Last weekend our church had a weekend away. Our theme for the year was ‘Re-Creation’ — I gave two talk type things. One on rest and one on play. Here’s the one on Rest. The one on play will need slightly more tidying up to be in anything like article format. But I’ll post it eventually. We read Matthew 11:25-12:14.
“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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” — Matthew 11:28-30
Jesus starts by talking about God’s sovereignty and control (Matthew 11:25-27); God reveals what he reveals and calls who he calls; but part of what we’re called to is rest that satisfies and restores our souls.
There’s a little bit of Psalm 23 in here; and Psalm 23 is in some ways a re-creation Psalm; a good shepherd — God — restoring life to a people who have been exiled — if you were here for Doug Green’s talk last year you might remember that he reads this as being about Israel and Exile, and about Jesus and the resurrection and ascension being the fulfillment of that — but in a bigger sense it’s also the story of our humanity — Adam and Eve were given life by water in a garden when the Sabbath was created; made to rest with God… the good shepherd in the Psalm promises a restoration of that, and here Jesus says he will provide that rest… he is Lord of the Sabbath.
We often think of the Sabbath as legalism; a law we don’t have to keep because of Jesus… but maybe a Sabbath is part of experiencing God’s kingdom; literally a chance to be ‘re-created’ — to get a taste of Eden (as much as is possible) and a taste of our eternal, glorious, future.
Rest has been damaged in two directions by us Christians; Christians in the ‘reformed’ or protestant tradition… first because we have treated the Sabbath as a law; as part of the moral law that has to be obeyed in order for us to be righteous… and then second, the ‘Protestant work ethic’ — which was developed by making all work sacred — not just the priesthood — a product of the Reformation where Luther famously says:
“A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means.”
This ended up making work holy, which it is, but so holy that we forget to rest, or we devalue rest by over-valuing work.
The 24/7 hyper-connected disenchanted working world we live in and the challenge for Christians
The Reformation had some unexpected knock on effects to a bunch of things — not all of them good… we Reformed types tend to be less sacramental than our Catholic neighbours; less likely to see spiritual realities overlapping physical ones even though we’ve declared all reality spiritual or sacred (with the priesthood of all believers). We’re less likely to see our bodies as significant because we tend to focus on the brain — on faith as belief from the head alone (and not so much on participation in rituals and practices), unless we jump to a sort of law-based legalism or morality. There’s a philosopher, Charles Taylor, who talks lots about the modern conditions of life in a book called A Secular Age. He — I think rightly — sees the Reformation contributing to what he calls a ‘disenchanted’ world; a world that has closed in so that only the here and now matter; a world that ultimately said that if the sacred isn’t present in a special way on the Sabbath or in ‘priests’ then it really isn’t anywhere… we want to say the sacred or spiritual realm is everywhere and that we are witnesses to that; that we’re a people who have restored souls because we have come to follow the Lord of the Sabbath.
One of the other things that has emerged through the Protestant work ethic — and an individualism that came as people stopped believing our lives are divinely ordered and that we’re born into a sort of caste system — where kings and queens give birth to kings and queens and cobblers give birth to cobblers — where we’re free to work hard to make ourselves — and we have the rise of the ‘self made’ man or woman instead of the God givenness of reality — is a sort of market approach to the self that rewards hard work and ability; it creates this drive to be constantly working to make yourself; to be in control; we all become ‘kings and queens’ and so have to build and defend our little kingdoms of independence.
The world we live in now is hyper-connected; 24-7 and disenchanted. Our challenge is, as Paul puts it in Romans 12 — to ‘not conform’ to the patterns of the world, but to be ‘transformed’ by the renewing of our minds; and rest is part of this; part of both resisting and being formed, or re-created.
