How long did it take you to learn how to rest? Resting is something I was never very good at—even as a little girl, I would stay outside playing as long as there was a tiny bit of light in the sky. I remember a few times in elementary school being so worn out after school I’d drop my bookbag on the floor of my room, and stretch out on the bed, still in my school shoes, and sleep that way all the way through til morning. (That was always so disorienting!) In middle school I discovered tennis, and after school on nice days, I’d take my racquet to the tennis courts at a nearby apartment complex and if there was no one to play with, I’d just hit the ball against the apartment wall for hours on end. It didn’t occur to me until I was an adult that the people who lived on the other side of that wall might not have appreciated that too much (although no one ever complained).
As a young adult I wasn’t any better. Things had only gotten busier. There was always so much to do. I would launch myself out of bed in the morning with a full to-do list, feeling like if the sun was up, I was losing time. The upside of this was that I got a lot done. The downside was that I was driving myself relentlessly and at the same time, overlooking something my soul really needed; time to rest, to be still, to learn how to receive and be at peace, to allow a quiet place in my heart where I could get to know God working in my daily life.
By my mid-30s the pace started to feel unsustainable. After a couple of health scares—first debilitating migraines, and then what doctors called a “stroke warning” that left no lasting damage, thank goodness, but was scary enough to convince me I had to make a change—I began to suspect there was a better, kinder, more restful way to live. Prior to that point, spirituality had been important to me, but most of the time, I felt like I was taking God with me, praying as I hurried along through the tasks of the day, talking to God in the car or appreciating God’s handiwork as I weeded the garden. You may have heard that there’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth—we are supposed to listen twice as much as we talk. During that time of my life, in my conversations with God, I was the one doing all the talking. I hadn’t yet learned how to rest, receive, be quiet, relax, listen. There was little room in my busy mind and heart for God to make His presence known.
But gradually I began to realize what I’d been missing. I found I could slow down long enough to just go to God, to sit somewhere and listen, just breathing, just relaxing, giving God the chance to calm me and reassure me and unfold things the way God wanted them to unfold. I started to see how much I’d tried to control things as I worked so hard to keep everyone safe and provided for. Things began to change. I tried meditating. I found Friends. I took up yoga. I started relaxing a little and tried easing up on myself—I discovered I didn’t have to cross all the items on my to do list every single day. Today I can’t even tell you the last time I made out a to-do list. It feels good to say that. My mom would be shocked.
Thankfully, God understands the nature of our minds and knows how easily we get caught up in the things we think about, real and imagined. God knows it is hard for us to step back from our experiences, to put the brake on our emotions, to open our minds to other possibilities when our experiences, memories, and stories send us careening down a particular path. That’s why being able to rest, to listen, to pause, and to receive is so vitally important.
God built rest into the very plan of creation itself—on the seventh day, Genesis tells us, even God rested. Rest is programmed into the orbit of the planets around the sun, the reflection of the moon, the growing cycles of the plants and flowers. Rest is something all animals, birds, insects, and even trees do. Rest is hard-wired into our physiology; and research has shown that regular patterns of rest are a key part of mental, physical, and emotional health. To be healthy human beings, we need both activity and rest.
In our Old Testament reading for today, the psalmist clearly understands that rest is a vital part of his life of faith. We can hear that for him, rest isn’t simply a biological or emotional need but a deeply spiritual one—his ability to rest in God is synonymous with his sense of trust and reliance on God. As he rests, he receives God’s strength. In rest, he hears God’s wisdom. It is in rest that he knows he is safe.
Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.
This rest, this waiting on God, is at the center of our Friends worship. That’s why we have 20 minutes of silence in the middle of every Sunday’s worship. We want to leave space for God, to let go of our busy plans and instead turn in silence to hear what God has for us. George Fox saw this practice in the 1600s not as a new way to worship or the founding of a new congregation, but a return to the original form of worship God had in mind when we were invited to worship “in spirit and in truth.” Silence creates the space and quiets our heart so we can hear inner promptings from God. And our faith, and our practice, deepens.
Being busy, taking on projects, wrestling with conflicts, feeling we need to be productive all the time seems to be part of the human psyche, and there is a certain joy that comes from getting things done and enjoying the feeling of accomplishment that brings. But constant activity can also keep us running, building, thinking, creating in a mind that is so full there is no room for the fresh breath of God’s presence, a new idea, a sweet grace.
