There’s a rhythm to all aspects of life well-lived, naturally lived, just as there’s a rhythm to many important processes. The English word “rhythm” is very nearly a transliteration of an ancient Greek word, rythmos (ρυθμος). It referred to any flow or movement that could be measured such as how waters ebb and flow, how the heavenly bodies appear to move through the sky and how they continually appear and disappear, how a human being or an animal breathes in and breathes out, over and over again.
There may have been a cosmic rhythm discernible to the Creator’s ear as the world was coming into being over all those aeons. The storyteller who told one of the most famous ancient stories of creation passed down to us, caught the rhythm of creation in what we now call Genesis chapter 1. Listen!
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day....And there was evening, and there was morning, the second day.... And there was evening, and there was morning, the third day.... And there was evening, and there was morning, the fourth day.... And there was evening, and there was morning, the fifth day.... And there was evening, and there was morning, the six day....
Did you hear it? The rhythm, I mean. At the end of each day’s work, the storyteller added a rhythmic refrain. “And there was evening, and there was morning.”
Besides that, God’s work-plan later generations said should be the basis for a living rhythm for humans--work followed by rest, by sabbath. The Hebrew word that we translate “sabbath” is from shabath meaning literally to rest from one’s labors.
From the Ten Commandments:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it (Exod 20:1-11 NRSV).
Remember the sabbath; remember your rest day, and keep it holy. “Holy” doesn’t mean religious, not overtly anyway; it means different. There should be a clear difference between work days and rest days; otherwise, our lives get out of rhythm or lose their rhythm altogether. (I’m preaching principles today, not my achievements!)
Indian poet and playwright, Rabindranath Tagore, wrote:
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, teaches that:
Rhythm is the basis of life, not steady forward progress. The forces of creation, destruction, and preservation have a whirling, dynamic interaction.
The thoughtful philosophy from Ecclesiastes chapter 3 is, fundamentally, about rhythm. Having preached a whole sermon series recently on that passage, I’m sure you remember it in vivid detail:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance... (Ecc 3:1-4 NRSV adapted).
“Everything has rhythm. Everything dances,” says Mayou Angelou. And Plato: “Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.”
George Gershwin wrote the music, and his brother, Ira Gershwin, wrote the words to a song that quickly became and remains a jazz standard.
Days can be sunny,
With never a sigh ;
Don't need what money can buy.
Birds in the tree sing
Their dayful of song,
Why shouldn't we sing along?
I'm chipper all the day,
Happy with my lot.
How do I get that way?
Look at what I've got:
I got rhythm
I got music
I got my man/girl
Who could ask for anything more?
Thomas Merton, the highly influential Trappist monk who died tragically in 1968, was onto the essence of essential spirituality. He wrote: “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”
Author and musician Howard Goodall leans to the notion that many people have a rather natural internal rhythm. We didn’t put it there, and evidently we can’t take it away. It’s a part of us. It likely comes from our mother’s heartbeat while we were in the womb and influences a host of beyond-the-womb patterns such as the pace at which we walk.
Researchers at the University of Florida have done a great deal of research on what one of them has called “The Lullaby of the Womb.” The researchers are suggesting that fetuses can hear low-frequency sounds. They are more likely to hear, from sound sources outside their mother’s body, the voices of persons who have deeper tones than those who have high-pitched voices. They are more likely to hear vowels rather than consonants, and if you play music for an unborn child she or he will likely hear the bass instruments and not flutes, piccalos, or high-pitched violins.
Professor Kenneth Gerhardt is the lead researcher on this project. He is Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and he comments, “What we think the human fetus is probably detecting would be the rhythm or melody of speech.”
Over time, we may forget words, or we may be in situations in which we don’t understand the language being spoken. With advanced disease we may even forget how to speak, but some neurologists suggest that we never forget rhythm.
Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. As long as we live in this earthly realm, and almost assuredly in the next realm, there is rhythm. Elvis Presley: “Rhythm is something you either have or don't have, but when you have it, you have it all over.”
