Rest in the city
What do prayer and rest have in common? For many youth workers, the first answer that leaps to mind is that we wish we did more of both, and we feel guilty (and off-kilter) because of how little of either we practice. But they’re actually more closely linked than we might first guess.
While reading a book on prayer by Richard Foster, I attempted to practice each prayer he described as I went through the chapters. Not surprisingly, the day I read the chapter entitled “The Prayer of Rest” I happened to be exhausted. In an already too-busy day, I had barely managed to read about the prayer, let alone practice it, before I crawled into bed.
“Be still…Rest…Shalom,” 1 , [A word often translated as “peace” in the Bible, Shalom actually means much more. Shalom indicates not simply an absence of conflict, but a restoration of wholeness.] is how Richard Foster described his experience of the Prayer of Rest. I smiled to myself as I wrote “The Prayer of Rest…” in my journal and proceeded to lay my head on my pillow, only to be woken up an hour later by a frantic phone call. As the City Director of a yearlong urban ministry, I received a call from one of my teams who had witnessed an intense domestic violence dispute involving their neighbor. I offered to come over to sit with them and pray. As I drove to their house, I realized I had no words to soften what they had seen. “Be still…Rest…Shalom” was still on my mind and I pondered how it was possible to rest when faced with such ugliness. My natural response would have been to try to sugarcoat what had happened, but with the concept of Shalom running through my mind I decided to take a different strategy. I let myself experience the trauma for what it was, and I allowed my heart to be broken. I challenged myself to be still and rest in the context of the city, even when faced with the ugliness in front of me.
The restless youth worker
Why is it that the crises always seem to come when I’m beyond tired? I mean, is it really possible for youth workers to rest? And is it really possible to rest in the city? In a place where nature is rare, where there are always people, noise, and obvious needs, how can we experience stillness, rest and Shalom? And particularly when we are faced by situations that seem exceptionally ugly, how are we supposed to rest before God?
Recent research through the Fuller Youth Institute suggests that rest is precisely what urban youth workers need in order to survive and even thrive in ministry in the city. According to the Risk and Resilience in Urban Youth Ministry study, nearly 70% of paid staff and nearly half of volunteer youth workers have difficulty resting in urban youth ministry. Yet, the more exhausted we feel, the more successful we feel in ministry. This triggers an endless cycle of more ministry and less sleep until we’re completely burned out. Unfortunately, this all-too-familiar pattern contributes to serious physical and emotional health risks, not to mention a short-lived ministry career.
I learned something the night I decided not to offer hope and answers to my shaken-up students. Resting prayer is not only possible in the city, but it is essential. It is precisely when we are faced with the ugly, raw sides of the city that we feel most laid bare and vulnerable. In these moments, in order to rest, in order to hope, we must trust who God is. To rest requires us to trust that “God’s got this,” even when everything around and inside of us is telling us otherwise. This trust does not just happen; it must be nurtured and primed in order to relax in the most challenging of circumstances.
What does it mean to rest in prayer?
Not surprisingly, we are only able to experience rest in prayer when we actually stop and relax. It requires a ceasing of activity. This type of prayer focuses on being and experiencing rather than talking, asking or analyzing. This is not a prayer for changing circumstances or trying to understand—there are other types of prayers for that—but this is a prayer of resting in what is.
When I think of the prayer of rest, I think of accepting whatever comes my way. Not just accepting, but entering into and experiencing it as well. I have often prayed, “Lord, I want whatever you give me.” But this can involve a discipline of training myself to want something other than what I really wanted. The prayer of rest is different; there is no training of the mind. It is raw. It is more like, “Lord, allow me to experience whatever I step into.” It is sincerely responding with disappointment, joy, fear, anger or love and knowing God can handle who you are in that moment. These emotions may not initially be what comes to mind when you think of resting, but resting in the Lord looks different in the city than it does in other circumstances. Being at rest in prayer requires us to let down our guard, which can be harder to do in the city.
But how can the city be a restful place?
When Richard Foster describes the prayer of rest he describes being in solitude and nature. I can understand this. Often when I leave the city, my senses awaken to the sights and smells of the natural world around me. In certain environments, I can at times actually feel myself letting my guard down and relaxing my muscles. This can lead me into a prayer of rest.
