Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).
Last August, Sarah Coomber completely uprooted her life. The strain of the COVID-19 pandemic had convinced her and her husband, both ELCA members and Minnesota natives, that after nearly two decades in Washington state they needed to move home, near family.
“Packing up our Washington life, buying a new house, moving and getting our son enrolled in something resembling ninth grade in the pandemic year was a heavy lift,” recalled Coomber, an author and writing consultant. “By the time we got semi-settled in Minnesota, we were tired and had a lot to process.”
By October 2020, Coomber and her husband knew they needed a breather. That led them to Spent Dandelion, a retreat center in Two Harbors, Minn., owned and operated by Anna Madsen, an ELCA pastor. For a weekend, the couple immersed themselves in nature and conversations with Madsen, discussing topics such as vocation, caring for themselves as parents of a child with special needs, and reclaiming rest.
“We unpacked our hearts and heard ourselves and each other say things we hadn’t quite articulated or even realized in the midst of our busyness,” Coomber noted. “Anna reminded us that, no matter what our future looks like, God is in the midst of it, active in every single moment. Acknowledging that in itself [brought] rest to our hearts and minds.”
In five years of hosting guests at Spent Dandelion, Madsen has witnessed numerous such stories. “Anxiety and exhaustion are being lifted up as pressing matters, not just of one’s physical well-being but also spiritual well-being,” she said. “People are desperate for rest.”
Called to rest
For many, taking time to rest—whether it’s an extended retreat or simply a pause in a busy workday—can be a challenge.
“So many of our society’s dominant narratives mitigate against rest,” said Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, a professor of theological and social ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, Calif. “We get seduced and sucked into constant activity, and a lot of it is good, worthy, important activity, but it obliterates space for rest. I really think that the capacity to hear the Spirit and to [flourish] as a person are built partly by having rest.”
As part of her work, Moe-Lobeda has led student groups focused on rest and self-compassion as spiritual practices. She sees rest as a spiritual discipline because, for most of us, it requires intentionality. “I consider rest a deeply spiritual thing because I think the Holy Spirit within us is partly God’s longing for our well-being,” she added. “One of the things the Spirit does—if we listen—is guide us toward well-being.”
“The earth itself teaches us to rest. Trees go into rest in the wintertime and come back much more alive and vital and pulsating with life in the spring after they’ve rested.”
An expert in ecojustice and director of the seminary’s Center for Climate Justice and Faith, Moe-Lobeda looks to creation for lessons on rest. She points to farmers leaving the fields fallow for a time so that the soil can be renewed. “The earth itself teaches us to rest,” she said. “Trees go into rest in the wintertime and come back much more alive and vital and pulsating with life in the spring after they’ve rested.”
And in Genesis, God rests on the seventh day and blesses it as holy. As people created in God’s image, we, too, need rest.
Yet rest often evades us. Moe-Lobeda has a theory as to why.
In her studies as an ethicist, for many years she claimed that humans’ “primary call was to love God and self and others and all of creation with God’s justice-seeking, earth-honoring love.” (This call rings true for the ELCA, whose tagline is “God’s work. Our hands.”)
Today she believes “that’s our second calling. Our first calling is to receive and relish and trust the love of God.”
Madsen added, “We can’t do good if we’re not healthy and healed ourselves. [Rest] is about respecting our own createdness and that we are valued by God.”
Moe-Lobeda offers the example of parenthood. Parents both desire that their children thrive in work and rest well. Thus, our Holy Parent wants the same for us. “Yes, we are called to love,” she said. “First, we are called to receive that love. I hold that to be a theological claim. It’s grounded in the idea of grace.”
Madsen has seen firsthand how a new understanding of rest can be transformative for her guests at Spent Dandelion. “It’s a blessing to hear rest isn’t indulgent, but a calling,” she noted.
Luther on rest
Anthony Bateza is an assistant professor of religion at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., specializing in Martin Luther, moral theology and Christian ethics. Like Moe-Lobeda, he thinks of rest as something graceful, which “makes [the concept] very resonant in our Lutheran theology and voice.”
He defines rest as intentionally stopping work in some way, with or without a goal or purpose for that stoppage. “Rest is part of what God intends for creation and part of Godself. All things are created and connected to God,” he said. “Rest is for all people, not just Christians.”
With the proliferation of self-care messages in popular culture, however, Bateza acknowledges that rest can become its own kind of burden, turning what he believes is a gift into an obligation. “We have to take time to learn how to make rest a part of our lives and resist ways that rest is either imposed or denied,” he said. “We have to be disciplined to use it well.”
Bateza points to Elijah’s mountaintop moment as an example of quality rest (1 Kings 19). “There’s something in the fact that we can hear God more easily when we feel that we’re at rest,” he said. “There has to be time for prayer and quiet stillness. A reminder it’s God that’s doing the work. … The awareness is part of the work [of rest].”
Furthermore, he distinguishes rest as connected but not synonymous with sabbath. “To me there’s a porous boundary between the two,” Bateza said. God wants us to have rest and to honor the sabbath, but that comes with its own set of rituals. “It’s about what God has given, what God expects and having time to commune with God.”
Bateza said Luther believed “sabbath was really a gift God offered,” and he recognized the value of rest. At the same time, he was incredibly driven, writing and lecturing at a breakneck pace during the Reformation, and he often lamented his long hours.
“There’s something in the fact that we can hear God more easily when we feel that we’re at rest.”