So, I was thinking about the rhythms of several areas of life, and it seems to me that pondering physical rhythms and emotional rhythms could create a good jumping off point for understanding spiritual rhythms, which is where we will get to today. I’m sure there are many ways to configure this, but here is where I ended up in my observations. The natural rhythm of a healthy physical life: rest, accomplish, nourish, exert, repeat. Rest, accomplish, nourish, exert, repeat. We have to watch that word “repeat” when it falls into the hands of a literalist. I once knew someone, a literalist with a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder, who as an adult, for the first time in her life, actually read the directions on a bottle of shampoo. After several hours of wetting, lathering, rinsing, and repeating, she called her mother to ask why that particular shampoo required so many applications and how she’d know when to stop. Rest, accomplish, nourish, exert, repeat.
It turns out that just getting the optimal amount of sleep in terms of hours is a rather pointless projection unless the sleep occurs at the proper time for one’s body, and that “right time” has to do with when the body is producing its maximum amount of melatonin and when the lowest body temperature is reached. Both of these need to happen somewhere between the halfway point of the sleep cycle and the time for awakening. This is proof that just clocking in hours of sleep will not necessarily lead to rest.
There was a study dating back about six years done by psychiatrists on the west coast who are interested in sleep disorders. Their studies showed that too much sleep will kill you. They concluded that most humans need between six to seven hours of sleep nightly and no more. Folks who sleep more than that have a much greater chance of becoming diseased and, thus, dying sooner than their counterparts who sleep about 6.5 hours each day.
After rest, most healthy folks want to accomplish something whether it’s getting a chore done or fulfilling one’s professional responsibilities. If you’re retired or a stay-at-home parent, maybe what you hope to accomplish is something like hitting your hobby with some real focus--organizing those beautiful photos you’ve taken, finishing up the mugs on the pottery wheel, or writing a few pages of the great American novel. Maybe it’s a chore day, and after rest what you need to accomplish is on a list: groceries, mail contribution to Palin unethical ethics defense fund, bank deposit, dentist. You get the point of what I have in mind.
I’m not in any way suggesting that you work a full day or a long time without nourishment. Surely you ate something before you began accomplishing for the day. At several points in the day we must nourish ourselves and hydrate our bodies.
After serious nourishment, not immediately after but after, perhaps we take on our most demanding physical task of the day--whether it’s a workout at the gym, a brisk walk, getting the yard mowed, or doing the heavy cleaning around the house. Physical exertion not only exercises our body, making us potentially healthier, but also stress can be reduced and endorphins dispersed. Obviously, there’s no way to separate completely physical health from emotional health.
OK. After physical exertion, it’s time for more rest, and the rhythmic cycle starts all over again. You might juggle the various physical activities around differently, but I believe I’ve included the basics that need to be worked in.
This is what I propose as a rather natural rhythm for a healthy emotional life: rest, engage, reflect, strengthen, confront, repeat. After rest, we begin a day or a project, and most of us except those of us who live alone--without human or animal companionship and without telephones or computers--must engage others or be engaged by them. If you sleep with your significant other, your first engagement of the day may be making sure she or he is awake for work, or maybe your first engagement of the day is scolding him for failing to lower the seat. In the high tech age, your first engagement of the day may be reading the news or answering an email. Whatever it is, you’ve expended emotional energy, and let’s hope that most emotionally healthy people are expending those early morning energies on people about whom they care or on processes about which they care.
After rest and initial engagement, there’s probably a need for reflection and regrouping. Part of a healthy emotional life, I think, is giving oneself time to take in. We can’t just be giving out all the time; something has to renew us, refresh us, replenish our emotional energies. You may reflect by reading or by meditation. You may physically remove yourself from the situations where the greater emotional demands are made on you.