There are aspects of city life that lead me to this type of prayer as well. Watching children play, spending quality time with a neighbor, experiencing celebrations with friends and families, or the times I have felt people’s fierce loyalty—these are some of the city’s features that allow me to let down my guard and trust that God is here in the city too.
At the same time, there are also elements of the city that keep me from resting in prayer. The city is filled with tensions that come from its being multi-faceted. With beauty also comes ugliness. As vulnerability emerges, so do stalkers and predators. For every glimpse of the Kingdom “now” there is also a sense of “not yet.” This could be said about many places. What is unique about the city is the showcase of need. Need is everywhere. Kathleen Norris in her book The Cloister Walk recognizes this constant need in the city as a call to prayer. “Being in the city is good for my monastic soul,” she says. “If anything, the desert monks’ command to ‘pray without ceasing’ seems easier there; the need is so obvious, so constant.” 2 Suffering, injustice and violence continually remind those in the city of their vulnerability and need for hope.
The keys to rest: vulnerability and trust
As youth workers we feel the need to offer hope and point out the presence of God in the city to others. This can be hard to do when we’re tired and having a hard time being hopeful ourselves. We act as if we must be strong for others and guard them from seeing our own hearts breaking.
Jesus doesn’t do this. We see in scripture that he allowed his heart to break. Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus who had died. The Gospel of John says that he was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” and when he comes before the tomb he weeps. He was able to experience what he felt in that moment (John 11:33-35), even though he would soon raise Lazarus from the dead! Instead of encouraging the crowds to cheer up and be hopeful about the miracle to come, he paused and allowed himself to grieve with them.
This pause is what the prayer of rest can look like in the city. This prayer allows us to come before God with what is in front of us rather than muster up hope. It is a prayer that allows our heart to be moved, even broken. This is so hard for us to do. We are so afraid of being hurt. Often with good reason, we have created barriers and developed suspicions. Being hurt is such a familiar feeling that it is hard to imagine that we can choose to be vulnerable in front of anyone, including God. [In her book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence, Ruth Haley Barton describes her journey of seeking solitude. She recognizes the risk in “exposing the tender, unfinished places of our soul” to God. She says, “We are so accustomed to being shamed or condemned in the unfinished parts of ourselves that it is hard to believe there is a place where all of who we are—the good, the bad and the ugly—will be handled with love and gentleness.” Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 96.]
Sometimes we find ourselves resting in prayer not because we are trying to, but because we don’t have what it takes to hold it together any more. Once in college I was slated to give a talk on a youth group mission trip. I had prepared a funny-yet-thought-provoking talk on experiencing God’s peace, but ironically I wasn’t feeling peaceful at all. For years I had been encouraging my students to not give me “Sunday School answers” because I wanted them to be really honest with me. But I was realizing how much I guarded myself from being really honest with them. I scratched my planned talk and instead opened up about my own insecurities and weaknesses. At the time, I was sure I was going to disappoint them. I thought they would respond by accusing me of not being who I said I was. Instead, it was almost like my students heaved a sigh of relief. From that point on, they opened up to me even more than they had in the past.
A similar experience takes place when we unveil ourselves before God. We don’t assume God can handle our raw and honest emotions, but we learn that we can be weak and broken before him when we sit before him without explanation or justification, just being quiet and offering ourselves as we are. In these moments, we rest knowing it is not our own strength that sustains us.
By practicing the prayer of rest, we can rest in who God is and rest in who we are. We are relieved from the impulse to have God-like control and we are completely free to be ourselves. It is out of this balance that we can rest in the midst of the evil we see in the city. Again, this does not necessarily mean accepting or understanding what we see, but rather entering into and experiencing what we feel, whether that is anger, rage or powerlessness. This requires us to trust God. In prayer, when we trust God, we can rest even while we experience the ugly sides of life.
How to seek sanctuary
This takes practice. We can prepare ourselves to rest by creating “sanctuaries,” or sacred places in our lives. We can create a sanctuary anywhere. C.S. Lewis notes, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him.” [C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Orlando: Harcourt, Brace, and Co, 1964), 75.] And so, in our crowded worlds full of need and noise, and in cities that “never sleep,” we set aside sacred spaces to learn how to be still and rest.
