The thought of adding something to my calendar heightens my anxiety. Lately, I’ve actually been doing an okay job of saying “no” to additional things. But even then I’m still maxed out. Pastor, husband, father, volunteer, new puppy owner, physiotherapy appointments because of a 40-year-old body that sometimes gets angry at me for playing basketball: all of this, and more, meant that when I remembered it was almost Lent season, I admit I quickly came up with several reasons why I’d take a pass on trying to fit it in this year. The thought of adding or subtracting something — anything — from my life to partake in Lent felt like one more thing into which I must invest energy. I’m not proud of this. Nonetheless, 2020 was going to be a year I passed on Lent. Sure, I’d talk about it at church and suggest that it could be a good thing for others to participate in, but for my own health, I would forego Lent.
Then I got asked to consider writing for this Lenten New Leaf blog series. (Oh, the humour of God.) Immediately I knew that the idea of “for my own health I would forego Lent” was something with which I needed to wrestle. Perhaps for my own health Lent is something I absolutely need? That into my chaos I need to consider what it means to intentionally rest, but perhaps not in the way that the word “rest” typically connotes for us.
One of the ancient purposes of Lent taught by the church is that the season provides for us the opportunity to deny our own ego — to intentionally remember that the universe does not revolve around us, what we’re accomplishing, doing, or how important any of that makes us feel. I once heard it said that we often believe the world is a movie about us. That we have two cameras, two mics, and one very loud speaker. It’s easy to believe that all of the people around me are simply character actors in a movie about me. Lent can remind us that this is not the case, and in fact, the Christian faith points us to a much larger reality of God who indeed is the central character of this great story called life.
This is where “rest” fits in. And I so desperately need to be reminded of this.
I never much cared for the picture of God taking a well-deserved nap on day seven. If the culmination of the ancient poetry of Genesis 1 was for God to sleep, as a way for us to remember not to cut our grass on the Sabbath, then it all felt anti-climactic and not nearly significant enough for such a powerful story. Not to mention, what on earth happened on day eight? Was day eight a big let down? God wakes up and there’s nothing left for him to do except deal with these goofy humans?
G.K Beale, John Walton, Colin Toffelmire, and Paul Evans, all Old Testament scholars, were the first to help me see that my understanding of the word “rest” in the Genesis 1 story, and the entire Old Testament for that matter, wasn’t very accurate. It sure wasn’t very Hebrew. When I hear the word “rest” I think of taking a nap, getting away from it all, or at a minimum not doing anything. So it is that when we carry that interpretation of that word into the OT text, we conjure up an image of God doing just the same on day seven. After all, he must have been exhausted after that whole creation ordeal. Or we picture Joshua stretching out on a hammock after triumphantly winning in battle and achieving “rest” for the people. Or we even stretch the image to encompass the dream of the promised land — a land where God’s people would find “rest.” This is, after all, what God said: “But you will cross the Jordan and settle in the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, and he will give you rest from all your enemies around you so that you will live in safety” (Dt 12:10).
I have no doubt that it’s easier to take a nap when you’re not surrounded by enemies, but if this is our image of the word “rest” in the Old Testament, we’ve missed something very important. As Walton notes, rest “is more a matter of engagement without obstacles rather than disengagement without responsibilities.” Rest is the time and space when and where life happens. Rest is when we live out the routines of life, incorporating needed and healthy rhythms. After the chaos of creation, “rest” was established in the universe. God wasn’t tired and looking to lay down. Rather, he had fully “moved in” to the neighbourhood and established life, purpose, meaning, and order. When the Israelites moved into the promised land, they entered a time of rest. This wasn’t decades of lazy afternoons on the back porch while sipping drinks with little umbrellas. This was a normal life. Family. Work. Life and loss. Even some great partying from time to time. And in the midst of this routine of life were the ever-present rhythms of worship. Time at the temple. Celebrating and commemorating the festivals like Passover and Booths, all of which were tied to the cycles of seasons and agriculture — a reminder of the order of creation which God established. And within that routine — within those all-important rhythms — this reminder that it is God who cares for his people, God who sends the rains, God who acted first in grace and love, God who sustains life, God who is intimately alive and well within the depths of his creation, and God to whom we give our worship, adoration, loyalty, and love.
This season of Lent I need to be reminded of all that. Into this thing called life I need to remember what it means to rest, to live into the routines and rhythms of family, work, having fun, life, loss, and most importantly the practice of remembering it’s not about me; it’s about him. I do this in my own times of prayer, study, quiet reflection, when I join together with my church family, when I talk about life and faith with my friends and family, and when I pay attention to Spirit who is with me through all of these things.
For me, this year, Lent is about intentionally thinking through and within all of the things I do. This will include taking some naps, but more importantly, it will hopefully help me remember that none of this is about me. It’s about God. And he is with and in me, constantly drawing me to himself.
Whatever you do this Lenten season, may it help you die a little more to self, and live a little more in him.