One day this summer I was waiting to speak to one of our volunteer receptionists, but it was clear there would be a slight delay. Unthinkingly, I said “I’ll just take my cleaning in” – a two minute job I could do anytime. “You are like me” she said “You can’t sit still”. I simply smiled.
Later that week I took a walk in a local small nature reserve. Tucked among the houses, it’s a small urban wilderness awash with birdsong: somewhere you can be almost guaranteed a rare moment of isolation.
As I meandered through the twisting pathways, several times there flitted across my path a brightly coloured butterfly. Yellow-green and vibrant, I wanted to capture its image, partly to identify it, and partly, even allowing for the limitations of a photograph, to depict its beauty. In the event, it would not allow me to do either. It refused to stop, moving ceaselessly and not stopping even for a moment for the summer sunshine to catch its wings.
Seeking to see more closely the birds darting across a clearing, I sat for a moment on an old tree, once alive but now stripped of bark yet still beautiful in its exposed vulnerability. The birds remained elusive, yet, as I persevered, a peacock butterfly came and gently rested on the bare wood. In contrast to its restless distant relative, it seemed unhurried, and I was able to appreciate its extraordinary markings and even to capture the moment, however inadequately.
I have only recently begun to realise that yes, I’m not good at sitting still, unless the inactivity has another purpose, such as writing a sermon or listening to someone. I would imagine that (like most things) it is a mixture of the way I am wired, and circumstance. Certainly growing up in a hospital (where my father worked and so, because of its remote setting, we were obliged to live there) I was unusually aware from an early age of the fragility of life and its brevity. So packing plenty in to each day somehow became inured.
Our ceaseless activity can of course have many geneses with varying degrees of health, from a profoundly anxious restlessness to the uninhibited and joyous grasping of the moment that we see in children.
This time of year brings for many of us a restless over-activity. Some is necessary, but perhaps it is a good moment to pause and consider – might something other than necessity be driving it? Are we searching for some perfect Christmas which exists only in fiction and not in the reality of our lives? Are we afraid to lose love from people around us if we do not get it right? What makes it so difficult to simply pause, regroup, and take a moment to be still and silent?
Jesus understood our difficulty. Those of us who may find it difficult to linger in the moment need, I suspect, to regularly hear again his word to agitated disciples: “Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)
The unforced rhythms of grace are very, very different from our own, and profoundly counter-cultural. Few, perhaps, really achieve living like that. The peacock butterfly though: ah yes, my tree-sharing friend had grasped what I so often fail to, and I was richer for it. This season I want not to lose the lesson of that balmy summer day.
My prayer – for myself and those of you who read this – is that somehow this advent and Christmas we hold on to some moments of stillness and, when we have lost them, to at least look within to wonder why.
This post is part of our Novemeber focus on Preparing for Advent and Christmas.