Christianity 201

January 26, 2021

Unscheduled Time … With God

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:28 pm
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Today while wandering the bookstore, I picked up a copy of Wonder, Fear, and Longing: A Book of Prayers by Mark Yaconelli (Zondervan, 2009). This section particularly caught my attention and asked Ruth to transcribe it for us. It’s really the first one-third of the chapter which continues with quotations, scriptures, sample prayers, and practical advice of pray-ers (my word).

Rest

Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Jesus in Matthew 11:28b-30, The Message)

Giving your heart time to pray is like allowing the sun to shine on wintering seeds. I notice that as I pray, my soul is slowly warmed and given room to expand, infused with God’s peace and mercy. Prayer is the way in which I nurture and grow my life in God. Prayer is the way in which I hear Jesus calling from the centre of my life, “Learn from me…and you will find rest for your soul.”

The ancient understanding of the word pray within the Christian tradition is “to rest.” Any experience of rest requires a release–we have to set down our work, our plans, our worry and activity. The fact that Jesus spent long periods of time resting is one of the most overlooked aspects of Jesus’ life. He prayed and rested in the midst of suffering people. He prayed and rested in the midst of countless opportunities to do good.

Why did Jesus rest? Why did he withdraw from crowds of people desperate for healing? We know from Scripture that Jesus rested in order to commune with God. For Jesus (even Jesus!), prayer was necessary in order to sustain and deepen his capacity for love.

When we rest in prayer, we become open and receptive to God’s presence. In the Christian tradition the experience of receiving God in prayer is called contemplation. Contemplation is an experience of being bathed in God’s love and presence. It’s an awareness of God, attained not through thinking but through loving. It is the experience Jesus refers to when he says, “abide in me” (John 15:4) or what the psalmist speaks of when he writes, “Be still and know” (Psalm 46:10). It’s the experience the psalmist refers to when he describes a child resting on her mother’s lap (Psalm 131:2). Contemplation in prayer is when suddenly we need no words, when we can relax and enjoy God’s love with humility and gratitude.

I once took a bus full of high school kids to the coastal dunes two hours north of San Francisco. This diverse group of young people from across the country had gathered to spend the week exploring prayer. Midway through the week, we spent a day in the deserted Bodega dunes along the northern California coast. Amidst the rolling sand, native grasses, and twisting cypress trees, I talked to the students about the history of silence and solitude in the Christian tradition. I reminded them of the many times Jesus would leave people and towns to go out in the wilderness and spend time alone with God. I then asked the young people to go out along the sand and surf and spend the afternoon in prayer and solitude, just like Jesus did. As patches of fog drifted over us from the Pacific Ocean, I handed out journals and blankets and sent the young people out to pray.

I remember walking through the dunes carefully observing the praying teenagers. Some students sat atop mounds of sand, looking off to the horizon; others preferred low places, clefts and crevices stacked with driftwood. Some students lay on their backs, heads resting on their journals, watching grey shrouds of mist creep over the blue sky. Other students seemed oblivious to their surroundings, their heads bowed as they scribbled intently in their journals. As the hours passed, some people rolled themselves up in their blankets and closed their eyes, while others stood and meandered slowly toward the sea.

When the prayer time came to a close, I gathered the students together in small groups. “What was it like to pray?” I asked. “What were you like? What was God like?”

At the end of the week I asked the students to evaluate the week-long retreat: “What was the most enjoyable aspect of our time together?” Despite game nights, talent shows, volleyball, karaoke, discussion groups, outings to San Francisco, and plenty of cute guys and girls to flirt with, the great majority responded, “The afternoon praying in the dunes along the beach.” When I asked them why, they responded with, “I’ve never had that much unscheduled time before;” or “It was so peaceful to just rest with God;” or “My life is so stressful. I’ve never had time to just relax and be myself with God.”

For years I’ve listened to people talk about their spiritual lives. One of the most interesting insights I’ve gained in these conversations is the way in which people described their deepest encounters with God. Often these experiences of God are moments of rest, solitude, silence, reflection, and wonder. These encounters with God often take place as people lie on their beds at night, or in moments outside, in nature, looking at trees and earth and sky. Every one of these moments feels timeless, unscheduled, unhurried–as if they’d stepped out of the normal pace of their life.

Like the students who experienced an afternoon praying among the Bodega dunes, we may find that prayer offers us a release from the stress and busyness, the excessive activity that overwhelms each of us. Prayer gives us permission to loosen our shoulders, relax our jaws, and soften the walls around our hearts so God’s love might make a way. Prayer is that increasingly rare opportunity to lie down in green pastures and rest beside still waters despite the fear and worry that we constantly feel.

Christians teach the message that “God loves you”–but this teaching means nothing unless we actually spend time in this love, unless we stop and kneel down in the grass and driftwood, down in the sand, down in the misery of a suffering world, down into God’s compassion and peace.

“It is a permanent sign of my covenant with the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day he stopped working and was refreshed.’” (God, via Moses in Exodus 31:17 NLT)

“…In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength…”
(God, via the prophet Isaiah in 30:15 NIV)

Even though Jesus said not to talk about what happened, soon every conversation was consumed by these events. The crowds swelled even larger as people went to hear Jesus preach and to be healed of their many afflictions. Jesus repeatedly left the crowds, though, stealing away into the wilderness to pray.(the biographer Luke in 5:15-16, The Voice)

“Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” (Jesus to his disciples in Mark 6:31 NKJV)

pp 90-95


Mark Yaconelli is a writer, retreat leader, spiritual director, story-catcher, husband, and father. He is the founder and executive director of  The Hearth: Real Stories by Regular Folks, a registered non-profit that assists cities and service-based agencies in producing personal storytelling events designed to help communities and individuals deepen relationships and cultivate compassion. His latest book is The Gift of Hard Things; Finding Grace in Unexpected Places (IVP).

(c) 2009 Mark Yaconelli / Zondervan

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