Jesus was busy.

Last week, I told you about Forest, an app that helps with productivity. I’ve been using it again this week, and it’s helping me a lot. I have quite the little forest going. Actually, it’s more of a meadow; I’m currently planting grass tufts instead of trees.

This week, I want to tell you about something infinitely more important than productivity: a quiet heart. I would like to quote at length from a book I am rereading, A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller. Here is what Miller says about the integrated nature of the praying life:

Many assume that the spiritual person is unruffled by life, unfazed by pressure. This idea that the spiritual person floats above life comes from the ancient world and, in particular, the Greek mind–although we see it strongly in the Eastern mind as well.

But even a cursory glance at Jesus’ life reveals a busy life. All the gospel writers notice Jesus’ busyness, although Mark in particular highlights it. At one point Jesus’ family tries to stage an intervention because he is so busy. “Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him,, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind'” (Mark 3:20-21). Given the sacredness in the ancient world of eating together, Jesus’ life seems out of balance. But he loves people and has the power to help, so he has one interruption after another. If Jesus lived today, his cell phone would be ringing constantly.

The quest for a contemplative life can actually be self-absorbed, focused on my quiet and me. If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy. Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life: it offers us a less busy heart. In the midst of outer busyness we can develop an inner quiet. Because we are less hectic on the inside, we have a great capacity to love…and thus to be busy, which in turn drives us even more into a life of prayer. By spending time with our Father in prayer, we integrate our lives with his, with what he is doing in us. Our lives become more coherent. They feel calmer, more ordered, even in the midst of confusion and pressure.

Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life (NavPress, 2009)

I feel both a longing and a conviction when I read this. I deeply crave this life of inner quiet. But I recognize in myself the misguided pursuit of external calm. I can use all the focus apps I want do yoga in the middle of the afternoon but still feel frazzled and worried and bitter toward people who (as I see it) demand my attention. Quietness of soul is not about tools or resources, though those can help. Miller concludes his book with a section on prayer tools, and he acknowledges the importance of having a literally quiet place to pray (though he never says that’s the only appropriate environment for prayer). Quietness of soul, though, comes from acknowledging my need for the Lord from the outset—not waiting until my day is falling apart around me, but even when I wake up feeling pretty smart and together (which sometimes happens).

I’ll conclude with a quote from Emily P. Freeman that nicely sums up what Miller wrote and what I am contemplating these days. (This quote is from the show notes of an episode of her podcast, The Next Right Thing: https://emilypfreeman.com/podcast/the-next-right-thing/59/)

Just like any ordinary practice can be a spiritual discipline if it brings us into the presence of God, so can any ordinary place be a sanctuary if we will to see it so.

Cultivating quietness in our lives is less about our stage of life and more about our state of mind. You can be busy and soulful at the same time. The key is in paying attention.

Unite my heart

Yesterday, I was looking at some notes from a solitude retreat I took last August. At the time, I was feeling overcommitted and distracted, and I was trying to decide which of the good things in my life were helping me to glorify God by living a fulfilled life and which were not. So during the retreat (which took the form of a solo hike), I spent some time praying for focus and looking at scripture about having an undivided heart. Let me quote a few of the notes I took at the top of the mountain:

Today’s theme: asking God for focus. I feel like my mind is scattered among tasks and passions and I’m not giving my best to any of it (or truly enjoying any of it). I’ve often said that God’s promise of wisdom in James 1 is one of the only places in Scripture where God promises something without any qualification (e.g. You must be an Israelite). But that isn’t true–the qualification is that you must ask without doubting–“because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (Jas. 1:6-8). (I didn’t do a very good job clarifying this in my original notes, but the key word there for my purposes is “double-minded.” God’s gift of wisdom comes to those who are single-minded.)

“Be thou my vision” = Be thou my focus?

This mountain is a good place to be thinking about perspective. The birds are flying below where I’m sitting right now.

Ps. 86:11–“Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” (KJV–“Unite my heart to fear thy name.”)

Then follows a discussion of things I was going to quit and other things I was going to commit to instead (almost none of which really happened) and a list of things I needed wisdom about, most of which are no longer relevant (which I guess is an answer to prayer?).