Here’s an interesting thing about the way stories in the Old Testament worked alongside practices; the whole Old Testament law is designed to have Israel perform a different story to the nations around them. They are embodied ‘image bearers’ of what it means to be God’s priestly people; the food laws, the ceremonies… and the Sabbath were what marked them out as different. Now these were important while Israel was in the land; they were meant to be part of what drew the nations in to worship God at the temple…
But they’re arguably even more important in exile; lots of Old Testament scholars think exile is when Israel’s stories are finally written down as a unit, not just collections of different books, or stories that have been passed on and retold in the feasts and on the Sabbath; Sabbath was important in Israel, but there everybody did it; it’s even more important in Babylon where the pressure to be like the nations is greatest. I quoted Brian Walsh’s book Subversive Christianity last Sunday… here’s a little more from him after he talks about our buy in to the myths or religious stories about progress, and science and technology, and the economy… he says for Christians being shaped by those stories about what’s good and what it means to be human:
“Our experience is in many ways not unlike the experience of exile for the Jews in sixth-century BC. We live in Babylon. Babylonian definitions of reality; Babylonian patterns of life, Babylonian views of labour, and Babylonian economic structures dominate our waking and our sleeping. And, like the exiled Jews, we find it very tempting to think that all of this is normal…”
We’re in danger of being sucked in to the Babylonian vision of what it means to be human — the vision shaped by exile from God… so our stories and practices are meant to be counter cultural; not just a culture of our own; but distinct and different… Here’s more from Brian Walsh:
“This was also the central problem for the exiled Jews in Babylon. One of the ways in which they dealt with this problem was by constantly reminding each other of who they really were. In the face of Babylonian stories and myths, Jews told and retold their own stories. In fact, it was most likely at this time that they first wrote down one of their most foundational stories—the creation story.”
Justin Earley is a lawyer who runs a ministry called The Common Rule — which focuses on practices and habits that might form us — he’s got a book of the same name, he says when it comes to modern life we think:
“We can work our way to significance. This is what we’re doing when we prove our busyness to ourselves and each other; we’re trying to show that we matter, that the world wants us, that the world depends on us.”
I don’t know if that resonates with you; but I think even our leisure time is often rushed and busy — especially if you’ve got kids and you’re starting to structure your weekends around extra-curricular formative activities likes sport and music (which we might come back to tonight on play).
The world we live in bounces between busyness (and business) and restlessness — even our ‘down time’ is full. We have silence and blank space. You might’ve seen this story from blogger Andrew Sullivan. He was one of the world’s biggest tech bloggers, a hyper-connected internet junkie until he realised it was killing him, his technology addiction was hard-wiring him towards restlessness.
This restlessness comes from our disconnection from God, from the garden, and from Sabbath — it’s a restlessness answered by the Lord of the Sabbath and what he gives us — as Augustine said once his ‘heart was restless until he found his rest’ in Jesus. Sabbath — Rest — then is part of how we show ourselves, and others, that we have been restored; it’s both restorative and formative and performative. It’s also how we teach ourselves that we are not Lord, but Jesus is. Justin Earley says:
“Practicing sabbath is supposed to make us feel like we can’t get it all done because that is the way reality is. We can’t do it all. Sabbath protects us from acting out the lie that we can. Sabbath helps us discover the restless soul of which Augustine wrote.”
He also says:
“None of us like our limits. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we are not content to be like God; we want to be God. The weekly habit of sabbath is to remind us that God is God and we are not.”
The Sabbath as a way out of the disenchanted world
The Sabbath — Rest — is part of how we show that we worship — and serve (or serve — it’s the same word in Greek) the “Lord of the Sabbath” not the gods of this world; or the things of this world. It’s a way we say “I don’t have to be in control” or “I am not the king or queen of my own little world”… it’s how we disconnect from the idolatry of our age and form ourselves, but also part of how we hold out an oxygen mask to our neighbours because the idolatrous air is toxic. We were made to rest and without rest we’re not living our ‘best life’ — and we will die. Idolatry kills.
