Resting in the Grace of the World

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.

Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”

I was listening to the new episode of the Dark Horse podcast, hosted by Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, and they read this poem by Wendell Berry. I already knew Berry as an essayist, though I haven’t read him extensively. Berry is a farmer, writer, and a Christian. This was the first time I heard one of his poems. And while I am not often one who reads poetry, there are times when I appreciate it. This was one of those times.

Our world is an uncertain one. There are wars and rumours of war. There is pestilence. There is cultural division. There are political scandals and missteps. There are people in our own country angry with one another. There is relational dysfunction in our communities and homes. Some people are lonely. Some are bitter. Some struggle to give and receive love. There are reasons to be afraid and confused. There are reasons to be frustrated. We live in a time where it takes a special kind of paying attention to notice what Berry calls “the grace of the world.” Or perhaps that was always the case.

As a parent of three teenagers, I can’t begin to imagine what their future holds. The acceleration of change in our world has entirely eclipsed what I knew growing up. While I don’t normally wake in the night with worry about the world my kids will have to face, I certainly cannot hope to predict it either. So much lies outside of my control–and theirs.

So what do we do as go about life from day to day in this world, being aware as we are of the tumult of nations and our indefinite future? What does it mean that I can spend an evening making a meal, doing dishes, and being with my family, while across the globe the people of Ukraine grieve the loss of their freedom and families in the midst of violent invasion?

Berry’s poem reminds me in some ways of Psalm 23. In both, the poet lies down in “the presence of still water,” all while in the shadow of grief, of death and fear, and enemies. And that’s how it always is in this world. Joy is often mingled with grief. Seasons of peace are met with seasons of upset.

And in both the poet is led into a place of wild things. Berry takes solace in the presence of nature and God’s creatures and David the shepherd boy is led by the Lord–the Good Shepherd–beside quiet streams. In both, the poet removes himself, either literally or metaphorically, from civilization, the everyday (and sometimes anxiety-ridden) busyness of life. Both place themselves in a position of receptivity to a greater, larger voice and presence, one that comes to all of us if we are but willing to listen. Like Jesus says, I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me . . . The sheep follow him because they know his voice (John 10:4, 14). Jesus the Good Shepherd is the same shepherd we find in Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I have what I need.
He lets me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside quiet waters.
He renews my life;
he leads me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even when I go through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
as long as I live.

Psalm 23

I don’t have any answers for the big problems of the world. I don’t know what political solutions can peacefully resolve what’s happening in Ukraine. I don’t know what can heal the divisions in our country. And I don’t always know how to help the people around me who are obviously in pain. I do believe that ultimately only God himself can end all wars, relieve all fears, heal all wounds, and fulfill all hopes that have their origin in him. And I believe that one day he will bring a new kingdom, one where there is no conflict and anger, where death no longer exacts its debilitating toll of fear that bankrupts so many lives. Of course, I do not know when this will happen. I do not know the arrival date of the new heavens and new earth. All in God’s time according to God’s wisdom.

For now, then, I have the task and privilege of making the best of it in this sin-drenched world. I am grateful, therefore, that as a person of faith I see with different eyes–or that I continue learning to. I hear the laughter of my sons and daughter. I gaze at my wife’s smile whose beauty the years has only deepened. I listen to music that contains echoes of eternity. I read a book that invites me into deeper layers of reflection. I exchange words in conversation that open me up to someone else’s story, however incompletely. I glimpse the world God has made while shovelling some of it out of my driveway. I pray and worship and spend time with brothers and sisters in Christ at church and at other times, glad that we’re not alone as we traverse this sometimes difficult territory. Paying attention to all of these things–taking pleasure in them as gifts given by my Lord and Creator–is this not what Berry means by finding “rest in the grace of the world”? I believe that it is. And I also believe, as he does, that this is what it means to be free.

The Slow Waking Up of the World

While sitting in the living room rocking chair, I can watch the growing light on the horizon. Even now, there’s the barest hint of pink as the sun rises to welcome our part of the world into a new day.

I’ve woken up early enough the last few days to take time to enjoy the quiet of the early morning dark, the only illumination coming from our Christmas lights on the tree and around the room. I sit here and enjoy my morning devotions and look forward to the gradual increase of colour in the sky. I love it. I love the quiet. I love the stillness. I love the solitude. It’s an introvert’s dream.

Sunrise also happens on time each day. I can’t control it. I can’t rush it. Nor can I slow it down. It simply arrives. I can set my watch by it. And there’s something beautiful about how God made the world—patient, unrushed, inviting me to be likewise. Inviting me to enter the new day without anxiety and a scattered attention.

