The Blessing of Rest

Sometimes in conversation, you see a version of yourself reflected back to you.  The other night I saw in some friends the same struggle to understand the importance of rest in my current pure strength program that I wrestled with at the beginning.  We were talking about our training for that day and describing our usual programs.  Both of my friends described circuit style work, moving quickly from one exercise to another without a conscious focus on rest between sets; the rest seemed more the accidental by-product of the amount of time it took to move from one station to the next.  I described my lift that day, a heavy lift that actually involved moving for reps and sets more weight on some lifts than I had previously ever moved.  Rest was essential in order for me to get each rep; my rest between sets on the really heavy lifts was a minimum of five minutes.  My friends looked at me with something akin to horror and said, “Yeah… See… I could never do that.  I need to keep moving.”

I know exactly how they feel, because that’s the same mindset I had when I started training pure strength, and it’s something I struggle with too.  “I know!”  I told them.  “When I first started training this way, I had a hard time waiting.  I have to set the timer on my phone to make sure I don’t try working again too soon.”  I told them the story of one of the first Saturdays I trained that both Diego and Emily were there.  Emily had been stressing the importance of rest between sets with me over several weeks and apparently had mentioned it to Diego.  He noticed that I was sitting down on an empty bench waiting for my next set, as opposed to pacing around, and he pointed this out to Emily as though describing a victory.  Emily laughed and said, “Yup, I’ve trained her to sit.  It’s obedience school around here.”

Being still and just sitting is difficult for me, and as my conversation with my friends indicates, this is a challenge for many of us.  I think this resistance to being still is not isolated to our experiences in the gym.  I go through a lot of my day in a state of fairly constant motion.  I believe a lot of us are like this; this is the pace at which our culture encourages us to move.  The state of constant motion in which we live was the starting point of one of Pastor Earl’s sermons, aptly delivered at the start of the school year as our more spacious summer schedules started to get jammed up and on a Sunday when two of the readings addressed the idea of Sabbath.  The Gospel lesson was one in which Jesus was criticized for having worked on the Sabbath, and the reading from Isaiah contained God’s announcement that honoring the Sabbath leads to blessings.  Pastor Earl helped us break down what “honoring the Sabbath” meant historically; Sabbath was originally a gift of rest for the Hebrew people following their enslavement in Egypt when they were forced to work 24/7.  He explained that many of the rules of keeping the Sabbath that might seem silly or extreme to us originated out of a desire to protect that blessing of rest, and that to a certain degree they are necessary:  “In reality, these rules are not silly. Why, just look at how we’ve filled our days and weeks to the brim so that pausing, resting, and focusing on our relationship with God gets shoved aside. We are modern slaves to our work, our way of life, our pursuit of financial comfort, and our accomplishments used to define ourselves.”

Maybe our desire to have more, be more, and do more requires each of us to establish some of our own rules of Sabbath in order to honor it.  Pastor Earl explained that Martin Luther detailed the two main purposes of Sabbath in his Large Catechism as being “first for our health and second for making sure that we gather and worship God.”  Pastor Earl invited us to find the method that worked for us.  In the gym, many of us use the timers on our phones to ensure that we don’t attempt our next set before our minds and bodies are ready; some read articles on the internet; sometimes we talk; one girl reads Harry Potter.  The method we use to protect that rest is less important than the fact that we do.  Find your own way, but take up the invitation:  “Carve out a little time each day to sanctify, to make the day holy for you. Carve out a day every week to sanctify, to make the day holy for you. We don’t have to get legalistic about it … that eventually leads to more work and stress. But make that part of that day and that day of that week something where you pause and remember God.”  Find the blessing of rest that is both needed and promised.

Faith, Focus, and Movement

Most people recognize that it is through our hard-fought struggles that we learn the greatest lessons; the easy lessons of success often have much less impact and are more quickly forgotten.  With encouragement from Louise and Emily, I learned a couple of significant lessons from my recent back pain.  Louise encouraged me to pay attention to the way my own body processed the pain, to focus inwardly to find my own specific answers to what brought relief or further discomfort, before putting my faith in the generalized answers I might find by googling something like WebMD.  Emily introduced me to the concept that movement is medicine, a necessary part of the healing process that allowed me to reframe the painful mind-body conversation that my injury had begun.

