The Wonder Report: May 6, 2022
The Freedom to Rest
It’s Mother’s Day weekend here in the U.S., and it’s a weekend fraught with emotions for many. I’ve been weepy myself, facing another “first” without Mom.
For many others, it’s a weekend to celebrate all that’s good and right in the world. And even as I miss Mom, I’m grateful for all the years she and I had together. I’m also happy for the opportunity I’ve had to mother my three stepsons. And I’m deeply indebted to their mother who’s always supported me and encouraged me in that role. (Of course Steve is the linchpin in it all, and I’m so, so thankful for him, even if he’s not a mother.)
I guess you could say that Mother’s Day is a good occasion for us to “Laugh with our happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down,” as Eugene Peterson translated Romans 12:15 in The Message.
This is also the last in our many-weeks series on Being Human. I’m deeply indebted to Alan Noble for the work he did in writing You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World*. As you know, I often write about the things I’m reading here in The Wonder Report. But this book is different. It hasn’t just inspired my writing. It’s changed my thinking and my living. It’s changed me. I can’t often say that about a book.
So, for this last installment, I want to talk about what I see as the very heart of Noble’s entire thesis: Because we are not our own, we can truly rest in God.
Let’s get to it!
1. Rest Is Possible
Over the past few of weeks, the need arose for me to compile a resume.
Making a list of a lifetime of educational and professional accomplishments isn’t easy. It’s been more than three decades since I graduated high school, and I’ve had more than my fair share of work experiences. During my 20s, I changed jobs about as often as I changed the batteries in my smoke detectors. I barely remember the duties of some positions. I’ve long forgotten the names of supervisors at others. I also went through a phase of desperately wanting to go to graduate school but having no specific reason why. I started … and stopped … three different programs.
But more than the logistical difficulty of creating an accurate picture of my professional life to date, updating my resume raised some existential questions: Do these things add up to a life well-lived? What have I learned from my mistakes? Have I done enough? Am I enough?
As we've discussed for the past several weeks, if I am my own and belong to myself, then “the first and most significant implication is that I am wholly responsible for my life,” as Alan Noble suggests. I am responsible for my success and failure. The onus rests with me to ensure that I have gotten the right education and experience for what’s next. It’s up to me to make up for any deficits by working harder, becoming more efficient, making the right connections, amassing the proper number of followers.
With my resume template staring back at me from my laptop, it’s up to me to make the case that I’m smart enough, experienced enough, good enough.
“We’re all confronted with the challenge of justifying our lives at one point or another,” Noble writes. “We want to know that our lives ‘made a difference’ ‘told a good story,’ ‘meant something,’ or that they were ‘full’ or ‘rich’ or had a ‘lasting impact.’ However we frame the challenge, according to our contemporary anthropology, we each have to find some explanation for our life.”
As it happens, I sent out that resume with a cover letter earlier this week, and after reading it over again the next day (NOTE TO SELF: Don’t ever reread a letter after it’s been sent), I found a couple of glaring mistakes. Not factual errors — like insisting I graduated from Harvard University instead of Taylor (no offense to my alma mater). But I missed a word, put a comma where a period should be, use a lower-case i to start a sentence.
To be fair, I had a terrible headache as I was drafting the letter. And it’s not like I didn’t reread it. I did. Twice. Somehow, the error still slipped through. And the person at the other end who will read it—the person I’d hoped to impress—will likely recognize it immediately. Just as I did the next day. And if she sees it, it’s her job to judge me by it. So for the rest of the evening, I judged myself by it too.
See, if I belong to myself, then it’s up to me to ensure there are no errors. Ever. It’s up to me to improve and optimize and become the best version of myself. I’m responsible for outcomes and opinions. It’s up to me to make things happen.
But what if we don’t belong to ourselves? What if we are not our own and belong, instead, to God? Wouldn’t that change how we define our worth, how we justify our existence? Wouldn’t it matter more what God thought of our lives, our successes and failures, then what we thought? Wouldn’t it matter more what God does in the world than what we do?
He’s the one who sets my boundaries. He’s the one who determines my worth. He’s the one who sets my course and directs my path. By belonging to God, I can relinquish my career choices and educational fits and starts and even my typos into his grace. By belonging to God, I can rest.