Because I can often find myself heading immediately into the direction of busyness, if not in body than in mind. The priorities of the coming day press against my longing to allow myself the gift of slowness.

So this morning, as I notice the trees in my yard silhouetted against the now light orange shade of the sky, all this reminds me that if the world is not in a rush—if creation itself has rhythm and timing—then neither is God. He is patient, never worried or anxious, never in danger of panic.

Because this is true, I can also be unhurried. Because I can trust that God—who is also patient—has the world and my life well in hand.

Enjoying the slow waking up of the world helps me learn to enter God’s rest. Knowing that his mercies—and indeed his grace, his love, his patience, his kindness, his compassion—are new every morning helps me to enter his rest. Every sunrise we experience is a sign that God is yet with us and has more in mind for us.

And I can’t think of a better way to enter a new day than being reminded of this.

Stopping for Sabbath Even When There’s More to Do

Last night I sat down with my family for Sabbath supper. I had been hoping to get certain things done before Sabbath began. But I didn’t. There were unfinished tasks all around me.

There are always unfinished tasks all around me.

But I still practice Sabbath.

I told someone recently that even if my Sunday sermon isn’t done before Sabbath starts, I don’t continue working on it until Sabbath is over.

I’m learning to trust that God honours this.

More, to ignore my need for Sabbath to get something else done—including a sermon—is an act of hubris, of pride, of anxious striving. To insist on finishing a sermon on, say, Saturday morning when I’m supposed to be resting is to insist that I need to make this happen or it won’t.

Obviously, I make every effort not to put myself in the position of needing to work on my sermon after Sabbath begins. Even so, in what or in whom do I trust? Am I letting anxiety or guilt be the driving force in my doing?

My anxiousness over unfinished tasks or chores is hardly limited to sermons. Usually it’s other things. And more important than the tasks themselves is my mindset when thinking about them or when engaging in them.

Sabbath means stopping and letting go. I don’t have to control everything. I can’t control much anyhow. But I live with the illusion of control, this persistent belief that without my effort things will fall apart.

This past week I went on a 4 day pastor’s retreat. Since I am the primary cook and have a more flexible work schedule than my wife who is a teacher, being away for that time meant my family had to get along without me.

And they did. Things didn’t fall apart. Not even close.

If this was the case this week, how much more so with God when I take Sabbath? Am I so indispensable to the world and to what God is doing that I can’t take 24 hours to rest and recalibrate? How arrogant would it make me to live that way?

When we live in such a manner that we never slow down, never allow ourselves quiet, solitude, rest, and Sabbath, we’re endangering our souls. We’re dehumanizing ourselves and those around us. We become human doings instead of human beings. How we see and treat ourselves becomes how we see and treat others.

Because there’s always more to do. Always. Even when we ignore our need for Sabbath. Ignoring Sabbath doesn’t make us more productive. And even if it does, who cares? By whose priorities are we living? Whose agenda are we serving?

Practicing Sabbath is in part learning to be more of myself in the presence of God and others—especially my family. Whatever tasks have to remain briefly unfinished to attend to this reality are, on the whole, less significant. And by practicing Sabbath I learn to experience all of life—including it’s everyday tasks—as participating in the very life of God himself. To me, that’s worth stopping for 24 hours, even if other things have to wait.

Bedtime Bible Verses

Sometimes it’s when we crawl into bed that our worries and fears rise to the surface. In the quiet of the night, our minds wander into those places the busyness of daytime normally distracts us from. Whatever such thoughts are for each of us, it’s good to have the reminder that God keeps us through the night and that because of this we can rest and have peace. Scripture reminds us of this, so here are two verses that do precisely that. I’m going to read them as I prepare to doze off. I invite you to do the same.

I will both lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, LORD, make me live in safety. — Psalm 4:8

You will keep the mind that is dependent on you in perfect peace, for it is trusting in you. — Isaiah 26:3

Sabbath (and the Need for Rest in a Weary and Wearying World)

Each week from Friday evening to Saturday evening my family observes a Sabbath. I try my best to have everything ready for church before Friday afternoon (though I’m not always successful). This means my sermon and anything else for Sunday morning worship. That frees me to take the next day to sleep in, read, listen to a podcast or two, play games with my family, go for a walk with my wife, watch a little bit of TV, and, hopefully, enjoy some of the special dessert left over from Friday evening.

