April 5th: The Sabbath Call
Some of us have an abundance of something that was formerly scarce: time. Unable to wait any longer, the sabbath has reached out and claimed our lives. No more excuses. Now is the time to build the life of intention you have talked about for so long. Tend the garden, practice daily meditation, compost your scraps. This is the time for doing less, and living in deeper alignment with our life’s potential.
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“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.”
I want to tell you a bedtime story. Well, a naptime story.
Tricia Hersey was bone-tired. It was 2013, and she had just begun the Master of Divinity program at Emory. The pace was rigorous. In lecture halls, Hersey felt unseen and unheard among her mostly white peers. The TV news—a seemingly inescapable loop of police brutality against black people—only intensified her stress. Two of her close relatives passed away unexpectedly. And one day, a thief snatched Hersey’s backpack containing her class notes, her research, and her first sermon, which she was scheduled to preach in two days.
Overwhelmed, Hersey wanted to quit school.
Instead, she started napping. She napped in the campus quad, in the library, in the upholstered balcony pews of Cannon Chapel.
It was transformative, she says, and enabled her to keep going. “I was healing. Naps really saved my life in that way.”
These days, Hersey is a napping evangelist. She talks about naps the way some people might describe a spiritual experience—because for her, that’s what they are. “Sleep is such a vulnerable place, and I believe that when you rest, it’s a healing portal,” she says. “You have space to talk and vent, to hope, to dream. You can work things out you can’t work out when you’re awake.”
The epiphany inspired her to research the idea of rest as both a healing mechanism for cultural trauma and a form of resistance against oppression. Hersey dug into the Emory library’s African American history archives, researching the lives and legacies of enslaved Africans who labored on Southern land, including her own ancestors.
She studied this history through the lens of black liberation theology. “It was this whole examination of labor in the South, and how bodies are commodified, and how capitalism and white supremacy help that,” she says. Hersey talked to African Americans who’d lived through the Jim Crow era about how their decades-old trauma manifested physically.
After exploring scientific research on how the brain uses sleep to process trauma, she became transfixed by the idea of rest as a form of reparations and sleep deprivation as an issue of racial and social justice. Rest wasn’t just personal; it was political.
In 2016, Hersey founded the Nap Ministry, initially as a kind of performance art experiment. She hosted its first collective napping event, which 40 people attended, the following May at Colony Square. Since 2016, Hersey has led a dozen similar events, in both Atlanta and her hometown of Chicago.
Those attending the group naps are provided with yoga mats, pillows, blankets, and music. Hersey displays a Sleep Altar with candles, an anthology of first-person testimonies from enslaved people, and cotton from Southern farms—“I always like to ground the room in the space of our people before us who weren’t able to rest,” Hersey says.
As the “Nap Bishop,” Hersey, who’s 44, opens each event with meditation. After an hour of napping, she leads the group in a “nap talk,” wherein attendees can share any discoveries unearthed during their rest. Typically, at least one person sheds tears. “I really feel like we’re deprogramming people,” she says. “We’re pushing back against these systems telling us we should feel guilty for laying down and taking a nap.”
Some of us, perhaps in the healthcare, education or communications fields are working harder than ever, but now, from home, without the built-in boundaries of the commute and office hours. Some of you without appointments or social/family obligations, suddenly you may find yourself with time unfolding before you like an open sea, and you find yourself unmoored. Either way, this is a challenging time to be productive.
What an understatement.
This is impossible. It is unreal.
The reality of what is going on is difficult to fully comprehend, even as there are things to celebrate about it, such as the speed of our lives, relentless commute or our rampant consumption suddenly grinding to a halt. We can delight in the realization we didn’t need as much as we thought we did to thrive.
I remember day one of the physical distancing imperative, I thought: I will finally read a novel. Maybe I’ll write a poem each day. I looked out at my yard and thought, yes, this year, finally a garden. Some of y’all are romantically baking homemade bread, and putting it out there on the internet. I see you. There’s a whole world of sourdough starter enthusiasts that are crawling out of niche caves and entering the bright light of day, flaunting your fermented resilience for all to see.
For many of you, the pace of this pandemic has been unrelenting. Work is home, home is stifling, and now we are never clocked out.
In my house, anyway, every single hour is now heavily negotiated between my spouse, our two jobs and parenting two people whose self-preservation instinct has not kicked in. We won’t discuss the homeschooling attempts, and all the accompanying shame.
Earlier this week, I had negotiated with my spouse for five hours in a row to research and write this sermon, and I cannot express how complicated and necessary it was to create five straight hours for this. When the moment arrived, and I handed off the kids, I was supposed to get right to work.
Here is what I did instead: I took an extra long walk, and talked with my sisters on the phone. I sat in the yard and stared into space. I took the longest shower in recent memory. I applied and removed nail polish. I cleaned up my room. I fell asleep, and awoke in a panic at all the wasted time.