Some of you have heard me say that our older son, Jarrett, only slept all night six times during his first two years of life. He wasn’t crying to make trouble for his sleep-deprived parents; he just wanted companionship at various points in the wee hours. (My mother says that is payback to me for all the hours of sleep I cost my parents beginning at birth and continuing until I left home at 18!) Our pediatrician, Dr. Wasser, told my wife that we were just going to have to let him cry it out a few times, and the best way to let that happen, the concerns and uneasiness of parenthood notwithstanding, was to go off into a far corner of the house, shut the door, and drink wine until he stopped. After that conversation with Dr. Wasser, my wife said, “Now I know what God led us to
this pediatrician! We’ll tell the church that the doctor told us we HAVE TO drink wine for the sake of our child.”
Rest, engage, reflect, strengthen. The emotional strengthening process requires me to take specific steps to make me and keep me emotionally healthy and strong. If life has thrown me a curve ball, and my emotional foundations have been rattled, strengthening myself may mean seeking out a counselor. Or there might be a beautiful place where visiting or lingering strengthens you--a very scenic spot or a very quiet place. It could be practically any place, and if it strengthens you, you may need to visit it frequently. The thing is, it’s not coming to you. You have to make an effort to get to it.
The beach is that place for some folks. Whether it’s the sun or the water or the escape, the beach is where you are emotionally strengthened. And you go there intentionally to be strengthened.
My East Tennessee roots from time to time remind me that the mountains renew me like no other place I could ever go. The coolness of the mountains after enduring summer heat below the peaks is exceptionally refreshing. The beauty of fall leaves is no where more vibrant than in the mountains. When I was teaching in Switzerland and had opportunities here and there to go high up into the alps by hiking or riding a cable car or a ski lift, I was mesmerized every time. I haven’t been to my home mountains in a couple of years, and I can feel the need to be there.
The Gospel of Matthew has a little snippet out of a day in the life of Jesus, but it probably speaks volumes.
And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone... (Matt 14:23 NRSV).
Often we hear this passage and others like them used to teach and preach the importance of prayer and solitude, and I wouldn’t argue with that. I would point out, however, that prayer and meditation can conceivably take place any where and any time. Jesus in these cases went specifically to a place from where he drew emotional strength. This is emotional nourishment.
In the same way that I left the greater physical exertion to the end of my list of those items that combine to make for optimal physical health, I here have left confrontation to the end of the pattern of emotional rhythm.
Life requires confrontation. The confrontations don’t have to be angry or combative, but all of us have matters we have to deal with in our personal lives and often in our professional lives that maybe we’d rather not have to bring up--confronting a teen about behavior we consider problematic and on the way to destructive; telling someone we have supervised on the job that her or his position has been cut; telling an aging parent that you and your siblings believe driving is no longer safe for the parent or for other drivers or pedestrians. These are the issues for which we save up emotional energy; then we confront, and then we rest again. It’s part of the rhythm of a healthy emotional life.
Assuming that a seeker is living according to a healthy physical and emotional rhythm, the matter of a healthy spiritual rhythm now comes before us. Here’s my proposal. The natural rhythm of a healthy spiritual life: rest, minister, meditate, connect, challenge, repeat.
We begin again with rest.
Jesus, I am resting, resting
In the joy of what Thou art;
I am finding out the greatness
Of Thy loving heart.
O how great Thy loving kindness.
Vaster, broader than the sea!
O how marvelous Thy goodness,
Lavished all on me!
Yes, I rest in Thee, Beloved,
Know Thy certainty of promise,
And have made it mine.
The goal of a healthy spiritual rhythm isn’t the perfecting of naval gazing. Whatever happens interiorly should lead to acts that benefit humanity, the other creatures with whom we share the planet, and the environment itself. Certainly, there’s a sense in which prayer and meditation are legitimate ends in themselves because they are the major vehicles through which we contemplate God and life, but those very discoveries will not allow us to keep silent, will not allow us to sit still. So, I say a spiritually healthy seeker goes from rest to ministry; we are not leaving ourselves out of the equation, but our first efforts are for others known to us who need to be ministered to.
