This sermon is the first in our Advent series, “Rhythms of Rest.”
This past summer, I was sitting in my backyard when I felt the sun on my face. Not an uncommon occurrence when one is sitting outside, but I don’t normally feel the sun on my face when I sit in that part of the yard because a tree is usually shading me. So, I looked up and noticed that that tree had far fewer leaves than usual because of the drought, and the ones that were there looked wilted, like they were barely hanging on. The foliage was sparse enough that quite a bit more sunlight was coming through the canopy, thus — sun on my face. I immediately got up and watered the tree, and I did this a couple more times over the next few days, but it was no use. The tree needed not to be in a “dry and weary land where there is no water,” to quote our Psalmist. It needed a season of life-giving rains.
Sometimes, my soul feels like that tree. Parched, wilted, tired. I was really feeling that a couple of months ago. My 92-year-old father was dying. We were still in fire season, and I think many of us were a bit on edge, wondering if smoke would fill our skies again. The level of political polarization and, really, political insanity in our country was ongoing, despite the fact that Trump was no longer in office, fomenting chaos every day. And: the pandemic. Just when I thought we were going to return to something like normalcy, Delta hit. And then, even when we did return to in-person worship, I realized that it wasn’t going to be normal again. I wasn’t going to get back the church I had remembered from before the pandemic. We had changed as a community during that time, and we were going to need to rebuild, reinvent, refind out who we were and who we are called to be now.
And I realized: This isn’t likely to end. We are in a particular historical moment where there is no foreseeable end to the crises that we are collectively experiencing —- whether those be environmental, political, racial, economic. As Lydia Wylie-Kellermann said — whose editorial in Geez magazine sparked the idea for this series — “It begins to feel like a historical moment when we are not waiting for a crisis to end but instead (need to ) accept that crises are going to just keep coming one after another.” It’s no wonder that many of us might be feeling like my backyard tree.
So, what do we do when we are in that parched place? When we’re not sure if the life-giving rains are coming or when they will come or if they’ll be enough? Well, we could double down on self-care, right? I mean, we need to develop our inner resources; we need to build spiritual and physical and emotional resilience. Maybe we need to take up meditation. Maybe we need a worship series on spiritual practices, and we’ll commit to trying a new one. Maybe we need to exercise more, eat better, stream less. We need to be strong for what is coming, for what is already here.
Does any of this just make you feel more tired? Oren Sofer is a local spiritual teacher with whom I often resonate. Pat referred me to a blog post of his called “Radical Rest: Why Meditation Might Not Heal This Exhaustion.” In it, he talked about how meditation or exercise or any other self-care practice can become yet another way to subtly avoid feelings and to “paper over and push beyond our limits.” Because pushing beyond our limits is something we are very much encouraged to do. As Sofer writes, “Modern society has an unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship with energy. It’s almost as if the fossil fuel that propels our world has colonized our hearts and minds. The impulse to dominate and control nature, to extract resources, gets internalized and without realizing it one begins to relate to the body (and to ourselves) in the same way.” Instead of being in partnership with our bodies and our selves, we try to extract as much value from ourselves as possible. We need to be efficient, we need to be productive, we need to dig deep and find even deeper reserves of energy within ourselves so we can do what needs to be done. Yes, we need to deepwater drill ourselves!
And so we are encouraged to juice up on coffee, which is ubiquitous and almost fetish-ized in the Bay Area. We are encouraged to push through exhaustion, override our natural limits. We feel guilty when we’re not productive, when we “do nothing.” We tell ourselves that we can take a break when we get through our to-do list. With such messaging all around us, and internalized within us, mindfulness or other self-care practices can become, Sofer writes, “a superficial antidote to the deep malaise of a civilization whose core institutions and community bonds are disintegrating. Just slap some mindfulness onto that ragged, weary soul!”
And I think “good people” like ourselves — people who are trying to be awake and aware and do something about injustice and be of service — sometimes we fall prey to this temptation to push beyond our limits more than most. The famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, spoke decades ago about this. The quote I’m about to read was written in 1966; I can’t quite imagine what he’d say about us now:
“The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence… The frenzy of the activist neutralizes their work for peace. It destroys their inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of their own work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes life fruitful.” (from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)
So, what is the wisdom we need now? We have all been living for the past year for two or three with uncertainty and isolation, with anti-vaxers and insurrectionists, with racial injustice on repeat display, with climate change, with our own personal challenges. Maybe, the wisest thing right now is to do nothing.
What would it be like to allow yourself to stop and rest? To surrender, even for a little while, to the tiredness? To allow your bones to feel their heaviness? To allow your body and soul to drop to its natural resting place, like a rock thrown into a pond that drifts to the bottom? To not keeping trying to buoy yourself up? I know for some of us with a history of depression, this might feel scary, and you may need more discernment about this kind of surrender. But even for those of us without that history, I think this can be scary. Will we ever want to get up again? Will our energy ever return (Sofer)? What will come up in us if we stop?
Years ago, I told a spiritual teacher of mine that every winter — right about this time — I felt like I wanted to slow down. I wanted to not run around so much. I wanted to stay home and cover up with the heaviest blanket I could find. I wanted to let my body sleep as much as it wanted, which was a lot, sometimes. I told her: I wonder if I am depressed, if maybe the lack of light was igniting a case of SAD — season affective disorder. She said to me: “I don’t think you’re depressed. Everything in nature is slowing down right now. I think you just want to hibernate for a few weeks. Other animals are doing it. Why can’t you?”
I almost cried with relief when she told me this. Yes, I did want to hibernate. And ever since she told me that, I have tried to let myself hibernate this time of year. I have tried to let myself slow down, do less, sleep more, embrace darkness. I even find that I resist turning on as many indoor lights this time of year; I try to light candles instead. In this fallow time, my body and psyche repair themselves, without me having to “double down” on any kind of self-care or spiritual practice. I resonated with what Sofer wrote, when he said, that when he allow himself to surrender to rest, “a sustainable energy (seems to) rise from deep within, a renewable resource that comes not from the will but from the source of our vitality.” I believe this is what our Psalm is about. The Psalmist starts out admitting their lack, their thirst, their dryness. But very quickly, the Psalmist is saying, “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast” and “Your steadfast love is better than life.”
What would it be like to allow yourself to stop and rest? To allow your bones to feel their heaviness? What would it be like to embrace darkness?
I put this poem in our weekly email, but I’d like to read it again. Please receive it as a blessing for this season of Advent that we are entering together. Note: The poem begins with phrases from Scriptures that are usually read during Advent but that we are not going to be reading during this Advent season.
You have heard it said,
and “The light shines in the darkness.”
Not bad thoughts for Advent,
but this year we say
blow out the candle,
turn off the lights,
Sink into the dark as the nights grow longer.
Give thanks when the sun disappears beyond the horizon.
Sing to the motionless sky.
Trust that sleep is part of the preparation.
Question our culture’s light supremacy.
Spend some time in the shadows.
Close your eyes.
Feel the many hands reaching out to you.
Blessings of Advent, dear friends.
May darkness rest upon you.
(from Songs for the Shadows: A Season of Embrace the Dark, published by Geez magazine)