Luther “found his time with his children to be quite restful,” Bateza said. “Previously a friar, he felt surprised with what a wonderful gift [fatherhood] was. He [also] valued time to sit and talk and drink with friends and colleagues. There’s a series of writings of his called ‘Table Talk.’ It might be easy to see that as an extension of work, but [these writings depict] an intentional setting-aside of time and space for reflection and conversation and letting the Spirit move.”
In addition, Luther was critical of his fellow Christians for “flitting and scurrying about, doing lots of unnecessary tasks.” Luther, Bateza said, used the ancient Greek and medieval concept polypragomsyne that referred to people being overly busy with needless work. He wanted people to stop trying to earn righteousness before God and instead find freedom and rest in God’s grace. Luther believed that necessary acts of service would naturally blossom from faith.
Rest and justice
Although God desires rest for all, systemic and structural challenges prevent some in society from receiving the rest they need to live balanced, healthy lives. Thus, rest is a privilege, Moe-Lobeda noted.
“If you need to work two jobs because you’re paid a minimum wage and you also need to raise your kids, there is little time for rest,” she said. “The reason people have to work two jobs is structural injustice. It’s wage structures—one of the problems of advanced global capitalism.”
Bateza is troubled by the sense “that people who are Black and Brown aren’t in need of rest. A narrative of laziness is laid upon people who aren’t working the way upper-middle-class white folks work. Black folks in particular are seen as shiftless.”
Moe-Lobeda added, “Racism leads to underpaid people of color and inadequate employment that deprives them of the capacity to nourish themselves with rest. It’s an abomination in many ways to deprive people of the basic things that God wants for us and calls us to.”
Drawing from his experience and his studies in racial justice, Bateza said, “Black folks can’t rest in the ways that white people take for granted: driving, shopping or existing in all kinds of spaces.”
Bateza appreciates those in the ELCA who stress slowing down and resting in God’s presence. He believes the church should be fighting for everyone to have that opportunity. He called for an “end to the additional labor that people have to do because of their skin. … I am Black and as such I tend to get picked out to a larger percentage of committees. [The church] could pay more attention to the kinds of labor that are being demanded to the Black and Brown folks around them in their community.”
We should also examine rest through a gender-justice lens, he said. We often “give lip service to gender imbalances” in congregations, with more women than men taking on volunteer positions such as running committees, yet we rarely take steps to remedy the imbalance, thus creating less rest time for women. Labor imbalances due to gender exist in some households as well.
Moe-Lobeda issued a call to action for people of faith: to live in a way that challenges and dismantles the racial, gender, economic and other injustices that preclude rest for others.
Additionally, Bateza suggests that ELCA members urge one another to make space for rest. “[Could we] check up with others on how rest is going, in the same way we ask about family and jobs?” he asked.
Heather Schmidt believes that one “can’t do social justice work without it coming from a place of contemplative identity in who you are in God.”
Schmidt, a member of Lake Park Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, wrote This Moment of Retreat: Listening to the Birch, the Milkweed, and the Healing Song in All That Is Now (Wipf and Stock, 2014) under the pen name Heather Lee. She first became interested in rest and retreat years ago when she felt exhausted and overwhelmed by “the volume of doing” in her life that was disconnected from her Lutheran identity.
“I don’t think that the Lutheran church does a wonderful job of that more contemplative, quiet-centering-prayer, meditative piece of our faith tradition,” she said. “God wanted to heal me … [but] needed a pathway through.”
“All of creation is speaking healing messages to you if you simply bring yourself to the moment.”
Schmidt began branching out to other denominations to glean wisdom from their monastic practices. That led her to participate in the Holy Wisdom Monastery community in Middleton, Wis., where she learned the value of Christian meditation and centering prayer.
As time passed, Schmidt became more intentional with her rest habits, which include prayer, meditation, journaling, walking, swimming and yoga. Yet rest will look different for each person—for example, some rest by running or crafting. “Really naming these things as disciplines” enabled her to “incorporate them into a rule of life.”
Now, as a retreat leader, she’s noticed that some people can fear rest that has no agenda. But a big part of rest is just “showing up and seeing what comes up,” she said. “All of creation is speaking healing messages to you if you simply bring yourself to the moment.”
Schmidt suggested that those looking to add rest to their daily lives start small, integrating five minutes of quiet prayer and meditation, or walking in creation. As you practice intentional rest, she said, “start paying attention to what happens in that discipline in your relationship with God.”
You may feel vulnerable or a bit out of control, she noted, adding, “I don’t think we like to be out of control. We are out of control. We don’t want to confront that. It’s too scary to recognize that it’s not up to us.”
Yet part of rest, she said, is “to recognize that God is the doer of all. My work is to open my heart … to listen to what the Spirit is calling in me right now.”
Schmidt references Psalm 46:10 for comfort and contemplation: “Be still, and know that I am God!”
To learn more
- Reclaiming Rest: The Promise of Sabbath, Solitude, and Stillness in a Restless World by Kate H. Rademacher (Broadleaf Books, 2021).
- Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time by Dorothy C. Bass (Jossey-Bass, 2001).
- “Stress and the Balance Within” and “How Wintering Replenishes” podcasts from On Being with Krista Tippett.
- The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions by Esther M. Sternberg (W.H. Freeman, 2001).
- Sabbath as Resistance by Walter Bruggemann (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017).
- Silence: A User’s Guide: Vol. 1: Process (Cascade Books, 2014) and Silence: A User’s Guide, Vol. 2: Application (Cascade Books, 2017) by Maggie Ross.
- Find a study guide associated with this article here.