This will mean we need to choose to stop our normal routines, both our activities and interactions with others, while we rest. [Foster, 100.] This is how we begin to carve out sacred spaces in our daily life. We create sanctuaries by setting aside time and place to rest with God. [In doing this it is important to be aware of our surroundings. Though we cannot always gauge or control the activity around us, we can be thoughtful to avoid the times and places that are generally more loud and distracting for us.]
It is possible to find a sanctuary in your own home or neighborhood. Determine a chair, a pillow, a closet, a hallway, even a rooftop and reserve that place for prayer. If home is not a safe place, it may be possible to borrow a sanctuary from a church in your neighborhood. A Laundromat could become your refuge, a park bench your safe haven, or a simple stroll around the block could become sacred. What is important is that our sanctuaries feel like safe places where we can relax. The more consistent we are in these disciplines, the more our bodies become used to this sacred rhythm.
Sanctuary spaces in the city rarely just appear. We need to be intentional about creating spaces to be in God’s presence, all the while not trying to force ourselves into a place of rest. Just like forcing ourselves to sleep can often keep us awake, trying to force ourselves to rest in prayer can keep us from doing just that. Foster recounts a story of a student seeking spiritual direction from a monk. The monk encourages the student not to manipulate God, but receive. He says, “It’s like sleep. You can’t make yourself sleep, but you can create the conditions that allow sleep to happen.” [Foster, 144.] Likewise, we gently create conditions for restful prayer.
The prayer of rest changes us
We are affected by this restful prayer. Resting in God provides a quiet place where we do not have to explain anything. God sits with us; we sit with God. Our resting creates a space for God to provide for us and teach us about what we are experiencing. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus invites us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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” (Matthew 11:28-29). [As I was writing, I received a beautiful word picture of this. I was babysitting and heard Jaya (age 5) had woken up and was crying. I found her sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. I picked her up and sat with her on the steps so she would not wake the other children. In between sobs, before she could even explain to me why she was crying, she took a big sigh, leaned her head on my shoulder and fell asleep. As I sat there, amazed at how suddenly she had stopped crying, I could not help thinking, “Is this not what our Father God does for us?”] This is an invitation to shalom—to the wholeness of God for our frantic selves.
What we experience in our sanctuaries enables us to interact with the ugly parts of the city in a different way. Our experiences of God’s rest change us. When trusting in God, we develop a confidence not from knowing what is going to happen, but knowing that God is holding this too. This does not take away the pain. Rather, it is safe to feel it. In the same way that God’s heart breaks for the brokenness and pain in the city, we allow our own hearts to break as well.
The prayer of rest informs our interactions with the city
Through our prayers of rest we see the city differently, making this type of rest not merely a “good idea”, but an essential in urban ministry. What we learn in the context of these types of prayers is what—and Who—we need to depend on when we face the ugliness of the city. What we learn about ourselves and God in solitude is what we need to draw from when we go back into the world.
John Perkins writes, “All sorts of earthly powers claim the bodies and souls of the urban poor—from pimps and pushers and welfare to cults, television, and materialism. We, the community of believers, should demonstrate that we obey an authority that rules over all authorities. Our allegiance is to the righteous and just demands of our sovereign God, and no earthly power should control or intimidate us.” [John Perkins, Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 47.] Our confidence and responses to the city flow from our resting in who God is. May we boldly proclaim our trust in God by prayerfully resting in the city.
- Sleep. Learn how to rest your soul through resting your body. This week, revisit your evening and morning schedules and routines to more intentionally practice sleeping enough. Even let yourself schedule in naps to stay healthy.
- Practice being vulnerable with a person you trust. Set up a time to meet with a close friend and challenge yourself to share something that makes your heart break. Let that lead into vulnerability before God in prayer.
- Take a good, hard look at your prayer life. Do you ever pray this type of resting prayer? Make a space in your week to sit with God and not ask for anything, but simply be quiet.
- Do you have a “sanctuary” in the city? Look around for a special space where you feel you are able to relax and come before God. Make a point to go there regularly so it becomes part of the rhythms of your life.
- Call another youth worker to talk through the issue of rest. Brainstorm together ways to build more rest into your lives, and hold each other accountable for resting more in the next month.
- For additional reading on youth workers and rest (particularly the concept of Sabbath), please read “R-E-S-T: The Four-Letter Word of Youth Workers?” by Brad Griffin.
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