Finding the rest of God in the midst of the city
They are like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers. Psalm 1:3
A few years ago, this passage caught my attention. I was on a sabbatical, a time of Sabbath rest after years of intense urban life and ministry. But unlike the tree above, my leaves were withered. I was worn out, my joy was gone. This passage caught my attention because it promises that this tree gives its fruit in season, while its leaves do not wither. My expectation of myself, and the expectations I see around me, is that we are productive and fruitful all the time.
No wonder we feel worn out.
We were created for rhythms. All of God’s created world was created with rhythms. God created night and day. God created in six days, and then God rested. The ocean tides rise and fall, the leaves fall in autumn and then are reborn in spring.
Modern life gives few reminders, but we humans used to go to sleep and get up with the sun. Life followed the rhythms of the agricultural seasons. There were seasons of planting and harvesting, but also seasons when the ground would lay fallow (empty), as in the passage above. Fruit grows in seasons, not constantly or instantaneously.
Now we live in a 24/7 city. We can be plugged in all the time, and we are expected to be fruitful year-round. In this article we will look at ways that we can create life-sustaining rhythms even in a city that never stops.
Rhythms of action and contemplation:
The Mary/Martha Pendulum (Luke 10:38-42)
I love Martha. I think she gets a bad rap. She was just doing what was expected of her, caring for the needs of Jesus in the way she knew how. She was extending hospitality, providing welcome to visitors. Yes, Jesus said that Mary’s way was the better way. But most of us know we are way more like Martha. And yet we long for “the better way.”
Read the scripture again. Martha wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was welcoming Jesus, preparing food. But she was distracted. Jesus declares, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted.”
That’s most of us: we get worried and distracted.
I don’t think Jesus was telling Martha not to offer hospitality or live an active life. Rather, Jesus was after the state of her heart. We can be preparing food while our hearts are centered on Jesus. Likewise, it is possible to sit at the feet of Jesus and still be distracted.
Many of us live on the Mary/Martha pendulum. We work hard, in our distracted ways, and then long to sit at the feet of Jesus. Maybe we even get away for a day. But then we get exhausted again, because the rest we experienced that day away seems far away. We do not bring that rest back into our work.
In the story, Mary sits in contemplation at the feet of Jesus, looking into his face and listening to his voice. Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better way. Yet the passage just before this one is the story of the Good Samaritan, a passage that challenges us to get off our donkey and help others. Perhaps we are meant to live out an integration of Martha and Mary, with a rhythm of both action and contemplation. This is what Jesus modeled in his own life. He was busy in ministry, yet had regular times of being with his Father. 1 . Perhaps if we get off the Mary/Martha pendulum, we could find a more integrated way to be both of them.
Rhythms of pain and joy (Psalm 126)
Psalm 126 gives us an insight into what this integration might look like: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying sheaves with them.” (Psalm 126:5&6 NRSV). Life has its rhythms of both pain and joy. As Old Testament scholar John Goldingay writes in a book reflecting on his own journey through pain to joy (caring for his wife who suffers from MS):
So many things we achieve are achieved only through struggle and conflict, not in easy ways. They always seem to involve crosses. I have so longed to find somewhere in life, some corner where joy is unmingled with pain.
But I have never found it. Wherever I find joy, my own or other people’s, it always seems to be mingled with pain. And I find that the people I most respect are people who know the link between joy and pain. And I have found that if we will own pain and weep over it together, we also find Christ’s overflowing comfort.
The bad news is that there may be no corner of reality where joy is not related to pain. The good news is that there is no corner of reality where pain cannot be transformed into overflowing joy. 2
Goldingay also describes joy as “an inner liftedness of spirit that means we do more than just cope inside when things are tough: we are happy inside if things are difficult outside” 3
Society around us doesn’t understand joy, so we are encouraged to look for joy in all the wrong places. When we face pain and struggle, we are encouraged to escape it for a while. Getting away for an evening of fun is a fine thing to do, but it cannot be a substitute for the need to press in through the pain and be surprised by joy in the midst of the sorrow. Transformation and growth in our lives happen when we learn to walk through the pain to joy.
As a biblical scholar, Goldingay tells us that joy in the scriptures is a “noisy affair.” 4 We tend to think of joy as something quiet in our hearts, like peace. But joy in the scriptures is more like noisy celebration. This is certainly true in many urban contexts. Urban youth workers often find that their communities have some things to teach us about the capacity to celebrate even when life is difficult. Why cancel that celebration because of pain? Pain is not the end of the story.
