March 13, 2011
The First Sunday in LentChris Gottbrath is no slacker. In spite of the fact that he wrote an academic treatise he fondly calls "The Slack Paper," this astronomer/computer engineer/swing music lover is no sluggard, at least intellectually. In this essay, Gottbrath unleashes a barrage of high-powered mathematical calculations to answer this timeless question: If you're running a long race, should you take the slow and steady approach, or chill at the back of the pack and then sprint from behind to win?
Others, of course, favor the methodical pace of the turtle over the rabbit's last minute energy spurt. But Gottbrath begs to differ. He mathematically calculated that a more successful strategy in problem solving begins with slacking off. That's right. Don't touch the project for a while. Go to the beach. Hit the mountains. Kick your feet up. Relax.
Gottbrath's research goes like this: the computational power available at a particular price doubles every 18 months in your local computer showroom. If the overall productivity of the newest computers overtakes older technology at this rate, one is better off "slacking," or waiting for some period of time, before purchasing a new computer and beginning the project. Waiting to purchase and work on the newest, fastest computer while your competitors plod along on soon-to-be obsolete machines means improved productivity.
The first step, then, if you want to beat the competition, is to achieve an attitude of slack: slackitude. Diligent laziness.
As Gottbrath coaches individuals to seek optimal slackitude, others in the world of time management advise other common sense strategies, helpful even to the mathematically challenged. Gil Gordon writes in Turn It Off that our long-term effectiveness as employees or entrepreneurs is at risk if we don't occasionally turn off our computers, cell phones and brains.
Who doesn't answer the phone during dinner? Who doesn't sneak into the office on holidays or weekends? Check e-mail on vacation? Gordon, like Gottbrath, advises us to slack off a little.
Lent reminds us that disengaging is not the exclusive obligation of employees and entrepreneurs. The spiritually challenged - all of us - require periods of diligent laziness. The excitement people once exuded over their new technological toys has been replaced by resentment over being "on duty" all the time. Without refueling and re-energizing, both our personal lives and our work lives suffer.
The slow and steady discipline of following the Fourth Commandment has proven to be ineffective in our culture. That whole resting-on-the-seventh-day-plan hasn't captured our 21st century sensibilities.
But Lent invites us once again to slack off a bit. Give up something and take on something. Shake up the spiritual life a little by taking a step back.
Many view Lent as Plan B for failed New Year's Resolutions. But Jesus did not venture into the wilderness to lower his fat intake or curb caffeine consumption. He "was led" into the wilderness by the Spirit to develop a slackitude attitude. Along the way, it turned into a war with hunger, wild beasts and even the devil himself.
You'd think that after his media debut at the Jordan with John the Baptist, Jesus would've launched into a flurry of power healing and miracle making. Without delay, Jesus could have multitasked his way through Galilee turning the world upside down, wowing the masses. But Jesus did not rise from the baptismal waters of the Jordan to burst immediately onto the temple scene. Jesus didn't move directly from under the parted heavens to the top of the ministerial world, frantically moving from the blind to the lame to the bleeding, all the while charting out his goals for optimal career growth.
No, instead he took off for the hills above Jericho, to a stony, desolate place where he accepted the spiritual discipline of fasting for 40 days and 40 nights all alone. Well, almost alone.
The problem with slackitude is that one is particularly vulnerable to temptation while kicking back. Without every minute scheduled, temptations present themselves and fill the empty spaces.
For Jesus, temptation meant flirting with more than illusions of grandeur. Problem was the plan involved humble service, not awesome political dominance. If Jesus did not think of these enticements himself, a tempter was on hand to remind him. While in the throes of his spiritual retreat up there in the Judean wilderness with little to do and nothing to eat, the devil reminds him, "You know, you could turn these stones into loaves of bread. Crusty, chewy, extraordinarily tasty bread."
Of course he could. Water into wine. Stones into bread. What's the difference? But Jesus was up in some down time. Wilderness time meant personal time, spiritual time. He could turn stones into bread, sure, but bread is not everything. One does not live by bread alone.
The devil flatters him. "You could fling yourself off the pinnacle of the temple, and armies of angels will swoop down and save you at the click of a finger. How cool is that?" But Jesus knew better than to test God with such games.
The devil tempts him: "You're the man. You have the power. You could take control of the world." With an arm casually tossed around his shoulder, the tempter eggs him on saying, "One day all this could be yours," as if the devil were the one who could bequeath it. Jesus could have trumped The Donald, out-monopolized Bill Gates, crushed the power of the world's most sophisticated armies, richest treasuries and smartest think tanks. But instead, he waved Satan off like a pesky fly, remembering the commandment: "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him."
Jesus' example of retreating to the wilderness reminds us of the importance of being tethered to God - the one who ultimately feeds us, protects us, and owns us. Optimal slackitude involves a freedom that comes when we realize that the world can go on without us, and no longer are we afraid to admit that reality. In fact, we delight in it.
For Jesus, temptation in the throes of slackitude meant one thing - or three things. For us perhaps the temptation is to fill every minute for fear that empty moments will find us haunted by something we'd rather not face. For us perhaps the temptation is to work night and day to prove we are worth having around, terrified that somebody will not value us if we stop even for a moment. For us perhaps the temptation involves clinging to keep control of our lives, while ironically, the technology that keeps us in touch with each other winds up controlling us and keeping us out of touch with what is really important.
Lent invites us into a season of slackitude when we might reflect on making room for the most important things. The truth we discover, as we unplug and unwind, lies in the fact that the Spirit continues to lead human beings to a place of spiritual rest so that we might prepare for what lies ahead. Tethered only to God, we realize what truly nourishes and feeds us in lonely places.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.