The Art of Rest

In addition to the conversation between the author and his wife on a Saturday morning – it sounds shockingly familiar, funny if not so embarrassingly true – these four paragraphs in the Intro chapter of The Art of Rest persuaded me to carry on with the book:

“I derive an unusual amount of joy from checking off my to-do lists.” – hey that’s me!

“… non-stop work is a virtue here. Busy is compulsory. Pausing is a missed opportunity. If you’re busy, you’re important.” – that rings many bells!

“When we come to Jesus, we come to the One who accomplished more than any of us ever will, and did so with more restfulness and peace than any of us ever experience. And we come to the One who says that what characterises a life with him is a lightening of the load and an enjoyment of rest.” – that’s true and I never saw Jesus and his work in this light before.

“Still others of you would love to rest – if only you knew what it was. You wearily wish life felt restful, yet when you stop you feel guilty or lazy, and you worry that you’re not doing the stopping right. You suspect that you’d love godly rest – if only you knew how to do it.” – sold.

Here are some thoughts that went through my mind when I read the book:

The Time-Temple

I learnt a long time ago that the Temple was the set-apart place where God dwelt in a special way among the Israelites. And Sabbath is the set-apart time. However the relationship between worship and rest on sabbath day has always been hazy. My image of a sabbath day is a normal Sunday service before COVID existed: get up reasonably early, cycle 30 minutes in all kinds of weather to church, participate in the service, spot newcomers to strike up an awkward conversation with, stand near the bookstall and give people change, round up internationals for lunch, lead a small group Bible study of one kind or another … ‘Oh it’s six o’clock already, might as well go to evening service’ … go to evening service, chat with people till our verger turns off the lights, cycle another 30 minutes in the dark, get home and cook, have dinner at 10pm and go to bed. It can be called ‘worship’ alright, but I cannot accept it be called ‘rest’. The book simplifies the goal of sabbath as God “give[s] his people time to be with him, specifically”.

The Ritual to Remember

“I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them. (Ezekiel 20.12)” Sabbath is a sign, we keep it so that we remember God sanctifies us. Take Passover as an example of an Israelite ‘ritual’. Every year the family kills and roasts the lamb and eats unleavened bread. The children would ask: why do we kill the best lamb? Why do we eat bread without yeast? What does it mean? The adults will answer, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians. (Exodus 12.27)” Later when they stopped observing the Passover ritual, they largely forgot about their history, the LORD’s rescue and the LORD himself. Then they started to follow foreign gods and sinned against the LORD.

In a similar way, the book argues if we lose the ritual of rest, we’ll lose the meaning and the blessing of it altogether.

There has been a lot of discussion about whether Sunday services and fellowship groups should go back to meeting in person though in smaller numbers and distanced. And one opinion is that ‘church’ is about people and not the building, therefore meeting online is the same as meeting in person, therefore no need to go back to meeting in person.

It’s true that ‘church’ is about people and not the building, but somehow meeting online does not feel the same as meeting in person. I haven’t worked out exactly why I feel this way. However, this book touches on an aspect of it in terms of the ‘ritual’ of Sunday services. It follows the same pattern of the ritual of rest: we’re in danger of losing it.

We don’t have to go to the effort of getting out of the house, travelling by car or on foot, walking through the threshold of a physical building, sitting with our eyes focused on the front of church with our full attention. The danger of losing the ‘ritual’ of collective worship, is we’ll forget the worship altogether. Without the accountability of fellow Christians, we stop singing along, we stop saying the creed and the Lord’s prayer, we scroll through Instagram with one eye and listen to the sermon with one ear, we answer the door for delivery men (yes they knock on the door even on Sundays), with one click we can end the service and get the Sunday service out of our living room. I don’t know all the arguments for coming back to having Sunday services in person in the physical building, but this surely is one of the real dangers.

Every Christian or Christian household could have a different ritual of rest, for example, the day of the week, the things they do and not do. But the book stresses the importance of the keeping of the ritual as a way of keeping our hearts in the right place. “In our refusal to rest, what we’re doing is far worse than merely not taking care of ourselves. We’re actually telling a different story than what we say we believe (p35).” “Anxiety is what unbelief feels like. Our feelings about rest betray whether we really trust Jesus with our time, our work, our weeks and our lives (p64).”

Jesus Says, ‘Rest A While’

Jesus was often seen alone and praying in the gospel stories. But I never noticed the little verse when Jesus said, “rest a while”. This was after Jesus sent the apostles out on their first mission trip. “The apostles gathered round Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, [Jesus] said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.'” (Mark 6.30-31).

It’s reassuring to know Jesus said those three words. Our God is not a slave driver! Quite the opposite, he’s the slave free-er. (At this point, I have Dobby’s huge tear-filled eyes and his shrill “Harry Potter set Dobby free!” in my head. If we know we’re enslaved as Dobby does, we’d be as grateful and thrilled as Dobby is.) If you carry on reading a few more lines you’d see that Jesus and the apostles didn’t get much of a rest after all. Jesus ended up teaching them many things, not out of duty, but because “he had compassion on them” (Mark 6.34).

I’d love to have Jesus sitting next to my dining-room-make-shift-desk saying, “have a rest”. Then I’ll not feel guilty or lazy to have a break even though the to-do list still stretches out.

I wonder what made John Owen say “The world is at present in a mighty hurry” in 1681. 1681! Changes of government and monarchy? Wars in Europe? The invention of cheddar cheese (1666), the minute hand for the clock (1670) or weight driven pendulum clock (1675)? What would he say if he saw us?


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