My forty-first birthday was one I wish I could forget. I spent it in the hospital, not visiting patients but flat on my back in bed. I remember lying perfectly still, clasping feebly at the blankets with chalk-white hands and breathing in short, agonizing gasps. My chest was constricted with pain, and I felt as if I were gently fading out of the world.
For the next two days, a cardiac monitor recorded my every beat as my colleagues puzzled over my condition. Had I suffered a heart attack? “What do you think is wrong?” they asked me. After all, as a physician I should be able to diagnose myself, shouldn’t I? But even my brain had shut down, and I couldn’t string two logical thoughts together, let alone think about what was going on in my own body.
During my protracted convalescence, I spent a lot of time reflecting on how I could have avoided my condition. The underlying illness was probably viral, but I suspect my body was also rebelling against the abuse of my fast-paced, high-stressed lifestyle. Trying to find time for church and prayer just multiplied the stress, so they were often the first things jettisoned when I got overwhelmed. My life was out of sync with God and God’s rhythms - and I hadn’t even noticed until now.
Unfortunately, I am not alone. Health-care professionals are often the worst at establishing healthy rhythms for their lives. Most of us don’t even know what God’s intended rhythms look like and don’t realize how unhealthy the lifestyles we model to our families and others are. I know that the idea of “healthy rhythms” might conjure up images of New Age therapies and biorhythmic rituals. Yet in a world that is getting faster and busier, and demanding more and more of our time and energy, I am increasingly concerned aboutGod’s “rhythms.” Anxiety, depression, and suicide are increasing, and growing evidence suggests that stress and the pressures of our overbooked schedules are major contributors.
We health-care professionals know that many physical illnesses, from high blood pressure to arthritis and the common cold, are impacted by our spiritual well-being, and we believe that prayer enhances our health. But it is still easier to reach for a bottle of pills than turn to our faith for answers. Though we have more tools than ever to steer our spiritual journeys, we feel less in control. There are hundreds of Bible translations to read, endless Christian web sites to explore, and countless Christian musicians to listen to. Yet the time we spend in prayer and Bible study has dropped precipitously in the last ten years.
Our daily routines are incréasingly not only disconnected from God’s rhythms but in competition with them. Health-care professionals have always worked long hours, and so-called time-saving innovations like cell phones and e-mail only crank up the pace of life to unimaginable levels, disrupting our impressions of time and space, of work and rest. Every day is lived at a frantic 24/7 pace. God’s balanced rhythms of work and rest are blurred by a world that tells us there is never time to slow down or take a break. Even on days off, we feel compelled to check our e-mail or phone the hospital for updates on our patients. These fuzzy boundaries drown out all other rhythms and provide little space for a spiritual life.
Othcr worldly patterns compete with God's rhythms to set the pace and flow of life - and we have allowed ourselves to become convinced that these abnormal patterns are normal. Air conditioning, central heating, and artificial lighting; strawberries in winter; apples in summer - all encourage us to ignore God’s rhythms of night and day, summer and winter. We no longer fast during Lent but become obsessed with spring diets instead. For some, life is fashioned more by attending pre-Christmas, -Easter and -Thanksgiving sales than by connecting to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
What does a good, healthy life rhythm look like? How do we find God’s intended pattern amongst the many alternatives offered? How do we bring God’s values from the periphery of our overstressed and chaotic lives to the center without being overwhelmed by a new set of time commitments?
After my illness, as I sat in my hospital bed contemplating my overstressed life, I asked myself, “What rhythms did Jesus live by?” If Jesus truly offered abundant life, then his time priorities should provide me with a pattern worth following, too. He carried the weight of the world on his shoulders and could have spent 24 hours a day healing and preaching, yet He took time to retreat from the crowds. Missionary statesman E. Stanley jones called Jesus the “revealer of the nature of life.” (1) He believed that life “works in His way and only in His way.” If we are not in step with God and God’s purposes, then we are working our own ruin.
Jesus modeled four basic rhythms — what I call “sacred rhythms” — that are essential for a healthy life. His spiritual life, which flowed out of an intimate relationship with God, motivated all he did.
First, Jesus was never too busy to pray. He paused regularly in his daily work to Listen to God. prayers weren’t just perfunctory devotional thoughts or a shopping list of requests, either. He never made major decisions without spending at least a night seeking God’s advice. How much less stress would we suffer if we took prayer this seriously? Pausing regularly to reconnect to God and renew our spiritual energy, to listen to God before making decisions, to take days off occasionally to pray and refocus—all bring us closer to God and enrich our lives.
