Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.
Exodus 20: 8-11
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.
Mark 6: 30-32
Hello and welcome to the final episode in this podcast series, The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focused Life. I am Bishop Mariann Budde. I’d like to begin by thanking you for listening to these reflections, in which we have considered in-depth each spiritual practice of the Episcopal Church’s rule of life. The Way of Love is meant to help ground us in the life and love of Jesus and grow in our capacity to love as he loves. Jesus of Nazareth lived a fully human life over 2000 years ago, and yet Christians dare to believe that in him the Word of God, the essence of God, became flesh and dwelled among us, showing us how to live and how to love. We believe this because we have known him as a spiritual presence in our lives, He is our Emmanuel, God-with-us. And we are his body. As the 16th-century mystic Teresa of Avila famously said, “Christ has no body now but ours. Ours are the hands through which he works; ours are the the feet on which he moves. Ours are the eyes with which he looks on this world with love.”
The particular ways that you and I are called to walk the way of love vary according to our life circumstances, but the call is the same. Part of the call–the most personal–is the daily invitation to dwell in Jesus’ love for us, and then to live our lives open to the ways that we are called to share in that same love for others. The love of God in Christ is sheer gift. Our capacity to grow in both receiving and sharing love requires intention and practice.
The Way of Love invites us to adopt seven life practices to help us grow in love. The first three practices encourage to establish a daily routine: to turn, to learn, and to pray. The fourth practice is to worship–once a week, to gather with other Christians in communal prayer and to receive the gift of the sacraments.
The next two practices–to bless and to go–are outwardly focused, encouraging us to see in each human encounter an opportunity to offer a word or gesture of blessing, and to actively go beyond the confines of our comfort to where Christ calls. We spend most of our lives among other people, and Jesus needs us there, as ambassadors of kindness, instruments of mercy, strivers for justice. Sometimes the acts of blessing and going are as easy for us as breathing; other times they require our greatest effort and sacrifice. These practices are meant to serve as both anchor and compass. They remind us how we are to live as we go about our work and relationships, our joys and struggles, opening us to those remarkable opportunities where we might make a real difference for someone else. In those encounters our love for another can be an expression of God’s love.
We come now to the last of the seven practices: to rest.
That doesn’t sound very hard, does it, to adopt as a life practice the gift of rest? And yet for many–and I include myself here–the practice of rest presents a real challenge.
Before embarking on this podcast series, I surveyed members of the Diocese of Washington to ask which of the seven practices came more easily for them and with which ones did they struggle. Nearly everyone who responded said that rest was the most difficult. “I’m not good at resting,” one confessed. “I was raised to work,” wrote another. “I’m not sure I know how to rest.”
Even more poignantly, in workshops we’ve held with people in their 70s and 80s on the topic of elder spirituality, some have acknowledged how hard it is to let go of an identity predominantly defined by accomplishments or activity. Resting can feel like giving up, or like loss. Some said that rest makes them feel guilty.
If rest is a spiritual struggle for you, you are in good company. But remember that we are exploring spiritual practices. When we practice the things we’re not particularly good at, we generally get a little better. For those of you for whom rest comes easily, know that others of us are more than a bit envious. We have a lot to learn from you.
One reason I am so drawn to the Way of Love is because I’m not very good at several of its practices. They don’t come easily for me. But the discipline of practice–even when I must start over again and again–has a quiet, transformative impact on my life.
So now I–perhaps the least qualified person on the planet–speak to you of rest.
First, let me say how grateful I am that we worship a God who calls upon each of us to rest, and not as a suggestion but as imperative, as something we must do. The commandment to rest goes all the way back to the beginnings of our faith tradition–a beginning we share with Jews and Muslims–as recorded in the biblical stories of creation. In the first of two creation stories found in the first book of the Bible, God created the heavens and the earth, all the creatures of the earth, and humankind in six days. Then God rested on the seventh day, and in so doing created a day of rest.
What that story teaches is something our bodies tell us every day, that we were created, as mortal beings, with a physical requirement to rest. We cannot survive long without rest. And God’s commandment that we are to rest isn’t meant to be yet one more rule to adhere to in a legalistic sense, but rather to experience as a gift for our souls.
