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Jesus’ ministry is antidote to American overload, author says

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Americans are “hitting the wall and collapsing in exhaustion,” Richard Swenson said. “Everyone is talking about how weary they are.”

Swenson, author of “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives,” spoke on the problems of stress, complexity, speed and overload in American culture in Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Scudder Lecture Series March 27-28 in Kansas City, Mo.

Swenson, of Menomonie, Wis., is a fulltime futurist, researcher and author whose books also include “The Overload Syndrome” and “Hurtling Toward Oblivion.” He spent five years in a private medical practice before accepting a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, a position he held for 15 years.

Speaking from a physician’s perspective, Swenson said doctors as well as pastors are especially prone to living overloaded. “If I don’t do it, who in the world is going to do it?” the pastor’s thinking goes. “The whole kingdom is going to collapse if I don’t put in this extra time at 3:30 in the morning.”

A clear understanding of who God is is necessary to feel a sense of peace in life, Swenson said. “And if you lack that understanding and you think the kingdom of God depends on your effort and your effort alone, you’re not going to make it.”

The futurists of the 1960s predicted something much different for the 21st century than the new “overload syndrome” epidemic, Swenson said. They thought each American family would have only one wage earner working a mere 20 hours week. Technology, progress, computers and automation were expected to increase productivity to the point of people having too much leisure time. They thought the risk would be boredom, not overload.

Research, however, shows that 30 million American men describe their lives as being stressed out, Swenson said. Thirty-six percent of Americans say they are rushed all the time and the average office worker is interrupted 202 times a day. Instead of having one wage earner per family working fewer hours, Swenson said many households have two wage earners, each working more than 40 hours per week.

“There’s something going on out there and we need to understand it for the sake of the kingdom [of God], for the sake of the flock,” Swenson said. “There’s going to be enormous attrition in the kingdom because people are so tied up and so busy with this cultural treadmill.

“God himself taps us on the shoulder and we give him the busy signal,” Swenson lamented.

“Progress always leads to more,” he continued. “Everybody I know wants more. That’s the definition of happiness in America: more than I have now. The trouble with progress is that we have limits. Progress cannot afford to acknowledge these limits.

“This is what the futurists completely forgot to factor in during the 1960s. The overload epidemic is very real and it is after your career, your profession, your pastorate and your flock, just as it is after physicians,” Swenson told the seminary audience.

Stress is not all bad, he said, explaining that God designed people’s bodies to be very adaptable, and he invented the stress mechanism as a way to adapt to change. On the other hand, Swenson said, too much stress can make people physically ill.

Progress also leads to increasing complexity, Swenson said, pointing out that Americans on average will operate 20,000 pieces of technology in their lifetimes. While people should allow some complexity in our lives, Swenson said, they should not let it clutter the “important things” in life, especially the gospel message.

Progress increases speed and, at times, speed is appropriate, Swenson continued. The problem comes in going too fast, he said. “You cross the line of dysfunction, a line called hurry. When I’m going at the speed of light, there isn’t time to really stop and reflect and pray to try to discern what the Spirit of God would have me to do.” And when people hurry, he said, it leads to increased mistakes and stress.

The threshold line is human limits, which were God’s idea, Swenson said. “He put that 24-hour day in there for my protection,” he said; when he goes past that threshold, he becomes irritable, for example, and has migraine headaches. “With other people, it’s apathy or withdrawal or work dread. They get depressed, they don’t want to face life. For some people, it’s moral failure,” Swenson said.

“We all have to live in overload from time to time. In the kind of world that we live in, it’s impossible to avoid that. But don’t live there all the time,” he said.

People need a little margin in their lives, Swenson said. Even though culture has pushed people over the line, they can put on the brakes, which takes discipline, he said.

“In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you had not planned or thought about,” Swenson said. “A lot of things that God is calling us to do in life, require a little bit of space.”

Swenson said his study of Jesus’ ministry is what set him free. Ministry for Jesus was the person standing in front of him at the time. “To me, the person standing in front of me was an obstacle that I’m trying to get over, under, around or through so I could get down the road. I had a totally different orientation about life because I was so agenda-driven. Jesus healed the person standing in front of him. He didn’t teach everybody in Israel, but he taught that person, he loved that person.

“In the end, it is about ‘seek ye first the kingdom of God.’ In the end, it’s all about Jesus,” Swenson said.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: TACKLING OVERLOAD.

    About the Author

  • Rebecca Megli