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The need for sleep, the yearning for rest

This week’s lesson topic, “Rest and Restoration”, is buttressed by texts from Genesis regarding man’s responsibility to care for the Garden; from Exodus regarding the Sabbath commandment; from Mark regarding Jesus’ command to “Rest a while”; and most of all from Christ’s famous invitation of Matthew 11:28-30, to “Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

I will briefly review modern discoveries regarding the physiology and chemistry of sleep, then turn to the significance of the great invitation of our Lord and its meaning, before suggesting we allow C. S. Lewis to aide us in finding deeper significance in the divine promise of rest. Along the way I suggest we visit Hebrews 4 looking for the lost meaning of Sabbath rest.

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Even one hundred years ago little was known of the physiology and chemistry of sleep. In 1924 German neurologist Hans Berger demonstrated that electrical potentials on the surface of the scalp could be recorded on graph paper, and the electroencephalogram (EEG) was born. Aserinsky and Kleitman (1952) found that rapid eye movements, or REM, could be observed during sleep and further that electrical potentials generated by these movements could be amplified and recorded on something called an ink-writing oscillograph. When sleep research subjects were wakened during REM they usually reported vivid dreams, whereas those wakened at other times rarely remembered anything. Thus it was learned that REM occur during dreaming, and are necessary for the production of restful restorative sleep. It is of interest that during these periods of dream sleep there is little body movement, almost as if the body is paralyzed while the brain is very active.

The study of sleep and sleep disorders was pioneered by Dr William Dement of Stanford, who developed the modern sleep laboratory and was in large measure responsible for development of the field of sleep research. The architecture of sleep has become known, sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea are better understood, and more effective treatment has followed.

More recently, the chemistry of sleep has been under study. It is now known that melatonin, a chemical secreted by the pineal gland, is produced by the brain at night. It is suppressed by bright light in the morning, thus setting the body’s clock for the 24-hour cycle. Melatonin plays a role in seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or winter depression. It has a role in the sleep disturbance associated with jet lag, and melatonin secretion also plays a part in the sleep problems of shift workers.

We need this kind of information because more and more of us are deprived of sleep and rest. In the last one hundred years the amount of sleep obtained by Americans has declined by twenty per cent. On average, Americans get only about seven hours of sleep per night. Among other things, sleep deprivation causes lower productivity, impaired thinking, and auto accidents. According to the National Sleep Foundation, thirty-seven per cent of drivers have fallen asleep while driving. Truck drivers are known to have particular difficulties with sleep; many of them suffer from OSA, obstructive sleep apnea. Being deprived of sleep for twenty-four hours is equivalent to being intoxicated with alcohol.

“Sleep hygiene” is a term used to describe good conditions for sleep. The term includes things that are needed for better sleep habits, such as regularity in times of sleep and exercise. It also includes exposure to light and darkness, and the avoidance of substances and situations that interfere with sleep. Having a dark quiet place to sleep is a simple but important factor promoting restful sleep.

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Given all this information, we know more than ever before about the importance of revitalizing sleep. The fourth commandment commands us to engage both in work and in rest. Rest on the Sabbath indicates respect for the Creator and an understanding of our beginnings. For Adventists this command has special meaning, and it is a distinguishing difference between us and a culture in which no time or place is sacred. Creativity is needed, especially by parents, to make certain children learn to enjoy the Sabbath as the treasure it was meant to be.

I have vivid recollections of the specialness of this day for the children who lived on Griswold Street in Worthington, Ohio, where I grew up. Sabbath potlucks in the Hocking Hills of southern Ohio with church friends and families are an indelible memory. The sweet taste of fresh Ohio corn on my palate still lingers after sixty years. Unfortunately I also remember waiting impatiently for sundown so I could hop on the bicycle I longed to ride, an activity I was not permitted on the Sabbath.

There were mostly positives about this day, however, including the day of preparation, which made the arrival of Sabbath on Friday evening an important happening. It now seems quaint, but things like shining shoes, bathing, and food preparation were all to be done before sundown, which added to the anticipation. Customs and mores have changed, but today I regard the Sabbath as a refreshing gift, the more so as I recall the many Sabbath days I have necessarily spent in hospitals.