Simply put, we aren’t meant to work all the time. Should we forget that, our bodies may force us to rest by getting sick.That happened to one of our sons earlier this year. He had been working very hard at his job, staying at the office late each night and working on weekends at home. One weekend he suffered a bout of food poisoning, and for three days he could barely move. We were with him that weekend and in fact, we had taken him and his wife out to a restaurant for dinner, along with others in our family, and it was that meal, and not exhaustion, that made him sick. But when he recovered, he wrote to me and said, “While I can’t remember ever being that sick in my life, I learned something through the experience. I learned that I need to rest more.” Since then he’s made a few modest changes–nothing drastic, but enough to make more room in his life for more rest and even a bit of play.
Sabbath is the word we use to describe God’s call to rest, from the Hebrew, shabbat. The Jewish feast of shabbat is patterned on the seventh day, when God rested. From Jewish tradition, we’ve inherited this notion of a day of rest–a full day. If you’ve ever experienced shabbat in a Jewish home, you know that it begins on Friday evening with a lavish, celebratory candlelit meal, with prayers, song, and laughter. Then all the next day, Saturday, there is a restriction for practicing Jews against work of any kind. It’s a day for joy, a day for family and friends, a day, in the beautiful words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “to mend our tattered lives.”
My Jewish friends who practice shabbat are quick to tell me that they’re not rigid in their practice, taking to heart the old rabbinic teaching that Jesus himself quoted when the Pharisees criticized him for healing on the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for humankind; not humankind for the Sabbath.” In others words, if the call to rest becomes one more obligation to fulfill, and an impossible one at that, or one that keeps us from acts of compassion or makes us feel guilty when we must work on a day of rest, then it is no longer the gift that God intends but yet another way we berate ourselves for not being sufficiently spiritual.
It’s actually cruel to tell parents of infant children, for example, that they aren’t getting enough rest. What they need when rest is impossible is compassion, and a bit of help. So, too, for those with unforgiving demands at work or school, and those carrying a heavy load for others. In the short term it may, in fact, be true that what is needed to be done overrides the call to rest.
Jesus is quite clear about this: He never shirked when called upon to do good on the Sabbath, even if it involved work. Story after story is told about him healing on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the strict enforcement of Jewish teachings, often in the presence of religious leaders who were quick to criticize him. In one of those stories, Jesus enters a village synagogue on the sabbath and sees a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees, a particularly rule-bound sect especially critical of Jesus, actually stood around to see what he would do. Jesus calls the man with the withered hand and asks those standing by, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” No one dared say anything. Jesus could barely contain his anger and his grief at the religious leaders’ hardness of heart. “Stretch out your hand,” Jesus told the wounded man, and when he did so, his hand was restored. (Mark 3:1-6)
But Jesus also took time to rest. The gospel accounts describe how he would go off to quiet places by himself or with his closest friends. There he would pray and restore his soul. When his rest was interrupted by a presenting need, he sacrificed, for a short time, his own needs in order to serve others. But then he would return to his practice of rest.
The Gospel of Mark tells of a time when Jesus and the disciples had been hard at work, teaching and healing throughout the Galilean countryside. It also, according to the text, is when Jesus learned of John the Baptist’s brutal murder at the hands King Herod. Thus it was also a time of grief. It had been so intense for so long that they hadn’t even had a chance to eat. I’ve had times like that; I think we all have.
“Come away to a deserted place,” he encouraged his disciples, “and rest a while.” So they all got into boat and set sail for the other side of the lake. But then a large crowd saw where Jesus and his disciples were going, and they hurried on foot and managed to arrive on the other side of the lake ahead of Jesus and the disciples. When Jesus saw the desperation in the crowd, he put aside his need to rest and spent the day teaching and healing, and his disciples worked at his side. At the end of the day, when the disciples were at the limits of their strength and energy, Jesus told them to offer the hungry crowds something to eat. They only had a few fish and some bread to offer, but Jesus asked for what they had and from that offering that Jesus’ blessed before God, the multitudes were fed to satisfaction, with food left over.
I live my life inside the miracle of the loaves and fish, and I daresay so do you. God consistently and compassionately gives us the strength to carry on when we are at or have surpassed our limits, so that we can be there when others need us, to show up when we’re tired. There’s something deeply restorative in that experience, even restful, knowing that God can accomplish in us, in St. Paul’s words, far more than we can ask for or imagine.
But the story doesn’t end there. After Jesus dismissed the satisfied crowd, he allowed himself to feel his exhaustion, and he returned to a place of rest. He even told the disciples to go on without him, so that he could take time for himself.
