R-e-l-a-x

So with the arrival of July, we’re moving into high summer. Things just naturally seem to slow down a little when the full heat and humidity of the season arrive. We may still enjoy outdoor activities, but we’re probably strategic about it, pulling weeds in the cool of the morning or taking a walk after sunset. But the busyness of the day—the part that makes us fret and sweat and plan and work—it takes on a slower pace about now. There’s a little more breathing space in our plans.

In my work at the hospice, the season of vacations has arrived. Our hospice team is a group of 12, with our director, our practice manager, a nurse practitioner, four RNs, two aides, two social workers, and me, the chaplain. Next week three people will be on vacation, two the week after that, and so on, probably throughout the rest of the summer. It will likely be fall—or close to the start of school—before our whole group will be together again for our traditional morning meeting.

And that’s as it should be. God created us as part of a cyclical system. We aren’t meant to be all drive and push; there are seasons of rest, very much needed periods of replenishment. Night follows day so we can rest our bodies, minds, and spirits. And that rest isn’t just like a time out that combats fatigue or overload; rest actually has healing properties, boosting our immune systems, literally “washing” our minds clean so we can start again. I find that fascinating. One research article I read likened what happens during sleep to running a dishwashing cycle in our brains—removing the residue of the day’s events and filing neatly away the new memories and experiences we made during our waking hours.

But even though we naturally—animals that we are—begin to slow down in the summer high season—we also sometimes fight against that slower tempo, feeling we need to push to accomplish more, figure out more, handle more, control more. This is one of the lessons I’m learning about myself as I heal from this broken wrist. I can see that I haven’t been very honoring of my own tempos, my own need for rest. Day before yesterday—in the 94-degree heat—I decided I just had to trim the front bushes, and I was too impatient to do it with my left hand, so I pushed through and did it with my right, even though it hurt and I had to go in a couple of times to put ice on it so I could continue. Determination, you say? Never-say-die, maybe? Stubbornness, perhaps? Well yes, part of my perhaps misguided approach to my own recovery is that I’m unwilling or unable to accept things I cannot do—at least until life proves otherwise. I kept trying, I keep pushing, and relaxing into what’s here hasn’t been my strong suit so far.

And there may be something deeper going on when we find it difficult—or even impossible—to relax into the slower seasons and take full advantage of the cycles of rest we are given. It could be that we’re trying to manage our anxiety by staying busy, by figuring things out, by staying on alert. Our media culture certainly contributes to that—we worry about our world and national events, we continue to be baffled and upset by the latest news stories, and we wonder, hope, and worry how it will all turn out.

The problem is that this kind of hyper-vigilance—always busy, always on, always connected—becomes a kind of habit, filling our minds with constant new input until it just doesn’t feel right when things quiet down. More and more people today are taking social media fasts, where they just shut down their Facebook or Twitter accounts for a good long while. Many of us dial back our involvement from time to time, but mental health experts say a good social media fast—so you really feel free of the more negative effects of it—takes about six weeks. For many of us, that might feel like too long to be disconnected from the flow of happenings in the lives of our friends and family members, or our country and our world.

Our Old Testament reading is a foundational verse from Isaiah, offering us a word of truth about where our peace actually comes from. It’s not from feeling we’re in the know on all the latest news happenings. Our peace doesn’t flow from that sense of being in sync with all our friends and family members on Facebook (even though, granted, that can be a nice feeling). Our peace comes from minds that are steadfast and focused on God, God’s goodness, God’s love for us, God’s ability to act in the world, God’s ongoing flow of grace. “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast,” the verse says, “because they trust in you.”

Similarly the section from Hebrews reminds us that it was part of God’s plan from the beginning that our relationship with God would draw us into God’s rest—the very rest God himself enjoyed on the seventh day. The writer of Hebrews—some scholars doubt it was actually written by Paul, because it is much more eloquent that the other epistles in the New Testament—held up the idea of rest as something central, nourishing in our relationship with the divine, a key to being in the flow of God’s blessing. This was an important thing for the early Christians of that time in Jerusalem to hear. “Stay the course,” the letter says, “and here’s how. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Accept God’s invitation to turn away from the loud and worrying world for a while. Give yourself permission to release the things you can’t control and relax for a bit into the natural flow of life, the ease of God’s rest.