Today few of us need rest from grinding physical labor, which was the norm when our Lord suggested that we come to Him, that we accept the lightness of His yoke, all we who “labor and are heavy laden.” Today we are laden with other than physical burdens, but His rest is no less necessary. Mental burdens, and clerical or administrative burdens and responsibilities, are just as demanding as physical labor. In fact what many of us need more of is refreshing physical activity, especially those of us who spend our days in offices peering at computer screens.

Everything in our culture makes it to easy to avoid movement, even the most simple and necessary movement such as walking. It is easy to forget that, as humans, we are also animals and were designed by God to move. We are proud of children and grandchildren when they take first steps because this is the beginning of life as a self-moving and self-motivated creature. When children learn to walk, to run, to ride a bicycle, we cheer. As adults some of us forget that regular movement is a life-long necessity in maintaining health.

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Let us return to the rest which Christ offers, the “easy burden” which eluded Israel but is still available to us. Hebrews 4:1 recommends that we “fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it” (KJV). This rest appears to include not only physical rest, but also the rest that is a consequence of faith in Jesus. In verse two Paul goes on to note: “For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.”

In the remainder of Hebrews 4, the Sabbath is included in the rest which Christ offers. This involves rest from works as well as work. The example is God’s rest from creative work on the Edenic Sabbath. Although the divine rest cannot be achieved by our own works, paradoxically effort is needed to enter into His rest. “Let us labour therefore to enter into His rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief” (v. 11) Finally, we are invited to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (v. 16).

What does this expanded concept of Sabbath rest have to do with C. S. Lewis? Lewis wrote eloquently and appealingly about the human desire for the transcendent. In Surprised by Joy he recalls that the lid of a biscuit tin provided by his older brother Warren was the setting for an imagined garden made of moss, twigs and flowers. This nursery fantasy garden was the first boyish inkling of a desire for a “something more”, which led Lewis to theism and ultimately to the person of Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Remembering years later, Lewis recalled an intense and momentary desire based on memory of the biscuit-lid garden created by his brother. Lewis notes that, “in a certain sense, everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.” He describes the emotion as “that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” About this time Lewis experienced the loss of his beloved mother to cancer, despite his confident boyish prayers.

Later, following conversion, Lewis reported that Joy, “the old stab, the old bittersweet” though still experienced, had lost interest to him. He believed it had functioned as a guide or signpost pointing him to God and ultimately to the person of Jesus Christ. The word Joy may for our purposes as accurately be termed yearning or melancholy longing.

This “Argument by Desire” is eloquently expressed in Lewis’ June 1941 Oxford sermon “The Weight of Glory.” In this famous sermon Lewis pointed out that a longing for transcendence, for something beyond, for a melody somehow known but never heard, are things that represent a God-given hunger for the Divine. Just as thirst indicates we are creatures who need water to survive, so our hunger for the eternal indicates we were made for something more.

The fact that we mortals believe there must be something more suggests that we are made for a better country we have never seen but which calls to us. It implies that beyond our existence today is the hope and glory of being the joy of God’s creativity. We Christians know there is a place where we will be welcomed with the greeting: “Well done thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Such emotions, such hope and longing and yearning for transcendent rest, suggest that we mortals really were made for heaven and for the divine rest Jesus longs to give us.

When oppressed by work and worry and responsibility, the phrase “Give me some rest” may be expressed. The rest needed can include restorative, restful sleep. It can also include relief from grueling physical labor but is just as likely to be rest from inactivity in the form of exercise. A more profound sort of rest is offered by Christ as a consequence of accepting the invitation “Come unto me.” The Sabbath is a weekly sampling of the eternal rest He offers. It should include rest from daily cares, from “the grind” of normal work, and should give opportunity to contemplate our true home, the yearned-for “something more” we know to be our destiny.

St Augustine of Hippo had this in mind when he wrote “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”

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