Several years ago my husband and I started getting away for prayer retreats every few months to refocus our lives and reevaluate our priorities. We reflect on the last few months and evaluate our use of time and money in the light of God’s call on our lives. Then we look at the future. We listen to God and set goals for the following months that reflect our sense of biblical call, not just for our vocation but for every area of life. These have become our most valuable prayer times. In the weeks between our getaways, we take time on Sunday morning before church to journal and to check our progress. Our lives are not only more spiritually focused but are far less stressed and more celebrative as a result.
Jesus’ second priority was community. He spent many hours with his disciples, teaching them, instructing them, and reaching out with them to others with the compassion of God. This was his work in a sense, but it was not tedious. According to theologian N. T. Wright, wherever Jesus went, there was a party. He frequently enjoyed good food, fellowship, and celebration with his disciples. One example is the amazing account of Jesus’ encounter with his disciples by the Sea of Galilee after his resurrection. From my perspective, he should have been on a furious round-the-world evangelism tour, yet there he is on the beach making breakfast for his friends.
Taking time for friends and family, encouraging coworkers and fellow believers, enjoying fun and fellowship, and celebrating our faith with others should all be an important part of our life rhythm. One family we know decided to free up two evenings a week to on their neighborhood. Their children voluntarily gave up two evenings of video games and TV so they could pray for their community’s needs. Once a week they invite neighbors over for dinner. Not only has their family been transformed; they are also beginning to see God accomplish amazing things in their community.
The third rhythm that paced Jesus’ life was work. jesus did not focus on putting food on the table, however; he encouraged his followers to trust God for that need. His priority was serving God’s kingdom, and his radical suggestion was that, as God’s representatives, we should have the same focus as well. We are meant to be bringers of hope, healing, and salvation - helping others to experience glimpses of God’s eternal world in which there will be no more crying or hunger or pain. Health professionals often rationalize long work hours by claiming that they are dedicated to their work and calling, and dedication is certainly important in our work.
But unless we balance our work with God’s other rhythms, we are still out of sync with God. Ron, a cardiologist in Los Angeles, was made very aware of this when his daughter asked, “Why don’t we ever get involved in mission work?” He realized his kids needed to see him model the love and compassion of God. He decided to cut his practice to four days a week so that he could volunteer with his kids to work in a downtown free clinic. The kids love it and have entered with enthusiasm into this family project.
It was a great relief when I realized that Jesus encouraged his followers to rest when he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NIV). Regular sleep and honoring the Sabbath reconnect us to God’s rhythm of rest and refreshment. One of the consequences of my illness is that I still need to nap in the afternoon. Recent medical research applauds my decision. Afternoon siestas increase our productivity so much that we actually accomplish more than when we keep busy all day, and a good night’s sleep seems to boost our immune system.
The Sabbath is unique in that it is the only spiritual rhythm with no counterpart in the natural world - and it didn’t exist until it appeared full-blown in the Hebrew Bible. For the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, the seventh day was the culmination of the week, a foretaste of the eternal world. (2) What a revolutionary way to think of the Sabbath! One day out of every seven we have an opportunity to glimpse eternity, to experience the joy, tranquility, peace, and abundance of life as God intended it to be. One friend of ours recently instituted a "technology Sabbath.” One day a week he disconnected from the phone, his e-mail, and his computer. It has done much to decrease the stress in his hectic life.
What a difference it would make to our lives and families if we viewed Sabbath rest from this perspective - a day for connecting to the joy of fellowship with God, for enriching relationships with others, and for enjoying the glories of God’s creation.
So if Jesus doesn’t give us heavy burdens to carry, why are we always so busy? Why don’t we believe God wants us to model a different way of life? Perhaps you would like to take time to reflect on this question. Get away with a friend, your spouse, or your family for a prayer retreat and examine how you prioritize your time.
Jesus’ life rhythm is a model that can guide us modern-day Christians. People still look for evidence that Jesus’ followers invest their time and energy in priorities that differ from their surrounding culture. They are looking for a faith with a different rhythm, a rhythm that is fulfilling and not exhausting.
Christine Sine, M.D., is an Australian physician who, with her husband Tom, serves with Mustard Seed Associates (www.msainfa.org), an organization committed to “creating a network of the followers of Jesus who are searching for a different path to celebrate faith and make a difference in the world.” This article is adapted from her recent book, Sacred Rhythms: Finding a Peaceful Pace in a Hectic World, Baker Books, 2003.
1. E. Stanley Jones, The Way (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1946), p. 6.
2. Abraham Hcschel, The Sabbath (New York:Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), p. 74.