Sitting here just now, do you feel rested this morning? For much of our lives, many of us have a fairly complicated relationship with the idea of rest.
When we are young, we don’t really want to rest. There’s too much to do, too many games to play, fireflies to catch, baseballs to throw, friends to laugh with. If you’re like me you may remember running repeatedly into the house on summer evenings, asking, “30 more minutes?” hoping to delay bath and bedtime and stay out with your friends just a little bit longer. I learned early on that I could usually get one or maybe two Yeses in answer to that question, but the answer the third time was always a Look that said No.
When we became teenagers, it was a badge of honor to sleep late, really late, if we could get away with it. We might stay up until the wee hours, watching Sammy Terry. (He was an odd and more funny-than-scary TV host in our area who showed old fashioned horror movies like Frankenstein and Dracula and The Blob). We’d eat Totino’s pizzas—you could get 10 of them for $10!—and drink RC Cola, which was my friend Dee Dee’s favorite. But the idea was to keep your eyes open as long as you could, and if you could get a glimpse of the early dawn before sleep, all the better.
As young adults, life got busy in a different way and we may have felt buried beneath the demands. We might have yearned for a time of rest but it was likely in scarce supply back then. With partners and maybe children and homes and lots of responsibilities, the priority of resting might have been last on the list. And when we did rest, we may have felt guilty about it, like we were neglecting one of the many things we should have been doing instead.
As we become older adults, we realize the value of rest (perhaps because of those frenetically busy early years), and this stage may offer us a more balanced time when we both enjoy the activities we have and enjoy the rest too, with a minimum of guilt and struggle. One thing that helps at this stage—this is true for me—is that it becomes easier to say no to things as we get older because we realize that too many yeses lead to stress and overwhelm and upset. So for our mental, physical, and spiritual balance, No is an important—even holy—word.
When we retire, we may have a mixed relationship with idea of rest. I’m not there yet, so my experience with this stage comes mostly through people I know. Some truly enjoy slowing down and being able to set their own priorities and spend their time the way they choose, while others struggle feeling like their life has less purpose now that their schedules aren’t as full of things to do each day. We’re always trying to find that balance between activity and peace, action and reflection. With everything we do, energy goes outward into our lives and tasks and to those we love, and we also need time for energy to flow inward, refreshing, renewing, and restoring us.
Of course, long before any of us set foot on this planet, there was a pattern in place that provides a way for us to collectively catch our breath, to remember what matters most, to reconnect to a sense of the transcendent and living Truth at the center of our lives and guiding our hearts. Friends called that day First Day, the sabbath that is a time of holy listening and receptivity as we turn away from the actions and engagements “out there” and let our minds and hearts rest quietly in God’s presence “in here.”
Back in the late 1600s, William Penn wrote,
“True silence is the rest of the mind; and is to the spirit, what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”
Of course, the whole practice and pattern of Friends tradition centers on rest and restoration, the waiting of a quiet, humble spirit open to receiving a word, a feeling, an image from God—a sense of God’s nearness. And Friends were never ones to limit the practice of their faith to only one day of the week. Because ours is a sacramental faith, we do our best to live in the tenor and tempo of worship—to bring our best, most honest selves—to whatever we meet, any day, anytime. But George Fox felt Sunday, the sabbath, First Day needed to be first in our week and in our lives, and then the rest of our action and reflection could flow from there.
But we know that Early Friends seemed to live in this kind of restful, holy space more easily than we do today. That could be due to the sweeping changes in our cultures and times—everything is much louder and faster in our modern world and it’s possible we feel more pressure, inside and out, day after day. It’s also true that in their time, the church was still the center of human life, whatever the tradition, and today we Friends find we are daily trying to live as sacramentally as we can in a vastly secular world.
I like the way modern Quaker Brad Tricola writes about the importance of rest:
“Sabbath is God’s gift to a tired soul…The world aches to be ministered to by people who are well-rested, people who have lain still long enough to let the grace and peace of God settle on them. God wants us to be a well-rested people.”
When we find ourselves unable to take the time we need to rest, it’s often because we feel we don’t have enough time or we have so many responsibilities we can’t imagine how they’d get done if we took some time off. I have believed both of those things myself—and clung to them—for a good long while in my life. When I was in my late 30s I started hearing myself mention, over and over again, how “out of time” I was…and at one point, I asked myself, “Is that really true?” I wanted to find out, so I began to experiment with the idea. Instead of launching myself out of bed in the morning with a 20-item to-do list in my head for the day, I woke up more slowly. I stretched. I prayed. I read a little. I drank coffee and maybe took the dogs for a walk. I didn’t check email or rush into the day, like I’d always done. The time was quiet, gentle, replenishing. I found it wasn’t true that I was out of time. There was plenty of time—for me, for God, for rest. And I’ve been starting my days like that ever since.
