The Discovery of Unlearning

Brad Peters
Have you ever tried to unsee or un-hear something?
Almost impossible, isn’t it?
It’s even harder to unlearn something, but that’s just what the last decade or so of my life has been about.
What have I been so desperate to unlearn?
Busyness. Those common struggles that so many of us try desperately to keep in balance, ever aware of the building tension: The seemingly never-ending work day; the demands, joyful demands, but demands nonetheless, of healthy family life; navigating the escalating pressure of being Christ-followers in an increasingly post-Christian world … and doing all of this in the uncertainty of a global pandemic doesn’t make it any less stressful.
We are conditioned to run from this task to the next, from one project to another. We are always on the go … but then, in the midst of this chaotic routine, an oasis is spotted, a stream in the desert appears before us in the truth and the gift of Jesus’ words from Rev. 3:20:  “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”
Instead of realizing that the One who is peace, order and contentment is announcing Himself again, my worldly conditioning kicks in, and my approach contradicts His peace.
Jesus is at the door - Jesus! I’ve got to get there - I’ve got to get to Him NOW!
Except, as I’ve been unlearning and discovering - it doesn’t work like that.
We can’t rush into the presence of the Lord. We miss too much along the way.
I’m grateful for those who have slowly and purposefully marked the unhurried trail into the presence of God. Pilgrims including Brother Lawrence, Thomas Merton and Richard Foster.
Let me share a few lessons in learning and un-learning from these peace-seekers.
While we can never expect to boisterously rush in the presence of Christ, Brother Lawrence reminds us that we can, and should, begin the process of the contemplative journey now, with out haste:
            “Let us make way for grace. Let us redeem the lost time, for we have but little left …                                 The time presses, there is no delay - our souls are at stake. We must, nevertheless,                                 always work at it, because not to advance in the spiritual life is to go back.” (Brother                                 Lawrence, 82-33)
So, as the Carmelite monk and kitchen worker implores, this is the time to begin cultivating that deeper connection with Christ. Immediately the old nature clamours and calls for hurry, there is no time to lose, the joy is found not in the journey, but only in the destination. But if this is our Father’s world, and if the Eighth Psalm is correct in proclaiming, “O Lord, Our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”, do we not miss so much in connecting with Christ if he is merely the target and not the intention? Thomas Merton thought so, and accordingly, he called people to embrace the sweet practice of contemplation.
Merton, knowing the struggles we face, and the propensity to hurry, defined for us both genuine contemplation, and what contemplation is not. Let’s first focus on the latter. Merton asserts the contemplative move of the spirit “is not a function of the external self” (Merton, 7), meaning that we alone can not propel ourselves into the presence of God. He always posits that contemplation is the ongoing, steady response to a call, “a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in the depths of our own being.” (Merton, 3)
 For a generation of people who are the products of an instant-gratification culture, how can we possibly benefit from a process of slowly, continually moving to our God? Richard Foster writes that we not only benefit from this process, we are intended to thrive in it, with his wonderful counsel for Christ-followers to “waste time for God.” (Foster, 57)
In that same section of Streams of Living Water, Foster encourages us to “undermine that perennial, everlasting human itch to get ahead with intentional times of ‘holy leisure.’ Take a nap … Take a walk, not for exercise but for the sheer joy of walking … Listen to the birds … Sit in silence.”
If our God is truly the God of the Universe (and this is who God is), then God will be found in all of these places, knocking on all of these “doors.”
From Brother Lawrence we learn unhurried commitment to meeting God, from Merton, commitment to the unfolding process, and from Foster, openness. That may be a lot to process for the contemplation novice. Thankfully, we have Thomas R. Kelly, a Quaker missionary and scholar, and his wonderful, short book ‘A Testament of Devotion’ to bring it all together for us. Kelly writes:
            “The world of time is no longer the sole reality of which we are aware. A second Reality                           hovers, quickens, quivers, stirs, energizes us, breaks in upon us, and in love embraces                            us, together with all things, within Himself. We live our lives at two levels simultaneously,             the level of time and the level of the Timeless.” (Kelly, 67-68)
Back in the 1980s and ’90s, one of the most popular independent comic book writers/artists was a Canadian fellow named Dave Sim. After the monthly instalment of his main character’s adventure for the issue, Sim would devote the rest of the book’s space to whatever topic he wished to address. Several of these publications focused on the craft of writing. One of Sim’s conclusions was the familiar refrain, writers write. He encouraged prospective writers to make a list of everything they did during the day. Reviewing that list, the writer was to assess each of the activities. If any of the activities brought more joy to the writer than writing, then maybe they were actually a skier, or a TV-watcher, or a reader … you get the idea.
The same model applies to our search for peace. If we are finding it in any other source than Jesus Christ, perhaps we aren’t the Christ-followers we thought we were.
Just as writers write, contemplatives contemplate, pray-ers pray, and Christ-followers follow Christ in the manner of Jesus - completely, unhurried, and with a singular focus.
When we hear the Lord knocking at the door, may He find us already moving to the place where He is, so that we need not rush there. May we find Him in the deep resonant wave of sound that His knocking creates. May our senses be so attuned to His presence that we detect him in the change in the air from his insistent rapping on the doors of our hearts.
This is what it means to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.
In the concluding chapter, entitled The Simplification of Life, in Kelly’s aforementioned book, he writes this:
            “Do you really want to live your lives, every moment of your lives in His presence? Do                              you long for Him, crave Him? Do you love His presence? Does every drop of blood in                              your body love Him? Does every breath you draw breathe a prayer, a praise to Him? …                           Have you set yourselves to be His, and only His, walking every moment in holy                                         obedience?” (Kelly, 95)
This is my goal. This is my discovery in unlearning the disease of busyness.
Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. Alachua, FL. Bridge-Logos, 1999
Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York, N.Y. New Directions, 2007
Foster Richard. Streams of Living Water. New York, N.Y. HarperOne, 1998
Kelly, Thomas R. A Testament of Devotion. New York, N.Y. HarperOne, 1996

Rev. Brad Peters is the senior pastor of Murray Street Baptist Church in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. He is a graduate of Mcmaster Divinity College in Hamilton, ON. Before answering the call to full-time ministry, he was an award-winning journalist, and has been writing a faith-based column, Faith Matters, for more than 10 years. He remains dumbfounded that the Lord has provided him with a partner and best friend in his beautiful wife of 21 years, Michelle. He is also proud father to Ceilidh and Noah, and has an amazing golden retriever, Nilla.