Recently, during a rather long episode of very slow stop-and-go traffic, I found myself passing the time by observing the people in the cars around me. A few were on cell phones, or engaging some other mobile electronic device in one way or another. Several others were involved in various other forms of multi-tasking behavior, including eating, reading, checking make-up, managing children, etc. Those listening to music were the easiest to spot; heads bobbing, hands tapping out the beat on the steering wheel or dash board, some even singing along. But what I found myself pondering as I observed this community of people with whom I was sharing a common road that day, was not so much what they were doing, but rather the rhythm to which they were moving. While our cars may have slowed to a crawl, for most of those around me, it appeared that the pace of their lives had not. What those in the cars around me were moving to were patterns and rhythms which continued to move them even when their vehicles has ceased to do so. They may have been frustrated in the traffic, but I suspect that the actual source of their angst originated elsewhere.
Most of us have experienced how we can be drawn into the rhythms that surround us. On those days when I listen to music as I run, I notice how my pace, without even thinking about it, tends to fall into step with its rhythm. On those days I run differently than I do on others. Somehow the rhythm of the music draws me in, alters my pace, and shapes how I move. The rhythm I become immersed in makes a difference. In this case, it is usually a helpful difference. Of course not all rhythms we move to are musical, nor are they always helpful. There are other patterns, those that are shaped by things like worry, stress, anxiety or fear, whether they are out where we can see them, or quietly playing in the background, that also draw us in and, once established, tend to have more corrosive qualities about them.
At least part of what makes this so challenging is that while we do have some say over the kinds of rhythms and patterns we intentionally choose to engage, we live in a world where things are already in motion, and we are being formed and shaped before we are ever aware that there are rhythms we are already moving to. It’s not so much that we have chosen them (we may not even be aware of them), but rather that they have become our default settings - what people are sometimes referring to when they say, “that’s just the way it is.” Which is why when it comes to trying to alter those patterns it can get as challenging as it does. It requires awareness, intentionality, and the support of others who have also become both aware and intentional about living in response to other rhythms.
In the book, Practicing our Faith, Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass describe the experience of a woman whose life is being shaped by the patterns that have taken root in her life.
I never thought I’d be living this way,” she says. “Somehow I imagined that life would be simpler.” She has reached forty, and she thinks she should have her life together by now, but things are just not right. Too few evenings include nourishing suppers shared with loved ones; too many are given over to the demands of paid work or housework, or lost to worry and exhaustion. Her closest friends are spread across several time zones. The old neighbors she entrusted with the house key are gone, and she barely knows the new ones. She finds community here and there, and she volunteers to help out as she can, but she is wary about getting too involved. Showing up at a PTA meeting, she has learned, probably means getting stuck with a fund raising assignment, so increasingly she stays away, in spite of her intense concerns about her children and all the others. She does not feel right about this. “This is not how I intended to live my life,” she sighs, turning from one task to the next.1
She describes a way of living that has been shaped in ways that are more draining than life-giving; more responsive to anxiety, pressure or obligation than invitation and grace; more relationally isolated than connected. She sounds tired. Whether or not she has made good or poor choices along the way, which may or may not have contributed to where she finds herself now, her experience is what it is not because this is something she has chosen or aspired to, but because of the patterns and rhythms of living that she has been drawn in to.
For better or for worse, intentional or not, we are shaped by the rhythms we engage. In fact, they can become so much a part of the fabric of how we live, that like the air we breathe, we rarely give them much conscious thought. Because they operate below the radar, we don’t appreciate just how powerful they are, or the toll they are taking. And, too often, our theology, whether it is traditional or contemporary, conservative or liberal, rather than correcting or redirecting them, winds up being shaped by them.
If however we were to take a moment, maybe lots of moments, to press the pause button long enough to become aware of the rhythms we are moving to and how they are shaping us, there are a number of useful, perhaps profound things we might start to notice. One of those might be that one of the greatest spiritual challenges we face, may have far less to do with our success or failure in accurately articulating or defending the content of what we believe (as significant as that can be) as with the way in which we engage it. It may be that the source of our greatest spiritual problem, is not that we are not trying to do the right thing, but rather in the way we engage the things that seem right to us. We may not fully appreciate how Jesus is as much “the Way” as He is the “Truth,” which might be why we sometimes miss the “Life.”2
One of the many ways this might happen can be illustrated by the way the cultural default settings of earlier church leaders may have helped to shape how we have traditionally tended to frame one of Adventism’s central, and perhaps best known, theological contributions to the rest of the Christian world: the doctrine of the Sabbath. Because the rhythms we move to have often tended to give more attention to a particular way of thinking about doctrinal “truth” (with less attention to “way” and “life” concerns), our way of framing our understanding of the Sabbath has fallen in step with those rhythms. Our emphasis on properly locating Sabbath on our weekly calendars, and in the way we have configured just how Sabbath would be a “testing truth” or reflect “the Seal of God,” we may have unintentionally obscured much of the richness of how it actually distinguishes those who embrace it from those who do not. Perhaps we need to consider how entering into the rhythm of life that the Sabbath itself encourages, supports, even commands, may be at least as important (and perhaps from an experiential perspective more important) than many of the other arguments we have used to establish it. Much more than simply being an arbitrary test of obedience in which God tells us to take a day off once a week on the day of His choosing just because He can, even more, the Sabbath is all about instilling and sustaining the very rhythms of life that we are created to enjoy, and about disrupting those that would undermine them. Without losing anything about the weekly celebration of Sabbath on the 7th day, doing so might give us an opportunity to use less energy arguing over trying to figure out the passing of time in ancient creation weeks, and more into how what Sabbath proclaims causes us to configure the weeks we are in the midst of right now differently.