The feeling that I couldn’t take time to rest because I was shouldering the world was likewise something that evaporated when it got tested. When I broke first my wrist and then my shoulder, both injuries required surgery and limited how much I could do—and how self-reliant I could be—in my work at hospice and to some degree with you all here as well. At first it was difficult and humbling to see how smoothly everything went along without me, but then it became a grace and even a celebration. When I had my shoulder surgery, I had to stay home for two solid weeks and was unable to drive. I’d thought I would be miserable, stir-crazy, bored, but the opposite happened. After my recovery time, I felt like I’d had a foretaste of heaven. I can’t tell you what I did except enjoy my quiet time with God, watching the birds, reading books, and making a one-handed loaf of bread here and there. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I healed. I rested. I felt restored
Rest, as it turns out, isn’t just a power-off switch that lets us shut down our minds or bodies for a few hours. Rest has a heavenly purpose and it’s essential for us as whole beings, body, mind, and soul. In our Old Testament reading today we heard the opening verses of Psalm 23, this beautiful picture of the gentle shepherd who leads us and cares for all our needs, inside and out. The psalmist begins with an important idea: Because the Lord is the shepherd of my life, all my needs are met. I want for nothing. I don’t lack time. I don’t lack resources. I am led along paths of beauty in my life. My soul is uplifted, refreshed, restored to the pure image of God that lives in me. What’s more, the shepherd leads me in the way I need to go, showing me moment by moment how to choose wisely and well, because it honors God’s name at the center of my heart.
This beautiful picture of restoration is more than just poetic language. This is God’s intent and purpose for us: Through rest and restoration in Christ, we once again connect with, feel, honor, relate to “that of God” within us. Without the quiet rest we need, we won’t hear it, we won’t catch a glimpse of that pure soul reflecting back in the mirror of our lives. The busyness and glittering things of the outer world will always tempt us, but there is nothing like the rest of a soul who knows her true home is God.
Sometimes it’s fear that keeps us running away from rest. Fear that we won’t have what we need, fear that if we let down for just a little while, all we’ve built will come crashing down. I understand this too, and I’ve lived it. When I was a young mom and the kids and I were living in Columbus, Indiana, I was self-employed and feeling a lot of financial and work pressure. I worked in publishing and publishers in those days paid for projects when they wanted to—I felt mostly at the mercy of their huge accounts payable departments. Some months I felt like I was just “praying the money in.” To try to keep things afloat I often took on two or even three book projects at a time. My son told me he remembers getting up in the middle of the night—1 or 2am—and finding me still working at my desk. But one day, as I felt a knot of worry tighten in my stomach as the mail truck came up the street, it occurred to me that I could make a different choice. I watched the postal worker stop, open the mailbox, and put some letters in. I took a deep breath and said to myself, “My checkbook is not my savior.” I told myself I wouldn’t go out to the mailbox until I really felt that, so I stood there for a minute or two. “My checkbook is not my savior.” The knot began to untie itself. I breathed easier. I walked calmly out to the mailbox, opened it, thought, “My checkbook is not my savior,” took out the mail, closed the mailbox, and went back into the house.
And I have to tell you, it worked so well that as I tell you this story some 25 years later, I can’t remember whether a check was in the mail that day or not. But the fear I felt around money, around supply, around income, lost its grip on me. I still worked hard. I still did my best. But I never again fooled myself into believing that the most important things in my life hung on a little slip of paper with some numbers printed on it. God had us in his hand. God was our shepherd. We shall not—did not, will not–want.
Our New Testament reading from the book of Matthew speaks right to that huge fear that without hard work and lots of effort, and somehow knowing how to do just the right things at just the right time, we won’t have what we need. It’s not up to us, Jesus says—relax. Look at the way God loves all life, feeding the birds, dressing the flowers, caring with a tenderness beyond our comprehension for everything that lives—including us. When we turn within–away from the busyness and to do lists and schedules—and toward the quiet where we can meet with God in the sanctuary of our hearts, we’ll find that have all we need, from the inside out.
Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel’s most famous book, The Sabbath, is a lovely and thought-provoking essay on the deeper meanings of the day of rest. As he writes about the importance of the Sabbath in Jewish faith and practice, you can hear that he and George Fox have a kinship when it comes to devotion, even though Heschel thinks of the Sabbath as the seventh day while Fox puts it first. Heschel writes,
“Three acts of God denoted the seventh day: He rested, He blessed, and He hallowed the seventh day (Genesis 2: 2-3). To the prohibition of labor is, therefore, added the blessing of delight and the accent of sanctity. Not only the hands of man celebrate the day, the tongue and the soul keep the Sabbath. One does not talk on it in the same manner in which one talks on weekdays. Even thinking of business or labor should be avoided. Labor is a craft, but perfect rest is an art. It is the result of an accord of body, mind, and imagination…The seventh day is a palace in time which we build. It is made of joy and reticence…a reminder of eternity.”
So resting is a holy act when we understand it in this deeper way. We can leave behind our fears and worries, set aside our self-reliance, and create a quiet, tender, trusting and humble space for God in the center of our hearts. Once we find it, we realize it’s a threshold of blessing that we will gladly cross again and again. And what will happen then? He restores our souls.
- OT Psalm 23: 1-3
- NT Matthew 6: 25-33
- Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, 1979).