The Beauty of Rest

“Look!”

His brakes screeched as the bike came to a stop. I caught up and slowed to a stop behind him. My friend pointed to the side of the trail. 

“Do you know what these are?”

I looked down.

“Mayapples?”

“Mayapples. You know they’re native to Indiana?”

I nodded. With that, he dove into a story of Indiana-grown mayapples helping to develop the anti-cancer extract VP-16. 

Our rides went like this. Though born and raised in Indiana, I learned quickly that my Syrian-born cycling friend knew vastly more about Indiana flora than I did. He kept pausing to share what he’d learned. He slowed down to describe culinary uses of Paw Paw fruit or virtues of the Osage Orange wood as those trees came into view. He stopped to gently nudge fungi and point out a slug he found breakfasting on the surface of it. Suffice it to say, our rides included many pauses. 

At first, this troubled me.

I felt defensive. I knew all too well that I had fewer bike skills and less speed than he did. I suspected that his botany lectures were, in fact, him surreptitiously taking pity on me and slowing down so I could catch up. The idea hurt my pride.

So, I focused on gaining speed. I had a clear goal. Soon, when he braked and paused with his bike, my friend found me right there behind him.

In retrospect, it doesn’t surprise me that I set my goal on speed. I’ve used speed and similar types of accomplishment (e.g., productivity) to evaluate many activities. When I first met this cycling friend in 2021, that tendency of mine towards accomplishment had gone into overdrive.

I’d thrown myself into my professional life, a satisfying thing since it involved goals and missions I value. I took my work’s problems and ideas with me to the bike trail to mull over. I had work to do with people of faith in settings that sought to serve God’s transformation of the world, and there were tight timetables on which to do this work. How could I not keep on and keep up with the tasks at hand?

Then, I met my friend. Neither of us had many cycling buddies who liked morning rides as we did, so we began riding together. Over time, I discovered a couple of important things about this man’s relationship to speed, productivity, and related metrics of success.

First, I discovered that my friend had plenty of reasons, himself, to value speed and accomplishment. An intensive care doctor in a local hospital, he had people to care for and lives to save. He had crucial work to do and much of it. Though he spoke very little to me about the stresses and strains of an intensive care ward during the pandemic, I saw those days take their toll.

“So sorry,” he’d text me some mornings after an overnight shift in the hospital, canceling our ride. “Need to sleep.”

I could only imagine. Voices of the frontline people I knew had been registering exhaustion for some time. In my own work with religious leaders, I’d heard inspiring stories of creativity and adaptability, of fearless ministry in the face of one strain of Covid-19 after another as our culture made its way through 2020 and 2021. I also heard their weariness, and I heard it at a level I’d not heard it before. In my own little corner of ministry I hopefully helped some people, and I also I felt myself wearing down.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew, “and I will give you rest” (11:28). At different times in my life, different images have suggested to me what that kind of rest might look like. Lately, I’ve pictured my cycling friend pausing along bike trails. I’ve been noticing that he seems to relish those pauses. I’ve realized that my speed (or lack thereof) has had nothing to do with how refreshed I felt after a ride.

That was the second thing I learned about my friend: he measured good rides by what we stopped or slowed to see. Even when he no longer needed to pause for me to catch up to him, he still stopped to examine redbud trees in vivid bloom, grape hyacinths in the brush, a blue heron perched in the shallows of a river. He was eager to share words and wonder at what we’d stumbled upon. When I realized that, I realized that I enjoyed those pauses, too.

In fact, I needed those moments to stop and notice the world around me. I needed pauses in my days, and I needed them in my value system. The Jesus who calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves is also the Jesus who offers rest as part of God’s kind of love. He must have known people needed rest, even people committed to doing good in his name. Perhaps the God who commanded Sabbath tends to have more sympathy for the ebb and flow of creaturely energy than we sometimes do.

I’m still learning this. Though I’ve worked with congregations for years around topics of rest and renewal, I’m not immune to the call of speed, productivity, and accomplishment. They do measure meaningful things. However, other measures, equally faithful but vastly different measures, do exist. Take rest, for example, and a faithful balance between accomplishment and rest.

I’ve needed a lot of rest lately, more than I needed before the pandemic. I’m still experimenting with rest as a faithful choice. I’m practicing saying “no.” I find that can feel especially difficult in religious settings and ministry. In any given situation, though, I’m honestly not certain if people around me associate faithfulness and worth with unending work. It might only be me who’s making that association. Regardless, I’m practicing that balance of “yes” with the adequate rest carved out by “no.”

I’m also continuing to pause with my cycling friend. I’ve found those morning rides can help balance my day.

“Oh wow,” my friend said recently, lowering his phone. We’d paused so he could take a picture of morning mist over a field of wildflowers. “What a beautiful ride. Isn’t this gorgeous?”

“It is,” I agreed, taking a couple deep breaths before we moved on.

When we approached the long incline of a hill, my friend called to me.

“You were getting so fast that you could leave me in the dust when you wanted to. I’ve been training harder, though. I’m ready to race you,” he said. Pointing at the hill up ahead, he added with a grin, “Get ready. I’m going to beat you.”

“We’ll see about that,” I said, returning his grin.

And off we went.

This essay originally appeared in the June 13, 2022 issue of Bearings Online.