Alan Noble wrote a book called Disruptive Witness, it’s one that I’d highly recommend — he talks about rest or Sabbath as a ‘disruptive’ practice that stops us being formed by the world, but also that offers an alternative vision of life and work and God… he says:
“Setting aside the Sabbath for fellowship, rest, and acts of service deeply contradicts the standard way we understand the modern world. Thus it works to cut through the buffers we are inclined to erect as participants in modern culture, and presents a disruptive witness of the Christian faith… the Sabbath is actually an imposition on our modern lives, in which we work fervently to flatten the distinction between all days. When no days are holy — set apart — then each day and each moment is raw material for us to do as we will… ”
He says this practice of keeping the Sabbath teaches us that time has a meaning; it’s not just a resource that we use for our own ends — and especially it denies ‘the dominant cultural belief that we must always be working and doing…’ he says “a Sabbath rest is an act of spiritual defiance against the ideal of ‘justification through production and consumption.’
We want to say every day is holy; just as we want to say every Christian is a priest… but we end up offering ourselves as sacrifices to the world and its patterns. So deliberate rest — a Sabbath — is part of countering this; and it’s not just a day of doing nothing that does this; that doesn’t push us out of the ‘here and now’ bubble; it’s a day of rest ordered towards the reality that God is sovereign and Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath who came to give us rest and restore our souls. Rest has a purpose beyond just recharging our physical batteries; it is to recharge our bodies and our soul.
One issue with how Christians have sometimes legislated the Lord’s Day and the idea of church being part of what you do is that church becomes another sort of work; a proper approach to rest will resist that.
It’s worth saying too that part of rest is actually the daily practice of sleep; the temptation our world serves up — whether in the name of rest or leisure — is to sacrifice sleep for the sake of distraction; sleep feels like missing out. There’s a book I read a while back on burnout in ministry — and that’s a real thing — but I think the 24/7 hyper-connected world we live in means burnout is a thing for all of us; whether because we’re over-stimulated (and research shows that’s creating all sorts of mental health dramas), addicted to the dopamine hits we get through our screens — whether through gaming, social media, constant new information, Youtube videos, or porn… or just work emails, taking work home, being available after hours… burnout is a real risk… anyway, Christopher Ash who wrote Zeal Without Burnout has two key practices for ministers, that are true for all of us, maybe because we’re all priests.
One. We need sleep. And two: we need a Sabbath.
Ash points to Psalm 121 which reminds us that God does not sleep, and to Psalm 127 that reminds us that we do, and that sleep is a gift from God.
He says both sleep and Sabbath are designed to remind us that there is lots in this world happening beyond our control; that God is at work in every moment. They are practices that remind us that we aren’t king or queen, and that the world is not mechanical — that it is enchanted; or that things are held together in God’s hands — not ours.
There’s something about the way technology reinforces disenchantment and works against both sleep and rest that is interesting too; as we think about what this might look like. Technology — especially phones — stop us resting by keeping us constantly stimulated and distracted. The blue light our screens emit stop our brains shutting down properly when we try to sleep… From the moment we wake until the moment we sleep — this is a point Alan Noble makes in Disruptive Witness — he says the age we live in is both ‘secular’ and ‘distracted’ — and we need practices that deal with both, because both stop us doing the ‘deep spiritual formation’ that is required for us to be a different sort of people to what we might call ‘Babylon’ or the world… if we’re always distracted we don’t or won’t notice that we aren’t different to the world around us.
That blogger I mentioned earlier — Andrew Sullivan — found himself longing for disconnection from the 24/7 world and reconnection with something enchanted, or spiritual… and he sees technology and its constant ‘connection’ as part of what did away with the Sabbath in our cultural rhythms…
“But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.”
He has some ideas about how to respond that are a challenge for how we think about being the church and what we do as we gather on our ‘Sabbath’…
“If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary…”
Alan Noble makes some really similar points — that if we adopt the tools of distraction and make them how we rest we’re actually not resting; we’re just maintaining the stimulating busyness we experience outside the church.
What rest looks like
Our practices are formative and our practices — whether alone, or together — are performative — they teach us and others something about who we are and what story we live in.
The Goal here in busy, distracted, work and productivity worshipping Babylon is to be an alternative community with an alternative king. To come to Jesus and receive the goodness of the rest he offers. It’s for us to be a community that realises that we are creatures, that we have senses for a reason, that we have bodies that get tired and need restoration — and souls that long to be broken free of the limits of a ‘disenchanted’ machine like existence; we, and everything we, do have a ‘telos’ — a purpose — existence is shot through with the supernatural world. Whether that’s work, rest, or play…
Allocate time for Sleep.