It was while I was in the process of writing about these lessons, that I heard two separate sermons on a difficult passage in Luke where Jesus says he brings division, not peace, to this world.  (Luke 12:49-56).  Not an easy passage, and not one that many people like to focus on.  Both pastors, Pastor Glenn Schoenberger from Our Savior Lutheran Church and Pastor Earl Janssen of Our Shepherd Lutheran Church, recognized that this is not the way we usually like to think of the message of Christianity.  As Pastor Glenn says, we prefer the Jesus of Christmas, the Prince of Peace; “the Jesus who invites us to come to him and he will give us rest, because his yoke is easy and his burden light.”  We are far less interested in the Jesus who promises to turn family members against each other.  Yikes.

Instead of giving us what we want, Jesus offers us some “edgy” stuff, as Pastor Glenn said.  Pastor Glenn acknowledged that the early history of Christianity was one of near constant confrontation with authority and established structures, and that to follow Jesus at that time required “all of the passion and commitment and courage [His followers] could muster” because it was likely that they would “be divided from loved ones who [didn’t] understand or believe in [their] choice.”  While this was the situation during the early days of Christianity, “the practice of our faith holds far less danger and challenge for us in American society today than in Jesus’ time.”  While he recognized that this isn’t the case everywhere, Pastor Glenn suggested that perhaps we lose something of the original intent when we become comfortable in a certain place in our faith where nothing is risked and nothing is challenged.

For another take on this reading (along with a warning that paraphrasing Jesus is dangerous), Pastor Earl summed the passage up like this:  Jesus says to those who were following him, “Really? What did you expect when you started to follow me? Did you really anticipate that I’d make your life easier? I’m proclaiming justice, I’m proclaiming selflessness, I’m showing you what being a child of God means. The powers of this world don’t accept that without a fight.”  From either sermon, it’s clear that this text offers us something challenging, something potentially painful, something we might rather avoid.

conversation-bubbles-2Like the lessons I learned from my painful back, Pastor Earl suggested that the way to engage with this challenging and divisive passage is to turn our focus inward and then to move.  First we need to find our answer to the question, “How does my faith inform my decisions?”  This is not always an easy question to answer, and we can’t expect our answers to square up neatly with those around us.  These differences in response might seem odd, since we “would think that the teachings of Jesus would lead us all toward a single definitive decision”, but instead often we find potentially painful division.  But just as I learned from my back, that pain is not necessarily something we should shy away from; it is something we should move through: “… the reality is that faith informs each of us differently. That’s why … conversations are so important. Faith isn’t some kind of static thing. It is living, breathing, dynamic and so deeply influenced by the witnesses who have surrounded us.”  So we first look inward, and then we put our answer into motion by engaging others in conversation: “How does my faith inform my decisions? Ask yourself the question often. Share your process with others. You will learn about yourself, deepen your faith, and serve as a witness to life in the faith for others.”  And just as movement helped me reframe a painful mind-body conversation during my back episode, having respectful and open conversations about faith allows us to gain a greater range of motion in our relationships and an expanded ability to engage in life effectively, maybe especially when those conversations are “edgy” or challenging.

Faith that Failure Doesn’t Matter

If you’ve ever done any weightlifting, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Failure is your friend!”  The first time I encountered that phrase several years ago in the context of the group strength class I was teaching, I didn’t have a lot of weight training experience from which to make sense of it.  My frame of reference in regards to failure was purely that of a non-lifter, someone who was raised to complete tasks as perfectly as possible, to double check for accuracy always, and to avoid extreme risks to ensure a better chance of success and safety; basically to function within a certain small comfort zone.  In weightlifting, failure is often the goal; this is where muscle growth happens.  When you train hypertrophy style, you want to work so hard that your muscles are no longer able to lift what you’re asking them to move.  When you train strength, getting that last rep of your working set at really heavy weight is almost always in question.  Oddly, in a sense, reaching the point of failure sort of equates to success.

