by Kari BaumannActs 1:1-11; Matthew 11:28-30
This week has been a roller coaster of emotions. Last Sunday, you all voted to make it official for me to be on staff full-time as the Pastor to Children and Families, and Mike, Atticus, and I are so grateful and pleased that this has worked out and that I get to continue to do the work here that I have loved and been enjoying so much.
And then on Tuesday, the news in Uvalde, which, as a teacher and a parent to an elementary school student (for four more days and then he will somehow be in middle school), is among our deepest fears and something that keeps us up at night. All of the posts you might have seen online this week about teachers scanning rooms and making mental safety plans for themselves and their students are true, at least in my experience. The grief and exhaustion I feel about that and about our collective inability to fix this and what we are asking of kids, parents, teachers, other school staff and, really, anyone with a heart, is overwhelming, especially coming directly after a white supremacist attack on Black elders in Buffalo and a shooting in Orange County, CA at a Taiwanese church. We talked last week about abiding in God’s love and finding rest there and I have been thinking about that all week, wondering what it looks like to access that in the midst of my own sorrow, anger, and fear.
This week, I had dinner with a group of friends, and I casually mentioned that this past Thursday (40 days after Easter) is when Jesus left. I’m fun to hang out with! I didn’t mean to make it sound so bleak! Next week is Pentecost, when we celebrate our relationship with the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s presence in the world. We will also hear from our talented youth for Youth Sunday, and I have no doubt we will see the Spirit at work in them and hear her in their excellent words. That means that this is Ascension Sunday, when Jesus disappears up into a cloud, leaving a group of disciples staring at the sky, a very funny image when you think about it. Two guys in robes show up, and are like, “What are you looking at?” Imagine being a disciple and trying to explain that one. Oh, we just saw Jesus lifted into the sky. In a cloud. Sure, sure. Everybody doing okay?
Since Good Friday, Jesus has been pretty busy. First, as Michael pointed out, he was out there harrowing hell on Holy Saturday, then the resurrection, and then things like walking the road to Emmaus, cooking fish tacos for his friends, forgiving Peter (forgiveness can take a lot of energy) and even zipping through walls and appearing places he wasn’t expected to be.
In today’s text, Jesus ascends to heaven, and perhaps this is more about the end of the school year and the news of the week than anything else, but I can’t help but wonder if he might take this opportunity to take a nap when he arrives. He certainly deserves one.
In America, we have from the beginning celebrated individual hard work, individual success, and the idea that rest is for later. We praise grind culture, the hustle, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Instead of congratulating people for making it through the past few years, we ask how they spent their 2020 stay-at-home quarantine time, whether they learned any new skills. I don’t know about you, but I did not learn any new skills. I personally spent a lot of time sitting in a caftan under a weighted blanket trying not to be too anxious. We did not have a color-coordinated schedule that Atticus followed every day. He played a lot of video games. I don’t think I’m alone in this, but there is a lot of implied shame in not working harder during that time.
I follow an instagram account called The Nap Ministry, which is run by someone called The Nap Bishop (I know, why didn’t I think of becoming a Nap Bishop??) named Tricia Hersey who has a book coming out this fall called Rest is Resistance, which is a title I absolutely love and sounds like a book I cannot wait to read. Her counter-cultural revolution is that she is calling people to rest. In her own words, “This is about more than naps. It is not about fluffy pillows, expensive sheets, silk sleep masks or any other external, frivolous, consumerist gimmick. It is about a deep unraveling from white supremacy and capitalism. These two systems are violent and evil. History tells us this and our present living shows this. Rest pushes back and disrupts a system that views human bodies as a tool for production and labor.”
I like how she contrasts soul care, which is about insisting on her personhood and worth with self-care, which is nice but more superficial. I, too, like to “treat yo self” as they do on my favorite TV show Parks and Recreation. I take a stupid walk for my stupid mental health pretty much every day. I also often say something I learned from a podcast called “Another Round,” which is that it’s essential when you are feeling overwhelmed to do three things: drink some water, take your medications, and call your person. All of those are important ways to take care of yourself. They can also turn into something on a to-do list, or be insufficient to address the exhaustion that James talked about last week that so many of us continue to feel.
But what if we thought about rest as something deeper, something more like soul care? What if we talked this way about rest more often? How would it change our relationship to God, to each other, and to our own bodies? In scripture, rest is often paired with salvation: “I will refresh tired bodies,” it says in Jeremiah. Doesn’t that sound like the perfect invitation? “Find rest for your souls,” Jesus says in the book of Matthew. Psalm 46 tells us to be still. Similarly, In Psalm 23, we aren’t told to go produce more, we are told to lie down in green pastures. In her book This Here Flesh, author Cole Arthur Riley says, “What does it mean that in response to the terrors of the world, God would have us lie down? To eat? To drink from still waters?”
Many of us don’t stop long enough to think about what that might mean. But we should not simply think of rest as our reward when we die. It sounds in the scripture like resting in God is a gift and a freedom that is available to us now. In the version of the Ascension that is in Luke, Jesus isn’t giving the disciples a long to-do list as he’s ascending into the clouds. “Hey, make sure the oven is off, did we remember to find someone to feed the cat while I’m gone, can someone pass on a message to my mom?” He’s leaving, and the only message that he has for them is to bless them. And it says that they are filled with joy as they worship together. How did we take that joy and turn it into an idea that we have to work so hard to please God?
