You let me catch my breath / and send me in the right direction. (Psalm 23:3, MSG)
I was never one to choose a word to cast vision for the year, scoffing at the idea when others engaged in this practice, and mentally shutting myself down from a potentially life-changing ritual.
But something changed at the end of last year, and I think it was an new openness to experiences outside my understanding. In short, I was desperate, and so I gave up trying to figure everything out and relaxed into the unknown. This was terrifying for me, but I decided to try and prayed for a word.
After a day of praying, last year’s word came to me, unbidden, as if from a dream: surrender, and it was incredibly timely and something I practiced with fervency.
The year of 2017 was filled with joy and pain, and lots of surrendering to things outside my control, one of which were a couple of stints at a local healthcare institution known for its rates of burnout and good work. (Graduate school failed to prepare me for the depth and breadth of human suffering and how it can negatively impact healers.) I took a step of out of direct care only to enter into an administrative context in which gossip, ridicule, and ongoing criticism were regular fare for the work week.
Depression and anxiety attacks became a regular part of my life, and I surrendered to the sad truth that my expectations about this job could simply not match up to reality. I imagined the position would allow me the chance to heal from working in direct care and pursue writing. However, I discovered to my great horror, that many of the sickest people I worked with were the burn-out healers whose behaviors suggested that the world was merely a garbage dump in which to dwell.
They were so happy and peaceful about two percent of the time. It was a real bummer.
Life did not make any sense at that point, but capitulating to God and the truth reminded me that most things in my life are outside my control, including how other people behave, even if I behave respectfully towards them. Sometimes a job does not work out well, often those in the helping professions grow bitter and cynical, and many times a government system is so toxic that it will not be mended by all the efforts of one single person.
My tiny God-complex issues arose, and at the time, one of my friends after a recovery meeting reminded me sweetly, “Honey, another name for ‘God’ is ‘Not me,’ and smiled angelically.
Who talk likes this, I ask you?
I grimaced and sighed out loud; she was right, of course, and walking away from the toxic job was one of the best things I ever did.
But I noticed there was a darker side to my practice of surrender in 2017 I submitted to compulsive activity, not allowing myself to practice being still. Even when I meditated, my thoughts drifted to my to-do list and ongoing evaluation of whether or not I was doing enough.
I had turned my word “surrender” into a harsh judge to endure instead of a balm to aide me in times of trouble. As the year went on, I noticed I used the word “surrender” to give into commitments that I loved but even when I was tired and needed to sit for a moment and catch my breath. I said “yes” when I needed to practice saying “no,” and tried hard to live up to self-imposed expectations.
I had forgotten that God made rest for a reason.
In his book Sabbath, Wayne Muller explores the much-needed practice that modern Americans struggle to set time for. He writes that “Sabbath is more than the absence of work; it is not just a day off, when we catch up on television or errands. It is the presence of something that arises when we consecrate a period of time to listen to what is most deeply beautiful, nourishing, or true.”
Rest does not mean that I relinquish all my duties, give up work, and stay in my house and hide from the world. However, it does mean that I set the intention to find time to practice sabbath rest every single day.
Perhaps the greatest thing to know about rest is that God showed us how. He created the whole world, and then he rested, allowing himself the chance to renew his mind. He calls us all to do the same.
And let’s be clear that we are all living in a world that is in deeply entrenched political, social, economic, and spiritual crises. This includes the madman in office, the environmental catastrophes, and the breakdown of civility, all of which play a role in stressing out interactions with ourselves and each other. Let’s remember that in dealing with enormous cultural stressors like these, it is vital to practice rest as a bold weapon of resistance to the pernicious lies that certain skin colors, busyness, more money and possessions, and more prestige will buy you happiness.
The truth is that God loves diversity, which is why we have so many different kinds of people, animals, plants, terrains, and languages, to say the least. As Pastor Greg Boyle writes, the dance of rest allows us to “aspire to a glad and delighting union offered every moment, right here, right now”
Could it be that part of the promise of rest is that God actually wants us to take a step back and delight in creation, our joy, our friends, family, loved ones, the earth? Could resting actually provide us with a holy vehicle to remind us of our origins, our status as beloved children of God?
So the next time you decide to say “yes” to something when you really mean “no,” or keep performing beyond your capacity, please listen to the quiet voice inside that beckons you close and whispers “rest.” Remember that the God of the Universe wants you to enjoy being alive and thereby through resting you and me can savor life, to find the good in all our moments, even if the rest is simply breathing our very own breathe, the breath of the Almighty.
Sit in one place daily, with your legs out and your arms relaxed lightly by your side. This could be outside or laying down with your child or sitting in your favorite chair. Get into whatever context you need that will bring you a sense of peace and calm. Have the cell phone on mute (or better yet have it turned off). Make sure you are in a comfortable position, close your eyes, rest for fifteen to twenty minutes, doing nothing except focusing on your breathe. Farmers plant crops and let certain parts of their land lay fallow for a season because the ground needs to rest in order to produce nutritious, fortifying food. We are like plants too, requiring an ongoing balance of rest, time in the sun, exercise, and work and service and love to feel fulfilled. Let yourself rest like this every day and watch what happens when you do.
Boyle, Greg. (2010). Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. New York: Free Press.
Muller, Wayne. (1999). Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. New York: Bantam Books.