The Promise of Rest

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, July 1, 2018

“O hear my song, thou God of all the nations; a song of peace, for their land and for mine” (This is My Song, words by Lloyd Stone). Who among us doesn’t need more peace these days? Among the nations, of course, but also in our own lives. Who among us doesn’t need more hope, more understanding, more reconciliation? 

How do we get these things? How do we find that hidden place of wholeness? In my experience, the way to find more peace and more hope and more love, is not by running after them, as if you could find them and catch them, but by slowing down, and waiting for them to come and visit. To invite peace to light on your shoulder the way a bird or butterfly might, if you could be still enough.

Just over a week ago the summer solstice arrived. That moment when our end of the earth, which has been tilting more toward the sun, stopped. Ancient people who watched the movement of the sun across the sky saw its arc stop getting higher in the sky; then it seemed to stand still before it started moving lower again. They called this the solstice, which in Latin means “sun standing still.”

Here at the start of summer, can we take a lesson from this? That maybe we could benefit from standing still for a change? “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-29).

I have a practice, first thing in the morning, of sitting in silence. It helps keep me grounded, and I’m grateful for the peace it brings. When my children were younger, it was much harder to find this kind of quiet time! On Friday I sat for longer than usual, about an hour. I resisted the urge to get on with things, and just rested in that place of not-doing. Trying to quiet my mind, trying to be open, so that the peace which does lie underneath our lives and all our busyness, might rest on me a while. 

I did this because I needed to. Like some of you, I’m feeling jangled these days, overwhelmed by the news, the trouble, the overstimulation of it all. It seems we haven’t yet learned how to live with the technology and the speed of 21st century life. We are at risk of become captive to these tools which are supposed to make our lives better, but sometimes seem to be making things worse. 

I worry about how social media is changing us. That it’s becoming a substitute for real life and in-person connections. There’s a difference between signing an online petition, and writing a letter or making a phone call or showing up at a rally. When someone dies, there’s a real difference between offering your condolences on Facebook and writing a real note or showing up with flowers or food. I worry that these virtual connections are making us more disconnected from what really matters. Which is why I love being here on Sunday, where we light real candles, and hear each other’s spoken joys and sorrows, and join in singing and prayer and silence together. 

In a few weeks I’ll be officiating the wedding of my niece in California. This lovely young couple, who are no strangers to social media, have asked me, at the start of the ceremony, to tell everyone there to put away their phones and just be present to that precious and fleeting moment, when those two will join their lives together. To experience it with their eyes and ears and hearts, rather than through their phones. I think of these words Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary:

“If one does not lie back and sum up and say
to the moment, this very moment,
stay you are so fair,
what is to be one’s gain, dying?
No: stay, this moment!
No one ever says that enough.”

There seems to be an inherent restlessness within us; that urges us to keep moving on to the next thing, rather than being present to what is, right here, right now. I have this in myself, and I’m trying to resist that urge. In these warmer summer days, it’s a good time to slow down for a change, to say “Stay, this moment.”

But this can be easier said than done. Many of us are more in the habit of moving than sitting still. We tend to go, go, go, until we are exhausted. Is it a sign of poverty of spirit that we keep running, running, all the time? Do we fear that the meaning in our lives is only in the doing, that our value is only in what we produce and accomplish, and that if we stop, then what is there? 

But when we have the courage to rest, and for some of us, it will take some courage to rest and do nothing for a change, then we start to see what at least some people have always known: that under the surface, there is a silent and invisible life. That we are made to be in touch with this Mystery, to rest assured that beneath the work and the struggle of this life, there is more going on, and we miss it if we only live on the busy surface of things.

What is needed, these days, is a balance between activity and rest, between speaking and silence. When you’re full all the time, there’s no room for the Spirit to come in. Some of you know that I love to get away and go fishing all by myself. One of my favorite writers about fly-fishing is Tom McGuane, and there’s a passage I love, in which he talks about the importance of this balance between work and play. He thinks those who do nothing but play, like those who have chucked it all to be full time fishermen, can become self-absorbed and boring. He writes,

“Good anglers should lead useful lives, and useful lives are marked by struggle, and difficulty, and even pain… Therefore bow your back and fish when you can. When you get to the water you will be renewed.”

You know something about bending your back, and about work and struggle. But what do you know about rest? What if you gave yourself the gift of some rest? Some time to bask in the blessings of the present moment? Some time to be renewed and restored. That’s what the Sabbath used to be—when stores would close and life would slow down, and people would gather for worship and then enjoy a meal together, maybe take a walk or a nap, or read or play a quiet game. There’s wisdom and grace in slowing down, in entering Sabbath time.

What if you turned off your computer, and social media, and email, for one day a week? Might that provide an opportunity to find the rest that you need? Might it actually help you to be more productive, and more enthusiastic, in the active parts of your life?

Especially if you are feeling worn down in these days, if you are feeling raw or discouraged, then I hope you’ll see this as an indicator that you need to take some rest. Can you trust that the promise of rest is always there? And even if you can’t take it right away, the promise, the invitation, remains. 

Wendell Berry is a farmer, and an activist. He knows about hard work and struggle. And he knows that there are times when you have to stop, and smell the roses and consider the lilies. Hear his words as a reminder of that world around us, that seems to know more about rest than we do;  our beautiful world that is always there waiting for us, inviting us to receive its blessing:

When despair for the world grows in me
 and I wake in the night at the least sound
 in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
 I go and lie down where the wood drake
 rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
 I come into the peace of wild things
 who do not tax their lives with forethought
 of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
 And I feel above me the day-blind stars
 waiting with their light. For a time
 I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

That is my prayer for you in these summer days: that you will find the time to rest in the grace of the world, and be free.


* The title is borrowed from the novel by Reynolds Price, The Promise of Rest.