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Draw near: Loosening our grip

Lynne Baab • Tuesday January 3 2023

Draw near: Loosening our grip

In her book Prayers in the Night, Rev. Tish Harrison Warren writes about the ways we relinquish control when we sleep. However, she notes that “our bodies and brains are not inactive in sleep. A whole world of activity happens inside our heads. We dream. We fight illness. We form, sort, and strengthen memories from our days.” Then she continues:

“And crucially, all of this happens without our knowledge, consent, or control. Our bodies require us to loosen our grip on self-sufficiency and power if we are to thrive. Both physically and spiritually, then, we must be willing to embrace vulnerability if we are to learn or grow at all. Each night the revolution of planets, the activity of angels, and the world of God goes on just fine without us. For the Christian, sleep is an act of surrender – and a declaration of trust.” [1]

Rev. Warren’s words about sleep parallel much of what I’ve discovered about the Sabbath as I’ve conducted interviews for a book, a Bible study guide, and numerous articles. Many people approach a Sabbath day as something to do: go to church, study the Bible, pray, create celebratory meals, have fun with family members. I believe the heart of the Sabbath is embracing the truth that “the revolution of planets, the activity of angels, and the world of God goes on just fine without us.”

For me, over many decades, the Sabbath has been teaching me a beautiful balance between being called by God to serve in the world alongside Jesus and realizing God runs everything quite well without me for one day a week. Rev. Warren would want me to add that God runs everything quite well without me for the seven to nine hours out of every 24 that I am asleep.

This is my first post in a new year. I’m focusing the post on praying about loosening “the grip of self-sufficiency and power,” a theme of both the Sabbath and sleep. No matter how much God has taught me about relinquishing the myth of my own competence and control, I always have more to learn. I am pondering what it might look like in a new year to pray that I would continue to loosen my grip. Here are some ideas that have come to mind.

1. I wrote last week about using the prayer of examen to look back on the past year, paying attention to where God was at work and where I experienced the absence of God or resisted God, and then praying about what I have observed. A tweak on the prayer of examen might be to ask God to help us notice those times and places where loosening our grip on self-sufficiency and control brought good fruit. Maybe we let go of our expectations for the behavior of a family member, and we were more able to accept reality and even experience joy. Maybe we let go of our illusion that we could control how things would happen in a holiday setting or at work, and we were able to appreciate the people more. If we are able to notice times we loosened our grip in the past, we can pray that God would help us do so in the future.

2. We might also pray that God would help us notice the places where we find it easiest to recognize, in a peaceful way, that we are not in control. I mentioned Sabbath keeping, the primary place I have experienced this great blessing. Rev. Warren recommends acknowledging that in sleep we let go of control. What are the settings in which you are most aware of God’s power over the whole earth, including your life? In nature? While exercising? While playing a musical instrument? While holding a child? You can pray that God would help you identify those places or practices, and also that the Holy Spirit would nudge you to go there and rest in God’s goodness.

3. I like Rev. Warren’s emphasis on sleep for one additional reason. Sleep is a bodily function, and in our time of cell phones and AI and cleaning robots (bring them on!), we need to nurture an embodied spirituality that helps us to stay grounded in the physical world God made. Taking a deep breath, and remembering that God gives us breath, can help us let go of the illusion of control. Thanking God for each meal, and savoring each bite, can remind us that we depend on farm workers, truck drivers, and grocery store workers for our food — and of course God, who made the soil, water, and air, and who gives life to each seed. We did not make ourselves, and we cannot sustain our own lives, without the help of many others, as well as God.

The Psalms help me loosen my grip on self-sufficiency and power, and here’s my favorite psalm to remind me of my dependence on God for every bite of food and every breath.

Bless the LORD, O my soul.
   O LORD my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
   wrapped in light as with a garment. . . .
You set the earth on its foundations,
   so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment. . . .
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
   they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal. . . .
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
   and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth. . . .
These all look to you
   to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
   when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
   when you take away their breath, they die
   and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
   and you renew the face of the ground.
Psalm 104, selected verses

(Next week: Praying to be like water. Illustration by Dave Baab: Lake Pukaki, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

My articles and blog posts most often viewed in 2022:

[1] Tish Harrison Warren, “Angels in my Bedroom” (an excerpt from Prayers in the Night), Christianity Today, January/February 2022, page 40.

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