This week’s Creative Lent post is themed around ‘rest’. But it’s incomplete. There have been so many different threads that have linked into the theme and whilst they all connect and make sense individually, I’ve found it difficult to focus in on just one of them.
So I decided to stop fighting this whirlwind of thoughts, and just give you a flavour of each. I hope and trust that at least one of them will resonate with you!
So to begin with: let’s start with daily rest. Or rather- the lack of it. I’ve been reading some intriguing and affirming books lately about time, rest and the importance of getting a better balance in our lives. One is called Sabbath as Resistance by Walter Bruggemann which my sister-in-law Sarah sent me. Another was given to me by Steve Frampton, Principal at Portsmouth College, entitled Too Fast To Think by Chris Lewis. Although written from different starting points, they both concur in their conclusions and findings.
Bruggemann is looking from a theologian’s point of view at the traditional Jewish sabbath. He quickly points out the contrast between Yahweh (traditional Jewish word for God) and Pharaoh’s systems. When the Jewish people were in Egypt, they outnumbered the Egyptians considerably, and over time became enslaved to the Egyptians state (this was just before Moses arrived on the scene and the lead-up to the famous plagues of Egypt and parting of the Red Sea). Pharaoh’s system is based on surplus:
“What the slaves are to produce is more bricks that are to be used for the building of more ‘supply cities’ in which Pharoah can store his endless supply of material wealth in the form of grain. Because the system was designed to produce more and more surplus, there is always more need for storage units that in turn generate more need for bricks with which to construct them…in the narrative… Pharaoh is a hard-nosed production manager for whom production schedules are inexhaustible.”
Bruggemann goes on to point out that there is no sabbath rest in this system. “There is no rest for Pharaoh in his supervisory capacity…no rest for his supervisors or taskmasters…no rest for the slaves…We may imagine, moreover that the ‘Egyptian gods’ also never rested…for the glory of Pharaoh surely redounded to the glory of the ‘Egyptian gods’…In that context all levels of social power…are uniformly caught up in and committed to the grind of endless production.”
However, Yahweh comes from a very different starting point and “at the taproot of this divine commitment to *relationship* (covenant) rather than *commodity* (bricks) is the capacity and willingness of this God to rest…That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that Yahweh is not a workaholic, (b) that Yahweh is not anxious about the full-functioning of creation and (c) that the wellbeing of creation does not depend on endless work.”
Take a minute to absorb that idea.
The wellbeing of creation – of our lives even, does not depend on endless work.
And yet how many of us look around our homes, our workplaces and our to-do lists with an exhausted and almost futile sense that we’ll ‘never get it all done’? Here’s an intriguing thought for you: what if it doesn’t all have to get done.
What if some of it could be left knowingly unfinished?
You might need to have a little lie-down at this point.
Enter stage left Chris Lewis, whose starting point on this same journey, originates in the business world. In his book he has spoken with and listened to a number of different people from a range of backgrounds. Lewis observes:
“I see a world moving faster, but somehow making less progress. There is more communication, but less conversation. There is more information, but not more learning.” He comments that “we have created so many ways to interrupt ourselves” and that “every profession has suffered from a decreasing amount of time to really think about problems”. “The rush has forced us to process yesterday as if it were trash, and left us no time to recall, review and learn.”
It is into this context that Brueggemann offers the practice of sabbath as resistance: “Into this arena of restlessness comes the God of rest who offers relief from that anxiety-producing system.” “The celebration of sabbath is an act both of 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.”
I would argue that this notion of rest, as part of the rhythm of our lives, is something which we have become increasingly detached from, and yet it is so vital to our wellbeing, as to be as essential as food and sleep. Indeed, Lewis devotes an entire chapter to sleep and the consequences and benefits of having not enough or a good and regular amount of sleep.
But if daily rest and having a good rhythm to our lives is one thing, what’s the long-term view? What are we working towards? Why are we pushing ourselves so hard and so long and at such speed?
This is one of the other threads to this week’s theme which I couldn’t quite manage to tie in to the first one, although I sense they are inextricably linked…
I took a walk round St Mary’s cemetery last week. It was a grey day, not too chilly and the estate team were in mowing the grass. When I first arrived it was rather like a cluster of over-sized and grumpy bees buzzing about the place. Gradually the noise fell away as they finished their work and I was able to take some time to walk among the tombstones and memorials.
I was surprised at how many of them had fresh flowers – I don’t know why it surprised me, but it did. Bright, defiant bursts of colour in between the grey, white or black markers. Some were recent, one grave with the earth still a mound where it hadn’t yet settled, others covered with ivy and almost buried by time. There were a noticeable number of Victorian graves for children – infant mortality was high at that time, but I couldn’t help thinking of the grief and loss of those families who had lost their children at such a young age.
Most of the wording was similar; ‘beloved wife’, ‘dear husband’, ‘ in loving memory’. A couple of them had unusual wording which caught my attention: one crypt had the words “Yes! Yes!” after the names of the people interred. I wondered if they felt not fear, but joy about death and a hope for heaven?
Another had the phrase ‘fell asleep’ which struck me particularly, as it related to a four year old boy. I know that as a society we struggle with talking about death and the fear, pain and grief which surrounds it. We shy away from it, avoid it, give it odd and inaccurate terms ‘lost’, ‘fell asleep’, ‘passed away’ because the brutal truth is so hard to bear.
And yet it exists and it will come to all of us at some point. We may not know when, or how or where, but each of us has a story and all stories have to end.
So what then, does that mean for us? Shall we continue to strive and labour, filling all our time with noise and distraction so as to avoid the inevitability of an ending we can’t control? Or shall we stubbornly, rebelliously choose to stop, to rest, to adjust the rhythm of our lives in order that we really can make the most of each moment – savour the sights, smells, colours and tastes of everything around us so that, when the time comes, we can say with confidence “Yes!” my time has come, but I have lived my life well and I’m ready now for my story to end.
Perhaps those two strands had more in common than I thought?
As to my making: it is the simplicity of a photograph. Ronald James Towse died, aged four, in 1953. I don’t know his story or the circumstances of his death. But his memorial is a reminder that every life, however small, can and will make its mark upon another, and in so doing, perhaps they can be eternal?