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A Rested Development

Ruth Haley Barton was a driven woman—type A, busy, successful. And empty and exhausted. But then she discovered ten minutes a day that changed her life.

Ruth Haley Barton has devoted a good portion of her work and life to the idea of rest and spiritual transformation. Co-founder and president of the Transforming Center, Ruth is a spiritual director, retreat leader, and author of numerous books on spiritual transformation, including Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, Invitation to Silence and Solitude, and Longing for More (all IVP). She knows the power of rest.

But it wasn't always that way. For years, Ruth was a performance-driven, type-A personality who rarely took a break. Until one woman's evaluation of her turned her life upside down and put her on a path that gave her a much sought-after peace and reprieve. It's been a bumpy journey, she admits, but ultimately, she realizes that the discipline of rest is exactly what God desired for her—and for all of us.

TCW: We hear a lot about having a balance between work and rest. But rest as a spiritual discipline?

Yes! Rest helps us honor the limits of our existence as human beings. Many of us want to pretend that we're not human, that we don't have any limits, that somehow we're Superwoman. We do have limits.

The spiritual journey takes stamina. Standing in the presence of the living God, dealing with the questions of our lives, allowing God to challenge us, and following his calling when that calling involves risk—all of those things take stamina.

When we're exhausted we simply can't engage the spiritual journey fully. Elijah is a good example. Elijah was depleted, depressed, and ready to quit (1 Kings 19). He told God he wanted to die and then promptly fell asleep. An angel came to guide Elijah into eating and drinking and resting some more. "Otherwise," the angel said, "the journey (into God's presence) will be too much for you."

Although it may seem strange, rest is a spiritual discipline that's necessary for us. For me, practicing rest has involved looking at how much sleep I need and how much I'm actually getting, how well I'm sleeping, whether or not I'm too wired from caffeine—and making the commitment on most days to get the amount of sleep I need. It's involved cultivating solitude daily as a place of rest in God for my body, mind, and soul. It's involved setting aside a weekly Sabbath to rest and delight in God. And it's been taking extended retreats periodically.

When we refuse to rest, we're actually rebelling against God and what he knows is good for us. It's a willful refusal to live within the limits of our humanity.

How did you learn about rest?

I'm a performance-oriented person. I was in my early 30s. I had three children. I was very involved in ministry, often working seven days a week. I was busy with all this good stuff. But I hit a wall in my spiritual life and was so depleted.

My drivenness became troubling to the people around me. My parents were concerned about me. My family wished that I was with them more. I wasn't bringing my best to my family. I was overweight and lethargic. I wasn't resting well. Everything was building to a breaking point.

What did you do?

I went to see a spiritual director. I thought we were going to do some really spiritual stuff. And the first thing she talked to me about was the state of my body—the fact that I was exhausted, lethargic, and not sleeping well. I relied on caffeine to keep myself awake, and I was convinced I didn't have enough time to exercise.

Her words were definitely a wake-up call! I thought, What are you talking about? I have three little kids. I'm involved in ministry. I have work deadlines. Of course I'm tired! But I was desperate for change. I knew that the way I was living wasn't working.

What was her prescription?

She encouraged me to practice solitude as a place of resting, in which I allowed my body to slow down. Where I could say to my mind, Thank you very much. You've served me really well, but that's not what we're here to do right now. Solitude became a place of rest where I could just be who I was in God's presence. I could let go of my drivenness a little bit.

How did you find time?

I started with a small amount of time. Ten minutes a day was all I could do, because I was so used to being busy and it was hard for me to settle down.

Ten minutes sounds doable.

It is. But it took a year for even ten minutes to be comfortable for me, and to start to become a place of rest.

Okay, the classic question. What did you …

Do during those ten minutes? {Laughs} I set apart a sacred time and place—a place that was quiet, removed from the company of others. Then I practiced breath prayers as a way of slowing down and getting in touch with my desire just to be in God's presence.

What's a breath prayer?

A short prayer that I could pray along with my breathing. My breath prayer was simple: Here I am, Lord. All I knew was that I wanted to be with God. And that captured it.

