Learning the Rhythms of Grace"I have this simple rhythm, a trellis that supports my most life-giving relationship—my friendship with Jesus Christ."
At the beginning of a new year, or around the time of our birthdays, many of us feel motivated to exercise more, to phone our mothers more regularly, or read our Bibles more faithfully. But according to some studies, nearly 80 percent of people who make New Year’s resolutions abandon them by mid-February. Over the years, I too have made my share of New Year’s resolutions only to end up failing to follow through on them.
But then, as a young adult, I unexpectedly came across something that proved far more robust than a typical New Year’s resolution.
During my 20s I worked for the Sony Corporation in Tokyo as what was colloquially described by the Japanese as a “7-11” man. It meant that my workday went from 7:00 a.m. until past 11:00 p.m. In those days, even when I wasn’t traveling, I often felt jetlagged. When I eventually became a pastor in Vancouver, British Columbia, I assumed things would settle down, but I found myself keeping almost as busy. I felt like I was constantly treading water.
Around this time, my mentor, Leighton Ford (brother-in-law to the late Billy Graham), invited me to join him on a pilgrimage to the holy places of Ireland. I was eager for a change of pace and scenery, so I gratefully accepted.
While in Ireland, we visited the ancient monasteries, and from the monks learned about their way of life, which they described as a “rule of life.” This rule, or rhythm, enabled them to experience God as alive and real; not just as they were praying in a chapel, but as they were working out in a field, studying in a library, or preparing a meal in a kitchen.
I was hungry to experience God as alive and real in every part of my life, so when I returned to Vancouver, I began to practice some of the simple habits I had learned from the monks. This became my personal rule of life, which has been refined across the years and enabled me to experience God in my everything.
Don’t let the word “rule” scare you. The monks use the word “rule” in a way that’s different from the way you and I use the term. When monks speak of a “rule,” they are referring to one of the ancient root meanings of the word: “trellis.” If you’ve ever been to a vineyard, you know that a trellis is simply a wooden structure that supports a grapevine, enabling it to receive more sunlight and experience pruning so that it bears better fruit and produces more delicious wine.
Similarly, a rule, or rhythm, of life supports our life with Christ so that we experience more of His “sunlight,” and wise, loving pruning; so that we bear more of the fruit of His character—His love, joy and peace. These are qualities I desperately need and long for, and that you likely do as well.
Living by a rule of life isn’t simply a monastic tradition. It’s thoroughly biblical. Scripture shows us how Daniel lived by an intentional rule that sustained him in Babylon as he faced powerful forces that threatened to pull his life away from God. His rhythm enabled him not only to survive spiritually, but also to become a person so wise and courageous, so beautiful and mysterious, that the only way people could explain him was to say that “the spirit of the gods must live in him” (Daniel 5:11). Even when it might have cost him his very life, Daniel pursued his rhythm of bowing to pray and give thanks to his God three times a day (Daniel 6:10). If we want to grow into people as wise, courageous, beautiful and mysterious as Daniel, we too will need to live by an intentional rule of life that supports our most life-giving relationship of all—our relationship with Jesus.
My personal rule of life is fairly simple. It doesn’t feel like an obligation, but a gift. It’s not like a “have to.” It’s a “get to.” A cornerstone of my simple rule is the practice of Sabbath.
Ideally, Sabbath is a 24-hour period of time in which we don’t engage in our regular work or anything related to it. As someone who is prone to workaholism and making work an idol, this practice is especially life-giving and freeing for me. The late Jewish theologian Joshua Heschel describes Sabbath as a “palace in time.” Sabbath can become a palace in time for us where we delight in God and in the activities that bring us the most life. It’s where we cherish the people who are most important to us. For me, delighting in God on the Sabbath includes taking time to thank God for the gifts He has bestowed in my life, and that means doing something outdoors: running through the forest with our golden retriever, walking the beach or kayaking. For you, it might involve listening to music, viewing an inspiring film or eating your favorite food. Delighting in people means spending time with family and friends, even if it’s over the phone or through a video call. Walter Brueggemann, the Old Testament scholar, points out that people who keep the Sabbath experience the other six days of their life differently. By honoring this sacred rhythm of one day of weekly rest, we can know a sense of calm, peace and joy we otherwise wouldn’t know in the other six days.