Even if sleep doesn’t come straight away, you won’t sleep at all if you don’t make time for it… Christopher Ash says:
“It is worth considering how best to wind down later in the evenings, perhaps avoiding stimulants before bed, keeping away from flickering screens, caffeine or things that stimulate the mind and heart too much. Just as a runner winds down after a race, so we need to wind down after the day, to commit people and troubles that are on our minds to the One who does not sleep, and then to go to rest.”
Physically make space that is technology free, not just time. Here’s Sullivan:
“That Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.
Imagine if more secular places responded in kind: restaurants where smartphones must be surrendered upon entering, or coffee shops that marketed their non-Wi-Fi safe space? Or, more practical: more meals where we agree to put our gadgets in a box while we talk to one another? Or lunch where the first person to use their phone pays the whole bill? We can, if we want, re-create a digital Sabbath each week — just one day in which we live for 24 hours without checking our phones. Or we can simply turn off our notifications.”
And some more from Disruptive Witness:
“We might choose to rest from screens or just smartphones and computers, and so create space for contemplation, reflection, and conversation. Alternatively we might restrict our screen time to activities that are intentionally communal: watching a movie together, playing a game together, sharing photos and memories, or video chatting with family.”
Connect rest to the love of God and his work sustaining all things. It’s not a law, it’s just good for us…
What we do as we rest should not just be pointed at the thing we’re doing itself, but we should be able to ‘look along’ our inactivity and remind ourselves that God is at work; that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.
Place habits before love, and you will be full of legalism, but place love before habits, and you will be full of the gospel. God’s love for us really can change the way we live, but the way we live will never change God’s love for us.
Deliberately see rest as an important habit that will form you against the busyness the world commands.
“In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. Such an act of resistance requires enormous intentionality and communal reinforcement amid the barrage of seductive pressures from the insatiable insistences of the market, with its intrusion into every part of our life from the family to the national budget. . . . But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is alternative. It is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertising… The alternative on offer is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.” — Walter Brueggemann
Set routine to begin with. Get ‘in a rut.’ Plan your rest.
“One of the first things we learned was that proper sabbathing is much more about doing than not doing. It’s about doing restful things… An ideal sabbath looked like this: sleep in, worship, long lunch with friends, go home and rest, maybe nap, maybe make love, go out and explore some part of the city we hadn’t been to yet or take a walk in a park, and bring a book that is pure pleasure reading. What all these things had in common was not that they involve “not doing” but rather that they involved doing worshipful or engaging activities. They were things that drew us closer to God and others. The rest I needed was not only more sleep, but it was also the rest that comes with unfolding in good friendships or sitting still in God’s creation.”
Rest by doing the opposite of how you work…
Justin Earley quotes rabbi Abraham Heschel, who says: “A person who works with their mind should sabbath with their hands, and a person who works with their hands should sabbath with their mind.
This has implications too, for parents… figuring out how to rest as parents is very difficult, which means Earley suggests:
Balance between resting alone and resting in community.
“You can’t just take a break from children. Consequently we’ve realized two things. First, there are seasons of sabbath. There are seasons when a sick parent, a newborn, a tough new job, or something else will make sabbathing really hard. But remember, one of the most important things to be done in the pursuit of habit is to focus more on the rule than on the exceptions. Developing the background rhythm of sabbath is the foundation. That means that the tough times—where we get out of our routines—become the unusual times, not the norm. However, it’s really important to pursue sabbath precisely in those tough times, for those are the times we’re most likely to run ourselves ragged. Second, communal sabbaths change everything. Community can help you bear burdens in tough seasons so that you can sabbath even though a human life depends on you (for example, new moms). When Lauren and I didn’t have kids, communal sabbaths often meant having a big meal with friends and lingering long to talk.”
Manage ‘togetherness’ in ways that allow extroverts to recharge in company, and introverts to withdraw (this might allow introvert parents some time to re-charge kid free).