I appreciate the way Wayne Muller in his book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Lives, describes both the rhythms we can become drawn into, and the way Sabbath helps us restore those for which we are created.
In the relentless busyness of modern life, we have lost the rhythm between work and rest. All life requires a rhythm of rest. There is a rhythm in our waking activity and in the body’s need for sleep. There is a rhythm in the way day dissolves into night, and night into morning. . . There is a tidal rhythm, a deep, eternal conversation between the land and the great sea. In our bodies, the heart perceptibly rests after each life-giving beat; the lungs rest between the exhale and the inhale. We have lost this essential rhythm.
Our culture invariably supposes that action and accomplishment are better than rest, that doing something – anything – is better than doing nothing. Because of our desire to succeed, to meet these ever growing expectations, we do not rest. Because we do not rest, we lose our way. We miss the compass points that would show us where to go. . . We miss the quiet that would give us wisdom. We miss the joy and love born of effortless delight. Poisoned by this hypnotic belief that good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort, we can never truly rest. And for want of rest, our lives are in danger. . .
Even when our intentions are noble and our efforts sincere – even when we dedicate our lives to the service of others – the corrosive pressure of frantic overactivity can nonetheless cause suffering to ourselves and to others . . .
Despite . . . good hearts and equally good intentions . . . work rarely feels light, pleasant, or healing. Instead, as it all piles endlessly upon itself, the whole experience of being alive begins to melt into one enormous obligation. It becomes the standard greeting everywhere: I am so busy. We say this to one another with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy . . . Our ability to withstand stress a mark of real character. . . The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others. To be unavailable to our friends and family, to be unable to find time for the sunset (or even to know that the sun has set at all), to whiz through our obligations without time for a single, mindful breath, this has become the model of a successful life.3
As Muller so articulately points out, in contrast to the rhythms of life that are encouraged by our culture, Sabbath celebrates and supports a profoundly different kind of rhythm. Sabbath makes room for resting by reminding us that we are neither our own creators (the Exodus version of the reason for the Sabbath commandment4) or our own saviors (Deuteronomy version5), but that both are gifts we receive out of God’s love and grace. By suspending work, we are invited to let go of the ways of thinking and relating that can, if left to themselves, cause us to depersonalize people and make qualitative distinctions between them based on social, vocational, or even immigration status (including all the ways we might be tempted to determine if “they” are “one of us” or not). Even animals are included. This is how we make the day holy and special. Not by taking a break from the “real” world before we return and embrace it again, but by allowing Sabbath to set, or reset, the pace and rhythm by which we once again engage a new week and the world God has created.
Imagine for a moment what our lives would be like if those weekly celebrated patterns and rhythms were the music to which we lived and moved? What if, when people thought about Adventists and Sabbath keeping, that was the kind of thing that came to mind first, before how to correctly read a calendar or doing what you are told? What if “the way” and “the life” were allowed to take their place alongside “the truth” (and how might that change the way we understand “the truth,” especially when we allow the “I am” part of that verse to remind us that they are all embodied in Jesus?)
One of the things we notice about Jesus in His embodiment of the way, truth and life, is that a good share of what He has to say seems to be less concerned with articulating new content to believe (although there is that), as with inviting us to engage what we believe differently – to move in response to other rhythms of life than the ones we have often become accustomed to. This is part of what Jesus hints at in the Sermon on the Mount when He says,
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them . . . 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers . . .
It is difficult to imagine how one could have been more exacting than the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who Jesus indicates have not yet grasped what it means to experience what being a part of the Kingdom He is proclaiming means. Without diminishing the importance of the content of what we believe (v17), Jesus seems to be most concerned with helping people understand the importance of how we engage it (v20), perhaps because our greatest challenges lie less in the area of doctrinal purity and more in the area of appropriate responsiveness.
He goes on to articulate much of what this looks like in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, but it is in Matthew 11 that we find one of the clearest expressions of the rhythm He is inviting us into.
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”
Too often we read verses 28-30 without the context provided by verses 25-27. Those verses are significant because in them Jesus prefaces His invitation by telling us that while what He is about to say too often seems hidden from the wise and learned (those already established in other rhythms) and is easier for children to embrace, it is in fact something that is at the very heart of who God is, and what it is, that Jesus has come into the world to reveal. At the heart of that revelation is a different kind of rhythm. The Message Bible renders verses 28-30 like this:
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.”
