re-creating is as much a possibility for every moment of preparation and planning as it is for those moments for which we are planning and preparing. Each moment.
That moment where I freaked out over my overscheduled day.
The moment when I broke my dryer.
The moment when my friend and I pulled our chocolate chip cookies out of the oven.
This moment. . .