Laying Myself on the Shelf

Have you ever heard the phrase “lay on the table”? The Iowa Annual Conference ended its four-day session yesterday, and I have been pondering how, at one point, we used the motion to “lay on the table.” `Under Robert’s Rules, the subsidiary motion to lay on the table refers to temporarily setting aside a pending motion (or a series of pending motions) to take care of something else that is urgent and cannot wait. The motion to lay on the table is less about the business being discussed than about the assembly needing to handle something else immediately. I remember feeling exhausted at the time and recall thinking to myself, “I wouldn’t mind lying on a table myself right now!”

It reminded me of one of Mark Twain’s books. Twain (1835-1910) was the pen name for writer, humorist, entrepreneur, lecturer, and publisher Samuel Langhorne Clemens. In 1869, he published a travel book called The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress. The book chronicles what Twain called his “Great Pleasure Excursion” with a group of Americans on a chartered boat through Europe and the Holy Land in 1867.

Twain wrote, Afterward we walked up and down one of the most popular streets for some time, enjoying other people’s comfort and wishing we could export some of it to our restless, driving, vitality-consuming marts at home. Just in this one matter lies the main charm of life in Europe – comfort.

In America, we hurry – which is well; but when the day’s work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us, and toss and worry over them when we ought to be restoring our racked bodies and brains with sleep. We burn up our energies with these excitements, and either die early or drop into a lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man’s prime in Europe. 

“When an acre of ground has produced long and well, we let it lie fallow and rest for a season; we take no man clear across the continent in the same coach he started in – the coach is stabled somewhere on the plains and its heated machinery allowed to cool for a few days; when a razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the barber lays it away for a few weeks, and the edge comes back of its own accord.

“We bestow thoughtful care upon inanimate objects, but none upon ourselves. What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be, if we would only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our edges!”

It’s pretty amazing that the words Mark Twain wrote 150 years ago are still true for many Americans today. In the midst of fast-paced lifestyles that are increasingly complex as well as demanding, many Americans are literally making themselves sick from overwork and are refusing to care for their mental, emotional, relational, physical, and spiritual health.

It’s been an intense year for United Methodists. After the Traditional Plan was adopted by the February 2019 General Conference, our denomination was broken. No, we haven’t made any decisions yet to part ways. However, our inability to find a way to live together while honoring differences around human sexuality has again left us in a liminal space, which I wrote about several weeks before the February General Conference.

Richard Rohr’s description of a liminal space seems to fit us well: “… a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.” I have discerned that in this liminal space, it is good for me to stop a while. Thus, I will be laying myself on the shelf for part of the summer, lying fallow, actively resting, and renewing my edges.

If God didn’t make it clear enough in the ten commandments that we need to rest, Jesus made sure we knew. From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus intentionally took time to go away and be by himself to rest and pray. Already in chapter one of Mark (1:35), we read, “Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.” In chapter three, we read that “Jesus left with his disciples and went to the lake. A large crowd followed him because they had heard what he was doing.” (3:7) In chapter six, Jesus said to his disciples, “Come by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for a while.” (6:31) Later in that chapter (6:46), Jesus sent the people away and climbed a mountain to pray. And in chapter seven, (7:24), Jesus entered a house in Tyre where he didn’t think he would be found, but he couldn’t hide.

As it was with Jesus, so it’s difficult for you and me to stop. It’s not easy to say “No.” It’s tempting to work at a pace that seems to get faster with each passing year. Unfortunately, it’s also a tempo that will eventually make us sick, give us compassion fatigue, or burn us out if we do not follow Jesus’ example and rest. Rest is not a waste of time. Rather, it’s holy time. It’s a life-giving opportunity for growth, maturity, and waiting for something new and unlikely to emerge.

I enter the summer with a deep sense of gratitude for the faithfulness of United Methodists around our worldwide connection. In the midst of major differences around human sexuality, there is still so much more that we share as disciples of Jesus Christ. What might happen if, during this in between time, all of us as United Methodists would lay ourselves on the shelf and renew our edges? Could we become more robust disciples of Jesus if we intentionally created more space to honor different theological perspectives at the same time as we continue to share in mission and ministry? How might our evangelism and discipleship expand if we were open to where the biblical God is leading us? Can we hold our anxieties for a bit longer, live with ambiguity, let go of our comfort zones, and imagine possibility? How is God calling us to renew our edges?

This will be the last Leading from the Heart until Tuesday, September 3. Have a wonderful summer!


4 thoughts on “Laying Myself on the Shelf

  1. I am filled with hope after attending this, my first annual conference. The respectful tone and manner in which we listened in order to understand differing opinions was heartening. Perhaps the spirit of the living God did actually ‘fall afresh’ on us each session. No, we didn’t all agree on everything but as we continue to look to Jesus, the Word made Flesh, we have a pretty reliable guide on how we are to treat each other. Enjoy your ‘shelf time’ and thank you for your Christ-centered leadership of the Iowa Conference of our United Methodist Church.

  2. Thank you for your great advice. Resting after vigorous and unsettling debate is a priority in order to maintain one’s sanity and I can appreciate that. Since I am retired, I get a lot of time to rest and contemplate God’s will in my life, especially when traumatic things come my way from people dear to me. I shall miss your advice during the summer and look forward to your return this fall. In the meantime, may the peace of our Lord be with you!

  3. I agree that we should all lay ourselves on the shelf to renew our bodies and our minds. June contains my vacation days and I plan to enjoy camping and being with others. We will all do better work by being rested, but I did so enjoy seeing everyone at Annual Conference and renewing some friendships that have become very meaningful to me. Thank you, Bishop Laurie, for your gracious leadership of the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

  4. Twain often got it right – including some of his insights on religion.
    Laying myself on the shelf, too. Look forward to hearing again from you in September. Until then, have a time of rest, joy, and grace.

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