Originally delivered to Evergreen Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on 7/11/2021 as part of their online worship service.
Good morning siblings in faith! Thank you for inviting me back to Evergreen Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. I wish I could be with you in person, and I imagine (and pray) that this will be possible soon. As we enter into the middle of July, I can’t help but feel a sense of grief that summertime, a beautiful and all too short gift in the Northwest, is half way over. So from May until now, I hope you’ve taken some time for yourselves to enjoy the sun and water, mountains and forests.
I do have a confession. Unfortunately, I have not taken the time. And for all the right reasons. My chaplain work at the Veterans Administration and Harborview Medical Center come with long hours. I try to give my six-year-old child, spouse, and mother as much time and love as I can. Completing my ministerial formation with its graduate degree, study for committees and ordination needed attention. Then there’s board certification. And looking for employment after my fellowship ends. During a pandemic that has limited options for school and childcare, travel and recreation. If I had a superpower, it would be the ability to create more hours in a day.
For some of you; or perhaps many, this sounds familiar. Not excuses really; more like reasons. Life is full; and in many ways full of blessings. Still, I wonder if there is another way? Perhaps I will rest when I finish all the things. That is what our culture promises, right? That if I work hard and do all the right things, I will reap the rewards of retirement and leisure.
The problem with this, however, is that it isn’t true. Over my almost five years in hospital ministry has taught me something about human behavior and life. First, a universal truth: we are not promised a single day of life. Second, the regrets of the dying: “I wish I had more time.” “I should have taken time to be with my children.” “I could have spent more time with my spouse.” “I wish I had gone on that trip while I had the chance.” “I should have done more for myself.” The lesson is if I do not rest now, the only rest I may have will come after I am dead.
At that point, at least in my theology, its not going to be worth it. Our faith is rooted in the here and now; and I want to rest, in the here and now. Rest is a natural part of life on our planet. The cyclical changes of seasons, with the dormant winter giving birth to an apex of activity in the summer. Most of the animals in the world need periods of rest and sleep. Even in the Hebrew scriptures, God takes a break after creating the universe. And even Jesus of Nazareth needed to take a break once in a while. In the Gospel of Luke, after the miracle of the loaves and fish (which is actually more about economies of abundance than it is about miracles), Jesus took off on a boat to get some alone time.
The human need to rest and rejuvenate is not just a privilege; it is a right of all living creatures. And yet, I find myself feeling guilt and shame when I have an idle moment. Which is neither healthy nor spiritually enlightened. And flowing from, and perhaps rooted in, this rejection of rest is another common phrase I hear from my patients: “What good am I if I can’t do anything?” Which usually comes after a diagnosis of cancer, or COPD, or an amputation of a leg or arm. Whatever the illness, it comes with a drastic decrease in the ability of the patient to work. To be productive. To do “the thing.” In so many of my conversations, I have been able to see myself saying the same thing. “What good am I if I cannot do?” As if, instead of a human being, I am a human “doing.” It doesn’t help that our culture places “doing” as an exemplar of righteousness.
I believe our addiction to doing is a systemically learned behavioral trait stemming from our Puritan and Pilgrim roots and through the lies of capitalism which says: “Laziness is evil.” “God helps those who help themselves.” And “Wealth equals moral goodness.” All of which are unspoken truths of our culture. None of which appear in any of the religious and spiritual scriptures I’ve studied; which place human flourishing and wellbeing as a goal of work, not as an afterthought. Therefore, I propose our Unitarian Universalist principles can help guide us in spiritual revolution against the tyranny of doing over being.
Our first principle, where we covenant to “uphold the dignity and worth of every person”, extends to ourselves as well. And I have found that my addiction to “doing” denies my own dignity and worth. Because it puts my physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing at risk. Numerous medical studies have shown that increased cortisol levels from stress and lack of sleep impairs my body’s immune system and makes me more prone to illness; whether it’s a flu virus, heart disease, or strokes. Cognitively, lack of rest comes with reduced memory, decision-making, reasoning and problem-solving. There is a decrease in sex drive and the ability for sensual intimacy with partners. Weight gain. Diabetes. I am even more accident prone, making me up to three times more likely to be involved in a car crash. Rejecting rest is risky.