When I first started training the big lifts, Craig helped me.  He coached me on form and he helped me determine my one rep max, the maximum weight I could move in any of my lifts, determined by the point just before which I failed.  I started working on my own at about 80% of my 1RM, but by the time my working sets got heavy I realized that I was not in the right environment to fail.  I was working without a spotter, the squat rack I was using did not have “infinity safety spotter arms” on which I could drop the bar if I couldn’t get back up, and the floor underneath me was not rubberized (not optimal if you’re going to drop the bar off your back). The day my working set of squats was just 5# below my previous max weight and my fourth rep felt like it was in question, I didn’t even attempt my fifth rep because I knew I didn’t have a safety system in place for a fail.

Squatting without safety bar arms
Squatting without safety bar arms
The long, black pieces are the safety bar arms for the squat rack.

This is pretty much the way things work outside of the weightroom too, and this was the subject of one of Pastor Earl’s recent sermons.  Often we believe that success is paramount and that failure matters in an “end of the world” kind of way; we attempt to achieve and expect perfection from ourselves.  We live within a certain small comfort zone, and while the size of that comfort zone might be different for different people, we often function within the parameters of our perceived areas of success.  Pastor Earl challenged us, “What would you do, what would you attempt, what would you dare in your life if you believed that failure didn’t matter? That’s the heart of faith.”

That’s a worthwhile question, so he gave us gave us time to wrestle with it, to talk to our neighbor about it, and then he gave us some of his own examples.  He also reminded us that answering this question with our lives was totally doable, because we have a safety system:

“I ask the question, because failure doesn’t matter. You are a precious child of God. You are a blessing in your family, in your work place, in your activities, and in the lives of all you meet. You are called to encounter the children of God wherever you are and offer the blessing of who God has made you to be. God has your back. We have your back. Failure doesn’t change that one little bit. You’ve been given the kingdom. You are a stranger and foreigner here because you have the freedom to live as a blessed, forgiven, child of God … a citizen of the kingdom of God where the rules are different.  All of this is called faith.”

We can risk failure because ultimately failure as defined by the usual rules doesn’t matter.  Failure does not define us as such; we have already been identified as blessed children of God, loved and forgiven.  With this in mind, failure instead becomes our opportunity for growth, a chance to develop strength, a demonstration of faith.  Imagine how much bigger our comfort zones would be if we consistently remembered that God has our backs; he is our spotter, our “infinity safety spotter arms”.

Breath as Prayer

Louise is a big proponent of the healing and restorative power of breath. When we are stressed out, a deep breath helps restore a sense of calm. When we are injured, a deep breath helps relieve muscle spasm and pain. Technically what happens is that stress and injury activate the body’s sympathetic response system, the fight or flight response.  There are evolutionary reasons why this was an advantage; increased adrenaline, increased blood sugar levels, higher heart rate all prepared us to battle or escape a physical threat. But today in a high-pressure culture, we spend a lot of time prepared to fight or run from perceived threats and stresses. This can lead to a whole host of health problems. A deep and full breath activates the parasympathetic response system and allows our bodies to get back in right relationship with our minds and our surroundings.

Prayer serves a similar purpose. While many of us approach prayer as a way of presenting a “to do list” to God, a request list of blessings and healing for ourselves and our friends and of punishments for enemies, Pastor Earl explains that the real purpose of prayer is quite different. Prayer is meant to change us, to help us re-establish a right relationship with God and his creation. At various points in confirmation classes and sermons, Pastor Earl has gone through the six segments of the Lord’s prayer detailing how each section helps us to re-establish a proper relationship with God.

Pastor Earl has preached on prayer in the past, and years later one of his sermons still stays with me. I heard the sermon at a time in my life when my kids were all very young, and I was overwhelmed. I was constantly running on a sleep deficit and always stressed out. I have never thought of myself as someone who is good at prayer. And while I was struggling through what some might have termed postpartum depression, I was annoyed that I couldn’t even find the energy to pray about it. That was when Pastor Earl delivered a sermon detailing the many ways that prayer can look for people. The example that struck me to the core was one of a new mother letting out a sigh of exhaustion. If sighing out of exasperation and a sense of inadequacy counted as prayer, I figured I was doing pretty well.

The language is different, but the concept is the same. Prayer/breath helps to re-establish right relationships and has the power to change and heal.