Our Sabbath begins with a sit down meal that includes special prayers, Scripture readings, the lighting of candles, the singing of the Shema (based on Deuteronomy 6:4), reciting The Apostles’ Creed, the sharing of the bread and cup (an at home family version of Communion), and, of course, food. Usually, it’s the only night of the week we have dessert. It’s also one of the only evenings when there are no other obligations other than being together as a family. We rarely make plans on Friday evenings that involve us leaving home, especially if it’s somehow work related. My wife and I guard this sacred time jealously.

Speaking for myself, I have come to the place where I need Sabbath. It’s a time to exhale. It’s a time simply to be rather than do. It’s an admittance that life is not within my control. It’s an act of trust in God’s sovereign care. It’s both relinquishment and recuperation. On the rare occasions when it’s interrupted, my soul notices. Indeed, it lends a profound rhythm to my week. When a week is especially draining or difficult, I know that Friday is coming. Respite is on its way. Knowing that Friday evening is not like every other evening is a gift, one that I have learned to savour.

Now, if I’m honest, I’d also have to admit that our Sabbath often doesn’t feel long enough. There are weeks when Saturday evening arrives and I’m just beginning to find myself again. I’ve only begun to rest. Selfishly, I want more time.

You don’t have to be running or driving around doing a million things to feel weary these days. Much of our world is wearying. I don’t mean physically wearying. No, I mean emotionally, mentally, and spiritually wearying. I mean the kind of weariness that can penetrate our hearts and lead to discouragement and depression.

Over the last couple of years most of us, even if we haven’t been directly touched by the COVID virus, have been profoundly impacted by everything COVID. Fear, anger, exhaustion, anxiety, grief—all are symptomatic of our current culture. Our world is weary, dispirited, frustrated, and fed up. Often we’re fed up with other people because they see matters differently. Public discourse is often lacking civility. Those with opposing views never seem to have respectful dialogue.

Never mind the fact that many people live overextended, busy, distracted lives. We increasingly lack the capacity for reflection and self-awareness. Slowing down and being quiet isn’t an option, or at least not one we appear willing to consider. We should be asking ourselves: what kind of lives do we want? What actually helps me live into the world, to be genuinely present where I am? How can we gain honest perspective on our priorities and assess our values?

I think we need spiritual anchors, practices that orient us. We need to structure our lives as much as we’re able around what matters most to us. We need to build into our weekly routines activities and rituals that help us contextualize our everyday experiences within a larger framework of meaning. I’m not saying this is easy to do. It might very well mean saying no and disappointing other people who have expectations of us. But I am saying that it’s essential. I’m saying it’s one of the ways our souls can remain tethered to the reality of God and his purposes for us and the world. Otherwise, we’ll be tossed to and fro by the urgency of the immediate and find ourselves adopting the priorities of our surrounding culture.

Sabbath is part of what does that for me and my family. It’s a small but life-giving act of rebellion against a consumerist, media-driven culture. Even if I stop, life continues. Things don’t come apart at the seams. God remains in control. In the meantime, I’m freed from the life-sapping illusion that I have to get everything done and that it’s all up to me. Nothing is more wearying than feeling like you just can’t let go. Nothing is more life-giving than letting go knowing that God has everything well in hand. In a world that is weary and wearying, that’s the truth that allows me to experience the rest I badly need.

Sleep Apnea and the God Who Doesn’t Slumber

I have something called sleep apnea. So each night when I go to bed, I have to use something called a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device. I’ve used such a machine for years. But a few years back, when the device I had was not working properly, I really noticed the difference. During the day I was almost always groggy. I would fall asleep while reading or working at the computer. And forget driving, because there was a good chance I would be far too drowsy to drive safely. No one could rely on me to be alert.

Thankfully, God is not like this. In Psalm 121:3, it says that the Protector of Israel does not slumber or sleep. So God does not get tired. Instead, he is always present, always alert, and always available to help us. He doesn’t nod off halfway through our prayers.

Even with my CPAP machine, I can still get tired. At the end of a busy day, I can feel drained of emotional and physical energy. This is even true of a normal day. Take yesterday. At bedtime I felt really worn out. I wondered aloud to my wife about why I would feel this way when it hadn’t been an especially crazy day. Her response? “Well, you have been awake all day.” We don’t have to have been pushing ourselves all day to be tired at bedtime. Being awake all day, apparently, is enough to reach that point.

You and I have limits. We can’t be or do anything we want in the time we have. Each of us has only so much energy, physical, emotional, relational, etc. Some of us more, some of us less. We all know what it’s like when we’ve expended our available energy. For my part, I am likely to get more irritable and impatient. My mind and body usually let me know when it’s time to get some rest, even though I am not always wise enough to listen.