Whether we seek the quiet joy in our hearts or the noisy joy of celebration, this is the joy God intends for his people. This joy is also what our youth are seeking. They understand the pain. They know about the escapes. But many are looking for examples of life worth living, to know that the pain is not the end of the story.
Rhythms of silence and noise
“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence…the more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life.”
—Mother Teresa 5
Noise is a given in the city. It is part of what makes up urban life. Silence, on the other hand, is a rare commodity. Yet silence is listed as a spiritual discipline in various writings. Those of us who live in the city might think that this does not relate to us, or is not very practical. We can write off this need for silence as something that doesn’t apply to us, but rather to suburban spirituality. But then there is Mother Teresa.
The streets of Calcutta where Mother Teresa walked, and where her sisters still walk, are definitely not places of silence. Urban India redefines “crowded.” From that intense urban context, Mother Teresa tells us we need silence. Her own answer was to get up early each morning and spend a quiet hour in the adoration of Jesus, before the noises of the day began. She took seriously the call to “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7). That hour of deep silence then prepared her for the many noises that would be part of the rest of her day. Her life was a rhythm of silence and urban noise.
Just this week, two people have shared with me that without taking time for silence, they would not be able to handle the noises of the city. The city can drown out all other voices.
I keep a list of urban sanctuaries, places to find silence in the midst of the city. It includes churches that are open in the middle of the day for prayer, a beautiful chapel at the local hospital, downtown fountains that are largely deserted on the weekend, and early morning walks. Korean Christians have something to teach us here. Many get up early to pray, finding their way to the peaks in Griffith Park, an urban park in L.A.
Rhythms of work and rest
Americans are overworked. Some years ago, Juliet Schor wrote a book called The Overworked American. Schor describes how our culture consistently chooses work over leisure. Despite the many labor-saving devices we now have that were meant to free up our time, we work longer and longer hours, far more hours than our counterparts in Europe and Australia. 6
Eugene Peterson addresses this overwork in an article with the intriguing title “Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker,” 7 Peterson describes his days of overwork as a Sabbath-breaker— how he sinned with gusto, yet no one called him on it, and he was even commended for his sin. Peterson writes, “In fact, at one critical point in my life, when I was out-of-control obsessive in my indulgence of this sin, I was rewarded with the largest single annual increase in salary I have ever received” 8 Peterson believes that this rampant sin leads to an entire culture living on the edge of panic, with a refusal to sit still and be silent, to look and listen.
The Jews understand Sabbath, shabbat, in ways that are difficult for us to grasp.
For the Jews, Sabbath is fundamental to life and to both their spiritual and emotional health. “It is the culmination of the week, the day that gives purpose to all other days.” [[Christine Sine, Godspace, (Newberg, OR: Barclay Press, 2006), 141.
When I first began to see my need for better rhythms, I began to take a day off. But this was not the day that gave purpose to my other days. In fact, sometimes I thought of it as the day in which to recoup so that I could have more energy for my work. But this is not a Sabbath. “The Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of Life.” 9
Within the work-to-Sabbath-rest rhythm, Eugene Peterson finds another rhythm. Peterson sees the ingredients of both prayer and play within Sabbath 10
Both are essential for Sabbath. In prayer, we pay attention to God, we respond to God as our creator, and appreciate again his creation. We spend time in prayer and praise, we move toward the longing to fill our thirst, as the deer pants for water. In play, we explore our humanity, including our bodies. Whether it is shooting hoops, wandering on the beach, walking in an urban park, or playing with our children, playing uses the bodies God has given us.
Creativity through the arts is another way to play. Whether we prefer to express ourselves through playing the drums or creating a collage, this kind of play also reminds us that we are created in the image of the Creator. We need rhythms of Sabbath that move back and forth between playing and praying (and sometimes we will play and pray together).
Weaving rhythms into our lives
God built rhythms into creation. Modern urban life is out of sync with those rhythms and so are we, yet rhythms help us sustain our lives, and live more fully.
In my neighborhood, indigenous peoples from Guatemala are coming in larger numbers. On the weekends, the women wear their traditional clothes, beautiful weavings representing their unique tribe. Amazing skill goes into the making of these weavings. But the weaving is only possible because of the warp, the lengthwise bands that hold it in place. The warp provides a structure that makes the weaving possible. If that structure is in place, and firm, the weaver can create beautiful weavings. But without that structure, the weaving will not hold its shape or may even collapse. The rhythms we build into our lives that God intends are like the warp of that weaving. When we attend to the warp-the rhythms-God can create the beautiful weavings that represent our lives.
