John S. Mogabgab
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while” (Mark 6:31, NRSV). With these words Jesus rouses deep human longing and equally profound human resistance. Who among us does not dream sometimes of a place cleared of life's clutter and noise, a place where we could soak in rest until it loosened even the deepest knots of stress? But who among us does not also fear such a place, a place bereft of all the activities and relationships that support our sense of self and secure our position in the world? Perhaps it is this fear that fuels our increasingly exhausting way of life. Researchers observe that people in the United States are not getting enough sleep and therefore struggle through their days under the burden of “sleep deficit.” True rest is becoming a rare and endangered phenomenon, pushed by our culture to the margins of life.
“Rest for a while.” These words evoke both hope and resistance because they bear us away from our familiar world of activity and achievement into the heart of God. That is the movement depicted in Mark’s gospel. Standing between Mark’s account of the missionary work of the twelve apostles and the story of Jesus feeding five thousand people, the invitation to rest represents a passage from human activity to human receptivity and divine hospitality.
Several features of Mark’s text help to illuminate this transition. First, Jesus’ invitation did not come after the apostles had completed all their work. It came, instead, at a time when they were so busy “they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). In rest we interrupt the unrelenting cycle of need and response to recall that the far more comprehensive cycle of God's creativity and repose encompasses our own activity. Walter Brueggemann comments that the magisterial confidence of God's governance, exemplified in God's ability to rest, can inspire basic confidence about our own place in the world and reveals that human life "is not, and must not become an endless rat-race of achievement, productivity, and self-sufficiency." [Walter Brueggemann, "The Commandments and Liberated, Liberating Bonding," Journal for Preachers Vol. X, No. 2 (Lent, 1987), p. 19.] A second observation related to Mark’s text follows from this.
Rest is a place in which we are nourished through the provision of a loving God. Often our own efforts to replenish ourselves are short-lived and unsatisfactory. But in the rest to which Jesus calls us, the abundance of God's nurture is staggeringly sufficient (Mark 6:41-44). Finally, to dwell in the heart of God through rest allows God to provision us for work in the world. The fullness of God's love in which we rest is the only source inexhaustible enough to satisfy the hunger of the multitude whose "coming and going" sometimes means that we have "no leisure even to eat."
The integral relation between holy rest and healthy human community underscores the importance of the Christian community being both a setting and a support for rest. A story from the tradition of desert spirituality recounts how some monks asked Abba Poemen if they should awaken those who fell asleep during worship. Abba Poemen responded: "For my part, when I see a brother who is dozing, I put his head on my knees and let him rest." [Benedicta Ward, S.L.G., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1975), p. 151.] During these challenging seasons, in what ways can we offer an "Abba Poemen's knee" to all who are weary and heavy laden?
From Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, March/April 1993. Copyright © 1993 by The Upper Room. Used with permission.
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