This deep desire to be single-minded and united in heart, to be able to focus on one thing and stop my mind from racing down crossroads, is one reason–perhaps the greatest reason–why I decided to “quit everything” (the title, incidentally, of a Dawes song I’ve been thinking about a lot) and move to a new state where my only commitment, so far, is to my job (which is only three days a week this fall!). I’ve been describing this move as “hitting reboot on my life”–a cheesy metaphor, I know, but it’s what this feels like to me.

We’ve been talking about this united heart thing for a long time in Christian circles. I remember I used to feel so guilty when we would sing that song that goes “Give me one pure and holy passion, give me one magnificent obsession”–until I realized that the song is a prayer, not a declaration that we already have one pure and holy passion (“Hey, God. Check this out.”). But I think the secular world is also beginning to articulate the deep discomfort we feel when we are distracted, inattentive, and trying to justify our place in the world by showing all the different ways in which we can contribute. Lately, we have been seeing data about how multitasking is bad for productivity, studies about “flow” (the phenomenon, named by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of getting caught up in a fulfilling task), and radical suggestions for strategies like putting our phones away during face-to-face conversations. As is so often the case, the Bible gave us a really good idea thousands of years ago, and we’re just starting to get it.

I know that having a heart singly focused on God is not the same thing as eliminating distractions and getting in the zone while completing a fulfilling task. But the two confirm the same truth: We were created to serve one master, to do one thing really well, to have one ruling passion under which all of our other passions are ordered. We were created to have a united heart.

Solitude.

Last week I wrote about my plan to observe a weekly Sabbath rest; now, as the next step in plotting out my rule of life (see my July 15 post for a full explanation), I’d like to tell you about my experience with solitude this past Saturday and how I intend to fit this practice into my life.

On Saturday, I spent three hours in one of the group study rooms in the library at my university, which is quiet on a Saturday afternoon at this time of year.  Not by any particular plan (except maybe God’s), I ended up in a room looking out on the rooftop garden, so I got to see a lot of bees pollinating flowers, which ended up figuring into one of the spiritual observations I recorded in my journal.  I don’t think it’s any accident that some of Jesus’ most famous teachings began with invitations to look at the birds and consider the flowers.

I spent these three hours in fulfillment of a post-class assignment in the Regent College course Taking Your Soul to Work, which inspired my effort to create a rule of life.  I was instructed to spend three hours in complete solitude, using the Bible and the book Taking Your Soul to Work (by the course’s instructors, R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung) to identify and meditate on my greatest workplace sin/struggle (I chose anger) and the fruit of the spirit that corresponds to it (gentleness, according to Stevens and Ung).  The prospect of three hours of complete solitude was no big deal; I live alone and enjoy being alone, so I occasionally spend entire days without seeing anyone.  But three hours of slow reading, prayer, and thought, without anything tangible to show for it besides some navel-gazing journal entries–that isn’t something I generally do for fun.

I should be honest: I didn’t spend the whole three hours in that one room.  I got up a few times to use the restroom and the vending machines, and I did see a few people; I just didn’t interact with them.  Yes, I ate some snacks; fasting is a separate discipline that I might write about in a future post.  And I did listen to some instrumental music on my iPod; silence is also a separate discipline that is often combined with solitude but is not essential to the practice.  Different people might want to try the discipline of solitude for different reasons, but for me, the main point of the exercise was to 1) focus my concentration on a single activity for a long period of time (this is very difficult for me, which may surprise people who know that I love to read and have written a dissertation) and 2) meditate slowly and deliberately on what God wants to say to me, without immediately jumping to application (this is very difficult for a lot of evangelicals, I would venture to say).

I wouldn’t say that I received any earth-shattering revelations during those three hours, but I did fully recognize–in some cases for the first time–some things about God’s gentleness, my own deep desire to control everything, and the absolute necessity of contentment to the Christian life.  Of course, another topic of meditation might have taught me something entirely different, and that’s the lovely thing about solitude–what you do with the solitude is up to you, so the experience can be different every time.  I plan to incorporate this discipline by taking one of these three-hour mini-retreats quarterly–i.e., every three months.  I should add, by the way, that the three hours seemed to go by much more quickly than I expected.

If you’d like to share your own experiences with either Sabbath rest or solitude, or if you’d like to tell how you plan to incorporate these disciplines into your own life, please comment below!