For those of us who try to take our cues from the example of Jesus, this first movement in the rhythm of spirituality being ministry is absolutely on target. Nothing could be clearer than that. If it has to be programmed at first, fine, but the more and more we seek opportunities to minister to others the more natural it feels.
When Jesus had gone through the gut-wrenching experience of identifying and claiming his ministry emphases, he borrowed from the prophet Isaiah and used the words from that ancient prophet to articulate how he would serve others:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV).
Anyone who tries to hawk any kind of Christianity as all about the material blessings and breaks that come to those who follow Jesus is utterly fraudulent. There can be no religion based on the teachings of Jesus that has anything at the top of the list of practicing the religion other than ministering to others.
Earlier, I mentioned the Indian poet and playwright, Rabindranath Tagore. I refer you to him again and this moving insight he once shared:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.
The noble eightfold path of Buddhism includes a component known as “right action,” and part of right action is treating others with kindness and compassion. This is the heart of ministry.
Much of what many of us in the Christian tradition refer to as “ministry” is called in some branches of Buddhism “volunteering.”
Buddhism emphasizes how Buddhists should be ready to help the suffering without waiting for an invitation or a directive. When someone is in need, Buddhism through the principle of “Vimalakirti Sutra” calls on the faithful persons to be in those difficult circumstances an uninvited guests. One Buddhist primer has this to say about volunteering:
Volunteers are usually loving and virtuous persons who serve others out of free will, kindness, humanity, and charity. They are devoted to volunteer work that benefits others and the society. Although their services are free, their contributions are invaluable. Most of them are nameless and unknown, but their spiritual rewards and joy are immeasurable. They serve without the expectation of any economic gain. They are truly respectable and honorable!
From ministry we move rhythmically to meditation. In this category, I think of prayer, the reading of devotional literature including scripture and also including literature that draws you Godward whether or not others find it useful in that way. Prayer is certainly in this category because prayer is foundationally about communing with God within us and not about rattling on and on to God and giving God God’s to-do list for today. I suspect that the most profound prayers any of us will ever pray will be wordless--too deep for words.
Richard Valantasis, in his book Centuries of Holiness, discusses this concept in depth as you can gather from this quote:
The history of Christianity and indeed of other religions as well provides evidence for prayer beyond words, a form of prayer that moves beyond the discursive and enters into a direct apprehension and communion with the divine....Here the seeker prays to enter into union with the interior divine presence and to connect affectively and experientially with the divine presence manifest in others, in circumstances, in nature, and in events....This prayer apprehends the divine presence in the self, in society, and in the cosmos directly and immediately, without the intermediary of words (p. 218).
Meditation, again, including spiritual reading and reflection, is the entree at a meal of spiritual nourishment. It’s not the only source of nourishment for, indeed, we are immeasurably enriched when we serve others who have a need, but it’s the main dish.
The next dimension of spiritual rhythm is connection; by this I mean connecting with others not to serve them primarily, but to build community and share common goals. We gather with others to build up and to be built up. Naturally, when someone in the group or groups we connect with has a need, we minister to that person. I also don’t mean to imply that we are unable to grow and be nurtured by the neediest person we ever minister to. I’m talking, though, about intent. If I set out to minister to someone, I’m not expecting anything in return; if someone touches my heart, lifts me up, causes me to press on, wonderful; that’s an entirely unexpected bonus.
When we come together to build each other up, we are not putting ministry to others in the forefront at the moment, but when the opportunity arises we take it; and it becomes a priority. All the clarifying aside, we need each other. Part of the rhythm of a seeker’s life is being a part of a community in which we share in building up and being built up.
Before we get around to rest again, spiritual rhythm also requires exertion--confronting the evil next door and around the world, making right the damage done to people and the environment. We call for peace in a war-torn world. We insist that every human being deserves to have her or his basic needs met for food, water, and shelter. We go to the mat saying that every human being deserves to live in a place of safety, free from threat, and in our own country we call out for full civil liberties for all. And after confrontation, rest. It hard to rest; there’s so much to do, but without rest there will be no rhythm at all.