The obvious question this raises then is, to what extent do our lives, individually and corporately, move in response to the “unforced rhythms of grace” that Jesus invites us into? I suspect that many of us, as much as we may value and believe in the centrality of love and grace, still find ourselves too often being drawn into step with rhythms that take their cues more from less graceful sources, many of which originate in places of stress, worry, or anxiety. This happens not because it is inherent in our theology (at least when we do our theology well), but because our lives are more influenced by our default settings, the influence of the patterns and rhythms we live to that we absorb from other places, than we often realize or may be willing to admit. It shows up in things like our chronic busyness, that sense that we are always rushing to catch up, or not quite managing to live up to something that will give us validation in some way. It shows up in the anxious (sometimes mis-characterized as passionate) and sometimes almost hostile need to prove a theological or doctrinal point at the expense of those we are trying to prove it to. Indeed, it also shows up in expressions of theology that are shaped more by the rhythms of our anxious culture (or a previous one) than those embodied by Jesus.
It is when, personally or corporately, that we fail to embrace the rhythms Jesus offers, that we are most in danger of losing our balance. When this happens, the resulting movements that are usually somewhat less than graceful, and which too often result in injury, should not then surprise us. Jesus’ invitation, however, involves embracing a different kind of life rhythm, one that we learn by keeping company with Him, and watching how He does it, because it is all about who He is and what He has come to reveal. He invites us to discover ways of being and doing and engaging our faith that feel lighter, and that lead more toward an experience in which we feel like we are growing and flourishing rather than worrying and wilting.
A good friend and mentor once described these contrasting patterns as being like the difference between the experience of flying a kite on a breezy day, and that of keeping a kite in the air on a day with very little wind, or unhelpful cross winds. In both cases the kite might stay afloat in some manner, but the experience is very different depending on whether you are catching the wind or struggling to generate it. In one case, exhausting amounts of effort is expended to get temporary results as we run in order to move air against the kite to generate lift. In the other, we experience the wind as both the source of energy that lifts, and very much as a gift we receive that we then get to partner with. Those contrasting experiences may have much less to do with the kites themselves, the accuracy of their construction, or even the genuineness of our desire to catch the wind, and much more to do with the manner in which we engage it. The rhythms of the two experiences are very different.
Of course this would all be much easier, if it wasn’t for the fact that there are things about those unhealthy patterns that we find attractive. When feeling insecure or uncertain, being busy makes us feel important. And anxiety can be a very effective motivator, if what you value most (or are willing to settle for) is conformity (not so much though, if what you want is transformation). Finding fault with others, ferreting out deception (real or imagined), or trying to otherwise purify the church can make us feel righteous. And in a world where our sensitivities have become numb, anxiety, fear or judgmentalism can be mistaken for passion, because you are at least feeling something. Look at how alive and motivated people seem to feel when they are banded together in hate or anger against a common enemy! The old rhythms are sometimes easier to access, and can carry a certain attraction at times. Sadly, they are also things that, for many, sometimes seem easier to inspire and engage deeply than things like joy, hope, love, or the “unforced rhythms of grace.”
But ease of access or evoked emotion does not always translate into richness or depth. When we see goodness for what it really is, and love demonstrated and embodied in the way it is incarnated in the life of Jesus and those who knowingly or unknowingly reflect what He revealed, the contrast is unmistakable. Despite concerns that are sometimes expressed to the contrary, when we see God revealed in all God’s love and grace, it doesn’t lower the standards. In fact we actually see our own faultiness more clearly in contrast than ever before.7 It is living the assurance of knowing how deeply loved and embraced we are, that the motivation of anxiety and fear is removed, and we discover what it means to live full and free in response to God’s love and grace. Genuine change and transformation is the fruit of beginning to live in the rhythm of that responsiveness. It is a life that is characterized less by an anxious moving away from what we fear, and more by a moving toward what is whole and good.
As I continue to ponder that community of travelers with whom I often share the road, what concerns me the most is not the relative speed of the traffic, or even what they might be trying to do while driving (as problematic as that may or may not be at times), but the rhythm to which our lives are moving, and what that reflects about who we really are and what we are living in response to. When I think about the road I share with the others that make up my church community, and the community with which we as a church also share a common road, I find myself similarly concerned. Whatever the theological issues are that we need to engage, or the conversations we need to have, when all is said and done, if we fail to address the question of the rhythms we move to and are committed to be in step with as we have those conversations, we are likely to miss where it is that Jesus is inviting us to go, and who it is that He would like us to be. As important as our understanding of “the truth” may be, until we also embrace the way and the life, we may never quite catch that it is really all about Him. And if we miss that, it may not matter all that much how much else we get right.
1. Dorothy C. Bass, ed. Practicing Our Faith, (San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers, 2010) 1.
2. John 14:6 (NIV)
3. Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives (New York, Bantam Books, 1999) 1-3.
4. Exodus 20:11
5. Deuteronomy 5:15
6. See Matthew 5 for the full text of His comments
7. “The closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes; for your vision will be clear, and your imperfections will be seen in broad and distinct contrast to His perfect nature.” Ellen White, Steps to Christ, 64
Ken Curtis is Associate Pastor at Calimesa SDA church and blogs at KensFootnotes.
Photo Credit: FreeImages.com / Igor Kasalovic
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