Horace Thomas was an old man when I met him, and he lived a long time after I met him. Once while we were talking, Horace shared with me some wisdom that his father had shared with him. He said something to the effect that an hour of sleep before midnight is better than two hours of sleep after midnight. I am not sure what prompted Horace to give me that advice. My guess is that he had heard one too many times from a neighbor or fellow church member about lights being on later than they should be at the parsonage, and he felt compelled to share his wisdom out of concern for his young pastor. He had to have heard it from someone else because Horace did not waste much electricity trying to light up the night. Unless his beloved Hokies were playing, he was in bed early most evenings.
When he shared his thoughts with me about the value of sleep before midnight, I remember thinking “what a novel idea,” and then not thinking much more about it. That is until this week. While listening to the radio, I heard someone on the radio quoting Amy Wolfson. She has said, “We devalue sleep as a society, and that’s been clear to sleep researchers for a long time.” Because we don’t value sleep, and because we do less of it than we should, a whole knew genre of soft drinks has appeared in our local convenient stores to help us compensate for our lack of sleep. Laced with caffeine, they are meant to give us the boost that a good night’s sleep would have provided if we had gotten it. There are also chewing gums that do the same thing; and the latest product is a gel sheet that dissolves in your mouth like a breath freshener. All so that we can stay awake a little bit longer and do a little bit more.
We really do live at a time in history when there is a lot to do. There are more ways to have fun and pass the time than ever. There also seems to be more work for people to do than ever. Why else did American workers leave 448 million vacation days unused in 2010?
Why are sleep, rest, and vacation so unpopular? While we may not live in a society that values sleep, we certainly live in one that values production. Little, if anything gets produced when we are sleeping, resting or on vacation. I suspect that has something to do, at least in part, with why they are in disfavor.
Secular society is not all to blame for the demise of rest. Sabbath, the religious word for rest, is not exactly a top priority in the world of faith. For generations, Christians observed the Sabbath on Sunday, the first day of the week, in order to commemorate the resurrection of our Lord. In 1925, and 1963, the Baptist Faith and Message had this to say about the Lord’s Day: “It commemorates the resurrection of Christ from the dead and should be employed in exercises of worship and spiritual devotion, both public and private, and by refraining from worldly amusements, and resting from secular employments, work of necessity and mercy only being excepted.” By 2000, that same statement had been changed to: “It commemorates the resurrection of Christ from the dead and should include exercises of worship and spiritual devotion, both public and private. Activities on the Lord’s Day should be commensurate with the Christian’s conscience under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Gone is the encouragement to refrain from activity. It is replaced by the broad admonition to do only those things that seem right. Such instruction misses the point all together. Doing right or wrong are not the issue, doing anything at all is the issue. At least it was at one time, a long time ago, when Horace was just a boy.
What do we miss when we refuse to rest? When we cut our sleep short and fill our days with activity after activity, what is it that goes wanting in our lives? Sleeping, resting or observing the Sabbath is in many ways doing nothing. Doing nothing is hard for us because we have been so programmed to produce results and to account for the use of our time. Jane Vennard says that “learning how to do nothing is learning how to be.” We know how to do many things, but we don’t always have a firm grasp of who we are in relation to God, to our neighbor or to ourselves. Times of rest and Sabbath give us the opportunity to think about “being” questions. Perhaps the reason there is not enough time for us to do all the things that we want to do, and so little lasting satisfaction in what we do find time to do, is because we spend so much of our time doing, and so little time just being.
We are children of God, people for whom Christ died. When the Bible says that God loved the world so much that God sent God’s only son, we are the world that he was sent to love and to save. We are many other things as well. We are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. We are employees and employers, students and teachers. We are retired and just starting out, been here all our lives and newly arrived. Some of who we are is because of what we do or our situation in life. Some of who we are is because of what God has done for us. What happens when we refuse to rest and limit our Sabbath keeping to an hour or two on Sunday morning, is that we start to think that who we are is determined by the predominate activity in our lives. We allow what we do to determine who we are rather than allowing the significance of who God has made us to determine what we do with the lives God has given us.
As we celebrate Pentecost, may the Spirit renew in us the desire not only to do the tasks that God has set before us as well as to be the people that Christ has died for us to be.