Simon McLeay. Living with Margin 1
Do you like watching extreme sports programs? Mountain bike racing, formula one, MasterChef! I think it’s base jumping where they jump off cliffs and whistle past rocks at huge speed. There’s no margin for error. It’s incredibly exciting, and can look great fun. But you can’t live life like that. The All Blacks used to play a shorter season, now they are being pushed to their limit more and more often, and I think that’s why we are seeing more and more injuries.
I was mountain biking last weekend and I judged a corner wrong and, embarrassingly, fell off the path. Fortunately, it wasn’t very far and it was just into some soft fern, but I found that the edge of the track wasn’t firm and I needed to provide more margin.
I reckon that our culture is encouraging us to cut margin out of our lives, to push life to the limit more and more often - physically, emotionally and spiritually. And I don’t think it’s healthy. I think we are familiar with the idea of going past our limit, but are we familiar with the biblical idea of putting more margin before our limit? We’re going to look at this over the next few weeks.
Let me define margin for you; an amount beyond what is needed, or perhaps the amount between our normal capacity and our limit. Do you remember when we were kids, we all ruled a margin on our paper so that we didn’t go off the edge of the page. Today, topless pads don’t even have a margin! (OK, how many of you guys used a slate at school?)
Let me give you a couple more of examples of margin. Think about motorways. I dropped Danny and Lily off in Auckland this week so I was on the motorway. Most of the lanes are bigger than the size of the cars, there is a margin between my lane and your lane so if you wobble a bit you don’t hit me. Of course, in the Philippines they get 5 lanes of traffic into what we would consider a 2 lane road!
Or, I can lift about 6 of these chairs at once, that’s about my limit, but it’s much better for me to carry about 4, to give myself some margin.
I want to suggest that our culture is always trying to reduce our margin. Trying to squeeze more out of us, or us trying to squeeze more into us. But God designed us to live with margin.
The scriptures encourage us to live with margin in our lives. They don’t use the word margin but it’s a basic assumption. What’s the first most obvious example? Sabbath.
Exodus 20:9-10: ‘Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work…’ To rest, to worship to recoup, not just you but your servants and animals also. Margin. If you look at the Old Testament there are many rest and recovery days, right through to the Year of Jubilee. Sabbath is another way of writing margin and, in the western world, life has become 24/7.
Second example, Gleanings. Leviticus 19:9 'When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.’ When the Israelites harvested their field, they were told to leave a margin on the edges, to leave some of the crop unharvested, a margin for the poor.
Jesus talked about moral margin in Matthew 5:28 ‘But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ Don’t even look upon a woman in lust, don’t wait until you are about to consummate your affair, stop it before you speak or act, stop with your eyes – margin
In our reading for today, Jesus has such a positive view of life. ‘Take my yoke upon you, learn the unforced rhythms of grace.’ Isn’t that a beautiful translation of Matthew 11 by Eugene Petersen. He believes that Jesus was saying life and faith aren’t mean to be all struggle. God wants us to find our pace in life, to find our rhythm, not to be always striving and driven, but to be living with rhythm.
Matthew 11.28-29 28 ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’
Some commentators have suggested that Jesus’ yoke is his teaching his way of under-standing God’s expectations of us. A yoke was the way that an ox was tied to a plough. It was a symbol of work, but a well fitting yoke would allow an ox to work all day. An easy yoke is like a well fitting pack, making work a pleasure. Listen again to how Eugene translates Jesus’ words, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? 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. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Where do we need more margin? Are you living your days from appointment to appointment, from kids soccer, to drama, to piano lessons, to looking after your mum, to racing back for work. I think all of us need to be mindful of creating more margin in our days, in our schedule, in our diary. I’m going to talk more about this next week. But there is a profound truth that we need to understand. Our days are numbered, they are not unlimited and you cannot store time. At the end of every 24 hour period you will have consumed 24 hours of your life and you cannot have it over again. Next week, number your days – don’t miss that one.
Younger people, build some margin into your relationships, some moral margin, don’t go right up to the edge. Set your boundaries a little more tightly so that if you go over your boundary ‘one hot summer night’ you might be regretful the next day, but you won’t be pregnant nor infected. We all need moral margin. Paul says flee immorality not flirt with it.