Our youth too are so in need of healthy rhythms in their lives. When our lives are out of sync and the rhythms have collapsed, my husband and I look at each other and say, “Who would want this life?” We want to live healthy rhythms in line with God’s intent for us, and we want to live lives that model a life worth living for the many youth in our lives.
Going Deeper: Urban youth workers share their city rhythms
By Kimberly Williams
Understanding the need for rhythms is one thing, but how do you do this? In particular, how do you do this when you’re married, single, or chasing after some kids of your own? We’ve checked in with urban youth workers from around the country to get some of their best practices.
Here is a little introduction of our panel, including their life stage and challenges they have identified that can keep them from embracing healthy rhythms.
JIM DYSON, Vice President of Field Ministries for Young Life. He and his wife are empty nesters. Dyson says that, for him, the challenge of this stage of life has been to stop working. “When we had children at home the priority of being with them forced me to take a break from work.”
JOHN LEWIS, Southern California Regional Director for the Urban Youth Workers Institute. He is single with two young children. For John, the challenge of this season is to balance taking care of kids and working a full-time job as a single parent.
CHRIS BROOKS, Dean of Students for an inner-city high school in Minneapolis. He has been married for 13 years, and has two children who are 8 and 6 years old. Brooks identifies the greatest challenges to finding healthy rhythms as the “hustle” (taking on “extra” work to make ends meet), and the lack of resources (such as organizational leaders who don’t value rest and renewal, or mustering up the money to live in the city).
SHAWN CASSELBERRY,Chicago City Director for Mission Year. He has been married for 9 years. He identifies his rhythm fight as taking “on more responsibility than is humanly possible.” Casselberry says, “Sometimes I can forget that my job is not to fix or solve the problems around us, but to live in solidarity with my neighbors.”
The following represents collective suggestions this group has discovered about their rhythms.
WHEN YOU HAVE KIDS OF YOUR OWN
- Make your kids’ activities a priority
- If you need to be out at night, see if you can be at home in the afternoon when the kids get home from school.
- Participate in sports or other activities together with your kids.
- Get an animal that you can have fun with and take care of together.
- Eat dinner together.
- As much as possible, don’t commit to travel that will take you away from your family for long periods of time.
- Ask your kids to suggest ways for you to be a better mom/dad and implement their ideas.
- Tuck your kids in at night.
- Take advantage of “kids eat free” nights at local restaurants.
- Do a simplified examen exercise with kids as a bedtime or evening dinner ritual. Usually with young kids asking about daily highs and lows works best.
- Take a Sabbath together as a family.
- Parents work together to give one another time for retreats.
WHEN YOU HAVE A SPOUSE
- Debrief with your spouse daily.
- Pray together with your spouse.
- Don’t answer the phone when you’re spending time with your spouse, but always answer when he/she calls you.
FOR YOUR OWN HEALTH
- Take a Sabbath, and do things that are life-giving.
- Find times you can disconnect electronically (cell, phone, email).
- Find ways to appropriately let your own anger out, like going to the bowling alley.
- Create a colleague group. One respondent shared:
Several leaders of yearlong urban ministry programs got together to start a colleague group around the theme of a balanced life. We meet every other month to discuss books we are reading as a group, share ideas for balancing personal and professional life, and give each other support. We were able to get a grant for our group that covers the cost of books, retreats, and guest speakers.
- Schedule time to get together with friends.
- Try centering prayer (www.centeringprayer.com)
- Take seminary classes for intellectual stimulation and growth in new areas.
- Take public transportation and relax in the extra time it takes you to get where you’re going.
- Once each quarter find a way to take a personal retreat for a day or more.
While it can be hard to balance, each of our contributors also recognized the value of city life. Dyson found the tensions of ministry caused him to trust more in Christ. Lewis saw how experiences of pain can be a path to spiritual growth. “You will encounter pain in many ways that can take you to a deeper place spiritually,” Lewis says. Brooks noticed how the diversity of people and experiences have caused him to “think more deeply about God’s Word and the appropriate application of it.” Particularly the “passages about the poor have become more real as I engage them on a regular basis, and live among them.” Casselberry, too, has “seen the gospel come to life. Living in the city allows me to trust God more fully than when our lives were more comfortable and easy.”
Rhythms take time to develop. Sometimes they develop and sometimes they are decided upon. Yet we were meant to live in rhythms, no matter what our life stage.