There is another part of our first principle in play. My ability to extend dignity and worth to others. Many patients have confessed being “difficult” to their nurses, doctors and caregivers. One person in particular, a patient with chronic pain and terminal cancer, told me: “I feel bad for being such an asshole. Its like I’m not myself. And yet the nurses, you, keep coming back and caring for me. I don’t get it?” I reflected on his words, and replied, “You know, when I’m in pain and sick, I’m not always my best self either.” He replied, “You know, I’ve never thought about that. My pain does make it hard. I’m so focused on myself I forget to think about others.”
My addiction to “doing” comes at the cost of my relationships. As I burn out, I have a reduced capacity to consider the worth and dignity of others. Which makes rest a necessary spiritual practice of our faith. As I learn to uphold my own worth and dignity, I become better able to extend this to others. My partner. My child. My co-worker. My racist uncle with the MAGA hat. The principles of our faith do not discriminate. If all are truly welcome at the table of life and love; I must be committed to being a steward able to do the hard work of community. Which requires me to show up in abundance; with joy; creativity; love! Rest is revolutionary!
Our second principle focuses on justice, equity and compassion in human relations. In which rest is needed to fight against the exploitation and abuse of human beings and of the Earth. It is no secret that poverty has increased in the United States as the gap between rich and poor expands; with a living wage far from achievable for many families, especially for people of color. To live in Seattle, according to research by University of Washington in 2020, a single adult with an infant needs to earn $34 an hour to make ends meet. Which is twice the minimum wage. This is reflected across the country, with many people working two or three jobs just to live, never mind flourish. We have made rest a luxury only available to the rich! This is anathema to our beliefs; being neither just, equitable, or compassionate.
When I subject myself to these conditions, and normalize them, I buy into the myth that “doing” equals love; relationship; goodness. A myth cultivated through generations in my own family. My grandparents on my father’s side immigrated up from Mexico. They were told that they only way to succeed would be to work hard and become “American.” And they did; even though my father’s family lived in poverty for decades, with the children going off to work at early ages to help support the family. My father learned to equate “love” for family with “work.” And so I inherited this narrative.
Growing up I believed that what proved my “goodness” was in what I could “do.” As if I could ever do enough to earn love from my family, friends, partner and child? What I learned later, through therapy and discernment, was that my ability to be available and vulnerable with my loved ones are the real avenues to love. Which begins with finding what balance in my life looks like; through the lens of justice, equity and compassion. Is it just to spend more time at work than with my partner? It is compassionate to my child to leave the house before he wakes up and come home after he goes to bed? No, I do not believe it is.
I believe goodness and love flow from my relationship with, not doing for, the people in my life. The same is true for our church. If we as a religious people are going to challenge the systemic evils of our time and place, like poverty and human exploitation, we have to begin with how they have infiltrated our selves. Which means it is just, equitable, and compassionate to allow myself the luxury of rest. Making sure that I have the energy and capacity to then make sure rest is available to others.
Our 3rd, 4th and 5th principles focus on our capacity to grow our spirituality through mutual support as we search freely and responsibly for truth and meaning. Many, if not all, spiritual traditions teach a need for meditation, contemplation, and retreat to enrich our human being in the world. And rest is a particularly difficult part of this process. Because at least in the United States, we equate rest with laziness, and laziness with moral failure.
Which is a false equivalence. The definition of rest is to “cease work or movement in order to relax, refresh oneself, or recover strength.” The definition of lazy is “unwillingness to work or use energy; showing a lack of effort or care.” The first is necessary for rejuvenation. The latter is an orientation of apathy. And a strange association happens between the two. Because without a period of “rest” to recover my mental, spiritual and physical strength, I will become most definitely unwilling or unable to work or use energy, and cease caring.
This ceasing of care; my capacity to be concerned about the welfare of myself and others; is a symptom of burnout. And leads to spiritual death. With patients who have ceased to care about themselves and others, there is a palpable void of pain and despair. They become nihilistic, saying “nothing matters” and push away any connection which would cost the energy of caring. Their deaths, in my opinion, are tragic; lonely, isolated, and angry.
