The Centers for Disease Control know that insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic in the United States, contributing to car crashes, industrial disasters, medical and occupational errors, as well as chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, obesity, cancer, general increased mortality and reduced quality of life and productivity. Yikes. How many of you got enough sleep last night?
We’re born good at sleeping, many of us lose the skill as we age. Usually we get better at things the more we practice, but sleep is different. ...
Theologian Fredrick Buechner writes “Sleep is a surrender, a laying down of arms. Whatever plans you're making, whatever work you're up to your ears in, whatever pleasures you're enjoying, whatever sorrows or anxieties or problems you're in the midst of, you set them aside, find a place to stretch out somewhere, close your eyes, and wait for sleep.”
But surrender is the struggle. The older we get the more we unlearn surrender. Especially in a culture like US America, in which individualism, accomplishment, long to-do lists and ruthless striving are the keys to the kingdom, surrender and rest are demeaned as weak, needful, even lazy.
Our faith heritage gives us the gift of Sabbath. From the very beginning, according to the first origin story in Genesis. “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, resting from all the work God had done in creation.” Ever since we’ve been trying to cultivate Sabbath in our own week, from the strict clarity of no work, no cooking, no driving, no writing in Orthodox Jewish Sabbaths to the slower pace of life with a focus on prayer and socializing on Muslim Fridays, and our own ways of spending Sunday afternoons – spending no money, taking a nap, or dwelling at a leisurely meal with people we love. Though not anchored in the Genesis story, Buddhists, too, observe uposatha about once a week, to cleanse the mind and find inner rest and joy.
Sabbath’s first gift is rest – most of us are sleep deprived, emotionally drained, overstimulated and overstressed, so taking a day – or even part of a day – for rest is a relief.
Underneath the rest we find spiritual wisdom. By abstaining from work on a Sabbath, we are forced to relinquish control. Any of us who have achieved some measure of success by our culture’s standards have projects and plans and programs that we’re busy juggling. If we step away for a moment, the balls would crash down on and all around us, right?
But if we step back and disentangle from the daily grind, and I know some of you do this as a spiritual discipline already, if we choose to take a day of total Sabbath we have to step away from the juggling. Perhaps someone else gets a chance to spin the balls back toward the sky. Perhaps we find that some of these balls – the projects and plans and programs – can hover on their own for awhile. Amidst the discomfort of changing our style, it’s a gift to release control.
The next layer of alienating blessing is what the heck we do with all that Sabbath free time. Maybe you already dwell in Sabbath space once a week. Maybe your Sabbath is spent sleeping, vegging out, reading books, planting trees. What do you do when you choose not to do anything? Psychologists at the University of Virginia found in a recent study that most of their participants preferred receiving a painful electric shock to being alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. Seriously – faced with the choice, most participants chose a painful electric shock to avoid waiting in a room of their own for 15 minutes.
Who are you in the midst of Sabbath? Who are you without tasks of daily life, without emails to read and respond to, without chores?
That sounds like sleep – when else do we close all browser windows but when we close our eyes? When else do we turn off our plans but when we turn off the lights? When else can we tune in to the dreams in our minds but when we tune out of the worries in our heads? Buechner writes that in your sleep, “All the things that make you the particular person you are stop working — your thoughts and feelings, the changing expressions of your face, the constant moving around, the yammering will, the relentless or not so relentless purpose. But all the other things keep on working with a will and purpose of their own. You go on breathing in and out. Your heart goes on beating. If some faint thought stirs somewhere in the depths of you, it's converted into a dream so you can go on sleeping and not have to wake up to think it through before it's time.”
Our sleep each night can be practice for our death, rather than something to avoid or fear because it is so unknowable, we can practice our death each night when we sleep, and each morning when we wake, we can awake to the mystery of what lies beyond the night of death, the sleep of death, that morning that we couldn’t quite predict before we closed our eyes – what time would the clock read when we first glance its way, what will the sky look like out the window – will it still be dark? Will it be raining? Will the sun shine bright? Will children be playing outside? Will the dog whine for a walk? Will someone have the radio turned up loud? We’ll find out.
We’re lucky to have four seasons in Indiana because each one teaches us so much about life and death and new life. As winter looms around the corner, we’re practicing our death. God has worked into this world a nightly practice for death, and an annual long stretch of death practice in winter. Winter is Sabbath for Indiana farmers who come up with beautiful new quilt designs and write stunning poetry to pass the cold, idle days of winter.
It’s tempting to make Sabbath lofty and fancy. Who wouldn’t be able to enjoy Sabbath on a Carribean vacation? But what about simple Sabbath, in our homes, in our daily lives, even in the cold of winter. Can we find ourselves in the moment in the midst of the day-to-day?