As an eldest child, I have been an overachiever since the moment I learned to recognize the glint of expectation in my parents' eyes. As a woman, I have grown up attentive to the needs of others. As a Christian, I have believed it is my duty to refuse no one who begs anything of me.

Now, just for a lark, I have decided to take a year off from extracurricular activity. I have proclaimed the year following my 50th birthday a Jubilee year--no sowing, no reaping, no gathering into barns--a year for freeing slaves and forgiving debts, whoever and whatever those turn out to be. For one year I am going to work 40-hour weeks and stay home as much as possible.

I am going to attend to my most intimate relationships, including my relationship with God. I am going to love the neighbors I encounter every day, but I am not canvassing the county or getting on airplanes to go find them. I am going to live as human-sized a life as I am able and see what it costs me, both in terms of my grandiosity and my sense of loyalty to God. At least that is the plan.

When I turned down an invitation to speak based on this reasoning, I received a doleful response from one clergyman. While he admired my decision, he said, it reflected an alarming trend in his church. As more and more people learn to say no, he observed, more and more church work piles up on his desk. "It reminds me of the story about what happened when Uncle Ted was cured of his delusion that he was a chicken," this clergyman wrote. "While his family was glad that he was healed, they still missed the eggs."

His letter made me think of all the Uncle Teds (and even more Aunt Marthas) on whom the church depends--people who wear themselves out doing whatever needs to be done so that other people can eat omelets. I wonder what would happen if they too were healed? Once a lot of church work went undone, would it turn out to be superfluous, freeing more human energy for the work of the church in the world this question makes no sense? Would clergy become so overburdened by institutional maintenance that they would rebel, reclaiming the tasks of preaching, teaching and pastoral care that were once central to their callings? Would even the most jaded churchgoers begin to see that faithfulness to God is something different from multiple committee memberships and four evening meetings each week?

I do not mean to make an idol of health, but it does seem to me that at least some of us have made an idol of exhaustion. The only time we know we have done enough is when we are running on empty, and when the ones we love most are the ones we see least. When we lie down to sleep at night, we offer our full appointment calendars to God in lieu of prayer, believing that God--who is as busy as we are--will surely understand.

If more and more people are slowing down, I am not sure that their decision should be interpreted as a retreat from the self-sacrifice demanded by the gospel. It may also signify a deeper embrace of divine grace, from which all faithful sacrifice springs. At the very least, it means that some of us have decided to deviate from the corporate culture's values, and to take back some of the sacred time we have too easily surrendered to other gods.

"God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting," Meister Eckhart wrote 700 years ago. Despite our fear of diminution, what this math promises is fullness of life.

Barbara Brown Taylor recently wrote Home by Another Way (Cowley). This article originally appeared in the December 8, 1999 issue of The Christian Century. All material copyright c 1999 the Christian Century Foundation.

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