To sleep, perchance to dream

The woods are lovely dark and deep, But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep. —Robert Frost

We met on Sunday to worship and celebrate the Master’s Supper. Paul addressed the congregation. Our plan was to leave first thing in the morning, but Paul talked on, way past midnight. We were meeting in a well-lighted upper room. A young man named Eutychus was sitting in an open window. As Paul went on and on, Eutychus fell sound asleep and toppled out the third-story window. When they picked him up, he was dead. Paul went down, stretched himself on him, and hugged him hard. “No more crying,” he said. “There’s life in him yet.” Then Paul got up and served the Master’s Supper. And went on telling stories of the faith until dawn! On that note, they left—Paul going one way, the congregation another, leading the boy off alive, and full of life themselves. —Acts 20:7-12, The Message

Like Eutychus, we all know what it’s like to be dead tired.

According to the experts at the International Sleep Products Association, wholesale domestic sales of mattresses of all types totaled $4.6 billion in the year 2000. My own exhaustive research shows that sales of nutritional sleep-enhancing supplements, sleeping pills, nasal strips, down pillows, Egyptian cotton sheets, satin pajamas and juicing machines purchased by insomniacs watching late-night cable surpass even that.

So we’re talking roughly $10 billion annually just to get some shut-eye. Amazing. The Romans had their roads and aqueducts, but America has given civilization the Sealy Posturepedic® mattress, the official bedding of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team!

What’s the best sleep you’ve ever had? Have you noticed how contented a baby is while sleeping in her mother’s arms? Have you ever slept under the stars on a crystal clear night, or on a beach listening to the rumbling of the waves?

In our fast-paced, stress-packed world, adequate sleep can be elusive. The single greatest cause of all transportation accidents is drowsiness. An airline pilot recently lost his job when he was caught on videotape napping during a flight. Work and responsibility wear us down, fatigue mounts up and we feel like we’re on an accelerating treadmill.

Jesus knew about weariness. The Scriptures say that he would often walk up into the hills to escape the demands of the crowds following him. In those times of solitude he would talk with his Father. I imagine he even took a nap or two.

There’s something important to be learned from Jesus’ approach to weariness—rest is not a matter of physical restoration alone, but spiritual, too. You can sleep like a baby without feeling rested. I’m talking here about heart rest, soul rest, peace of mind. These come from God, not a proper diet and a sensible bedtime. If you want sleep, go check out Sealy. If it’s rest you need, start off as Jesus did, by having a conversation with God.

Luke illustrates the sort of rest I’m talking about in his account of a trip across the Sea of Galilee. With the disciples at the helm, Jesus fell asleep in the back of the boat. A violent storm came up and threatened to sink them. The disciples feared for their lives. Somehow, Jesus slept on, unconcerned and unaware.

I was in a small sailboat once on the edge of a storm, and I’m amazed at Jesus’ composure—my own reaction was closer to that of the disciples. He was tired, yes, but no one sleeps through a storm on a small fishing boat. The more likely explanation? Jesus was so thoroughly at rest in God that even in a desperate moment, neither his conscious nor unconscious mind sounded an alarm. Judge for yourself by reading Luke 8:22-25.

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits perfectly, and the burden I give you is light.” —Matthew 11:28-30, NLT

“I will give you rest,” he says. But what does he mean? There isn’t a word here about melatonin or waterbeds or vacations in Aruba.

“Take my yoke upon you.” Oddly, Jesus’ promise of rest has a condition attached: we must first bow our heads and put on the yoke of Christ. A yoke is an ancient device made to fit over the necks of a pair of oxen, binding them together as a team to pull a wagon or a plow. You can still see yoked oxen working in many of the poor nations of the world today.

So you’re weary. You feel loaded down. You could use some rest. “Here,” Jesus says, “Put on this yoke and help me plow.” Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

Probably not. I suppose this is why those Latin dudes invented the word paradox. The key to rest isn’t more sleep or relaxation therapy or a better mattress. The key to rest is joining the Son of God in the work he is doing, stepping up beside him into the yoke he is already wearing himself. Rest comes from plowing the fields beside Jesus, chatting him up as he sweats and pulls alongside us, learning from him, letting him share the burdens we’ve always carried alone. We put on a yoke, true, but it’s an easy yoke, one that doesn’t chafe or rub, and in a relationship centered on laboring beside Jesus, we finally experience rest.

In life, we either shoulder our burdens alone, or we find someone to help us. God stands ready to exchange our heavy burdens for his light ones. He offers to trade our weariness for his rest. And it may turn out, like Jesus in the boat, that when we have God’s peace, we’ll sleep better, too.

You look like you could use some rest.

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