Disciple: A Commandment to Rest
By the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Brooke-Davidson
(Book of Common Prayer; Ash Wednesday bidding)
In January, it’s all about “The Cleanse.” We overindulged in Christmastide or perhaps even longer. But with the new year we pledge to renew and do it with a 30-day dietary reset, or a dry January, or something more exotic involving dandelion roots and organic cranberries. Antioxidant supplements and detox teas and masques fly off the store shelves. Some folks even keep their New Year’s exercise resolution for an entire month. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, and whatever health is in us needs a kick-start.
Most of us have been around this mulberry bush before. We know it’s a corrective and not a permanent fix. But if we don’t get honest with ourselves about the effects of our indulgences and realign ourselves with our deeper desires for wellness, things will get further out of hand and much harder to rein in.
Lent is the spiritual version of January’s physical cleanse. It’s a time to get honest with ourselves about the ways we indulge—not just what we eat and drink but what we do with our time and energy and attention. It’s the time to examine and acknowledge the cumulative effects of ignoring what we know is good and right in the Way of Love. In church lingo, it’s a time to repent of our sins.
Think of sin not as capital crimes against humanity or embarrassing moral failures (although those things would be included) but as the things that we do, or don’t do, that make Jesus sad. The things that cut us off from our deep, true selves, that pull our lives out of God’s dream and into the world’s nightmares. The things that make us less than what God means for us to be. To repent and turn from those things is to come closer to who we truly are at our holy and beloved core.
Lent is meant to help us realign, before things get too out of hand.
We’ve been talking recently, in the diocesan offices and leadership groups, about how tired and busy church folks, especially clergy and lay leaders, seem to be. We’ve all been through a frightening and devastating crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic rampaged through the whole human family, killing millions and disrupting social and economic systems. We doubled down by adapting to technology and reinventing organizations. Medical workers, teachers and pastors, among others, took heavy hits. Some industries nearly crumbled. Many had interruptions in employment and income. The crisis demanded enormous effort.
It feels as though we’ve made it to the other side of the crisis, yet even as life is normalizing in some new way, church leaders are still functioning in overdrive. Maybe you are, too.
And all of that brings me to, of all things, the Ten Commandments, and sin, and what chronic overdrive may actually signify.
THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT
IV. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
(Exodus 20:8 and about 100 other verses)
Pay close attention here. The fourth commandment does not say, “Thou shalt go to Sunday School.” (Some of us church leaders wish it did, but it doesn’t.) It does not say, “Thou shalt not purchase hard liquor on Sunday.” It does not say, “Thou shalt not have any fun, watch football or dig in the garden.” Israel and the Puritans enforced all kinds of rules to define the Sabbath, but, in our time, it’s more helpful to look further back and remember where the Sabbath comes from in the first place.
“So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation.”
Sabbath is about rest. God, Scripture tells us, rested. God rested! Do you imagine that when the six cosmic days of creation were finished, there was nothing left to do? That God couldn’t think of another project? God can take a day off, sure, but somehow we are convinced that we can’t stop for one red minute or the whole of creation will collapse. This, the Ten Commandments make plain, is sin.
A Christian is called to become more and more like Christ, more and more like God. God is incomprehensibly creative. God also takes a break. God calls us to do the same thing as a means of bringing us into alignment.
This is one of many examples of science and theology giving different explanations for the same thing. Besides the spiritual instruction of Scripture, there is voluminous empirical evidence that when we don’t rest, our creativity, effectiveness and even our productivity plummet.
The great creatives of our age, writes Alex Pang in his book Rest: Why We Get More Done When We Work Less, generally worked intensely for about four hours a day, interwoven with structured breaks for rest, walking, deep play, social connection and sleep. World leaders like Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower built naps and reading and painting and chess into their schedules while fighting world wars. During Desert Storm, Colin Powell disappeared into his garage for hours to rebuild vintage Volvos “because,” he quipped, “you can actually fix a Volvo.”
Many writers and painters schedule their work for the hours immediately after sleep, when the subconscious has planted ideas, inspiration and answers that striving cannot produce. Almost all thinkers speak of finding solutions and cutting through Gordian knots while walking, especially in natural settings. We know this, intuitively.
Yet a refusal to observe Sabbath time and rest is more than a productivity issue. It is, in fact, a spiritual issue. A steady refusal to rest is a refusal to accept that God can manage without me for any meaningful period of time.
The great spiritual practices all require time apart. Prayer in all its forms—meditation, study of Scripture, spiritual direction and the rest—are all fullest and deepest when given time and space and oxygen.
Recently, I saw a post from the bishop of Puerto Rico announcing the pre-ordination retreat for his ordinands. It jolted me at first, because the Spanish word for “retreat,” retiro, was translated as “withdrawal.” At first I thought it was bad news, that the ordinands had withdrawn from the process. But it was the other way around: They had withdrawn, for a day, from everything else. That turn of phrase connected with the biblical descriptions of Jesus periodically withdrawing when the crowds and the teaching and the ministry became too much.
As God the Father commanded the Sabbath, God the Son showed us Sabbath, not in the rules against picking grain if you were hungry or healing someone who was suffering on the wrong day but in knowing when to withdraw, when to quiet down, when to listen to God, the one who is actually in charge.
I don’t know what is pulling you out of alignment with God’s dream for you, but I bet you know. I know that for me, and for many of my friends and colleagues, it’s a pattern we fell into during the pandemic. We don’t stop. We stay on high alert and worry that we have to hold the world together somehow. All the time. That may be true in an acute crisis, but, in the long term, it’s a lot more toxic than any chocolate or treat we decide to forego.
Perhaps, for you, observing a holy Lent this year may mean paying more attention to the Fourth Commandment. Perhaps it is a commitment to find a pattern of Sabbath that works with the rhythm of your life. It’s great if it can coincide with the Lord’s Day, but it’s not clear that always worked even for Jesus. Whenever and however it works for you, the goal is to find rest and renewal. Walk, nap, play, turn off the negative round-the-clock chatter and demands, and connect with your deep self, your true self, the self that rests with God.
Eating chocolate—or pancakes and bacon—is not a sin. Instead of giving up that stuff, experiment with relinquishing the indulgences that keep us from our spiritual renewal and health. Work, sure—we all vow to continue in the apostles’ teaching and prayer and fellowship, to resist evil, to proclaim the Good News, to seek and serve Christ in everyone, and to strive for justice and peace. But God also tells us to rest. Some work, some rest. Like Jesus. Like God.
Finally—it’s not just you. It’s not just me. It’s not even just Episcopalians or Americans. We all need reminders that forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration and renewal are there for the asking. Overwork and under-rest are not the kind of “notorious sins” that lead the Church to separate someone from the body of the faithful to be reconciled with penitence and forgiveness. But sometimes we let overwork and under-rest separate us from the life of faith. Lent is the time to come home and remember we’re all in the same storm, that the boat is here to pick us up, and God is infinitely merciful.
Pray for the faith to allow yourself to rest, as I pray for you and pray for myself.
The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Brooke-Davidson is is the assistant bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina.
Tags: North Carolina Disciple