Another part of my simple rhythm of life is exercise. I am not trying to impose my rhythm on you, but physical movement is life-giving for me. With the various burdens of people and circumstances I carry as an urban pastor, sometimes I can experience feelings of melancholy or depression first thing in the morning. Swimming or running makes me feel uplifted and more connected to God. Part of the reason for this resides in the fact that when a person exercises, endorphins are released and act as a kind of natural tranquilizer.
Dr. James Prochaka, a researcher at the University of Rhode Island, points out that exercise is also a “keystone habit” that generates change in other parts of our lives. People who regularly exercise tend to make healthier eating choices, focus more at work or in their studies, and exhibit more patience with people. The data also show that people who regularly exercise use their credit cards less. No one knows exactly why that is true. Though I am a rank amateur, I think I know why: it’s because after a person exercises … they’re too tired to go shopping!
Another part of my rhythm of life includes meditation. I am a very easily distracted person. At any given time, I can feel like there are 134 chimpanzees jumping around in my head. So in the morning, I take some time to breathe in and out of my nose. After a few moments, I begin to wonder, “How much time has gone by?” To focus, I use an app on my phone called Centering Prayer, which has a timer. Often, I set it for 15 or 20 minutes. The app has a chime that summons me to attend to God, much like a bell in a monastery does for monks.
I am so easily distracted that not long after beginning my mediation, I usually start thinking of all the things I ought to be doing. To still my mind, I focus on a brief portion of Scripture, such as the phrase from Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” Breathe in. “Be still.” Breathe out. “Know that I am God.” Breathe in. “Be still.” Breathe out. “Know that I am God.”
Sometimes I use a single word from Scripture, such as “love,” to still my mind and remind me of God’s nature towards me. When the time is done, the chime from the app sounds. I open my eyes and usually feel more relaxed, calm, centered, and throughout the day, a little more aware of God’s presence. Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist who teaches at Stanford University, points out that if you meditate for as little as 10 to 15 minutes a day for two to three months, an MRI scan would show that the neural networks in your brain associated with the ability to focus and control your impulses has actually grown, and the grey matter in your head associated with feeling anxiety and depression has actually shrunk.
Meditation also shapes the way we relate to our work and other people. When Andrew, an engineer who is easily distracted, began to experiment with meditation, he tried to focus on his breathing and other thoughts leaked into his brain. Feeling like a terrible meditator, he was ready to give up because he felt he was wasting his time. But as he reflected on his experience, Andrew realized that even though he was distracted during his 10 or 20 minutes of meditation, he was more focused on the days he meditated than he was on the days when he skipped it. He also noticed that on the days he meditated and wanted to order something deep-fried and salty at the work cafeteria, he was more likely to make a healthier eating choice, instead. He also noticed that when he meditated, he was more likely to bite his tongue after he sensed a sarcastic comment about to fly through his lips. Lastly, he realized that on the days he meditated, he was able to refocus and get back on track more quickly when he became distracted at work.
Our eating choices, how we talk to one another, and whether we are present at work or home may seem superficial, but if we want to experience and honor God in our everything, these things really matter.
If you are new to spiritual practices or a rule of life, start simply. Perhaps pick one practice that connects you with God, such as prayer, sacred reading or Sabbath. In time, adopt another practice that makes you come alive and brings you joy. Then, in due course, choose another practice that connects you in relationship with people through a small group or service.
If you create a rule of life, and then your life feels heavier, it’s probably a self-constructed rule rather than a Spirit-inspired one. If your rule of life is Spirit-inspired, it will make your life feel lighter and more free.
Occasionally, my wife Sakiko will say, “Ken, you’re the happiest pastor I know.” (She doesn’t know many pastors!) If that’s true, it isn’t because there’s an absence of emergency in my life. As a pastor of an urban church, I face crisis after crisis in people’s lives. If I have joy, in part it’s because I am blessed with a great family and amazing friends. But it’s also because I have this simple rhythm, a trellis that supports my most life-giving relationship—my friendship with Jesus Christ.
My hope and prayer for you is that you would know the joy that comes not from the absence of crisis, but from a real and alive relationship with Jesus Christ—not just as you formally pray, but in your work, studies, family relationships and friendships, rest, and even in your play. May you know God in your everything and through all your days, not just at the beginning of a new year in response to a resolution.
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