by Jo Kadlecek
Years ago I was visiting a friend in her apartment on a Saturday afternoon. When I walked in, she was lying on the couch, eyes open, hands behind her head, a half grin on her face.
“What are you doing, Melissa”? I asked.
Her reply has stayed with me ever since: “Nothing,” the grin was full now. “Absolutely nothing. Isn’t it great?”
Yes it is! Times of doing nothing, of resting and sleeping and allowing our bodies and minds the gift of inactivity are great indeed. In fact, sleep is the natural remedy to the seasonal flu (“just sleep it off”), the short-term solution to cranky attitudes (“you’ll feel better in the morning”) and the safest path to indecision (“sleep on it”). We can’t go 24 hours without it and when we don’t have enough of it, we can hardly think straight. If we live to be 100, we’ll spend a third of our lives, or 12,227 days, sleeping. In much the same way our bodies are wired for relationships, food and movement, they also demand we close our eyes each night, lie down on a bed (if we’re blessed to have one) and sleep.
God made it so. Though he is the Lord who “never slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:4), he put in place the boundary at the end of each day that tells us “enough.” It is a daily rhythm of Grace for our good, a reflection of his character. After the wonder of those six days when creation emerged from his fingertips, the Lord didn’t take a nap, but he did choose to rest.
Why then do so many of us push so hard against this amazingly strategic and revitalizing gift? Sure, some folks might struggle to “fall asleep” at night while others too often use the safety of our covers to avoid the inevitable. But what if we looked at sleep through a theological lens? What if its many health benefits are reflections of a caring Creator who always and only wants our best? What would happen to our bodies, hearts and minds, to our spiritual journeys even, if every night we prayed with the psalmist (in Psalm 3:5), “I lie down and sleep; I wake again because the Lord sustains me”?
A few years ago healthcare providers and members of the medical community established “World Sleep Day”—and stayed awake to celebrate it! (It’s every March if you want to join the fun.) Seriously, its purpose was to counter the belief that sleep was not important enough in personal health and well-being to be a priority. The more they researched, the more they discovered that sleep deprivation threatens the health of up to 45 percent of the global population. They cited the 24/7 rapid pace of western society as part of the culprit and so decided to create an awareness event that helps others celebrate healthy sleep.
Though it might seem corny to celebrate healthy sleep, I think these folks were on to something. The Apostle Paul (who learned to sleep in all situations) wrote to the Romans that, in view of God’s mercy, we are “to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God for this is your true and proper worship” (12:1). If God wants us to offer all of our lives to Him in worship, why wouldn’t that include our sleep? How can we care well for others if we don’t care for these fleshly temples (1Cor. 6:19) he’s given us by guarding a discipline of proper rest?
Because some of us—if we’re honest—think we’re strong enough to get by on less sleep. We justify late nights and early mornings with busy and important schedules, as if all of our doing somehow, superhumanly, defies the laws of nature! A recent study debunked a number of myths about sleep that were doing more harm than good. First up? Adults only need five or fewer hours of sleep. Wrong. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention says we need between seven and 10 hours of sleep to live healthy productive lives. Another myth? Television before bed relaxes you. Wrong again. Blue screens before bedtime always disrupt healthy sleep.
The study also found overwhelmingly the link between “good sleep and our waking success.” For the Christian, ‘our waking success’ means faithfully serving and loving Jesus with the gifts and opportunities he’s given us together. We can’t do that well if we’re tired. Period. In fact, I’ve been thinking lately about how sleep is to the body, mind and soul as a fallow field is to harvesting; it enriches the soil of life for the harvest to come. The word ‘fallow’ even means ‘inactive, dormant, quiet, left for a period without being sown in order to restore its fertility.’ If we want God to bear good fruit in our lives, we need to give our bodies ‘fallow’ hours.
In other words, sleep reminds us of our human limits and our need for God’s strength, just as it prepares us for partnering with the Sleepless One in bringing in his Kingdom to a rest-less world. As Tish Harrison Warren writes in her lovely book, “Liturgy of the Ordinary”—where she devotes an entire chapter to sleep!—“By embracing sleep each day we submit to the humiliation of our own creatureliness and fragility. And in that place of weakness we learn to rest in the reality that our life and death—our days and everything in them—are hidden in Christ.”
So tonight, may we all take more seriously what it means to “get ready for bed” as we offer our sleep to the God who gives it.
Jo Kadlecek is the author of “Woman Overboard: How Passion Saved My Life” (available from Upper Room in audio and print) and is the creative director for Anglican Deaconess Ministries in Sydney, Australia.