The person I meet with for spiritual counsel offered me a bit of wisdom recently regarding the tension between presenting needs and the spiritual imperative to rest. I was telling him about the work I often feel I must do on my weekly day off. The work feels important to me, I told him, and I don’t mind doing it. In the case of emergencies or unexpected opportunities, it doesn’t feel that there is a choice involved. And I generally don’t mind.
My spiritual director suggested that I bring the matter to God in prayer. When I feel compelled to work, called to put my own needs aside for the sake of work, he proposed that I acknowledge before God both my need to rest and the sense I often have to put work ahead of rest. I might ask God, he said, not only to give me strength but to gift me with sabbath rest in the midst of the demands before me.
But my spiritual director also spoke a word of warning: pay attention to the pattern of your life, he said. If the response to choose work over rest becomes habitual, you risk losing perspective and responding as if every call to work were urgent and necessary. Sometimes we need to choose rest, he said, even when the call to keep working is urgent. For we are mortal, and our souls and bodies can only do so much.
His warning got my attention. For I realized that I choose work over rest without giving much thought to what I’m doing. I am susceptible to what some have called “the tyranny of the urgent,” because of my well-conditioned habit to work. That habit, while fruitful at times, is costly to myself and others. I make poorer choices when I’m tired. I can lose perspective, and operate more from adrenaline and anxiety than is healthy. Those closest to me often pay the price for my commitment to work. And I miss many opportunities for joy.
What would change in my life and yours if we dared to believe that in God’s eyes, our need for rest, and indeed, the gift of rest, is a priority, for our own sake? How differently might we live?
One way that I’m trying to live differently is to accept opportunities for rest when they arise. They may not come on a fixed schedule, but when they do, I try to accept them without anxiety or guilt, lay aside what is left undone, and relish the gift of rest and renewal.
It’s important for us to identify our distinctive needs for rest. Many studies suggest that Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. Do you know how much sleep your body needs? In your waking hours, what activities are truly restful for you? What fills the depleted places of your soul?
We’re not all the same in this. We all don’t need the same amount of sleep. What is restful for one might be drudgery or hard work for another. Leisure activities are meant to be enjoyable, yet they can also be challenging, and in the challenge, we find rest of a different kind.
One way to think of rest is through the lens of time, and how we experience time. So often we speak of time as our task master, or as a commodity which is always in scarce supply. In times of rest, we sometimes speak of passing time, even killing time with whatever it is we’re doing.
Rest and true sabbath, in contrast, are about the spaciousness of time, what Rabbi Heschel describes as the redemption of time. “Time,” says Heschel, “is the heart of existence…there is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to subdue but to be in accord.” “The higher goal of spiritual living,” he reminds us, “is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”(Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: It’s Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1951).)
Rest brings us into spacious time–time not filled to the brim with endless work, nor lingering in boredom, nor killed by mindless activity, but the fullness of time, where we can be fully present to ourselves, one another, and to our Creator.
I cannot speak to you as yet from the experience of weekly sabbath as I imagine it–a full day of rest that I hope one day to have as part of my spiritual practice. But I can speak of the restoring, restful smaller practices that help me redeem time and restore my tattered soul.
I know what some of those restful moments are for me: They can be as simple as lighting a candle before an evening meal, taking a deep breath, and savoring the moment gathered at table. I find rest in a quiet walk and invigorating bicycle ride. It is restful and restoring for me whenever I can allow time to drift, when I can let go, even for a moment, of the need to be productive.
It’s been said that there is more to life than increasing its speed. We are more in God’s eyes than what we feel we must do. To realize that for God rest is a priority for us surely has the power to shift our perspective even a little bit. Perhaps we can trust what the Book of Common Prayer encourages us to pray is actually true: that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength.
May that be true for you, for all of us.
Friends, this ends the first season of Experiencing Jesus and the exploration of the Way of Love. While this series is finished, our walk in the way of love continues, as the life practice, and foundational spiritual resource of the Episcopal Church. You can find more Way of Love resources on the Diocese of Washington’s Way of Love webpage.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. You can email me with thoughts, suggestions and concerns. It would be a great help if you would subscribe to the podcast, and then rate and review it. If you subscribe, you’ll be notified when we return with season two.
Thank you for listening. May God continue to bless your journey on the Way of Love.