Read Well with Doc Reid: Margin by Swenson

Note: I am starting today with a weekly post on a book I have read I find to be helpful for leaders. I do not intend to write a critical book review per se, but simply to offer an overview with a few pertinent points and quotes to give you an idea as to whether it may be helpful to you. I agree with my friends at Student Leadership University that who you become as a leader lies largely in the books you read, the people you meet, and the places you go. This is particularly true if you start by reading the Bible, meeting Jesus, and going to the cross. Based on the reality of knowing Christ, we should be stretching our minds and growing constantly. So with that in mind I offer this weekly exercise, using books written both for the church and for the general population.

Today’s book choice is Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Times Reserves to Overloaded Lives by a medical doctor named Richard Swenson (NavPress).  Swenson writes:


“THE CONDITIONS OF modern-day living devour margin. If you are homeless, we send you to a shelter. If you are penniless, we offer you food stamps. If you are breathless, we connect you to oxygen. But if you are marginless, we give you yet one more thing to do. . . .Marginless is the baby crying and the phone ringing at the same time; margin is Grandma taking the baby for the afternoon. Marginless is being asked to carry a load five pounds heavier than you can lift; margin is a friend to carry half the burden. Marginless is not having time to finish the book you’re reading on stress; margin is having the time to read it twice. Marginless is fatigue; margin is energy. Marginless is red ink; margin is black ink. Marginless is hurry; margin is calm. Marginless is anxiety; margin is security. Marginless is culture; margin is counterculture. Marginless is the disease of the new millennium; margin is its cure.” (p. 13)

Yes, plenty of people are lazy today. But many of us are too busy. Being active is necessary to follow Christ, but simply being busy, as Swenson points out, can actually be a form of laziness, because we are busy doing nonsense instead of focusing our lives on things that matter. Swenson observes that although Western culture in most ways is superior by far to the third world, the one thing people living there have is margin.

” We must have some room to breathe,” he writes. “We need freedom to think and permission to heal. Our relationships are being starved to death by velocity. No one has the time to listen, let alone love. Our children lay wounded on the ground, run over by our high-speed good intentions. Is God now pro-exhaustion?” (p. 27) Swenson offers wisdom for the marginless. He asks whether Jesus would have worn a wristwatch, and submits wisely that we tend to cram 120% of life into 100%, when we should be living at 80% capacity so we have room for people, and for the Lord in fact, to interrupt us. After all, Jesus was active, but He seemed to be interrupted a lot, and He made those interruptions into ministry opportunities.

I appreciated his distinction between good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress).   Eustress is what an athlete feels just before the game begins, the anticipation and excitement a preacher feels as he readies to teach the Word. For me, traveling and preaching in different churches gives me good stress — I love the dependence on the Lord, the uniqueness of every situation, and so on. But I do not like the administration of my calendar which distresses me (as does anything administrative) so my secretary has taken over my calendar. We all need to distinguish between the things we do which bring either good or bad stress, and not be afraid to say no or to enlist others to help us.

” Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload. If we are overloaded we have no margin.” (p. 70) He offers practical advice on how to create margin emotionally, physically, financially, and in our use of time. I am grateful to see a believer with a medical degree remind us that we cannot compartmentalize our lives, but we need margin in all areas. Laugh more, take a nap, create margin not for margin’s sake, but so we can be more available for God to speak.

Swenson reminds us that advertisement today largely seeks to make us discontent and yearn for more. Margin mocks such messages and chooses simplicity instead.

If we have 15 good things we could do today and only have time to do 10, we must say no 5 times. Learning to say no is critical to creating margin. I have had to say no to meeting with as many students weekly as I once did. I have to say no sometimes to students who want me to mentor them personally. I have to say no to coffee with a pastor so I can have coffee with one of my unsaved friends. Creating margin does not mean cramming more things into our lives; it means we realize how much more  we can be available to God if we actually slow down enough to hear Him when He speaks.

He tells Type A people like me to find the longest line and stand in it. “You are crazy,” I thought. But I see his point. Slow down. Make space. I have done that far better this fall, and even having two unplanned trips of a total of 6 days to attend 2 funerals has not stressed me out. Why? Because I created margin. And why did I do that? Because I read this book.

Create enough space in your life to read this book and perhaps you will value margin more as well.

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