Busyness is not our Business

“I think people are too busy to rest,” one colleague declared to me on the phone.  Another friend wrote the same week to say that her employer did not value retreat.  As I considered both comments I recalled that Lee Iacocca once said a company president who cannot take two weeks off out of the year has no business running a business.

There is a “conspiracy of busyness”[1] in our culture that allows little time for people to plan, organize, or practice collaboration.[2] The phrases “I don’t have the time” versus “I don’t take the time” differ in one word, spanning an ocean of meaning.  What a culture values, shapes the values of people in the culture.  American culture has an inbred Seabee mentality that “we can do it” which has morphed to the Nike slogan “just do it.”  Western values are premised in achievement, in doing.

“The Unbusy Pastor”[3] by Eugene Peterson is a chapter I encourage my students to read once a month.  Peterson confesses that his busyness is linked directly to his vanity and his laziness.  In the first place, Peterson says we find our worth, our significance in how much people need us.  Our hyper-schedules are proof that we are important.  His second point is confirmed through paradox: we are lazy because we allow others to set our work day for us.  We sacrifice what is most valuable to us—our time—by spending it on pursuits which may be outside our personal, God-given mission.

We believe that what we do tells who we are.  Some of our works righteousness mentality began with clocks.  Daniel Boorstin gives a brief but powerful history of clocks in Cleopatra’s Nose: Essays on the Unexpected.

Inventions redefine experience . . . . The inventing and manufacturing of clocks created the need and demand for clocks.  Until lots of people owned or had access to timepieces there was obviously little need for anyone to have one.  Why be there “on time” if nobody else was? . . . The young United States of America attracted the wonder of the world with its cheap dollar watch . . . and it was no accident then that this also became the land of the quick lunch and of young men in a hurry.[4]

There are two methods of knowing what is important to people: where they spend their money and how they spend their time.  We have allowed our creations to control us.  Born of our dedication to clocks, “getting things done” became our cultural imperative.

We should reclaim time.  Biblical, communitarian, reflective learning must be a priority.  Reflection is a term that originates with Hebrew words for meditate.  The sound of one word gives the impression of a “murmur,” “sigh,” “whisper,” or “moan.”[5] On the one hand, there is a sense of the darkened, smoke-filled room used of hatching wicked schemes;[6] on the other hand, the righteous are to deliberate over proper answers.[7] The two-sided coin of reflection is no where better shown than in a comparison between Psalm 1:2 and 2:1: “the righteous meditate” and “the wicked plot” being the same word in Hebrew.  Reflection begins as an internal process.

So Psalm 19:14 captures the most famous reflective statement “let the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.”[8] Silent rehearsal, turning something over in one’s mind, ends in an enthusiastic, emotion-filled confession.  The believer then rehearses God’s works to all those around![9] Once the silent reflection is told to others, the teaching continues to “talk” to the reflective heart.[10] The process is to continue “day and night”[11] focused on all God’s works and words.[12]

What we reflect upon shows what is valuable to us.  Selah, the repetitious word found throughout the Psalms, communicates value by its definition: to hang, weigh, or measure.  The term was used in the Old Testament when people used scales to identify the cost or weight of an object.[13] How do we measure or reflect upon what is said in the Psalms?  Selah is an interlude.[14] We are to stop, ponder, consider, and think.[15] We should pause for thought.[16] Take a break.  Take a minute.  Take a breath.  Busyness should not be our business.  If we do not practice biblical reflection, we value the temporal over the eternal.

Mark practices rest by doing something other than normal.  Cutting firewood, watching football, or enjoying down time with friends in his favorite haunts are included.


[1] Separated by a vowel, the difference between “business” and “busyness” is no fluke.  The original meaning of the old English word “busy,” communicated anxiety and unease.  “The chief business of the American people is business,” famously stated by Calvin Coolidge in 1925, has usurped our psyche.  Now it seems the chief business of the American people is busyness. [John Ayto. 1990. Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins. (Little and Brown): 88; Word Mysteries & Histories. (Houghton-Mifflin): 28.]

[2] Quoted in The Wounded Leader by Ackerman and Maslin-Ostrowski (Jossey-Bass, 2002): 6.

[3] Eugene Peterson. 1993. The Contemplative Pastor. (Eerdmans): 17-25.

[4] Daniel J. Boorstin. 1995. Cleopatra’s Nose: Essays on the Unexpected. (Vintage, reprint):162-63.

[5] See for example Psalm 5:1; Isaiah 38:14; 59:11; and Lamentations 3:62.  Onomatopoeia is a word that imitates the sound it seems to convey.  In this case, the word for reflection sounds like a “sigh.”

[6] Psalm 2:1; Proverbs 24:2.

[7] Proverbs 15:28.

[8] Herbert Wolf. 1980. “haga” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. (Moody): 1:205.  “Meditation” is amplified by “words”—thoughts and verbal communication . . . the Psalmist compares God’s speech with his own.

[9] Willem A. VanGemeren. 1991. Psalms. In the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan): 740.  1 Chronicles 16:9; Psalm 105:2.

[10] Proverbs 6:20-22.  Note the three-fold repetitious element of ingrained character impacting all the hours of the day.  Gary G. Cohen. 1980. “siah” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Moody): 2:875-76.

[11] By this the authors mean “all the time”: Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2; 119:97, 99.  Some passages suggest that this occurs during sleepless hours: Psalm 4:4; 63:6; 77:6.

[12] Psalm 77:12; 119:27; 145:5.  Herein is the problem with Eastern religions: meditation on nothing.

[13] Job 28:15-16.

[14] Keil and Delitzsch suggest musical alteration, as in moving from piano to forte. Psalms (Eerdmans, reprint, 1978), V:103.  See also Walton, et al. 2001. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (IVP): 517-18.

[15] Saint Benedict developed the fourfold order of Scripture reading in the 6th century: lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio. Benedict did not desire a separation between them but to have them function together.  Luther, Calvin, and the Puritans all practiced some form of thoughtful reflection.

[16] Some think that selah may have been an indication that other Scriptures should be read for biographical background or commentary.  Geoffry W. Grogan. 2008. Psalms. (Eerdmans): 30, 38.  While scholars debate the origin and meaning of the term, most would agree, that selah was introduced in strategic spots for a musical rest or break in the song.

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