Tuesday, May 29, 2007

HE GIVES HIS BELOVED SLEEP



And there was evening and there was morning -- the first day.

So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches.

At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee be cause of thy righteous judgments.

My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.

He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you -- the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm -- he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.

The day is yours, and yours also the night; you established the sun and moon.

When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.

The sleep of a labourer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces corn.

Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, 'Teacher, don't you care if we drown?' He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, 'Quiet! be still!' Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

They urged him strongly, 'Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.' So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recog nised him, and he disappeared from their sight.

Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.

(Genesis 1: 5, NIV; Genesis 2: 21-22, NIV; Psalm 63: 6, KJV; Psalm 119: 62, KJV; Psalm 119: 148, RSV; Psalm 127: 1-2, RSV; Psalm 121: 4-8, NIV; Psalm 74: 16, NIV; Proverbs 3: 24, NIV; Ecclesiastes 5: 12, NIV; Mark 4: 26-28, 38-39, NIV; Luke 24: 29-31, NIV; Ephesians 4: 26-27, NIV)


There is no more innocent, peaceful sight than that of a young child blissfully asleep. There is no more refreshing feeling than crisp, cool sheets on a hot summer's night after a hard day's work. There is nothing more tortuous than the inability to sleep. It is a premonition of hell, almost endless duration, endless frustration.

The secret of good sleep is to be able to leave all that is undone and unsaid, and all that has been done and said that we wish could be undone, in the Lord's hands. When the storm is raging around us, when pastoral and work problems beset us, when the little boat of the church is buffeted by great waves, we can let our heads hit the pillow and sleep soundly just as Jesus did. For our sleeping can be, like his, not a sign of lack of care and concern for those who are perishing, but of trust in the totally competent care of the Father. It was a truly faithful woman who, during the bombing of London, was heard to excuse herself for having laid quietly in bed, with the words, 'Well, I reflected that God does not sleep, and there seemed no reason why both of us should stay awake.'

It is in vain that we allow anxiety to strangle good sleep. Burning the midnight oil has its place occasionally as some Psalms remind us, though not for the purpose of worrying or feverish working. When it becomes a regular practice it can be a sign of lack of faith in the One who keeps watch, and grows the grain of the kingdom while we sleep. It can also represent a refusal to respect the inbuilt rhythms of the Creator, like the beach mission team I once was on, which expected the teenage team to survive on six hours sleep a night and then wondered why everyone was tired and irritable towards the end of the mission, and why the team's witness was slipping.

We can kid ourselves that we are somehow infinite and immortal, forgetting that we are mere dust, and we need our sleep. Bonhoeffer once asked, 'Who is there among us who can give himself with an easy conscience to the cultivation of music, friendship, games or happiness? Surely not ethical man, but only the Christian.' One might well add sleep to that list. The person who sleeps too little or doesn't sleep well may be taking life too seriously. It is good to simply let the Lord lavish his love upon us, while we sleep.


My subject is the theology of sleep. It is an unusual subject, but I make no apology for it. I think we hear too few sermons about sleep. After all, we spend a very large share of our lives sleeping. I suppose that on an average I've slept for eight hours out of twenty-four during the whole of my life, and that means that I've slept for well over twenty years. What an old Rip van Winkle I am! But then, what Rip van Winkles you all are, or will one day become! Don't you agree then that the Christian gospel should have something to say about the sleeping third of our lives as well as about the waking two-thirds of it?

John Baillie, The Theology of Sleep

As we re-enter that sequence of days when God spoke energy and matter into existence, we repeatedly come upon the refrain, 'And there was evening and there was morning' one day... a second day... on and on six times.

This is the Hebrew way of understanding day, but it is not ours. Our day begins with an alarm clock ripping the predawn darkness and closes, not with evening but several hours past that, when we turn off the electric lights. In our conventional references today, we do not include the night except for the two or three hours we steal from either end to give us more time to work. Because our definition of day is so different, we have to make an imaginative effort to understand the Hebrew phrase evening and morning, one day. More than idiomatic speech is involved here; there is a sense of rhythm.

Day is the basic unit of God's creative work; evening is the beginning of that day. It is the onset of God speaking light, stars, earth, vegetation, animals, man, woman into being. But it is also the time when we quit our activity and go to sleep. When it is evening, 'I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep' and drift off into semiconciousness... a state in which I am absolutely nonproductive and have no cash value.

Evening: God begins, without our help, his creative day. Morning: God calls us to enjoy and share and develop the work he initiated.

Creation and covenant are sheer grace and there to greet us every morning. George MacDonald once wrote that sleep is God's contrivance for giving us the help he cannot get into us when we are awake.

We read and reread the opening pages of Genesis, along with certain sequences of Psalms, and recover these deep, elemental rhythms, internalising the reality in which the strong, initial pulse is God's creating/saving Word, God's providential/sustaining presence, God's grace.

As this biblical rhythm works in me, I also discover something else: when I quit my day's work, nothing essential stops. I prepare for sleep not with a feeling of exhausted frustration because there is much yet undone and unfinished, but with expectancy. The day is about to begin! God's genesis words are about to be spoken again. During the hours of my sleep, how will he prepare to use my obedience, service and speech when morning breaks? I go to sleep to get out of the way for a while. I get into the rhythm of salvation.

While we sleep, great and marvellous things, far beyond our capacities to invent or engineer, are in process -- the moon marking the seasons, the lion roaring for its prey, the earthworms aerating the earth, the stars turning in their courses, the proteins repairing our muscles, our dreaming brains restoring a deeper sanity beneath the gossip and scheming of our waking hours. Our work settles into the context of God's work. Human effort is honoured and respected not as a thing in itself but by its integration into the rhythms of grace and blessing.

Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor's Sabbath

It is a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that every dissension that the day has brought must be healed in the evening. It is perilous for the Christian to lie down to sleep with an unreconciled heart. Therefore, it is well that there be a special place for the prayer of brotherly forgiveness in every evening's devotion, that reconciliation be made and fellowship established anew.

In all the ancient evening prayers, we are struck by the frequency with which we encounter the prayer for preservation during the night from the devil, from terror and from an evil, sudden death. The ancients had a persistent sense of their helplessness while sleeping, of the kinship of sleep with death, of the devil's cunning in making them fall when defenceless. So they prayed for the protection of the holy angels and their golden weapons, for the heavenly hosts, at the time when Satan would gain power over them.

Most remarkable and profound is the ancient church's prayer that when our eyes are closed in sleep, God may nevertheless keep our hearts awake. It is the prayer that God may dwell with us and in us even when we are unconscious of his presence, that he may keep our hearts pure and holy in spite of all the cares and temptations of the night, to make our hearts ever alert to his call and, like the boy Samuel, answer him even in the night with: 'Speak, Lord; for your servant is listening (1 Samuel 3: 9). Even in sleep God can perform his wonders upon us or evil bring us to destruction. So we pray at evening:

When our eyes with sleep are girt, Be our hearts to thee alert; Shield us, Lord, with thy right arm, Save us from sin's dreadful harm. (Luther)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

If a psychologist wants to understand the sort of person I am, he will not listen to the conversation I make, or read what I write on paper; he will rather try to penetrate beneath this official selfhood to my most secret thoughts. He is not hidden in the public show-places of my mind, but in its hidden nooks and crannies. He would like to know what visions I see in the clouds of my tobacco smoke as I lie back in my easy chair. He would like to know what I think of as I lie awake in bed, and he will question me in particular about the dreams that come to me when at last I drop off to sleep. It is the inner life that counts ... What do I remember on my bed, and on what do I meditate in the night watches?...

These old worthies went to the centre at once. When they laid their heads upon their rude pillows, they remembered God. When they composed themselves to sleep, they were thinking upon his Word. And if they woke up in the middle of the night it was to meditate on his precepts... I think some of these Psalmists were dwellers in tents [awake and on guard] perhaps in the course of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and others were Levites on night duty at the Temple; and what they are telling here is how they spent these hours of enforced wakefulness. But one of them at least tells us more than that -- he tells us that he gets up a little sooner than he has to, in order to have time to think about God.

John Baillie, Night Thoughts

If we have surrendered our hearts to God in the sunlight, he will be with us no less during the hours of darkness. Nor can the devil get at us by night, if we have not allowed him some entry by day. It is certain that if there were no evil in our waking souls, there would be no evil in our dreams. But, of course, evil is always at our doors, at least in the form of temptation... There is, after all, one way in which we can exercise some control over our dreams, and that is by the proper direction of our thoughts before we retire... Everyone who calls himself a Christian should go to sleep thinking about the love of God as it has visited us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

John Baillie, The Theology of Sleep

Those whose spirits are stirred by the breath of the Holy Spirit of God go forwards even in sleep.

Brother Laurence, The Practice of the Presence of God

God is my portion and joy, His counsels are my light; He gives me sweet advice by day And gentle hints by night.

Isaac Watts

Of all the thoughts of God that are Born inward into souls afar, Along the PsaLmist's music deep, Now tell me if that any is, For gift or grace, surpassing this - 'He giveth his beloved sleep'?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

My head and hands and feet Their rest with gladness greet, And know their work is o'er;

My heart, thou too shalt be From sinful works set free, Nor pine in weary sorrow more.

Paul Gerhardt

Nature has ended another day, struck down another life! Someone has music in the evening, others the fruit of strife, Yet in the balance: Love draws the curtains and makes her entrance, embracing the suffering to her side.

Kenneth T. Crotty, Nature had Ended Another Day

All is still and gentle as if all creation shares with tender empathy the last whisper of this dying day. The lights are low now, and everything is suspended as if waiting for some final word.

Bruce Prewer, Vespers by the Murray River


Now that dusk is near - with parrots in the gum trees lessening their chatter, with the distant roar of cars fading to a mere murmur - may I hear the voice of the One who walks in the garden in the cool of the evening and, in hearing that voice, find a little of the Eden-peace which some day will be perfected. This I pray in the name of him who was once mistaken for a gardener.

Bruce Prewer, 'God of the Evening'

Lighten our darkness, Lord, we pray: and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Be present, merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night: that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may rest on your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Evening Prayer collects, An Australian Prayer Book

Lord, be the guest of this house; keep far from it the deceits of the evil one. May your holy angels watch over us as guardians of our peace. And may your blessing be always upon us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, who at this evening hour rested in the sepulchre, and sanctified the grave to be a bed of hope to your people: make us so to abound in sorrow for our sins, which were the cause of your passion, that when our bodies lie in the dust we may live with you, through the saving merits of your cross; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

As watchmen look for the morning, so we wait eagerly for you, O Lord. Come with the dawning of the day and make yourself known to us in the breaking of the bread, for you are our God, for ever and ever. Amen.


A Benediction

Let us praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; let us praise and magnify him for ever. The almighty and merciful God preserve us and give us his blessing. Amen.

Prayer at the End of the Day, An Australian Prayer Book

Rowland Croucher ed., High Mountains Deep Valleys (Albatross/Lion), chapter 30

1 comment:

newbeginning said...

God bless you Rowland! I know you from years past via your John Mark Ministries articles, your books (my wife got one from Tom Houston at WVI when she worked for him), and your work with World Vision. Your collected passages on sleep spoke to me tonight...my dad and I just spent the evening trying to get my mom to sleep one night after she had a stroke, and we're exhausted. God bless you for flinging these verses and the beautiful collection of observations on sleep out on the internet.