By: Catherine Larson|Published: July 13, 2009 4:00 PM
The Joy of Sabbath (Dappled Light)
I noticed it almost as soon as we were married. My husband and I would get the same amount of sleep, but while I would wake up refreshed, he would wake up groggy.
The mind that comes to rest is tended in ways it cannot intend/Is borne, preserved and comprehended by what it cannot comprehend. (Wendell Berry)
Extra rest didn’t seem to make much difference for him.On a hunch, I encouraged him to go in for a sleep study. Sure enough, he suffers from sleep apnea, a condition where pauses in breathing during sleep cause a startling reflex. If not for the startling reflex, a person could stop breathing altogether, like a friend of mine from seminary who died of sleep apnea in his mid-30s. But with the startling reflex, the body never really falls into the deep sleep one needs to truly rest.
A few weeks ago, my husband got a CPAP (or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) mask to sleep in. I jokingly asked if the doc would give him a cape to go with the mask, but no such luck.
But while superpowers may be lacking, super sleep has definitely become a more frequent and welcome guest. On the second night after he started sleeping with the mask, he reported actually having a dream, the first he could remember in years. (And yes, the dream did involve baseball; he was in hog heaven.) With the mask, he wakes up much more refreshed, alert, and rested than I’ve seen him in a while.
This whole process has caused me to become much more attuned to what good rest brings us, and what lack of rest causes. Deep sleep “allows the brain to go on a little vacation needed to restore the energy we expend during our waking hours,” says one source. While REM or dream sleep allows us to process emotions, retain memories and relieve stress. One new study shows that all those times we’ve been told to “sleep on it” when we have a problem may actually be just the right medicine. People with REM sleep actually performed higher on creative problem-solving tests than those who did not experience REM.
Obviously, in many ways our need for physical rest is analogous to our need for spiritual rest. Physical rest follows the regular pattern of our circadian clock. Spiritual rest as described in the Bible is also to follow a regular, predictable rhythm. “Six days shall you labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord,” we find in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8).
The word “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew word “shabat” meaning “to cease or desist.” Ceasing is in fact in the foundation of Sabbath itself, “And God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy, because on it he ceased from all the work of creating that he had done“ (Genesis 2:3, emphasis added). Just as our physical rest causes us to cease from our daily activities, so our spiritual rest should do the same.
The Israelites took Sabbath very seriously, as do orthodox Jews today. But while Pharisees later added a number of legalistic rules to Sabbath-keeping, the original intent of the law was never as a legalistic muzzle. Sabbath was a gift to God’s people. Perhaps we can understand it best if we think about a time when our work has been particularly intense, and when somehow in the midst of it we were granted a reprieve. How welcome that rest felt. So is the gift of Sabbath to us. As our Lord Jesus Christ, the “Lord of the Sabbath” explained, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 3:27).
Even so, God did offer more specifics on how to keep the Sabbath than any of the other Ten Commandments. He was clear that the gift of the Sabbath was intended for everyone—sons, daughters, manservants, maidservants, animals, even the foreigners among them. And it seems clear that it was to be observed for a full day. God also showed in the wilderness that He would provide for His people on this day of rest.
I have to admit that I’m not very good at keeping Sabbath. Sure, I worship regularly with others on Sunday mornings, my Sabbath day. But I find Sunday afternoons often giving way to household chores that weren’t accomplished in the midst of the frenetic week. Time spent with God, His creatures or His creation, gets pushed out amidst my never ending to-do list.
I’ve wondered lately if the stops and starts in the haphazard way I treat the Sabbath don’t give me an experience of rest similar to that which my husband experienced before being treated for his apnea. I experience shallow rest, but not the deep soul-refreshing rest the Lord intended. In fact, He intended that the rest I experience on the Sabbath day would restore my energy for the rest of the week. He intended that in those times I would be able to process emotions as I bring them to Him, retain memories of what He’s done for me that week, and relieve my stress as I turn to Him. And yes, he intended Sabbath for me to dream with Him, as I meditate on what love and goodness lived out can look like. Deep rest. Dream rest.
Instead my stops and starts mean that I never get really deep rest. As Calvin Miller says in The Table of Inwardness, intimacy with God cannot be rushed. We cannot enjoy the presence of God if we are always looking at our watches. Perhaps we cannot enjoy the rest God intended if we don’t take a full day for it, slowly relishing Him in the way He intended. Perhaps like our own sleep cycle, we need to give ourselves the full time for Sabbath, watching how each progressive stage of entering more deeply into rest, breaks loose deeper and deeper benefits.
I don’t think I’m alone in my shallow rest, or a shallow view of Sabbath keeping. Martha Dawn, in her book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, describes four aspects of Sabbath that I think many of us have missed: ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting. She expands on each in a way that amplifies my understanding. For instance, she explains that ceasing entails “ceasing not only from work itself, but also from the need to accomplish and be productive, from the worry and tension that accompany our modern criterion of efficiency, [and] from our efforts to be in control of our lives as if we were God....”
True Sabbath is a time of repentance and refreshment. We reorient our lives to the center around which the spokes of our lives are meant to revolve. As the book of Hebrews explains, in Sabbath we rest from our works, and we trust in the work of Christ. Through it, we look for a better day that is coming, a day of heavenly rest.
I think that as we keep Sabbath we may find ourselves surprised. As the poet Wendell Berry writes, “the mind that comes to rest is tended in ways it cannot intend.” We don’t know the half of what the Lord will do when we offer Him the half we’ve held back.
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