i recently shared these words with our university ministry community in berkeley, for a series titled, “all who hunger.”
if you haven’t been with us, welcome. we’ve been having some conversations this fall in a series we’re calling, “all who hunger,” where we’ve been asking, what are our deepest hungers? what are those hungers driving us?
are we living in a way that’s leading us toward satisfying those hungers? how can we help one another with that?
and, what do these hungers tell us about who we are, about our neighbors, and about our God?
i have to tell you, i am both really grateful that we’re talking about what we’re talking on tonight, and i also kind of hate it. i hate it because it’s something that i still have so much to learn about.
when we sent out a survey over the summer asking, what are you most hungry for? one of you said this:
stillness. it may not be a matter of *which* activities i do, but rather *how many* activities i do. my challenge as i’ve begun to reintegrate myself into bay area life has been to find time to slow down, rest, and process.
for (christian) community, it can be especially difficult to recognize the point when we’ve had too much of a good thing. overindulging your hunger can be just as unhealthy as starving yourself.
great response, right?
i think many of us can relate to this feeling: i hunger for rest, for stillness, to slow down, but also it’s really tough to do that here—there are so many good things going on!
my own wrestling
and i have to tell you upfront, i am still learning how to do this well.
in fact, it was just yesterday that my wife and i were meeting with our therapist—not because we have any major issue we’re working out, but because we know things can be better, and this is our way of investing in our marriage.
i mentioned that i was speaking on rest tonight and i began to laugh before i’d even finished my sentence. they knew how ridiculous that was. they knew i felt like a hypocrite. soon, all three of us were laughing.
but here’s the thing: my biggest struggle on this topic isn’t simply making time for rest, it’s hearing God’s call on my life to rest not as one more thing to do, but as an invitation to life, to wholeness, to flourishing.
whether it’s my wife asking me when i’m taking a day off or reading scripture about the sabbath, it’s easy for me to imagine a giant wagging finger, and a voice saying, you need to do better on this!
rather than hearing what it really is: a voice of care and concern. a voice that says, I love you, and I want better for you.
all that to say, i’m speaking mostly to myself tonight. but i hope it’s helpful for many of you who are also hungry for rest and who struggle to live into it well.
my plan is to share two things that continue to be helpful for me on this topic, and to end with some fears that keep me from practicing rest.
i. creation narratives:
ceaseless work vs. life-giving rhythms
i was catching up with one of you recently over coffee when you told me, “i feel bad when i’m not working.”
without knowing that i was preparing this message, you went on to tell me that if you’re spending time with other people, rather than being “productive,” you feel like you’re falling behind.
that’s not the only time I’ve heard that; i have heard some version of that since i arrived in berkeley. there’s this sense that if you’re not being productive, you’re doing something wrong.
when productivity is king, there’s a guilt associated with taking time for rest.
and i have to ask, where do you think that comes from?
somehow, that is an unquestioned narrative that infects so many in this area.
i was talking with my friend michael late last night, after reading the lion, the witch, and the wardrobe to emma—basically as good as it gets for me.
michael is a close friend and a biblical scholar, so we often enjoy talking about theology or biblical studies. i called michael and i said, “i’m speaking on rest and i feel like i need to talk about the enuma elish, but it’s been several years since divinity school and i can’t remember why. what can you tell me about the enuma elish?
how many of you have heard of the enuma elish? a couple! the religious studies folks.
for the rest of you, the enuma elish is an ancient babylonian creation myth.
and basically what it says is, humans were created as the result of a violent war among the gods. humans came from chaos and competition, the story goes, and they were created as a workforce for all of the work that the gods didn’t want to do themselves.
this wasn’t a scientific explanation for creation so much as it was a way that the ancient babylonians understood their world and their relationship to the world.
and it had really significant socio-political implications.
it created hierarchies (with the gods at the top and the laborers at the bottom). it basically gave divine support for the oppression and exploitation of laborers by those in power.
your job is to work, it told most people in babylon, and to keep working. that’s who you are.
the myth served to encourage the masses to accept their lot in life, without question, and to keep working.
human life had value insomuch as it contributed productively to the empire—people’s competitive, ceaseless work was natural and unavoidable.
so that’s the enuma elish. and i have to ask, why in the world would i be telling you this ancient babylonian creation myth after you’ve already had a long day of classes on a talk on hungering for rest?
because this is the context into which ancient israel would have understood their own, alternative creation myth.
creation story in genesis
at the time that genesis 1 was recorded, ancient israel was in babylonian captivity. their surrounding culture would have been living into this babylonian creation myth, likely without questioning it. it was a story that worked in subtle ways, influencing not just how they understood where they came from, but their day to day life.
my friend michael put it this way on the phone to me last night:
this isn’t a perfect analogy, but imagine a jewish father in ancient israel coming home after a long day of work and asking his son, what’d you learn in the babylonian public school today?
and, after hearing something along the lines of this creation myth, he would have erupted. he would have been outraged!
that’s not who you are, He would have said. that’s not who our God is.
at this time of exile in a foreign land, surrounded by foreign narratives, God’s people needed to be reminded who they are, who their God is, and how God desires them to live.
in contrast to the babylonian creation myth, israel’s creation story in genesis 1 (which is the first of two creation stories, the second of which really picks up in genesis 2, after the reading from tonight’s scripture):
says that humanity came not from chaos and competition, but from peace.
says that creation is repeatedly called good.
says that humans are created in God’s image. which means, among other things, they are invaluable. and not because of anything they’ve done, but simply because of who they are.