It’s instructive to ponder the fact that in the Jewish tradition days are measured from evening to evening, not morning to morning. Which means that just as the day begins, people are getting ready to settle down for the night and get some rest. On the Sabbath, faithful Jews acknowledge their limits by taking an entire 24 hour period to rest, and to recognize that the world does not revolve around them. When they stop, the world keeps going. Sabbath is an act of faith that God has things well in hand. Because God does not slumber or sleep.

For me, having sleep apnea is a reminder of my limits. Such limits are not bad. Rather, they point me to the One who is without limit. Because of my need to get a decent night’s sleep, I am reminded of the importance of trusting God with my life and all of my worries and problems. While I am sleeping, there’s nothing I can do about whatever difficult or challenging circumstances are a part of my life. Since God doesn’t slumber or grow weary, I am invited to make the psalmist’s words my own when he says in Psalm 4:8: In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.

COVID Fatigue and Giving Yourself Grace

In our province, we are in Phase 2 of a COVID re-opening plan. We can return to our church building this coming Sunday.

And I am very glad that we can do so.

But I am still a little tired. Sometimes more than a little.

And it’s not really a physical tiredness. It’s emotional and spiritual.

I don’t even know how to quite describe it. But I think it’s the accumulation of the last year and a half’s worth of news, COVID shutdowns and restrictions, loud voices on the far left and right decrying their political and cultural opponents, and all the pivots we’ve had to make.

Some of this weariness is my own fault. I have probably watched and listened to too much news and opinions regarding all of the cultural issues that have arisen in light of COVID. I perhaps didn’t take advantage of the upside of this last shutdown like I might have. After all, last year I read a bunch of books.

All I can say is that I don’t feel especially energized or excited about getting back to so-called normal. Who knows, maybe once it actually happens–to whatever degree it does–I will feel differently.

Maybe it’s also because we don’t really know if we’ll have to go into lockdown again or if there will be an upsurge of COVID cases in our province. It’s not really something anyone can reliably predict.

During this last shutdown my wife told me something maybe someone else out there needs to hear: give yourself grace.

Don’t be so unforgiving of yourself. You’re not perfect. No one expects you to handle these circumstances perfectly. And even if someone does expect that of you, you still won’t. You can’t. So phooey for them.

In other words, don’t be so hard on yourself. Give yourself a break. Take a time out. You don’t have to bear the weight of the world or solve every problem or understand every issue. You’re not the centre of the universe.

You see, we have to remember none of us has ever really been through anything like this before. This last year and a half (or so) was not something most of us would have anticipated. None of us were prepared for spending weeks restricted to our homes, unable to go about our normal lives as we knew them.

I mean, COVID also hit us during the US presidential campaign. So, yeah, that happened.

There were also protests, riots, looting, burning cities, the tearing down of statues of historical figures.

Not to mention how politicized COVID itself became, with people debating how to balance public health concerns with personal freedoms, whether or not masks were effective and necessary, and health and government officials at least appearing to give sometimes inconsistent and confusing messages about the guidelines and their efficacy.

And we all had a front row seat.

Add to this being unable to see family and friends, not being able to gather in our churches, having vacation plans curtailed, not being able to go out together as a family, having our kids doing school online from home, and is it any wonder our whole culture needs a vacation, a genuine rest, an opportunity simply to exhale, breath deep, and take a moment to reflect on who we are and what we need?

Yet some of us have had the expectation of ourselves that we should still somehow be able to do what we’ve always done as well as we’ve usually done it.

So if you’re in a place where things around you are beginning to re-open after having gone through a COVID lockdown, but you’re not as excited as you think you’re supposed to be: give yourself grace.

If you’re tired of all the news, and feel like you’re supposed to have a stronger position on some of the COVID related issues but you don’t: give yourself grace.

If you’re frustrated with neighbours, family, or friends because you don’t see eye to eye on masks, vaccinations, and what’s been been going on and they like to argue about it: give yourself grace.

Give yourself grace. (Yes, I’m talking to myself.)

And while you’re at it, give others a little grace too. After all, we’ve all been through this together.

Moreover, for those of us who are followers of Jesus, grace ought to be our calling card. As John 1:16 says, from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

And if God can extend his grace to us, surely we can learn to do the same.

Rest for Our Souls

Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28–30

For the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said: “You will be delivered by returning and resting; your strength will lie in quiet confidence. But you are not willing.”

