We've Got Rhythm, but Is It the Right Kind?

Courtesy of sites.duke.edu

by Christine Sine

Music is an indispensable part of every culture, yet no one really understands why. We use music to evoke powerful emotions, to lubricate social intercourse, and to help us communicate what we could not otherwise articulate. Evidence shows that our language centers, our sense of hearing, the systems that respond to emotional signals in the human voice, and the motor systems that control our muscles when we walk or dance are all simultaneously affected by the rhythms of music.

Rhythm isn't just about music; it pulses through the whole of the natural world. Night inevitably follows day and the seasons flow predictably from one to the next. Scientists have discovered that even seemingly random phenomena such as weather fluctuations and diseases all have cyclical patterns. There is rhythm and order in such seemingly erratic events as the formation of clouds, the eddying of water in a stream, and the rising of a column of smoke.

Our bodies, too, beat to a myriad of interconnected rhythms. Our heartbeat, hormonal levels, blood pressure, mental alertness, physical strength, and countless other bodily functions all ebb and flow in time to an invisible clock pacing our bodies throughout the day and the seasons of the year.

Rhythms that are interrupted can have dire consequences. Sudden climatic changes can contribute not only to famines but also to political, economic, and even religious turmoil. A disruption in sleep patterns can lead to irritability and even illness; an arrested heartbeat can cause death.

In the modern world, our daily rhythms increasingly run counter to those of the natural world: strawberries and central heating in the winter, apples and air conditioning in the summer, for example. But the spiritual rhythms that should undergird all we do are even more important. When these are disrupted we often suffer from spiritual heart problems that are just as life-threatening as a heart attack.

For many of us, the essential rhythms necessary for a healthy spiritual life have been severely disrupted – and we haven't even noticed. We have become so accustomed to letting the culture control the pace and flow of our lives that we are convinced these artificial rhythms are normal. As authors John De Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas Naylor write in their book, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic: "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, the car, and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it." We no longer fast during Lent but go on obsessive spring diets instead. Life flows to the rhythms of Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving sales at the mall or to the NFL playoffs rather than to our connection to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Life flows to the rhythms of Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving sales at the mall or to the NFL playoffs rather than to our connection to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

The growing pressure we all face to be plugged into our work 24/7 is even more disruptive to God's rhythms in our lives. Our culture tells us there is never time to slow down, take a break, or simply turn off, and it sells us "time-saving" innovations that only serve to crank up the pace. Jet travel rapidly zips us across continents. In dozens of different ways, our telephones instantly link us to friends and colleagues, not to mention every kind of commerce and transaction, half a world away at any time of day or night.

Even on our days off or vacation we feel we can no longer disconnect. How many of us still check our email every day no matter where we are or what we are doing? In our frenzied efforts to remain plugged in, we drown out all other rhythms and retain little or no space for our spiritual life.

What are the essential rhythms God intended to pace our lives? We need look no further than the life of Christ, who in offering us abundant life also models the rhythms of such a life. In his book The Way, missionary-statesman E. Stanley Jones called Jesus the "revealer of the nature of life," a life that "works in His way and only in His way." If our bodies, our emotions, and our spirits are not functioning in step with God and God's purposes then we are working for our own ruin. According to Jones, the reason for our out-of-synch rhythms and even the cause of much of our physical illness is "homesickness for God." The only way we will ever find true satisfaction is by returning home to adhere to the rhythms that God through Christ marks out for us.

Jesus modeled four basic rhythms that I believe are still meant to set the pace and pattern for our lives.

  1. His intimate relationship with God and dedicated prayer life provided the focus for everything else he did. Jesus sought God's direction and lived his life according to God's instructions. Daily prayer to reconnect us to God and to renew our spiritual energy, pausing in our decision-making to listen to God, and taking time for prayer retreats will enrich our lives and bring us into a more intimate relationship with God. How much less stress would we suffer if we gave this kind of priority to prayer? Think about how you could block out five minutes each morning and evening for a time of prayer or Bible study. And the next time you are faced with a major decision, set aside a day for prayer to seek God's direction.
  2. Jesus' second priority was community. He spent more time developing a community of followers than he did preaching. He could often be found in a crowd with his 12 disciples, teaching and reaching out with the compassion of God. But Jesus and his disciples didn't only work together. They enjoyed good food and fellowship and celebrated the Jewish feasts. According to theologian N.T. Wright, wherever Jesus went there was a party. Making time for friends and family; encouraging co-workers, neighbors, and fellow believers; enjoying the celebrations of our faith: God intends all of these to be part of the spiritual rhythm of our lives. One couple we spoke to recently have freed up one evening a week to invite their neighbors over to dinner. The whole family has entered into this endeavor with enthusiasm, and they are beginning to see God accomplish remarkable things in their community.
  3. The third rhythm that paced Jesus' life was work, but the goal of his work was less about putting bread on the table—something for which he encouraged his followers to trust God—than about serving God's kingdom purposes. Jesus wants us, too, as God's representatives, to ask, "What is it that you want me to accomplish today that will further the purposes of your kingdom in our world?" We are meant to proclaim hope, healing, and salvation, and to help those around us look forward to a world in which there will one day be no more crying or hunger or pain. We needn't all become pastors or missionaries, however. Think about how you could encourage a colleague or offer a helping hand to an elderly person in your neighborhood.
  4. During his earthly life Jesus believed not only in work but also in rest, recognizing it as a necessary rhythm of life. He encouraged his followers, saying, "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give your rest" (Matt. 11:28). Regular sleep and the practice of Sabbath are both ways to reconnect to God's rhythm of rest and refreshment. One friend of ours recently instituted a "technology Sabbath," deciding that for one day a week he would disconnect from the phone, the email, and the computer. It has done much to decrease the stress in his hectic life.

A young pastor in Denver told me that a member of his congregation recently asked him why he was always so busy. Thinking his parishioner wanted an account of his time, the pastor started listing all the activities that kept him constantly on the run—church, committee meetings, hospital visits, family, and friends. "No, no," the man interrupted, "that's not what I meant. Why are you so busy? Don't you think God wants you to model a different way of life?" The question stopped him short and soon had him rethinking his priorities and the shape he'd allowed his life to take.

The rhythm of life that Jesus modeled is not just something for the dark, distant past. It is a guide for our lives today. People are still looking for evidence that Jesus' disciples invest their time and energy in priorities that differ from those in the culture around them. They are looking for a faith that offers a rhythm that fulfills rather than empties, that nourishes rather than drains.

Christine Sine is the author, co-author, or editor of many books, including Sacred Rhythms: Finding a Peaceful Pace in a Hectic World.

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