I have a friend who recently had a baby, and she was lamenting on Facebook that her prayer life had fallen off because of her post-partum depression and the general fatigue of having a newborn. What if, I asked her, rest was prayer for a new mama? What if rest was like prayer for any of us, taking time to be beloved by God, to love and care for our own bodies?
What if rest was trust, both that in the quiet, when the things we are most afraid to think about could come rushing in, that we might be able to deal with them, and that they might even lose their hold on us? What if rest was surrender, like bedtime prayers that allow us to hand our worries, grief, and concerns over to God so we can be restored?
What if rest was holy space to be, not even to ask questions, but to let those questions bubble up? To learn something new, not to develop new skills but to step into new ideas?
What if, and this is me preaching to myself, what if rest was allowing yourself to hope that things can change? That things do not have to remain the way that they always have and that unhealthy patterns can be unlearned so that new life can be found. Just as rest can be counter-cultural, so can hope be counter-cultural. True hope is not naive but takes seriously the pain and suffering and injustice we see around us and believes in the possibility of movement and change.
What if rest was a crucial part of the good news of the gospel, that, even in the midst of working three jobs to pay the bills and worrying about housing and healthcare and gun violence and providing for your family you were able to be secure both in your belovedness and that you and the world were created for something better, something different.
What if rest, as the Nap Bishop says, reclaims our bodies as belonging to ourselves, and, I would add, as created and loved by God, instead of as tools for production?
In the book Beloved by Toni Morrison, in what is probably the most famous scene, Baby Suggs, holy, leads those gathered in a clearing through a cathartic experience of laughing and crying and dancing, and then afterwards gives a sermon. In my favorite part, it says, “She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure. She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.” I think that imagining grace is another way to talk about hope, the restorative process of allowing ourselves to hope. And then Baby Suggs calls them to love their flesh, their bodies, and to love others with their bodies, and to nourish and treat tenderly their bodies, and to treasure their hearts as a gift. She knows, and they know, that their bodies have been used up by those who would enslave them, and that refusing to submit to that is a powerful act of resistance. She embodies for them love and belovedness. She asks them to rest in the grace and hope of their own holy imaginations.
Over our sanctuary door that faces UNCG, there is a sign that says, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” which is something Jesus says in Matthew 11. When Jesus tells us that he wants to give us rest, that the work of God is easy and the burden is light, he is saying the same thing as Baby Suggs in Beloved. He is saying that the world will use you up but that God has a different kind of work for us, one centered in relationship and not in production. Jesus is calling us to the kind of life we don’t have to recover from. Whether we call it Sabbath or not, what if we saw our rest as counter-formation, a way to reorient ourselves, not to the demands of America or of the economy but to the world that Jesus tells us is the one that he came to proclaim to us.
In her book Can’t Even, which is about burnout, Anne Helen Peterson says “Caring for others, worshiping, singing, and talking, and hanging out with your own mind – all of it can be blissfully, radically unproductive. It matters because it nourishes you and others.” Committing to yourself and to cherishing yourself is more than self-care, it is “a declaration of your own value: not because you labor, not because you consume, not because you produce, but simply because you are.”
Now, I imagine you have a perfectly reasonable question, which is how someone who has been working full time in a school, attending full-time classes at Wake Forest, and working part-time here at the church and who currently has over 30 tabs open in Google Chrome would have the absolute audacity to speak about rest. And to that I say, do as I say, not as I do.
But let me offer another perspective, too, and that is that when Mike and I walked through the doors of this church building in February of 2003, we were tired of performing a type of faith that did not nourish us, and we were tired of performing gender roles that didn’t fit, and we were tired of feeling emotionally manipulated on Sundays, and we were tired of a church that didn’t speak to the real problems we saw in the world, and we were tired of being told that we had to conform to a certain ideal in order to be loved by God. We walked in under that sign that literally offers rest, and we have found a kind of rest here, where our gifts as they are are celebrated, and we can participate fully as we are, and we are encouraged to use those gifts in ways that were good news to us rather than an obligation, and we are able to participate in meaningful work that aligns with our values. And that extends all the way to last week where you all welcomed me to be a full-time pastor on staff here.
What we have learned from that experience is that honoring your full self as you are, bringing your full self to your relationships, and, yes, bringing your full self to your church is a form of rest. Being authentically yourself rather than performing is a pathway to freedom.
Jesus offers that rest, that freedom, to the left out, overlooked, forgotten, mistreated, and marginalized people in every place and time. He offers us the opportunity to leave performance-based religion based on worldly ideas of success and rest with him instead. This invitation is for those of us who are exhausted by the injustice we see and experience, those who are tired of being robbed and hurt and killed in the name of profit. It is for those who are tired of war that makes a select few very rich. It is for those who reject a gospel that promises worldly prosperity. It is for those of us who have been shut out of churches because of who we are, who we love, or what our questions are. This rest is peace and wholeness and it is embodied here on earth, not simply up in the clouds.
So did Jesus need a nap when he ascended? Maybe he did take one, he did seem to like naps, but after thinking about it more I feel more certain that, if he did so, it is because that is the kind of life he cultivated, and the kind of life he offers us. From Jesus we have learned how to live in a way that resists and disrupts the messages of the world, that makes it possible for us to do the work of bringing about the justice that we long for in our exhaustion, and declares, in hope, in belonging, in holy space that opens up to our questions, we are worthy of rest. That is good news that I, for one, know that I need to hear.