Readings: Psalm 16, I Kings 19:1-8, The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 98 (see below)
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So my friends, welcome to the first installment of our series on The Seven Types of Rest. I don’t know about you all, but I certainly have become exhausted by the last couple of years, and perhaps it has been the same for you. The pandemic is one part of it, but there are many other things going on in the world that might contribute, not to mention each of our personal lives. I’m seeing a deep weariness in myself and in others, even as we try to live our lives as normally as possible.
And I think that one interesting feature of this time is that perhaps we are getting an inkling that it is possible to be exhausted in different ways, not just physically. Certainly I’ve never had so many of my acquaintances complain about insomnia, but it is not only about sleep. We are becoming intimately acquainted with emotional and mental exhaustion too, as we live under high levels of uncertainty, in circumstances requiring high levels of resilience and flexibility. This is a lot to sustain over time, especially when we had use up our initial reserves, our surge capacity, well over a year ago.
And so when the idea came to me about doing a series on rest, it felt right, it felt needed, to me at least. So, this is my first caveat for this series: I’m learning alongside you. I’m no expert here, I’m struggling just as much as the next person with making the space for rest, or resting effectively in the ways that I really need.
Here is my second caveat: many of these ideas, especially the seven categories of rest which structure this series, they are not my own. I’m relying on work done by Saundra Dalton-Smith MD, and you can find this work her book Sacred Rest, which I invite you to explore if you want to know more.
And finally, we acknowledge that talking about rest, about the capacity to make space for it even when it is hard, or not our first inclination, this is a privilege. For some, the necessity financial survival or care-taking responsibility, or the existence of crisis, makes getting enough rest difficult if not impossible, and this lifts up to our eyes the systemic and cultural forces at play. So while this series will focus on the agency that each of us has in our own lives to cultivate rest, that focus does not intend to dismiss the ways in which our culture makes that very hard. But ultimately, hopefully, individuals who value and prioritize rest will work to change our very individualistic and busy-ness-obsessed culture over time.
So, the structure of our seven week series will explore these different types of rest: physical, mental, emotional, sensory, social, creative and spiritual. Today we will start out with physical rest. Obviously, we all know how important sleep is; we do it every night and it is impossible to avoid for long. Our bodies and brains require rest and they will take it when necessary.
However, sleep is just one aspect of physical rest. Dr. Dalton-Smith defines rest as an activity that purposefully revives the parts of our life that we regularly deplete(1), so it is not just about stillness, it is about renewal. Physical renewal sometimes needs to be active; when we have been sitting for a long time, for example, then walking or stretching constitutes physical rest from a persistent activity, and this can be just as integral to our physical well-being as stillness.
Dr. Dalton-Smith prompts us to ask ourselves and our bodies: what do we need? and to pay attention to the answer.(2) We can be angels to ourselves, as in our bible story for today. In that text, Elijah was physically exhausted by running for his life. He had been agitating against King Ahab and his idolatrous worship, and now Queen Jezebel had threatened to exact revenge. Elijah fled, and was now hiding out in the wilderness. At one point, he could physically travel no further and, despairing, he lay down and fell asleep. We can very easily imagine that he had forgotten to eat, from either anxiousness or lack of time or scarcity of food. The angel touched him on the shoulder and reminded him to eat, reminded him that his body needed to be renewed and strengthened for the journey ahead.
For, it is one thing to the take the time to perform the rest we need, hard enough as that is, but sometimes I think we might forget to even ask the question, to be that angel for ourselves and to ask, what do I need? I’ll be honest, I rarely forget to eat, but I sure do forget to stretch after working at my computer for a long time. I sure do forget to breathe full deep breaths when I have defaulted to shallow anxious breathing.
So, many times part of the problem is that we don’t even ask that question: what do I need? Why? Certainly we might be distracted by our multitude of responsibilities. But perhaps I wonder if there is a deeper reason?
Perhaps there is a spiritual question at the heart of it all that we may not even be aware we are asking, which is: am I allowed to need? Am I allowed to need rest and renewal? Am I allowed to have limits? For, we might say, if I am committed to a spiritual path that revolves around rooting out selfishness for the sake of others, am *I* allowed to need, personally? Is it *okay* to need? This might seem like a silly question on the face of it, but I would invite a pause to see: are we trying to answer this question with our head, when really the question is coming from our heart?
