Step out of the fast lane to discover life's true values

It is time to create some breathing space in life, writes Adam Dodds.

Dunedin has a great pace of life. My old home city of London is quite different. The sheer number of people and the pace of life is like a vast, complex machine with millions of fast-moving parts. The best adjective to describe all this is "hurry".

Efficiency and productivity are good things. But I wonder whether they have been exalted to the status of "Ultimate Good". This is what the Bible calls idolatry. The result? Human beings are conceived of as machines, and our worth is reduced to our economic output. Rush and hurry are the new normal.

The internet has supercharged and universalised this cultural trajectory. The online world is stuffed full with all manner of interesting things that will keep you entertained for multiple lifetimes. The pace of life externally seems to be mirrored by a non-stop pace internally. The only respite is sleep.

It's a bit like students cramming for an exam. That's fine for a week, but is cramming healthy as a way of life? Is this non-stop inner pace of life healthy?

The Judaeo-Christian wisdom tradition provides practical insight for our harried and hurried culture, and a power that can break the addiction to speed.

"If you had one word to describe Jesus, what would it be?" So asked philosophy professor Dallas Willard, who was spiritual mentor to author John Ortberg. Willard answered his own question: relaxed. His advice to Ortberg: "You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life." From his own experience, Ortberg suggests that "hurry is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart".

Willard gave Ortberg this advice because, as followers of Jesus, both of them aspired to become more like Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus not only reveals what God is truly like, but also what it means to be truly human.

Jesus' life is described in the four biographies known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He "often withdrew to lonely places and prayed". (Luke 5:16). Jesus practised a rhythm, engaging with people and then withdrawing from them. Jesus withdrew from people to practise solitude, stepping out of life's traffic to be with God.

Since the beginning of time no-one had more important work than Jesus - the reconciliation of all creation to God. He only had three short years to accomplish this. Jesus understood pressure.

In the verse before this, crowds were pressing in to see Jesus. He understood busyness, and being in demand. Yet, in the midst of pressure and busyness, he practised solitude.

Daniel, of lion's den fame, practised solitude three times a day. The Christian monastic tradition also practises this many times per day.

Alongside solitude, another biblical practice relevant for our time is silence. History's greatest songwriter, David, records in the Psalms: "My soul waits in silence for God only" (Psalm 62). As the leader of a nation, David knew pressure and responsibility. And yet, he regularly practised stillness and silence before God.

Silence in the Judaeo-Christian wisdom tradition does not mean emptying our minds, as some approaches to mindfulness might suggest. Our minds are gifts from God. Emptying them to embrace any idea that might float in is dangerous. God gave us our minds to discern the merit of all thoughts and ideas, not to uncritically accept them.

In David's silence his mind thinks about God.

David tells us what was going through his mind: "From God is my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken."

Practising solitude and silence, as part of prayer, helps us realise we are not the centre of the universe. God is Lord over this world, and creation will continue without us. This is humbling, liberating and refreshing, like a cathedral in time.

These practices also bring us into a much greater self-awareness. Willard writes "These are root-reaching practices that slowly bring us to an understanding of who and what we really are and that allow God to reoccupy the places in our lives where only he belongs." Or, as Henri Nouwen wrote, "In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding."

As I have practised this, I have found myself becoming more aware of my inner conflicts and noise; my own brokenness and hurting emotions.

Now, these internal realities affect me, whether I am conscious of them or not. Being conscious of them means I can now process them with God and with my mind. Through this God does what he does so well: make us whole. In silence my inner impurities rise to the surface, leading to confessing my shortcomings and receiving afresh God's forgiveness and mercy poured out generously in Jesus.

When you assemble sticks in a fireplace, do you cram in as many as possible? No. You leave space between the wood - breathing-space. Jesus shows us a way of living and being that has breathing-space; times of solitude - stepping out of the traffic to be with God. Space for our souls to breathe and be refreshed.

Dr Adam Dodds is a senior pastor at the Elim Church Dunedin

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