“Be gentle with yourself,” she said.
She was a graying, single woman who’d spent the majority of her life hacking her way through jungle-overgrown roads to get to various middle-of-nowheres. You couldn’t tell, though, from her step that still sprung and voice that still captured a room.
But what kind of advice was this from someone whose gumption and type-A-ness had propelled her into more countries and jobs than we could even dream of? We wanted to hear how to change the world, make the biggest impact possible with our lives, and – possibly – inspire world peace and harmony through our tireless work. Instead, she told us to remember to take a Sabbath, sleep in late as often as possible, and to create in-between spaces for the express purpose of sitting empty for a while.
Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard about prayer came from a book (now since long forgotten) teaching centering prayer. It acknowledged that as you sat silent, trying to focus your attention on Christ, your mind would indeed begin to wander.
When you realize your mind is wandering, the book said, the first response is generally to begin berating ourselves. Instead, the author wrote, simply sigh and gently bring your mind back to the centering phrase or Scripture and begin to pray it again and re-focus your attention. Why waste another five minutes distracted from prayer by scolding yourself?
My work week generally ends on Saturday afternoon with the making of next week’s to-do list. It’s never short and often contains one or two things that were supposed to get done this week, not next. And then I close my planner – list inside, go make dinner and plop down for a movie, thus beginning the week’s Sabbath.
The list, however, is never far from my mind. All Sunday afternoon, as I read through my latest for-fun book or hang out with friends, I keep thinking about the list. Maybe if I just answered those four emails it would help me get a jump on the week. I do enjoy writing, so is it really work if I just write three blog posts for next week?
And yet I’ve decided that a true Sabbath – a chance to rest – does not include any of those things, so I try to ignore their call to “productivity”.
As I do, I think I’m learning one of the reasons God chose to give us a Sabbath. Why He told the Israelites they weren’t allowed to gather manna, or work in their fields, or even get their servants to do work for them on the Sabbath. Because every week it reminded them that the work did not depend on them. The world did not stop on its axis, the crops in the field didn’t wither. And every week I am reminded that the work I do does not first and foremost depend on my effort but on the presence of a God my hard work does not control.
With a list of work pending a mile long and people calling, wondering when that work they’re waiting on from me would get emailed – I took a week to sleep in, to be unplanned, to do whatever whenever I felt like it. After three months of moving around, saying goodbyes, planning big events, and riding the wave of adrenaline that comes with doing things last minute I needed some time to lay empty. I was gentle with myself. I sighed and brought my scattered, sorrowed attention back to where it’s supposed to be.
And the world didn’t stop spinning. Some work actually got done (surprisingly enough!) and I found in the emptiness opportunities to seize that I wouldn’t have noticed running around in all the glory of productivity.
Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat – for he grants sleep to those he loves. Psalm 127:1-2