Finding Space to Love God, Your Neighbor, and Yourself in the City
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… Love your neighbor as yourself.”
(Matthew 22:37, 39).
If you’re like me (Kimberly), you hear these commands as “love God and love your neighbor” and you overlook the rest of Jesus’ teachings, particularly the “as yourself” part. If I were to literally love my neighbors in the way I love myself then I probably wouldn’t let them sleep when they were tired, would give them more responsibilities and expectations than they could handle, and deprive them of water when they were thirsty.
As a leader, I find it difficult to carve out space and energy to care for myself. It has always been easier for me to care for others instead. While this is true for many, this seems to be especially true for those of us living and working in urban environments. Amidst so much need, we think, I’m okay, and others need to be attended to more than I do. Many of us have been thinking like this for so long that we often don’t even recognize we’re doing it anymore.
This is not the way of Jesus. Throughout the gospel accounts, Jesus is found retreating into solitude, finding time for prayer, and nourishing himself in the presence of the Father. [[There are many examples of Jesus taking some time to rest and pray. See for example: Mt 14:13, 23-24, 15:29, 17:1; Mk 6:31, 7:24; Lk 4:42, 6:12, 9:10, 22:41.]] Thelma Hall, in her book Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina, notices this practice of Jesus, “In Jesus’ life this prayer and action follow one another in a rhythm which seems as constant as the inhaling and exhaling of breathing.” [[Thelma Hall, r.c. Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988, 13.]] For Jesus, life is made up of both outward and inward movements. He is caring for himself as he is loving others.
Jesus also models this for his disciples. In Mark 6:31-32, Jesus notices that his disciples are not getting a chance to eat because there are so many people coming and going. So he says to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Jesus is not only concerned about the crowds, but also his disciples. He wants us to eat, to rest, to be with him. This rhythm is rooted deeply in the life of Jesus.
Our Need for this Rhythm
In Month 1 of our Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City series, Jude describes some of the external factors that make life in the city stressful. This article explains the “environmental press” and the “everyday harassments” that can weigh on urban dwellers. In addition to external factors, urban youth workers also have multiple internal factors that contribute to the stress they experience.
In a study by the Fuller Youth Institute entitled “Risk and Resilience in Urban Ministry: Stress, Spirituality, and Support,” urban youth ministry workers identified chronic stressors and “modifiable” organizational stressors that they experience. “Difficulty finding time for rest and relaxation” made both of these lists.
Several factors contribute to this dynamic. Urban youth workers juggle many roles and responsibilities. We spend time with kids, walk with them through the crises of life, and want to get to know their friends and families. Knowing how much the environment impacts youth, we want to work toward community transformation. To work toward community transformation, we need to be networking. In addition to all of these responsibilities within the youth worker role, we also have families, go to school, lead ministries at church, and perhaps work another job to make ends meet. Furthermore, youth workers who are local leaders from the city often help carry the responsibility of family of origin finances. Sometimes these roles conflict with each other, and we feel great internal tension.
No wonder we feel exhausted.
Another reason it can be difficult is our lack of boundaries. Unlike therapists, teachers, or social workers, youth workers do not have jobs with set hours and boundaries. Relationships and crises interrupt our schedules and intentions. We respond quickly because we want to be - and often need to be - readily available. In their book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend recognize that “we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.” [[Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 25.]] Setting these boundaries can be a struggle, but what urban youth worker doesn’t want to be able to distinguish what is and isn’t our responsibility? [[Those sensitive to cross-cultural questions will wonder how many of these principles apply in other cultures and contexts. Many cultures do not have a category for saying no, especially to family. One young woman from another culture who tried to apply the principles of boundaries was accused of becoming too individualistic and “too American.” Research is needed to determine how much of the literature on boundaries is universal, and what is culture-specific.]]
The words of Wayne Muller give further insight into why rest is difficult and the resulting consequences: “Because we do not rest we lose our way…Poisoned by the 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.” [Quoted by Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, (Carol Stream: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 55.] This danger manifests itself in every area of our lives, not least in our bodies themselves. [Doctors have thought for years that stress has a major impact on our health, but the research of Esther Sternberg has shown clear evidence of the connection between emotional stress and physical health. Sternberg has shown how stress moves from good stress to bad stress and then negatively impacts our immune system. (Sternberg, Esther, The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions (New York: Freeman and Co, 2001).]
A Vision for Rhythms in the City
Most urban youth workers long for a life that is sustainable over the long haul. Might it actually be possible to love and serve youth without feeling overwhelmed and exhausted much of the time? What might it look like if our bodies were rested, our spirits refreshed, and our hearts encouraged? What can we learn from Jesus about a life that is sustainable in the city, in which we love ourselves as well as our neighbors?
