Several months ago I wrote a post in which I commented on the fact that in order for people to move from communities of poverty to the middle class they need to be willing to give up relationships for accomplishment and efficiency. I have thought about this a lot over the last few months – first as I read through the posts for the summer blog series What is a Spiritual Practice and secondly as I travelled in Australia and conducted Rhythms of Grace seminars in which participants discussed the different ways in which they developed deeper relationships with God.
The comment of one participant particularly grabbed my imagination. “We take what should be a relationship developing experience and make it into a task she said. Hospitality, social justice, evangelism and even bible study all become things we do in order to feel like good Christians.” She is right. And as a result they add busyness and pressure to our lives without making us feel closer to God or to each other.
I think that one of the reasons that many followers of Christ are disconnecting from traditional faith practices like reading the bible daily and praying regularly is because they have recognized this fact but don’t know how to change a task into a relationship deepening experience.
Christianity is all about relationships. God created humankind to live in relationship – with God, with each other and with God’s good creation. Primarily the Fall broke relationship – it disconnected us from God, distorted our mutually caring relationships with each other and destroyed our stewardship of the earth.
We live in a world that still has a very distorted idea of relationships and we often accept this without a murmur because our lives too are a series of tasks to accomplish rather than a relationship deepening experience.
Our world majors on disposable relationships. We move, we change jobs, or we change churches and we disconnect from the relationships that under girded our previous life. Even our involvement in issues of social justice become tasks to accomplish that result in few if any relationships. No wonder we can swing from passionate concern about tsunamis in Samoa to child trafficking in Thailand without any concern for the impact of our swinging concerns.
And it is easy for us to justify our disconnect… especially when our relationships are seen as tasks to accomplish rather than as opportunities to both experience and represent the God who cares so passionately for our world that he sent his son to live amongst us.
So how do we change our focus? First we must be willing to take time. The journey into intimacy in relationship begins not in busyness and doing activity but in quietness and solitude. Here is a great quote from Eugene Peterson from Earth and Altar that expresses this.
The difference between privacy and solitude is profound. Privacy is our attempt to insulate the self from interference; solitude leaves the company of others for a time in order to listen to them more deeply, be aware of them, serve them.
Here it seems is another of the great paradoxes of God. Developing deeper relationships does not begin with more time spent with people but with more time spent in solitude. It doesn’t begin with getting out into the crowds and the multitudes but with drawing aside into a quiet place to pray. And in that quiet place prayer is not about us doing something before God, it is about listening. It is not about prayers that express our concern for the world, it is about opening up the doors and the windows of our souls to the presence of a God who is never more than a breath away. It is about allowing God to fill every fiber of our being so that all that we are and do flows out of a deeply rooted relationship with the God of all creation.
No wonder Jesus could be so attentive to the crowds that followed him. No wonder he had such wisdom and insights into the behaviour of his disciples. No wonder he had such confidence in what God was and wasn’t asking him to do. His life was lived amongst the crowds but was grounded in solitude. His kingdom building work of healing, releasing the oppressed and preaching the good news to the poor flowed out of a confident and intimate relationship with God not out of a need to respond to the demands of the broken world around him.
Advent is a great time to get away for retreat and quiet. It is an essential time to focus on deepening our relationship to God in solitude and reflection so that we are able to move into more intimate relationship with the world in which God has placed us. It is this kind of deep centeredness that should form the core of our lives. Only then can we learn to relax, enjoy life and become the loving and compassionate people that God intends us to be.