February 9, 2021
Rest can be hard work
The calls to work for justice and to make room for rest are significant and difficult to balance, writes a pastor and denominational executive from Michigan.
Near the end of every December, as I consider new trajectories and intentions for the coming year, the idea of reclaiming rest is always on my list. Each year, I boldly declare that I will experience deeper rest, find better rhythms of rest, not wait to rest until I’m bent with exhaustion.
I will play more! I will unplug! I will read for fun!
Truthfully, I don’t know whether I want to pay the price for rest. Not real rest -- the kind where you actually lose yourself in the stillness of mind, body and spirit.
Each layer of who I am challenges regular rhythms of rest: full-time minister, mom and wife, woman of color, student, mentor. Those bump against each other in a cacophony of competing demands. On my best days, they fall in line. On my worst, I am behind. I can’t afford long stretches of catching up, especially in seasons like this one.
Rest becomes expensive. It feels irresponsible and wrong.
During the holidays, I watched as social media accounts that I follow -- those of brave leaders holding high the banner of biblical justice -- hinted at rest. The posts were curious. Laptops put away. Mugs of tea, glasses of wine, fireplaces. Yet no pictures of them actually resting. No pictures of them curled up, reading. Accounts where I am used to seeing faces and arms raised behind the dais became just tableware.
It is very possible that this is truly what rest looks like. But I suspect that people simply do not want to see us rest. As people of color, championing our causes, we are not afforded the liberty of public rest.
People depend on the public expression of who we are -- sharing our tweets, our images, our hashtags -- to help further their own public spaces. Our defiant act of rest gives them nothing to move the cause forward. Pictures of rest are incongruent and feel counterproductive.
I can hear you yelling, “This isn’t healthy!” But there are realities you need to consider.
Rest can feel like a waste of resources. As a person who grew up in poverty and now dedicates my work to ministry, I know this well: rest feels like a waste of money.
For those of us in fields that are constantly hunting for money, doubly so. We mentally convert personal plane tickets and restaurant meals into salaries for our teams and essential food for the underserved. It is a constant internal exchange rate -- every dollar or minute we spend on ourselves is a self-centered currency. It could and should go to the cause.
Opportunities -- like the loan of a vacation house where we can decompress -- don’t come up for us often. When they do, we find ways to host a board meeting there, a staff retreat, a volunteer gathering. We are constantly aware that the people around us are giving, too, so we most likely will not use such a gift for personal rest. For ourselves, we will find a cheap space. We will pack our own food and drive our own cars.
We don’t have generational spaces to fall back on. When I first began full-time ministry, I was amazed by the number of people who simply disappeared in the summer.
In the neighborhood where I grew up, parents had to continue working during the summer. Neighborhood summer programs and camps were a necessity while kids were out of school. No one was going anywhere. There was consistent noise and clamor until the streetlights came on.
For the current world I find myself in, that is not the case. Family cabins and lake houses are passed down for generations.
This is not a disparagement. But amid the challenges of lockdown that so many of us experienced this past summer, I was surprised by how many around me packed up and headed to the generational oasis. It was hard to hear their bitter complaints of being confined as they rounded up swimsuits and sunscreen.
Rest produces guilt. Every minute I spend away, every minute I spend with my guard down, is an invitation to return to more work and more worry.
My absence risks the people I serve, the core of who I am. What if something happens to them while I am gone?
Rest often requires money. The money I spend to fill my tank is often the money that’s truly needed somewhere else.
Once, on a work trip, I got myself ready early and sat outside the inexpensive hotel. Back home was cold, so the California sun was a warm invitation to sit and relax.
I snapped a selfie, captioning it that I was soaking up the sun waiting for my ride. When I returned home, our head of donor relations went in hard, reminding me that contributors did not pay for me to sit in the sun and that my message could jeopardize the funding for the organization. They were not paying me to relax.
We, as people of color, remind ourselves often that we cannot always carry the ball for the systems we are in. We sometimes must let the ball drop. I courageously say those things, affirm those things and repeat those things.
However, when I return to the daily reality of my work, I see places where the ball was dropped, and the inbox is twice as full the next day with more meetings, more pain, more work. Gripping the ball, at least for a little longer, keeps our souls safer.
The media and the Scriptures remind us to rest. I feel my shame creeping in as I realize that my body, mind and soul say they need rest. I am not a martyr by any means. I am, however, a pragmatist. The times feel hopeful and hard, and there’s work to be done.
This year, my personal hope is for something new. With all the baggage and blowback that may come, I plan to choose extravagant rest.
It will be the slow art of baking in the middle of my work-from-home days. It will be bold pictures of me soaking in the sun, playing cards and reading books. It will be weekend retreats that are not filled with uninterrupted work and prayerful discernment but with goofy pictures, my mouth wide with laughter, my heart wildly unburdened and unbothered.
This year, rest will be resistance so that the strongest me can be restored to take on the demands of the work.