As I reflected on this this week, I thought of a simple way to help us stop, relax, and turn our minds toward God’s rest whenever we feel stressed, overloaded, or like we’re pushing too hard. The ideas are based on the letters of the word relax. They are:

R: Remember God.

E: Enjoy What’s Here.

L: Listen.

A: Appreciate the Gift.

X: (e)Xtend the Blessing .

R: Remembering God means noticing when we’re running ahead of ourselves, feeling irritable or rushed, or too busy to enjoy the day. Just becoming aware of the tightness in our shoulders or the scowl on our face can help us realize we’re feeling stressed and burdened. Then we can pause, take a breath, and remember that God’s rest is available for us—right in this very instant when we’re not feeling it—if we will choose to be open to it and turn that way.

E: Enjoying What’s Here is a matter of bringing our minds fully into this present moment. Often when we’re feeling stressed, anxious, worried, pressured—our thoughts are either in the past, replaying upsetting events, or venturing into the future, fretting about what could come. But in this exact moment, I guarantee you there are many blessings missing our attention. Maybe it’s that we feel rested. Or there’s beauty or comfort around. Perhaps we’re with someone we love or sitting in a place we like. Maybe we’re with Friends and we’re safe, fed, and clothed.

A few weeks back I mentioned the book Hardwiring Happiness, by Rick Hanson, a psychologist and happiness researcher. In his book he makes the case that when we enjoy something, we often don’t really enjoy it, as in taking it all in. We skim over the blessing quickly–the beauty, the peace, the smile—and then go right back to our inward fretting and fussing. He suggestions that to really “take in” our enjoyment, we should spend 5-7 seconds noticing the good thing, maybe breathing it in, so we feel it spreading through our bodies. He also says we get more enjoyment out of things when we notice them with multiple senses. For example, suppose you notice a beautiful flower. Perhaps instead of just a quick thought about how pretty it is, you could also notice the texture of the petals, whether it has a fragrance, how tall is stands on its stem, how it sways in the breeze. Making room for ideas like those expands the experience and makes it more memorable. As a result, we feel more uplifted, like we’ve had more of a rest.

L: When we Listen to what’s going on in the present moment, we’re tuning in to what’s happening inside and around us. Listen might mean being in the here-and-now, noticing the songs of birds, the chirps of crickets, maybe your mate’s laughter or snores. But Listen could also mean being open to a word of encouragement, love, or inspiration from spirit, or letting yourself feel that peaceful sense of divine stillness that comes when we wait in silence for God’s presence.

A: When we give ourselves a few moments to really relax into what’s happening, the Appreciation bubbles up on its own. Our spirits, our bodies, our minds thank us for changing gears, for allowing a moment of God’s rest. Similar to the idea of “taking in” enjoyment, we can also make way for appreciation to bubble up and overflow. We might express it to God in prayer, sing a song or hum a tune, or just walk around as long as we can with a grateful heart. That changes the way we see the world and touches anyone else in the vicinity.

X: And finally, Extending the blessing is the ability to share this moment of God’s rest with others, so that the benefit spreads outward like rings on a surface of a pond. It might just be a smile we share with someone who needs it, or a word of encouragement to a friend. Maybe after our moment of God’s rest we’ll feel more forgiving, more magnanimous, more like being helpful. We might brush the dog or water the plants, offer to take a grandchild for ice cream or just share something that makes people laugh. There’s a feeling of expansiveness, a freedom, a recognition of the goodness of life that wants to be shared. That’s one of the many ways I think God speaks to us, through the joys and kindnesses of others. As the writer of Hebrews reminded us, our part is to keep our hearts soft and receptive to that invitation, and to extend the blessing freely to others as it has been extended freely to us.

In our fast-moving, pressurized world, it can feel difficult if not impossible to slow down, take a breath, and plug back into God’s rest. But this time—high summer—is the perfect time to try it. Maybe we can all practice together, remembering God, enjoying what’s here, listening for God’s leading, appreciating the gifts we’re given, and extending the blessing to others. I have a feeling we’ll find an otherworldly peace, abiding grace, and nourishing rest in the cool shade of God’s presence. And that will make for a better summer, and day by day, a better life.

 

RESOURCES:

  • OT Isaiah 26: 3-4
  • NT Hebrews 4: 1-7
  • Hardwiring Happiness, by Rick Hanson: https://www.rickhanson.net/books/hardwiring-happiness/

 

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