“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Matthew 11:28-30 is both striking and apt. Are you feeling like the summer’s coming to a close? I am. So I’d like to offer one last encouragement for you to find rest. Peterson’s paraphrase particularly speaks to me as a drummer, which is why my focus here will be on the ABCs of these “unforced rhythms of grace.” There’s some surprising science behind them.
Ascribed Worth vs. Achievement Orientation
One of my favorite mentors was James E. Loder, a theologian and researcher in the science of psychology at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Loder was a mystic who had experienced Christ in profound ways (you can read about it in The Transforming Moment). He would break into incredibly powerful stories of transformation that often led to his crying as he became filled with the unmitigated grace of God.
From developmental psychology, Dr. Loder taught that as we grow up, we learn two basic drives that create poles in our psychology: first, ascribed worth (we are loved just because of who we are); and second, achievement orientation (we are valued for what we do). We experience both very early in life: we are held because we are loved (ascribed worth) and we find (read: achieve) food, often milk at our mother’s breast (achievement orientation).
Our whole life is lived between these poles, though our society generally tells us we are defined by what we achieve; and, as cognitive scientist Justin Barrett has discovered, the second pole, or grace, represents one of the most difficult Christian teachings to grasp. Instead “research seems to suggest,” Barrett comments, “that we find it very intuitive to think in terms of give and take, tit for tat. What I give you, what you give me back. Reciprocation is sort of one of these general human relational principles.”
Nevertheless, God’s grace tells us we are loved because God has eternally decided to love us. And this second pole—ascribed worth—describes the unforced rhythms of grace. It’s why we need to practice the rhythms of activity and rest.
Put visually, when we live in unforced rhythms of grace, it’s not inactivity. Instead it’s the difference between climbing a tree to see the view and climbing one to run away from a tiger.
In his brilliant book Sabbath, Wayne Muller describes the “beginner’s mind” (a term he borrows from Suzuki Roshi) as “a condition of being able to embrace and accept a certain level of inevitable unknowing.” Muller cites a prayer from the well-known Christian monk and writer Thomas Merton, “My dear God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.”
Why do I mention this? Because the only way to unlock the “unforced rhythms of grace” is to enter into the beginner’s mind and realize that God is ready to speak. It creates an openness to new ideas, or what the Wharton School organizational psychologist Adam Grant has called a “scientist’s” approach to life, through which we learn to “think again.” As Grant puts it, when thinking like a scientist, “You favor humility over pride and curiosity over conviction. You look for reasons why you might be wrong, not just reasons why you must be right.”
- I learned “science and theology” organically from Dr. James Loder. His book The Knight’s Move might still be the best treatment of how to bring our faith to science I’ve ever read.
- The section below on coherence is adapted from my book Say Yes to No.
- Here are more of my thoughts on sabbath and on leaning into these rhythms.
- We also took up the science of rest here, “Science Says: Take A Chill Pill“.
Let’s imagine a scenario: You’re sitting at your computer, pounding out what you hope will be an article on (let’s say) how to find the unforced rhythms of grace. But you’re stuck on one sentence, maybe just one recalcitrant word. You keep plugging away, but nothing emerges. You don’t know what to do because your deadline was in the last century. So you keep pushing. You push harder. But the creativity never flows.
I’ve learned from reading Harvard scientist Herbert Benson that, up to a point, stress helps us to think better. Eventually, however, it frustrates. The key is to know when you’ve driven yourself beyond what’s helpful. If you keep pushing yourself when you’re at a dead end, your “primitive brain” (the deep core that drives basic functions and raw emotions) goes wild. That’s when you feel fearful, angry, forgetful, frustrated, etc. If you push on, you do it at your own risk. In other words, when you see these signs, it’s time to switch gears. It’s time for what he’s named the “relaxation response.”
Here I’d like to add another name, the “unforced rhythms response.” Change pace. Countless possibilities emerge, many tailormade for you. Breathe deeply. Take a walk. Beat a drum. Fold laundry. Listen to Kirk Franklin or Mozart. As the 12-steppers put it, “Let go and let God.” The key is to do something completely different. And when the stress function is relieved, creativity emerges. Research suggests that deep meditation and creative activity lead to coherence—a synchronizing of our mind and body. We enter into vis mediatrix naturae, a cool Latin phrase loosely translated as “the power of natural healing.”
My hope is that this newsletter finds you ready for a break and, as summer comes to a close, able to groove in these unforced rhythms of grace.
May it be so,