No, this is not who I want to be at any point of my life or death. I am called as a Unitarian Universalist to care for this world with all my heart, mind, soul and strength. And if rest is a spiritual practice that helps inoculate me from despair, then I am morally and ethically obligated to do it, in abundance and with joy!
Our final principles, our goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, and our respect for the interdependent web of all existence remind me that rest is not only a necessity for my own wellbeing, it has a direct effect on how I show up in the world. Earlier I mentioned how, when I am in dis-ease, I find it difficult to be my best self. The repercussions of this are not just in my own grumpiness; anger; or sensitivity. What affects me will in turn affect others.
There is a quote from priest and mystic Richard Rohr that I have found to be humanly true. “Brokenness untransformed will become brokenness transmitted.” In nature it is the law of cause and effect. In human development, it is the cycle of violence. In health, it is the vector of contagion. Disease spreads. Meaning, if I do not mind my own health, in which rest is a critical component, then I will spread my injury out into the world. Whether it is having a shorter temper, a weakened immune system, or a lack of compassion.
To paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, we are woven into a single garment of destiny; what affects one directly will affect all indirectly. I am certainly my brother’s keeper, in the way that I am my own keeper. My attention to a spiritual practice of rest is one way to resist a culture of dehumanization that relies on overwork, overperformance, and excess. Which strips being human of its meaning, and the very Earth of her bounty, as I turn toward consumption to mend a spiritual wound that can only be healed through human connection. Which is incredibly hard when I am not even connected to myself anymore. Much less someone else.
So, siblings in faith, how do we cultivate a spiritual practice of rest? Especially when it seems like our lives would fall apart if we ceased to overperform. I have found, like with many spiritual practices, it helps to begin small. While listening to On Being with Krista Tippet as she interviewed the French born Buddhist monk Matthieu Richard, known medically as the “happiest man in the world” through scans of his brain, he said:
“We do exercise every morning, 20 minutes, to be fit. We don’t sit for 20 minutes to cultivate compassion. If we were to do so, our mind will change, our brain will change. What we are will change. … I have a friend who is 63 years old. He used to be a runner when he was young. He gave up running. Now a few years ago, he started again. He said, “When I started again, I could not run more than five minutes without panting for breath.” Now last week, he ran the Montreal Marathon at 63. He had the potential, but it was useless until he actualized it. So is the same potential we have for mind training, but if we don’t do anything, it’s not going to happen because we wish so.”
In this vein, our spiritual practice of rest, begins with a choice. I will REST! Five minutes for breathing after my lunch hour. Leaving work on time one day a week. Scheduling 10 minutes, no, thirty minutes a week for something joyful; even putting it on the calendar. Eventually rest may turn into a commitment of “sabbath” which in the Jewish tradition is a holy time set aside for rest and rejuvenation. I have many colleagues who put on their email signatures, “Monday is my Sabbath. Please do not expect any emails during this time” and who turn off their devices for hours, if not for the whole day.
I have already begun to do this; slowly changing my relationship to work and doing. Exploring what it means to just, “be.” Trying to let go of my conditioned behaviors of shame. Laughing at myself; learning how to play again. How to enjoy the soft breeze off the sound. To realize myself as worth of health, and wellbeing. Remembering how to be human, once again.
Siblings in faith, however you begin to explore rest and make it real in your life, recognize that it is rooted in our Unitarian Universalist identity. Use our principles as guides. Our sources for inspiration. And find pleasure in realizing that, at least in our country and our culture, rest is an act of rebellion against the systems we are working to dismantle: bigotry and discrimination, poverty and dehumanization. Rest is crucial in empowering us to show up as a religious people. It is essential to being a people with minds that think, hearts that love, and hands that are ready to serve. And so, I invite you into a holy revolution of rest, with its radical notions of human “being” and counter-cultural ideas of happiness, flourishing and joy.
May the rest of your summer, and the rest of our lives, be filled with time to be our best selves. For ourselves. Each other. Our world. And the Earth. May it be so. Amen.