“Selah”…and the power of rest
My vocational season didn’t shift quietly, that’s for certain. There were large, and beautifully appropriate, public declarations about the transfer of senior leadership from me to the next generation, as my friend and co-worker became senior pastor - a win for all. There was a smaller gathering of celebration with folks who’ve been in the church I led since the very early days of my time there. There was a “final lecture” to staff about the values I deem most important for life and ministry. There were books to give away, offices to clean (yes, plural), plans for preaching while I’m on sabbatical, prep for teaching students in Germany and Austria, and one final church board meeting.
Even after my sabbatical began, there was a COVID booster to acquire in anticipation of travel to a global hot spot (Germany and Austria at the time), then a decision to make about travel (I ultimately stayed home per government travel advisories, and taught students in Europe via Zoom), and a Thanksgiving with family to savor.
As of yesterday, all that’s in the rear view mirror. The snow has been falling fast and deep here in the mountains and as I write, I’m in the candle-lit space of the new Hildegard house I’ll use for writing, among other things. I’m listening to Christmas music and watching snow fall. Other than the music, the acoustic absorbing power of snow is such that there’s not a sound to be heard anywhere. Pure silence, save a cappella choral music imploring Emmanuel to come. Pure darkness, save two candles. And, for the first time in a very long time, pure….rest.
There’s a debate in theological circles regarding the meaning of the word “Selah” which shows up mostly in the Psalms. It’s translated “intermission” in one early version of the Bible. Others translate it “pause” or “rest”, all of which makes sense because it usually shows up in poignant places as the author’s way of saying, “Now let’s all just stop and let that sink in.” Because of these definitions, I wasn’t prepared for the lexicon’s technical translation, which is: “to lift up, exalt.” Those words imply active response, requiring me to muster some forces and do something, which is a distinct difference from pausing in my mind.
All this is swirling around in me because I’m a bit embarrassed by my public answer to the question asked of me on my last Sunday: “What are you going to do with your Sabbatical?” I had a ready list of goals: write five hundred words a day, continue studying German, ski a half million vertical feet, and more.
Yet here I am, almost a full month out from those lofty declarations and, though I’ve taught some classes, the rest of my resume doesn’t point toward productivity or creativity, save learning to apply tongue and groove cedar interior siding to this tiny house.
It appears that my soul, in this moment, is deeply craving rest. I’m craving “no agenda,” “no to do list,” “no production goals for writing or publishing.” I just want rest. Yesterday afternoon I was in this tiny house with the full intent of writing and reading. Instead, when an acoustic piano rendition of ”The First Noel” rose on my playlist, I shut my writing tablet, listened, watched the snow fall, and worshipped the Author of beauty, creativity, and seasons, as the One who gives the gift of rest.
It’s not a gift we’re always able to receive because in this fallen world there are plenty of ways to use our talents and resources to make the world a better place. Plus, we need to make a living and in most seasons of life, making a living and raising a family mean that moments like yesterday afternoon are a rare privilege. Even as I sat there, I could think of twenty things I could be doing that would produce, but I’d never use that word. I’m too spiritual for that. I cloak my hyperactivity in words like “bless” and “serve” and “steward my gifts.”
The rhythms of life surely tell us that it’s not always winter, that there are times to “serve” and “bless” and ”steward.” Creation also tells us that there’s always a winter. That the leaves of hyperactivity and obligation need to be shed on a regular basis so that next chapters might be given space to ripen and, drawing on the resources only available in winter, eventually germinate.
Most of us resist such seasons. Our culture celebrates the multi-taskers whose productivity borders on magic. They’re able to spin the cloth of success by weaving threads of fitness, spiritual depth, family love, sexual intimacy, vocational productivity, financial savvy, and usually manage to display it as well on curated social media feeds. How do they do it?
So far this month my life has been the exact opposite of that. I’ve watched leaves fall from the tree that is my life, as German language studies, travel, skiing, writing, and mining a meaningful future have all eluded me. Perhaps eluded is the wrong word. The reality is that I let these leaves fall from the tree without a fight because I’m tired, and know that before anything else, I need to rest.
Strangely though, I’m not worried about my appalling levels of non-productivity. I have a sense, with Julian of Norwich, that “all manner of things will be well” because in this time of “selah,” I’m enjoying relationship with my Creator, who offers assurance that there are still other chapters to be written, just not today. That simple phrase “not today” conjures the guilt of procrastination for many of us, but don’t be deceived; winter’s a beautiful season. REST is as much a part of life as productivity.
If you look carefully at leaves that are falling in November, you’ll find that the stem already has the essence of next spring’s leaves. It will be there all winter, seemingly being unproductive, but in reality, receiving all the resources for the next chapter. That’s not just “OK,” as in ”tolerable for a little while until I get back to being productive” - that’s God’s perfect design.
That it’s taken me this long to learn it makes me sad, but it’s good, very good, to be here; now; embracing with gratitude the gift of rest.
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