When Doing More Isn’t Enough

Post Author: Austin Crenshaw Shelley

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
~Psalm 127:1-2

rubber ducky toysThe highlighted calendar said it all:

May 1: Book Day! Bring your favorite book.
May 2: Hat Day! Wear a fun hat to school.
May 3: Cowpoke Day! Wear your boots and bandanas!
May 4: Costume Day! Wear a Halloween costume or dress-up outfit to school.
May 5: Fun in the Sun Day! Bring a towel, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a bathing suit for outdoor fun.

I serve as an associate pastor, mostly tending to the faith education of children and their families. The aforementioned instructions cover only the first week of a month-long calendar that was recently sent home with a kindergartener in my congregation. The child’s mother is a professional singer, a soloist in the church choir. She’s usually a picture of elegance—like a tree planted beside a stream of water—exuding calm and control, beauty, strength, grace. But in her Facebook post, complete with a photo of the class calendar in all its highlighted glory, this confident, professional musician was about to lose it. Her exasperation was palpable as she wondered aloud to an audience of Facebook friends, “Wait. Now I’m supposed to send in random yet very specific items for an entire month of school or else my kid is left out?”

As a mother of three children ages 13, 11, and 4, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the kindergarten-last-month-of-school calendar is just the beginning. And while the complete ridiculousness of my kids’ schools expecting anything more than that my children will be fed and dressed and relatively clean at this time in the school year is hilariously summed up by Jen Hatmaker, the truth remains: most of us have bought into the idea that doing more (and more and more and more) will someday—finally—be enough.

Those of us who work in churches are far from immune to this line of thinking. After seeing the kindergarten calendar photo, I happened to glance down at my own calendar. The irony was not lost on me. Littering the numbered squares were missed article deadlines, communion services, sermon ideas, Bible study classes, pastoral care appointments, lectionary readings, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and meeting reminders—not to mention my children’s pediatric dentist appointments, soccer games, dance classes, and band concerts, just to name a few of the overwhelming commitments that vie for my time and attention.

Long past kindergarten, I’m still trying to justify my call to ministry and my call to parenthood by doing more. By remembering to send in the baby picture for the 8th grade graduation. By visiting the hospitalized church member before I leave for a trip, even though I’m cutting it dangerously close to missing my flight. By perpetuating the myth that families want more activities at church instead of believing (and teaching) that what they need most is help integrating faith formation and discipleship into their daily lives.

A dear seminary friend once taught a lesson on sabbath-taking by showing a video clip from Sesame Street. In the snippet of this childhood classic, a jazz musician owl tries to convince the show’s popular character Ernie to put down his rubber duck so that he can learn to play the saxophone. “You gotta put down the ducky if you wanna play the saxophone” goes the song, and even the youngest viewers realize that Ernie cannot do both. If he wants to follow his passion, he has to set aside his obsession.

The families in my church do not need more activities to do, more ducks to juggle. Nor do I. We need help setting aside all the doing that we clutch so tightly so that our hands can be open to receive the gifts God has in store—and so that our ears are tuned to the notes God would have us play. We need time to be. Time to reflect. Time to learn and grow and sing and daydream and stargaze. Time to love our neighbors. Time to seek justice and mercy. Time to draw close to a God who revealed God’s own name, which turns out not to have anything to do with doing, but everything to do with being: I AM who I AM.

Austin ministers among the people who are The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia. She loves “to-do” lists and is struggling to shift to a “to be” mentality.

Image by: Helen Johnson
Used with permission
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