Are you fortunate enough to have a friend whom you have known for a very long time? If you are an adult, perhaps this friend is your most long-standing friend who has known since childhood or adolescence? If you are still a child, perhaps this friend has known you since nursery or since you started school?
As you grow older and life changes you may not see that friend as often as you’d like. You may only speak to them as seldom as once or twice a year, but when you do, a remarkable thing may happen. You may find yourself immediately starting off the conversation with your friend as if no time has passed at all since you were last with them.
These kinds of deep friendships are permeated by a presence to, and knowledge of the other that transcends distance and time. They mirror our relationship with the divine. They are friendships that are usually characterised by a high degree of acceptance. If we are suffering, this friend can usually name exactly what the issue is with startling accuracy, sometimes before we even recognise it ourselves. We may find we have a greater propensity to listen to that friend when they tell us the truth, however uncomfortable that truth may be.
On Thursday night, my most longstanding friend and I met on Zoom. We talked about some challenges I’m facing at the moment and I started to tell her what I was trying to do to solve them. Immediately, my friend noticed my error. "All you’ve talked about is stuff you are doing, even if you supposedly are trying to help others, all this "doing" is really only a distraction, in all that you are doing you are avoiding focusing on being – you are avoiding being yourself and you are not exploring what will lead you to be your most authentic self."
I can’t publish my response.
In exasperated frustration I conceded immediately that she was right.
In these "Corona-virus times", as my son has taken to describing our present situation, how we rest is of vital importance.
For many years I defined "rest" as collapsing at the end of day of frenzied, but by no means always productive, activity with a very large "glass" of wine – (which may actually have been bottle shaped). It took me years to accept that this technique of nightly drinking immediately before bedtime was causing me to fall asleep quicker but bringing me no rest whatsoever, in fact, it was destroying my ability to rest at all as the "sleep" I was getting was in no way restorative. Incidentally, the science of this is that alcohol reduces our REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep, disrupting important natural sleep cycles and causing us to wake up earlier… not to mention pee lots in the night.
But there are other, perhaps less obvious, things we can do to sabotage proper rest.
The biggest obstacles to the "rest for our souls" Christ offers us begin in our minds. Fear, resentment, anger, and a sense of loss, prevent proper rest. Anxious thoughts about others’ expectations of us, or, more frequently our expectations of ourselves, are barriers to rest.
Holy Scripture is filled with exhortations for believers to stand guard at the doors of our minds.
Philippians exhorts Christians to think about whatever is; true, honourable, just and pure, whatever is; pleasing and commendable. When was the last time we found ourselves focusing entirely on what we think is "wrong" with someone or moreover with ourselves? The letter to the Philippians suggests that "if there is any excellence and if there is ANYTHING worthy of praise, we should think about these things."
Colossians encourages Christians to transcend their present suffering by setting our minds on things that are above - notice the language there, "setting our minds" implies a conscious, proactive, decision to choose to think differently and to remember our true identity in Christ as those who will be revealed with Him in glory.
2 Corinthians reminds us when we are tempted to believe that our pain will never end that the present sufferings are temporary. They are but the blink of an eye in comparison to the eternal rest that awaits us in Christ our Lord.
In St Matthew’s gospel, our text for this Sunday, Jesus invites all who are weary to come to him for rest but each individual must first respond in their own heart to Jesus’ invitation. Jesus says to His disciples "if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?"
Every person has something in their heart that they believe will bring them rest and they cling onto it despite all the evidence to the contrary. For me, it was alcohol. I kept hoping it would deliver ease and comfort but it would only ever gave me the illusion of these things and only then for a short time. The analogy I like to use is that getting drunk as an alcoholic is like floating in a cloud for a while that conceals a bed of deadly poisoned arrows. The cloud fades and the arrows attack and whisper the old deception that they will retreat if you only drink again and get back in the cloud. The arrows merely lie in wait and attack again with greater fury. So the cycle continues until eventually, pierced beyond hope, you have no more strength to resist their attack.
This is the very definition of an idolatry and yeah it’s lethal. An idol is something we place before Christ that we believe will give us the rest that only Christ can give. Alcoholic drinking is a really obviously destructive example but there are many more subtle idols – and the sad news is that if we allow them to take the place of Christ in our lives they can be equally destructive.
I’d like to call you to examine your heart. Is there anything in your life that you falsely believe gives you rest? Is there anything you need to re-examine? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and believing it will have a different result! Habits are hard to break, but not impossible. Repentance begins by accepting that we need to make a change. Here’s three things I’ve learnt.
1) Making others feel bad will never make us feel better about ourselves.
2) Whatever we strive to achieve, relationships, status, stuff, will never be "enough" if we don’t believe we are enough already.
3) Distractions may numb us for a time but no entertainment, exercise or task will ever take away that our true joy is to be found only in knowledge of God and the abundance of His love for us.
Allow God to give you the rest He longs to give you today. Dare to ask Jesus to remove your burdens.
Find somewhere where you can be quiet and still for a few minutes. Shut your eyes, turn off your phone and let your body be still. Or at the very least, do this as you read the screen you are staring at now but give yourself a couple of minutes to do each step properly.
First reflect on three things for which you are grateful. They can be the smallest of things. Anything created can be a source of gratitude.
Now remember your identity as a child of God. As someone who is of such great worth to God that He would send His only son out of the eternal rest of Heaven to the unrest of this world. To suffer and die for you on the cross that sin, death and the devil might be vanquished once and for all time.
Allow Christ to take your burdens. You have been carrying them for too long. Lift them up to Him, confident in the knowledge that they are never too great for Him. Christ is already holding you in the palm of His hand.
In the knowledge that the lord is holding you now enter into His rest.
Pray that God might help you have the courage and the honesty to identify where you might have sought the rest that only He can give. Allow yourself to feel and to know that you are already forgiven and that he calls you now to turn away from the sin of idolatry and return to a place where your true joy can be found. God knows your human weakness and He loves you without limit or condition.
Finally, pray that as you move gently out of this time of stillness that God’s rest might continue with you no matter what task you are required to complete or what care you must give to another. God is calling you to offer every task, every work, every breath, every moment as a prayer and an opportunity to grow closer to Him. Believe and know that Christ loves you. He is alive. He is with you and offers you His eternal rest, in everything. Amen.