says humans are welcomed into a world of abundance, not scarcity and competition, the story tells us. and they are expected to co-labor with God to carry out God’s good work for caring for creation.
and, also, like God, humans are invited to take a break from work. to practice rest.
this is a completely different way of understanding the world and humanity’s role in it. this is a counter-narrative to israel’s wider cultural narrative, insidious and subtle though it was.
how we are to live: lives of abundance
what michael was encouraging me to understand on our phone call late last night is that this story wasn’t told primarily to tell us about our first ancestors, but to understand how we are to live in the world, and how we often choose deathly lifestyles rather than the abundant life that God created us for.
because, of course, we are constantly surrounded by our own myths, stories that often affect us without our realization.
think of the american dream, and how it encourages all of its citizens to work as hard as they can, promising “a better life,” even though, of course, such a work ethic rarely rewards those on the bottom, while maintaining hierarchies and power for those at the top.
and it’s into this narrative that we need to be reminded of our own story, of God’s story.
this account of creation and, especially, the day of rest, is meant to encourage us: there is another way of life, it’s saying, and it’s the way to abundant life, life with God.
rather than thinking of the sabbath as a way for the pious to get God on our side, michael encouraged me, we should realize what a revolutionary story it is.
“it’s like a giant middle finger to the empire!”
II. sacred time
another helpful voice for me is abraham heschel. born in poland, and one of the most influential theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, heschel immigrated to the states after nazis murdered his family.
his book, the sabbath, has been a profoundly helpful work.
in the foreword, his daughter describes growing up watching her parents race to prepare for the sabbath on friday evening as the sun crept down the horizon over the hudson river.
there would almost always be things they didn’t get to before the sabbath began, she writes, whether it was boiling water or turning on the oven.
and then the sabbath would arrive, and they would leave whatever it was they hadn’t gotten to and immediately enter into a time of rest and renewal.
on the sabbath, we are reminded, “the world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone else.”
cathedrals out of time
one of heschel’s central reminders is that the bible is concerned less with space than it is with time. when God creates, all of it is called good, but only the seventh day is first called holy.
“The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals,” heschel writes—this is where we meet God, in time.
the sabbath is our foretaste of eternity, breaking into our lives each week.
which is why this day is approached with such care—it’s when we meet with God, when we are renewed and nourished.
not for the sake of productivity
but what i appreciate most about heschel’s teaching on the sabbath is the reminder that we enter into this time of rest not just so that we’ll be more productive when we return to work. sabbath practice offers a regular re-orientation of work’s relative importance.
“The Sabbath as a day of rest…is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.
The Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. [The Sabbath] is not an interlude but the climax of living.”
for those of us with the privilege of enjoying our work, and finding meaning and purpose in it, the sabbath reminds us not even the most meaningful work offers the fullness of life we hunger for.
that’s God’s role.
III. fears of rest
most of us know we hunger for rest. i honestly don’t need anyone to tell me i need more rest. but what happens is that our fears about actually taking time for rest outweigh our hunger for rest.
so I thought I’d wrap up by naming two of my own fears, and then inviting us to share with one another, what are the fears preventing us from living into the very thing we crave?
fear of scarcity
the first and the easiest fear for me to name is that there’s not enough time. and if i don’t get to this work, it won’t get done. or, it won’t be as good as it should be.
this fear haunted me in school, especially in grad school. while studying in england—where feelings of being an imposter were rampant—i’d often be the first one in the library when it opened, and still there when it closed.
i used to look at those who would take breaks throughout the day to hang out on the green lawn in the quad, or those who would go to performances in the evenings, and think, i don’t get that privilege. if I want to keep up, i have to put in more time.
and i’ve had to learn, and re-learn, that that’s a lie.
i’ve had to learn not only that my work is actually better if i’m living into healthy rhythms of rest, but that i’m better. i like myself more, and my family likes me more.
when i’m living into healthy rhythms of rest, i’m able to be a better dad, a better husband, and a better friend.
i’m able to be the person God has created me to be, full of life, not just worn down.
i included this single verse from John 6 [v.15] in our reading earlier because it’s a great example of what Jesus so often does.
when things are going really well—when He’s been ministering to others, healing the blind, or teaching, or feeding huge crowds—He will often follow that time by retreating.
where i would be tempted to say, this is a good thing; let’s keep this going! Jesus retreats, to be alone with the Father.
that’s a model that i’ve had to learn and re-learn.
if I’m not taking time of rest on my Fridays and Saturdays—which usually means time to get outdoors and run or time to write—then I get run down. my life begins to look more like death than the abundant life God intends.
fear of not being loved
but the bigger fear for me, which took a while to realize, is that i fear taking rest because i fear that if i’m not producing i won’t be loved.
i mentioned this last week, but one of the biggest lies that i have faced in my life is that my worth is in my work. when i’m not working, when i’m not producing, it’s easy for me to feel worthless.
i mentioned this sign i’ve noticed around berkeley in a sermon recently, but there’s a cal football sign around town that reads: “we all earn it here.”
and i’ve actually grown fond of this sign, because it tells me i’m not alone. this isn’t a lie that i wrestle with on my own. a lot of us have been raised to believe that our worth is earned, rather than God-given.
this is the enuma elish of our own time and place.
making time for rest, stopping my work, is a way for me to live into a counter-narrative. practicing the sabbath is a reminder that my starting point is beloved.
when advertisements tell me that we all earn it here, where fear encourages me to work without ceasing, the sabbath re-orients me toward grace.
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how about you, what are the fears preventing you from practicing the rest you crave?