Or how about business margin, some equity left in the business at the end of the year. Are you being tempted to sail too close to the wind, to spend what you don’t have, to run your business insolvent just for a little while until that sale comes in, to leverage yourself too far? We need margin, a profit margin, a cash margin, a contingency fund.
So, what happens when we live without margin, when we keep pushing ourselves to our limits? Well, the first thing is that our stress levels go up physically and emotionally and we start living stressed lives. We stop living in our sweet spot, where things just go nicely, and we start to be driven and intense.
Secondly, our focus narrows. When the body is living on adrenalin we become very focused on just getting through, our peripheral vision reduces and we just need to get this thing done. You’ll see on the TV show My Kitchen Rules that a contestant will focus so much on getting one dish perfect that they run out of time for something else.
Then thirdly, our relationships suffer. When I get stressed I become short with people, the kids say I get mean, and there is so much to lose.
Here’s a disturbing truth, a lot of relationship happens in the margins - our relationship with God, our relationship with our spouse, with our kids. That last half hour of the day when, if you’re not too tired, you kick back with your spouse and have a cup of tea and just be. A lot of real relationship happens in the margins. Professional or productive conversations often happen within the boundaries – but magic moments happen in the margins.
Let me give you a final example. I’m planning to ride around Taupo on the 29th of November this year. Tom and Neville and I went to a briefing this week. One of the guys who’s done the race multiple times was talking about stamina and heart rate. He was saying that to achieve 160kms you need to keep out of your heart rate’s Red Zone (that’s your peak exertion). You can do it for a bit, but if you try to blast up too many of the hills early on, you will stuffed by half way. Too many of us live that way, burning in the Red Zone rather than cruising in your sweet spot. Why?
Perhaps because we think we might miss out otherwise. We’re afraid if we don’t do everything, get our kids into everything, maximise our exertion, we’ll somehow miss out. Yet in truth it is in the busyness that we miss out.
Perhaps because we don’t know how to get out of the Red Zone. We’ve just been living there too long, and we need to recognize our lives as unsustainable and call a stop to it.
Perhaps because someone else is driving us. Maybe our boss, maybe our peers, maybe our parents, and sometimes even our perception of our parents expectations even after they have gone. We can’t let someone else drive our lives.
Maybe you’re busy thinking, I just don’t have space or time to rebalance my life, let me share just a couple of warnings.
1. The Israelites didn’t seem to be able to make the time to reform their moral lives. Along came the Babylonians and over a long exile they found time to sort things out.
2. It’s amazing to see how people find time to change their diet and fit in exercise after a heart attack or a diagnosis. (I’m very aware that I’m 44 and that’s the age my grandfather died of a heart attack.)
3. Sadly you see people find time to re-evaluate their commitments, their moral margin, their family time, after a divorce.
4. Sometimes it’s only after we burn out that we start to see what a sustainable work/life blend looks like.
5. I understand that when you end up in prison you have plenty of time to reconsider that financial corner you decided to cut.
Apart from the first, these warnings aren’t God getting at you personally. They are just the way that the universe is set up. If you live your life without sufficient margin, at some stage you will come to an edge, and likely go over it.
What’s God’s remedy? Slow down. Stop. Learn to say No. I think there are two things that are really helpful. One is to identify what a healthy margin would look like i.e. getting home at ‘x’ time, having ‘y’ dollars sitting in your bank account, having ‘z’ protections around your moral margin. For me, two nights out a week and sometimes one, rather than three nights and sometimes four.
The second thing is to make a plan for how to get there. That’s often the hard one. Revelation 3.20 is a wonderful invitation ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.’ Jesus wants to come into our lives, not just as our Saviour, but as our Lord, as the one who directs our living.
So what now? Ask God to help you Create More Margin in your life. That might be all I need to tell you. God wants you to live within your capacity not beyond it. ‘Take my yoke, it is easy.’ Learn from Jesus. He had three years to change that world but he didn’t live at a manic speed, he didn’t go into debt to finance his ministry, he kept good moral boundaries, and he did the one or two things that only he could do, while sowing into the future rather than burning up the present. My friends are you learning the unforced rhythm of grace?
* These sermons are based on a series called “Take It to the Limit” by Andy Stanley from North Point.