I returned to the bathroom for more unfocused grooming rituals. I never got around to writing the sermon, or even opening my laptop. Finally, staring in the mirror, I resolved that the past five hours had not been wasted, in fact they had been vital.
My mind required spaciousness, it needed freedom, to wander, and to be at rest. Since the beginning of March, my thoughts have been racing with concern for you, ideas for how to invigorate and pivot our ministries to meet the needs, how to energize and organize the staff, how to homeschool my kids, how to support my parents and siblings and their families, and on and on.
I needed more than an hour to myself for free thought. I needed five hours, and even that felt too decadent, too luxurious, and simultaneously far too scarce.
There is something that is happening to the collective consciousness right now, that demands we take our sabbath rest.
Of course, there are the justice reasons that our body and soul do not belong to our employers and the capitalist machine must set a new pace to human fulfilment, rather than sucking all the life energy from us. Then there are the religious reasons, that we are on God’s time, and not Caesar’s time, that we are here for one purpose above all others and that is to live. To be. Not to produce, or compete, or even serve, but to live the precious life we have been given. There are the physical imperatives that in order to support our immune systems, we require rest, now more than ever.
In addition to all that, there is a is a psychological and emotional reason for our great need for rest right now.
In 1992, a social psychologist named Ronnie Janoff-Bulman published her seminal text, Shattered Assumptions. Her theory of psychology, called the World Assumptions theory proposing that experiencing traumatic events can change how survivors view themselves and the world.
Specifically, the three three inherent assumptions we share : overall benevolence of the world, meaningfulness of the world, and self worth. These fundamental beliefs are the bedrock of the way we organize our lives, and they are the assumptions we are least aware of and least likely to challenge.
According to Janoff-Bulman, people generally hold three fundamental assumptions about the world that are built and confirmed over years of experience: the world is benevolent and predictable, the world is meaningful, and I am worthy. These are tacit assumptions that serve as a basis of our well-being and our guides in navigating daily life. Together these assumptions provide us with a sense of relative invulnerability that enables us to awake each morning and face the day.
According to the theory, there are some extreme events, which we would refer to as traumatic, that shatter these worldviews. They severely challenge and break our assumptions about the world and ourselves. Such events could be the unwarranted murder of a loved one, being critically injured, or losing a job and not having an income. Such events are particularly traumatic for people who have had a generally positive life. Because these people have such strong, optimistic assumptions, the disintegration of these views of the world can be more traumatic.
I encountered this when I served on the board of the rape crisis center in Asheville, NC, OUR VOICE, and worked amongst therapists and crisis counselors on the front line of good people who were suddenly facing extreme trauma. What is most disorienting to people who have experienced the trauma is the assumptions of the world as they understood it falling apart.
We are in the middle of a similar trauma. The difference is, our trauma is not individual, but collective. This unifying experience charts the path toward resilience, to rebuild new assumptions, and find a way to trust in the world once again. This is happening to all of us now, in small and large ways. We have not seen the worst days of this pandemic. The losses, even the ones that seem small, are piling up. For all of us.
We are re-organizing our sense of trust in the world, as some of our world assumptions shatter. For many of us, our assumptions have been shattering since November of 2016, and for many of us, those assumptions were never fully trusted in the first place. In many ways, getting through life with your world assumptions in tact is a privileged position.
But there’s a reason the Nap Ministry opened in 2016, as a place for especially black people, and all people to come to rest together.
The sabbath is calling you, and its urgency is increasing. What we are going through, the constant re-adjustment, the cascade of losses and new things to learn and the cabin fever; it takes a toll on our energy and our stamina in ways we cannot always know. Sometimes the urge to nap takes us by surprise and we realize we haven’t felt free from worry or free from multi-tasking in a very, very long time.
They say you should not wait until you are thirsty before you drink, by then it is too late. Do not wait until you are exhausted to take your sabbath.
End the zoom meeting.
Turn off your emails alerts.
Reach out, and take your sabbath, before you are overtaken.
This is a holy time, where many Christians contemplate suffering, Jews contemplate the plagues, and as Unitarian Universalists, we honor the preciousness of life, and the ways we are more interconnected than ever in our grief, in our anxiety, and in our resilience.
This pandemic will change us, our lives and our priorities in ways that are still unfolding.
In those moments when you are overwhelmed by anger, frustration, worry, or exhaustion, take your sabbath. Rest, recover your spirit.
Preaching against myself from last week, being creative
Our mantra on Sundays is to love others and heal the world, but that is not possible until we love ourselves first.
Whether you are a healthcare worker on the front lines of this crisis, or a stay at home parent, take your sabbath, a little each day, and a full day each week. This is how we will thrive.
Let the poet Wendell Berry’s words lead you into this week:
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.