The Outward Movement
Following the rhythms of Jesus first means we examine the way that we are outwardly interacting with others. This part of Jesus’ rhythm comes easily to many urban youth workers. We desire to be the hands and feet, even the heart of Jesus for urban youth. This is what gets us up in the morning. We know what it means to express our love of God through loving our youth.
Our problem is that we often do this until we have nothing left to give. Well-known spiritual leader Henri Nouwen learned that unless we create space for solitude in our busy world, “we will lose our soul while we help others.” [Henri Nouwen, Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry, Ave Maria Press, 1988, Tape 1, “Solitude”.] That’s why the second part of Jesus’ rhythm is so vitally important.
The Inward Movement
The other side of the rhythm is the inward movement. Jesus spent a lot of time among the crowds and with his disciples, but he also withdrew to be alone and pray. His was a regular habit of withdrawing after spending time in ministry. [Paul Jensen describes this rhythm in Subversive Spirituality: Transforming Mission through the Collapse of Space and Time (Pickwick Press, in press).]
If we look at this through the lens of our roles, one role Jesus took seriously was his relationship as the Beloved Son of God. [Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, Crossroad Publishing, 2002.] Jesus took time to be in communion with his Father. Jesus was many things to many people -Teacher, Healer, Savior. Yet he did not neglect his role as God’s beloved Son.
How would our lives change if we took our role as God’s beloved children as seriously as our other roles, or even gave it priority? Perhaps this would not mean we are neglecting our call as youth workers, but rather more fully living into that call.
What does this inward movement look like in the city? Jesus went away to “lonely places,” places where he could be by himself or with his disciples in solitude. Are there spots in your city that might serve this same function? This might be a location in your own home, such as a designated chair for prayer, or a literal prayer closet. Other possibilities might include a nearby retreat center, a chapel in the local hospital or a local church open for prayer. [For more ideas on finding Sabbath rest in the urban environment, see Kimberly Williams, “]
Once we leave that place of solitude, how do we carry the experience of solitude back into the noisy city? Perhaps we can think of the noises of the city as calls to prayer rather than distractions. Sirens and helicopters can call our attention to God in that moment. Our time on the train, bus, or in the car can also become a place of communion with God, as well as intercession for those around us.
Modeling this Rhythm for Others
Jesus may never have discussed boundaries with his disciples. Yet Jesus did model when to say “yes” and when to say “no”. In his doctoral study of the rhythms of Jesus, Dr. Paul Jensen, Executive Director of the Leadership Institute, highlights the story captured in Mark 4:42. At daybreak, Jesus withdraws to a lonely place. The people were looking for him, and when they found him, they tried to keep him from leaving them. Jesus, however, tells them that he must leave. He must go and preach the gospel of the Kingdom in Judea, which is why he had come. [L. Paul Jensen, Subversive Spirituality: Transforming Mission through the Collapse of Space and Time (Pickwick, in press).] Notice how he had to say “no” to the pull of the people in order to maintain a focus on his ultimate call.
When we spend time in solitude and the urgency of ministry fades, we are able to listen to God’s still small voice. Some of what seemed so urgent falls into perspective. Knowing when to say “no” and when to say “yes” tend to become less of a struggle.
Odds are good that kids in our ministries respect many things about us. They often want to mirror who we are in their own character and relationships. What an opportunity that instead of modeling a stress-filled life, we can model the rhythms of Jesus. Besides caring for ourselves as we take on these rhythms, we will also be loving our kids as we live in sustainable patterns that they can adopt into their own lives as they move toward healthy adulthood.
Ebbs and Flows
A rhythm is a rhythm because of its movement of ebbs and flows. Once we catch a rhythm, it begins to carry us along despite ourselves. By taking rhythms seriously and taking time to love ourselves as well as our kids, we may then also be able to love God more. If we are experiencing rhythms of work and rest, then we may have more to give to God. As we create space to care for ourselves and learn to set boundaries, perhaps others will actually want us to love them the way we love ourselves.
- What in the article most resonated with your experience?
- Think of an experience when failure to care for yourself impacted you, your family, or your ministry. Can you picture how this might work in reverse - when making space to care for yourself could have a positive impact on you, your family or your ministry?
- Find a copy of one or more of the books footnoted or FYI articles highlighted in this article. Spend some time reading and reflecting on the practices suggested for creating boundaries and health in ministry. Another good resource is Carmen Renee Berry’s When Helping You is Hurting Me: Escaping the Messiah Trap (San Francisco: Harper Books, 1988).
To access the monthly practices designed as follow-ups to this article, as well as additional resources from the Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City urban ministry toolkit, CLICK HERE.