What we miss out on when we’re unable to rest is the chance to simply relax with God, to be open to what Life is giving us just now, aware and awake to all the blessing the present moment offers. That simple choice to put things down for a second helps us find gentleness, acceptance, and reassurance. When we’re able to do it, we feel better inside, and stop pushing so hard. Our hearts and minds open naturally to the possibility of something new from God. Our trust in God grows.
This week I ran across this fascinating quote from the writer Leonard Jacobson:
“The present moment is the doorway to the Eternal. It is the completion of your soul’s journey.”
Wow, isn’t that a big idea? This moment we’re living here together as the doorway to the Eternal. What an opportunity, an invitation to holiness, right here and now. We tend to think of eternity as this limitless expanse of time, stretching endlessly into the future. We picture it as an endless sequence of moments, one after another, going on forever. [It makes me think of Margaret, the hospice patient who asked me, “But Katherine, what do you think we’ll do in heaven? I can’t picture myself sitting on a cloud playing a harp for all eternity!” A week okay; a month, maybe—but all eternity was just too long! Nobody likes to play the harp that much.] When we picture eternity that way—as a never-ending sequence of time–It brings to mind the way the movies were shown long ago. As thousands of still picture frames pass in front of the projector’s beaming light, the pictures appear to move on the screen, the action happens, the story unfolds. Eternity would be a never-ending film of frames, one moment, one life following another, just continuing on forever.
But Jacobson is suggesting a different idea. Instead of thinking of eternity as an endless ribbon of time, the doorway to eternity is the vibrantly alive present moment where our encounter with God—and with that of God in each other—is possible. In the projector example, God is the Light and we are the individual frames and the most important thing is not how long the movie is but rather the glorious connection that happens as we receive God’s Light. We are back in relationship with God. It’s the arrival of our soul at the goal of the journey. When our minds are full of other things, and we’re focusing on things that aren’t here now, we miss the invitation to this powerful living moment, this opportunity to know God. Thankfully each new moment brings a new opportunity, and we can turn God’s way anytime we choose.
In our New Testament reading for today, Jesus speaks directly to those whose minds are filled with many concerns and troubles. He understands the nature of the human condition and wants to help us learn how to relax what binds us so our hearts and minds will be open to connection with God. He offers us a solution to the relentless churning of our minds:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Remember the story of Martha and Mary when Jesus and the disciples visited at their home? Martha is super focused on what she’s doing; she’s very concerned with preparing a proper meal for Jesus. She loves him and respects him and wants to do her very best for him. All of those are wonderful things and good intentions and I’m sure Jesus appreciated her intentions and her efforts. But Martha’s thoughts and emotions and expectations were tying her up in knots so tight she couldn’t feel the grace that was right there with her. But her sister Mary simply sat at Jesus’s feet, looking up adoringly, listening to him talk. Martha went to Jesus, annoyed, and demanded that he tell Mary to help her. But Jesus’ answer was not what she was hoping to hear. He told her, I’m sure with great kindness and understanding, “Martha, Martha, you are worried about many things, but Mary has chosen the better part.” Jesus could see what the trouble was. He wanted to help Martha escape the hold her mind had on her so she could find peace. His solution is so simple: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” It is a solution for all time; it worked in Jesus’ day and it will work in our modern, loud, and fast-moving time too. The best time to try it, to prove Jesus true to his word, to let our trust rest fully in the hands of God, is really the only time it works—in the present moment, as the Light shines through the stories of each of our lives.
When we simply put down our worries, our to do lists, and our struggles and open our hearts to God, what might happen? We might feel a very real sense of God’s presence with us. How might things change if we knew we could always get back to that feeling of peace? Our priorities might rearrange themselves. Our anxieties might evaporate. Peace could become so precious to us we would do all we could—literally all we could—to preserve it and share it with everyone we meet.
The language of our faith tells us that God is omniscient, all knowing; omnipotent, all powerful; and omni-present, everywhere, all the time. We accept those ideas—we may have grown up with them– but we still tend to think of God as “out there, somewhere” and not intimately close and always available to us, right here in the sanctuary of our hearts. As German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “God is at home, it’s we who have gone out for a walk.” Any moment we choose, we can come back home to God and feel the safe and loving Light of God shining away the thoughts and worries and struggles that have consumed us. That sets us free to feel God close, to relax into God’s peace, and rest.
- OT Psalm 62: 5-8
- NT Matthew 11: 28-30
- Leonard Jacobson: https://www.leonardjacobson.com/