How often have you had such a stressed and over-full schedule that you didn’t have time for breakfast – or even lunch – and when you did get dinner, it was drive-through fast food because you had too many people to get too many different places in too little time, or the end of your workday and the start of your evening activities left no room to stop and get a meal?
For too many of us, that is a reality that is all too common – myself included. There are too many things to fit in to our day – many of them worthwhile, or attractive, and always seeming both urgent and important – and we find that we get to the end of our day and fall exhausted into bed, but not having gotten to the end of our work; there are still things left undone. And then the next morning we get up and start all over again. And there doesn’t seem to be an end…because there isn’t one.
Life in the last thirty to forty years has increased in speed, in volume, in the amount of physical and psychological stuff we have to deal with, in the rate of change, in the calls on our time and the expectations of a 24/7 world – by any measure, life in the developed world is faster and more stressful now than it has been at any previous point in history; you could even say that this level of stress is toxic.
This is the thesis of Richard Swenson’s book “Margin,” which our parish study group has spent time reading and discussing; it’s also the experience of many of us gathered here this morning. Dr. Swenson offers a number of different “prescriptions” for recovering from a life without margin, and one of them is “rest.” He specifies three different types of rest:
- Physical Rest – this is refraining from activity, work, projects, screen time in order to take a nap, put your feet up, get to bed at a decent hour, or just sit and contemplate the sunset. We so often have a hard time doing this because our culture idolizes productivity.
- Emotional Rest – this is quieting our minds, intentionally putting aside worries, making peace in our relationships, taking steps to address problems so they do not rule over us - yet choosing to “discipline our expectations and tame our discontent,” as Dr. Swenson says, so we are not beaten down by our emotions.
- Spiritual Rest – this type of rest is the most important, not only because we humans are spiritual beings, but because God built rest into the very fabric of Creation when he rested on the seventh day, and then taught his People to rest after Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and gave Moses the Ten Commandments: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
The Fourth Commandment is not just about remembering that we are supposed to be worshipping God on this day, but about remembering that God is in charge of life, the world and everything, and that everything is not going to come crashing down if we stop once every seven days. When we do this we are saying very clearly: “God is God, and I am not; I have limits and I need to respect them.” The spiritual rest that we receive through prayer and worship and gathering with others to share the blessings of God goes to the very heart of who we are – God’s people.
When we don’t take time for rest and reflection, when we don’t make prayer a regular and central part of our lives, when we live with no margin, no room to breathe, with wall-to-wall activity, we crowd God out – we simply leave no room for the Creator of the Universe and the Author of Life. Well, God isn’t going to force his way in; God isn’t going to shout over the noise of our computers or televisions or restless thoughts; more often than not the Bible describes God as a still small voice, as the wind which blows where it wants to, and we would do well to be still and listen. Of course, that’s a very counter-cultural thing to do – to be still, and listen for God’s voice; we are so often impatient, in too much of a hurry, or too burdened and stressed to give God our full attention – even for ten minutes, even for five minutes.
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, and there it is, stitched into the kneelers at the altar rail; you see those words every time you come to church – I wonder if you’ve ever thought about them. They are a real invitation, those words – not just beautiful handiwork, lovingly stitched by members of All Saints’ thirty years ago. And the invitation is this: Jesus calls us, invites us, to set our burdens down – even for a short while, to cease to carry them, to let go of the things that trouble us so that we can come to God with empty hands – free, available, ready to be filled with God’s blessings; not because we have worked for them, or earned them, or deserved them, but just because God is generous and good and wants to give us the blessings of rest and peace and joy.
We experience God’s rest when we give time to prayer, to reading and meditating on the Bible, when we contemplate God’s goodness and beauty in Creation. And we enter God’s rest profoundly when we come to the altar rail, when we offer our selves, our souls, and bodies to God, when we stretch out empty hands and have them filled with food and drink, with the Body and Blood of Christ. Because in prayer and worship, in making Eucharist, we step into God’s time and God’s space; we are reminded that God is the center, and the closer we draw to him the more we will see ourselves and the world from God’s perspective, with his love and compassion – our hearts will naturally turn outward to all the broken and hurting and needy places and people. The more we live awake and aware in God’s presence, the more we will be at peace with his purposes for us, and we can let go of restlessness and resentment, and find ourselves refreshed and renewed.
But all of this comes with a cost – honoring our limits, keeping Sabbath time, recognizing that enough is better than too much – and the cost is making choices for God and for the spiritual health and well-being of ourselves and our families, rather than being ruled by the ceaseless demands of our culture which says: you should always work harder, should always achieve more, you must always strive to be the best, the most, the brightest, the most excellent – anything less than that is failure. That’s a tough treadmill to step off of, but we all know, in our heart of hearts, it’s not true – we are, each one of us, God’s beloved child, a person for whom Christ died, a temple of the Holy Spirit…that’s who you are, and that is enough, abundantly, blessedly enough, ample sufficiency. And when we step back and take time to rest, to drink the waters of God’s life, to lie down in green pastures and beside still waters, then we will find rest and balance and peace – an oasis in the chaos and storm of life as it is lived today. Jesus says: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Let us pray.
O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows
lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is
hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.
Then in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest,
and peace at the last. Amen. BCP, page 833
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Millington, NJ
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 22, 2012