Releasing All But the Main Thing

 “In every circumstance, regardless of the outcome, the main thing Jesus has asked me to do is to love God and my neighbor as religiously as I love myself. The minute I have that handled, I will ask for my next assignment. For now, my hands are full.”[1]

 

The Main Thing is Seeing All the Sights

Beginning the moment I adorned my first tutu—bouncy peach tulle and silver sequins—at age four, New York called to me. I set my sights on a professional dance career and the Mecca of Manhattan was my goal. But I was 35 before I stepped off the Staten Island Ferry into the city of the dreams that I’d long since tucked away. My husband and two kids in tow, I carried a marked-up map and a list of more things to see than possible in one day.

I wanted to pack the whole experience of New York into those few hours. It had taken me 30 years to get there, and I never knew if I’d return. My son didn’t even make it through everything, falling asleep a few minutes after the curtains rose on the Radio City Rockette’s Christmas Spectacular we’d all dreamed of seeing live. Did I really think a 5-year-old would be able to stay up for the 10 pm show after traipsing all over the city in the blistering winds for hours? It was a wonderful day but the memory of it is a blur.

A couple years later when we visited Paris on the way home from living in South Asia, we still crammed the days full of museums and historic sights. However, we also understood the need to slow down after such a full and hectic year. When I think back on that magical week, the things my mind wanders to first aren’t the sights but simple, sweet moments.

That impromptu picnic in the park next to the Eiffel tower. The afternoon the kids spent playing with French children in the shade of Sacré-Cœur while we lounged on a bench and watched the sun move filter through the trees. Sitting still on the steps overlooking the gardens of Versailles, not thinking about the next thing we had planned. Dwelling in the lifelong and unlikely dream we were getting to live out. Savoring each other’s presence.

 

Losing Sight of the Main Thing

As evidenced by my frequent bouts of exhaustion as my body tries to tell me I’m too old to live at this pace, it’s not just seeing exciting places that I rush through full force. I’ve always prided myself in the amount I can accomplish and how I can multi-task in all areas of my life. This year I added grad school to my already crammed life of writing, a 25-hour a week job, parenting mostly alone through my husband’s long work hours, performing massive renovations on our home and 6-acre property, and complex family dynamics. Oh, and a pandemic. I believed I could do it all. I always have. My anxiety seems to say otherwise.

This hunger to fill life to the top, complicated by the evangelical training of my youth to live every day like Jesus could come back at any moment, has meant I most often approach spiritual life with the same gusto. Knowing more, serving more, and reaching the world was the daily call. Give all for God every day. After all, Jesus had given all for us. How could we do any less?

As evidenced by my frequent departures into feeling inadequate, unloved by God, and unable to ever be enough, this is not the way to the abundant life Jesus came to give us. The older I got the more the tension grew. I’d attended seminary, served as a leader, and worked for the church. I attended each event and Bible study and served whenever asked like I was taught to do. The more I did, the less I could see Jesus or recognize the presence of God.

 

Holding Onto All the Things

Even after years of studying and practicing slower, contemplative ways of leaning into the mystery of God, I still want to use them to hustle my way into the Kingdom. I run through the doubts in my mind. Have I practiced Centering Prayer today? Check. Wait, when is the last time I practiced Examen?

Who I am and what is so deeply ingrained in me hasn’t changed. The desire is still there every day to do enough to earn the church’s gold stars of approval. The fear that I am not enough still tightens in my chest on the days when my Bible remains unopened for all the urgent matters of life that required my attention. It’s hard to let go of the lies I let myself believe for decades.

This isn’t a problem unique to our complex times. The Apostle Paul saw how the early church members at Corinth had let their religion complicate their faith, fearing that their “minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”[2]

 

Releasing All But the Main Thing

This week I worked overtime into the evenings so I could take a few hours off to myself before the busyness of the summertime invades my home. Having kids home from school and balancing work, school, and parenting are no simple tasks. I sat down by the lake with a notebook in one hand and my calendar in the other. My world began to swim with schedules and to-do lists to make. I started to take note of the books I wanted to read and the spiritual practices I planned to focus on. All the things I needed to accomplish in my life of faith. I felt that old familiar need to do it all arising from deep within.

A cool breeze arose from the water. My pencil hovered for a moment over the plans and goals for the months ahead. I remembered the words of the beloved poet Mary Oliver: “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”[3]

I let out the breath didn’t realize I had been grasping tight in my lungs, the knot in my chest releasing. I turned the page and released the pencil from my grasp. I realized didn’t need to hold onto it anymore.

My hands were already full.

 


[1] Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others.

[2] 2 Corinthians 11:3, NKJV.

[3] Oliver, Mary. Wild Geese.

Nicole T. Walters
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