Isaiah 30:15

The minimum bar to be enfolded into the embrace of Jesus is simply: open yourself up to him. It is all he needs. Indeed, it is the only thing he works with. Verse 28 of our passage in Matthew 11 tells us explicitly who qualifies for fellowship with Jesus: “all who labor and are heavy laden.” You don’t need to unburden or collect yourself and then come to Jesus. Your very burden is what qualifies you to come. No payment is required; he says, “I will give you rest.” His rest is gift, not transaction. Whether you are actively working hard to crowbar your life into smoothness (“labor”) or passively finding yourself weighed down by something outside your control (“heavy laden”), Jesus Christ’s desire that you find rest, that you come in out of the storm, outstrips even your own.

Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (2020)

My wife gave me a gift this week. You see, she is a teacher who, because of the current COVID lockdown in our province, has to prepare online lessons. She goes to her school to do this. And so our twin sons and daughter have all been doing school online from home. Most weeks she takes the boys with her on a couple of days.

But one day this week, when normally both boys would go with her, one of them wasn’t feeling well. So he stayed home.

So on another day this week, she took our sons with her one morning so I could have time to myself and get some of my work done. I needed it.

And you know what? For a part of that time I sat in our living room rocking chair, did the Daily Office, prayed, read my Bible, and just sat in God’s presence. Quiet. Still. Restful.

What is rest?

If I have a very busy day or week, perhaps busier than usual, chances are I’ll need physical rest. After a hard day’s work, most of us look forward to crawling into bed. A good night’s sleep is a cure for many things.

But we need more than physical rest.

I can also find myself emotionally drained. Maybe I’ve had to deal with a difficult relationship. We all know what it’s like to have a conversation that leaves us feeling wiped. Afterwards, all we want is to rest.

And Jesus invites us to rest. More specifically, he invites us to find rest for our souls in him. And our souls are the heart of who we are. You and I are embodied souls.

While I’m sure it means much more, sometimes receiving rest for our souls means being able to rest from ourselves: our cares, worries, burdens, fears, anxieties, hopes, expectations, disappointments, and failures.

What burdens are you carrying?

What cares are you shouldering?

What’s weighing you down? What’s weighing on you?

Jesus invites you to come to him. To let him unburden you, take the weight off your shoulders, to give you rest for your soul.

But it’s an invitation. Jesus never forces or coerces.

To the church at Laodicea, (Revelation 3:20) believers who had become lukewarm in their relationship to Jesus, he says, See! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

But according to the prophet Isaiah, the Israelites—God’s very own covenant people—refused this rest. Refused him.

We do too.

So often we think life, wholeness, contentment, and peace are up to us. That it’s our effort, our strength, our capabilities that will save us.

You see, Jesus gives us rest by giving us himself. His invitation is a gospel invitation. To come in and dine with us—to share table fellowship—is a sign of intimacy and relationship.

In other words, it’s Jesus’ presence that gives us rest. Him. The rest he offers is not separate from him. He is that rest.

This current COVID lockdown seems especially tiring for some reason. Perhaps it’s the cumulative effect. It’s been a long year for many of us.

Yet the rest Jesus offers—indeed, is—is available no matter what else is going on. Circumstances can’t dictate what Jesus can do—who he is, what he offers, what he provides. He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

Jesus is knocking on my door. He’s also knocking on yours. Rest is possible. We only have to open the door and let the author of rest in.

A Prayer for Quiet Confidence

Each morning I face the temptation to rush headlong into activity of one kind or another. Each morning it takes effort to still my thoughts rather than let them run rampant. Each morning I could easily fall prey to anxiety or expectations, instead of taking some much needed time to draw aside into God’s presence. And sometimes on days when I fail to make space for that “still, small voice,” my thoughts become scattered, my heart unfocused, my attention easily distracted. I can end up more easily irritated and impatient.

Today could have been one of those days. Not that taking time for quiet, prayer, and Scripture will inevitably guarantee not only a better day but a better me, but not taking that time certainly tilts the odds in the other direction.

The Book of Common Prayer (2019) has a section of occasional prayers. Below is one I read this morning. It includes allusions to two separate biblical passages. One is Isaiah 30:15:

For the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said: “You will be delivered by returning and resting; your strength will lie in quiet confidence. But you are not willing.”

The other is Psalm 46:10: Be still and know that I am God.

It seems like a fitting prayer to share in case any of you are anything like me. Here it is:

“O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we will be saved, in quietness and in confidence will be our strength: By the might of Your Spirit lift us, we pray, to Your presence, where we may be still and know that You are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

So, remember, whatever else this day holds, God is our strength, refuge, and salvation. Take a moment or two to be still and rest in him.