Readings: Psalm 131, Matthew 6:24-35, True Christianity 364:3 (see below)
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Welcome to the second installment of our sermon series The Seven Types of Rest. I’ve drawn these seven types from the work of Saundra Dalton-Smith M.D. in her book Sacred Rest, and I invite you to check that out if you have any interest. Today, we will be talking about Mental Rest.
Friends, I really struggle with this one. One of my regular caveats to this whole series is that I’m not coming to you as someone who has mastered any of these types of rest. But I find getting enough Mental Rest to be particularly difficult.
We all, always, have a mental track running in our minds to various degrees at various levels. Prioritizing our to-do lists, thinking about what to make for dinner, what we have coming up on the calendar, things we have done we wish we hadn’t, things we haven’t done that we wish we had, and how we might accomplish other things we want in the future. Not to mention all the other random thoughts that pass through our mental stream.
Our minds are grand machines, and good at what they do, which is essentially optimizing prediction. Our minds are tasked with taking care of us, and taking care of the people and things we care about. A lot of the time, they do a really good job. But, the prediction business is always a bit of a gamble, and the temptation to run this scenario or that scenario just one more time is pretty strong. On the face of it, what harm could that do? It’s good to be prepared. It is an act of care to be prepared. But, I find that my mind sometimes gets stuck in a preparation loop, always looking to accomplish a little more, optimize a little further, control things a little better.
And what is the feeling that goes along with all that strategizing? Anxiety, right? Even if it just a low purr underneath a mostly functional life, a lack of mental rest can often accumulate and then manifest in the experience of anxiety, or discontentment, or overwhelm. There is a natural limit to what one mind can do, and this is okay. And our minds, like our muscles, need rest and renewal.
And so this mental renewal can look like a lot of things. It can look like meditation or contemplative prayer. Listening to music works for a lot of people, because it quiets the mental track in favor of a musical one. Exercise works for some, or a handicraft. There are lots of options and it really is very individual. Our minds are limited just like the rest of our bodies, even if they don’t like to think so, they do need time off.
This is, of course, what Jesus was talking about in the (pretty famous) passage from Matthew that we read today. Consider the lilies of the field, says the King James version, how they grow, they toil not, neither do they spin. This passage is part of the sermon on the mount, a wide-ranging speech from Jesus covering many topics.
Now, I’ll be honest, I feel really judged by these teachings. Don’t worry, says Jesus. Be like the birds and the flowers, says Jesus. Ok sure, I just won’t worry. Easy-peasy. Well, of course, that is easier said than done. But I think that when we dig a little deeper, we do find a more nuanced teaching than my easily offended ego first sees.
Obviously, Jesus in employing a metaphor, as he often does, to try to communicate something of the essence of what he is describing. When we think of a flower of the field, what is it that we think about? Perhaps rootedness, groundedness, but also a kind of natural flexibility, like flowing in the wind. We might think of soaking up the sun and the rain, being in the moment and accepting what the moment brings, growing in the season we are given to grow in.
This is a pretty big contrast to one of the passages right before when Jesus was talking about fasting in a hypocritical and performative way. Often times, his followers would point to other spiritual practices and ask what about that, do we need to do that? Jesus would often say no because he understood the question was about checking off a box…doing this to get that, fast or sacrifice or say the right words to get salvation or praise or righteousness. Certainly, fasting can be an effective spiritual practice in the right context (which Jesus describes), but not if it is used in a grasping, ambitious way. That is simply an empty practice.
Jesus is speaking right into the predictive tendency of our minds, reminding us that when it comes to spiritual life, to put away the to-do list, because it doesn’t work like that. To focus instead on learning to be be grounded, grateful, and open, and the rest will follow. This is not to mean are to vilify the busyness of our mind, or eschew the day-to-day business of our lives; it’s not all or nothing. As Jesus said, God knows you need those details, and our minds are designed to handle them, but rather, we are invited to see them for what they are: the lovely and precious *externals* of our lives. Any external, to be living rather than an empty shell, must have an internal, and Jesus is saying fill *that* up with all the being-like-a-flower energy. That is the kind of energy that can sustainably power the external details of our lives. Because, it is entirely feasible to check all the external boxes and still be empty on the inside, and this is what Jesus is cautioning us against.
Which brings us to the deeper spiritual question that animates this exploration of mental rest, for me at least: what do I need to *do* to be worthy?
Our minds are doing machines, tasked with translating plans and desires into reality. Our minds’ natural language and currency is control. So, of course our minds ask this question, even if just as background programming. Tell me what to do to be worthy and safe and successful and I will do it. I’ll put it on the to-do list.
But of course there is nothing we need to *do* to be worthy of God’s love. No box we need to check, no words we need to say. We were created out of love, and loved we will remain. This is very difficult for our minds to assimilate. Our minds, tasked with strategizing our safety and survival, find it hard to believe that a moment in which we are not “thinking” is just as full of God as a moment in which we are.
And this sometimes feels like an obstacle to taking mental rest. From our mind’s point of view, we are wasting time. But that’s why Jesus used the flower of the field metaphor, to bring us out and away from the way our mind usually understands usefulness and to inhabit a totally different headspace.
When I am finding it difficult to make space for mental rest, especially in meditation, when a common practice is to just notice our thoughts but not run away with them, I tell myself that the moments in which my mind is quiet are just as full and meaningful as the moments in which I am actively thinking, planning and doing. This notion is inspired by our Swedenborg reading:
In a word, all things are full of God. We each take our own portion from that fullness.
(True Christianity 364:3)
Moments of mental rest seem to the natural mind like emptiness. And our minds see emptiness as unproductive and so how that can it be good? So I remind myself, moments of quiet, of mental rest, have a usefulness that is beyond what our doing minds can see. They anchor us in our essential worthiness, and uncouple that essential worthiness from our abilities and our accomplishments. The mind sees emptiness but the spiritual reality is very different.
Now, of course, to name the other side of the equation, this is not to say that the spiritual path is only passive, is only a letting go. The spiritual path is also very active, with lots of active questions to answer like: What do I need to do be in alignment with God’s purposes? What can I do to become a form of love? How can I help people and leave the world better than I came into it? There are lots of different things we can *do* that will help us transform and grow into the angels that God intends us to be, active things that our minds will be a great help with.
But those are transformational questions and today we are dealing with more existential questions. Today, we settle into the truth, that while we are invited into partnership with God in the spiritual journey, we are not earning our worthiness or our belovedness. Our minds believe that they are tasked with achieving what we need and they take that task very seriously. But God has already given the gift of our belovedness, we don’t need to achieve that. And so we are invited to plant ourselves like a flower of the field in the vast soil of our worthiness and to stay grounded in that, and to give our minds permission sway in the breeze from time to time.
1 A Song of Ascents. Of David. O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. 2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother's breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. 3 O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and for evermore.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
True Christianity 364:3
 The Lord is omnipresent; and everywhere he is present, he is present with his entire essence. It is impossible for him to take out some of his essence and give part of it to one person and another part to another. He gives it all. He also gives us the ability to adopt as much as we wish of it, whether a little or a lot. The Lord says that he has a home with those who do his commandments, and that the faithful are in him and he is in them. In a word, all things are full of God. We each take our own portion from that fullness.