“Biblical rest is possible because we do not need to act to save the world or to justify ourselves,” Noble writes. “Because a loving God created and preserves the world, because He has promised good to all those who love Him, we don’t have to be busy. We don’t have to feel guilty for not being productive all the time, or for not using our leisure in the most effective way. Rest without anxiety or fear of falling behind or missing out is not only possible for us because we are not our own. It is required of us.”
Noble points to the story of Mary and Martha in the Bible as a kind of proof text for the rest God invites us to. Martha is busy and worried. Mary is resting with the Lord. Martha gets so worked up she accuses Jesus of not caring.
“Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand” (Luke 10:40).
But Jesus sees deep into the heart of a woman who tries too hard, who may believe that she does, in fact, have to save the world and justify herself.
“Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
This is the truth we’ve been moving toward through this entire series. It’s the pivotal point of Noble’s entire book: “If we are our own and belong to God, we have the freedom to rest. We do not have to hold up the world or even ourselves.”
Why? Because that’s God job. We just have to let him do it.
“We are a people of Marthas, chronically unable to cease our work to delight in Christ,” Noble writes. “We feel safer when we have exhausted ourselves laboring for our own justification. And the sight of Marys—those who can rest—makes us bitter. But it doesn’t have to be this way. By God’s grace, as we continue to understand that we are not our own, we may begin to learn to rest.
I wonder … How easy is it for you to rest? Why? How would your life be different if you truly lived as if you belonged to God and don’t have to hold up the world or even yourself?
2. “Sabbaths – 1979, IV” by Wendell Berry
I love the way this beautiful poem by Wendell Berry begins:
The bell calls in the town
Where forebears cleared the shaded land
And brought high daylight down
To shine on field and trodden road.
I hear, but understand
Contrarily, and walk into the woods.
I leave labor and load,
Take up a different story.
I keep an inventory
Of wonders and of uncommercial goods.
This “different story” is what we’ve been talking about for weeks, what it means to be truly human in the way God created us to be. It’s about resisting the spirit of this age,
Where ceaseless effort seems to be required,
Yet fails, and spirit tires
With flesh, because failure
And weariness are sure
and instead coming
… here to this restful place
Where music stirs the pool
And from high stations of the air
Fall notes of wordless grace,
Strewn remnants of the primal Sabbath’s hymn.
You can read or listen to the entire poem by clicking on think below.
As you do, consider what it would mean for you to “take up a different story.” What role would nature play, as it does for Berry’s narrator? What do you think he means by “joy without defect” near the end of the poem?
3. Are you tired?
If so, take a minute to breathe deeply. In and out. In and out.
Then, read this passage from Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
I wonder … what does Jesus mean when he says, “Get away with me and you’ll recover your life?” What “unforced rhythms of grace” is Jesus calling you to learn?
4. Afternoon - Yellow Room by Frederick Carl Frieseke
I love the colors of this painting, but I also love the relaxed posture of the woman in the chair. When I see this, the word “rest” comes to mind.
Interestingly, if you look closely at the painting, you’ll see a fuzzy white line above the woman’s right hand. According to the museum notes, this is called a pentimento, meaning “repentance” in Italian. As paint ages, it becomes more transparent and reveals changes the artist made in lower layers. An infrared reflectogram (IRR) scan of “Afternoon - Yellow Room” showed that the woman in the painting was originally holding an open book. Frieseke painted over the book and changed the position of the woman’s hand for the final version.
Take another look at the painting.
I wonder … how does it make you feel? Would you feel the same way about the painting if the woman were holding a book, like in the earlier version? What if she was holding a letter or money or a cup of tea? When is the last time you sat in a chair and rested the way this woman is?
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. Thanks again for joining me. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together.
As always, if you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. I can’t always respond quickly, but I always respond.
By the way, if you’re planning to join me this summer to read through Kate DiCamillo’s work, you can find the schedule for all 25 books here. If you’d like to participate in a less-involved way, here’s the schedule to read three of her most popular stand-alone novels: The Tiger Rising (June), The Tale of Despereaux (July), and Flora and Ulysses (August). I’ll be sharing the complete details of our reading plan next week, including another special project for those who want to get to know their own places better.
Until next time,