I'd sit with my hands open on my lap as an expression that I was letting go of what I'm usually clinging to: my agenda with God, my busyness, all my identities that I grasp at.

It's the idea from Psalm 46:10: "Be still and know that I am God." In the Hebrew, the word that's translated Be still is rapha, which literally means to open your hands to let go of everything you're clinging to. It's a very physical symbol. Be still. Let go and know God at a whole different level. Breath prayer helped me move me into a place of rest.

But the laundry and the kids and work deadlines! Those can pop into our minds and keep us uptight.

{Laughs} The distractions! It seems like those thoughts come with more vengeance when we try to be silent. All of a sudden the clothes need to be moved from the washer to the drier with urgency. You know? Or there's a friend we haven't contacted in years and we have to call that person right now. That just shows how Satan wants to use even the good and important things in our lives to distract us in those moments that we've committed to being quiet in God's presence.

So what do you do?

When the distractions come, you don't fight them. Don't get on board with them. Let them go by like clouds in the sky. And you allow your breath prayer to bring you back to your original intention, which is to rest and be with God.

Here I am, Lord. I'm here to be with you. Here I am, Lord.

Did that become easier the longer you practiced?

Yes. But during that first year, I wrestled with the level of my inner chaos, which I hadn't realized until then. You don't realize until you try to sit still how chaotic it is on the inside, how addicted you are to activity and noise as ways of identifying yourself.

So that first year was a time of self-knowledge: Oh, this is who I am. I'm a stirred up person. I'm a person who can't be still, who's so dependent on my activity that I can't just be a creature in the presence of my Creator. That's who I am. It's a sobering awareness. Oh, I thought I was different. I thought I was better, but this is who I am.

How was your life different as a result of those ten minutes?

It's been 20 years since I started that practice, and now I long for the extended times of solitude and rest, which include naps and wonderful things like that. I now understand that one of the primary functions of solitude and rest, whether it's short or extended, is for us to find a place of rest in God, and that rest is a spiritual discipline!

But it's not a quick-fix discipline. Some of us have been going so hard and fast for so long that it will take time for us to feel the benefits. When I first started, all I felt was the chaos and distraction, and how difficult and challenging it was for me. My spiritual director said, "That's what it's like. Now you know yourself better. You know that you're all riled up. This is what it's like to be quiet in God's presence."

But what I did notice was that even though I was struggling during the times of restful solitude, the person I was with others was changing. My RPMs were slowing down. I was able to be present with other people and listen better. I became more intuitive about what was going on within them and what the moment really called for. I was able to hear the Holy Spirit in the quiet spaces of my heart and mind. My drivenness started to settle down, because I was experiencing myself as loved in God's presence beyond all of my doing, and my doing stopped being the most important thing about me.

Where do you think your life would be had you not begun practicing the discipline of rest?

I would have burned out in some more radical way. It might have been physical. It might have been just saying to God, "I'm done," like Elijah did, and leaving ministry altogether. I probably would have ruined my life and the people around me.

So I'm grateful for a God who knows us well enough to say, "This is important for you."

Are there other biblical passages that have encouraged you in practicing rest?

Yes. Hebrews chapter 4 assures us that God is offering rest to us as his people, and our refusal to rest stems from unbelief: We don't believe that God can give us what we need unless we keep banging away at it. The writer goes further and says that our daily and weekly rhythms of rest point towards an even deeper rest—the ability to rest one's whole self in God both now and for eternity.

The passage contains a very strong warning: "Today if you hear his voice (regarding the promise of rest), do not harden your heart." The writer of Hebrews is saying, "Don't think you're the only one who can live without rest. Don't harden your heart. Trust God by entering into the rest he's holding out for you, and see how faithful God is."

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Ginger E. Kolbaba

Ginger Kolbaba is the author of Desperate Pastors' Wives and The Old Fashioned Way. Connect with her on Twitter @gingerkolbaba.

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Busyness; Rest; Slowing Down; Solitude; Spiritual Growth
Today's Christian Woman, December , 2009
Posted December 1, 2009

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