But before we try to answer that, let’s take a short interlude to consider a central doctrine of the Swedenborgian faith, the doctrine of use. One of the ways Swedenborg conceptualized the human being is that we have a mind and a heart, which we employ together to perform actions, hopefully actions that benefit others. Love and Wisdom working together to perform a Use, an effective and use-full action. This reflects the nature and being of God as well, as we are created in God’s image, and so this triad of love and wisdom working together to be useful is an important way to align ourselves with the divine design. So to Swedenborgians, the question of “how am I being of use?” is not only a practical one but a devotional one. Not just about the satisfaction of checking things off our to-do list, or even just doing something “nice” for someone, but rather, it is about the ways in which we can participate in the transformation of the world. To quote Desmond Tutu: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
The downside of such an emphasis though, is that it might focus us more fully on “doing” and less on “being.” We might start to mistake “use” as being about busy-ness, when it is really not about that at all. “Use” as a concept is more relational than that. It is more about inquiring what is needed in a given moment and context and then seeing how we can serve into what that moment and space requires. It is dynamic. And, it necessarily puts us in relationship with others and invites us to consider how we are inter-connected and all part of a whole. Because, if we are to perform useful, effective and loving actions, well, someone has to receive them. We can’t all be givers all the time. So, part of the formulation of the doctrine of usefulness has to include the part about sometimes being the receiver. When we all both give and receive, this is a much more dynamic and resilient design than if things were only one-sided.
Which brings us back around to our question: is it okay to need? Fundamentally? It has to be. We have been created as beings that can be useful, who can give, but in order to fulfill our design, we need to be able to give to each other. Need is an integral part of the way things are set up. It *is* okay to need. It is not shameful, it is necessary.
And if it is okay to need, to have needs, then it is also okay to fulfill them. Maybe this all sounds so simple, but I know that there are times that I forget this even this very simple principle. Now, sometimes only others will be able fulfill our needs. And sometimes the work of usefulness is to mindfully and reverently fulfill our own needs. Our Swedenborg reading today talks about the importance of being a neighbor to ourselves. Of course, it also talks about grounding that importance in care for others, and love to God, so that a focus on our own needs doesn’t become overridingly selfish. We spend plenty of time preaching about selflessness in church, and it is an important spiritual practice. But today, and in this series, we are working to create a balance that allows for becoming a sustainable giver. And part of this will involve paying attention to what our physical bodies are telling us. To listen to see if they are telling us that it is time to lie down, stretch, move, breathe, or dance.
We will be returning to these themes of need and usefulness throughout this series. For today, let us resolve to have compassion for our needs, especially our physical ones, to give them space and permission to exist. They won’t always be perfectly met, but at least the habit of gentle questioning, and the assumption that need is actually okay, might open up a little more awareness of how we can be angels to ourselves.
7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. (I Kings 19:7-8)
(1) Saundra Dalton-Smith, MD, Sacred Rest" Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity, p16
(2) Ibid, p42.
1 Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge. 2 I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” 3 I say of the holy people who are in the land, “They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.” 4 Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more. I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods or take up their names on my lips. 5 LORD, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. 6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. 7 I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. 8 I keep my eyes always on the LORD. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 9 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, 10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. 11 You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
I Kings 19:1-8
1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” 3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.
The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine #98
The following example may show how we are to be neighbors to ourselves. We all need to provide our bodies with their food and clothing. This needs to come first, but the object is to have a sound mind in a sound body. Further, we all need to provide food for our minds, meaning things that build our intelligence and wisdom, but the object is that our minds will be able to be of service to our fellow citizens, our community, our country, the church, and therefore the Lord. If we do this we are providing for our well-being to eternity. We can see from this that what should come first is the *purpose* for which we do something, because everything depends on that.
It is also like building a house. First we need to lay the foundation, but the purpose of the foundation is the house, and the purpose of the house is living in it. If we think being neighbor to ourselves is actually the most important thing, this is like regarding not the house or living in it but the foundation as our final goal. But in reality, from start to finish, living in the house is the true goal, and the house and its foundation are only means to this end.