‘Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.’
Augustine of Hippo.
I’m more than a little restless by nature, and satisfaction rarely finds a home amidst the torrent of questions in my mind.
No sooner have I finished one project, one book, one task than I’m on to the next. I go to bed each evening with tasks undone and wake each morning with a ‘to-do’ list.
There are many things I can’t change about myself or in my circumstances. I cannot undo past mistakes nor engineer automatic future success but as a follower of Jesus, I can find a ‘good place to be’.
A place of soul-rest.
To some, this place can seem ‘Narnia like’, elusive, highly romanticised and surely a figment of the Christian’s imagination?
To others, this notion is a compromise, a life of mediocrity and bland acceptance.
It’s hard to believe that the God of the Universe has an individual plan for each of our lives, that He formed us in our mother’s womb and calls us His own.
It’s even harder to accept that the same God may have called us to a life of suffering or unfulfilled dreams and that this is His will for us, for now, for the foreseeable future.
My maternal grandmother (Agnes) was known to all as ‘Nancy’. Nancy was born an ‘illegitimate’ child in a generation and society where this was socially unacceptable. She was brought up by the brother of her biological mother and his wife, in the full knowledge that her biological mother lived in the same town. Her mother went on to marry and have additional children, all of whom Nancy shared school desks and playground space with as well as an unspoken siblinghood.
Nancy would have grown up feeling different to other children, but with no way of expressing that difference.
When her adoptive mother died in old age, it was only then that one of her own daughters found out the truth. ‘You know, she wasn’t really my mother’ Nancy whispered to the shocked teenager as she walked away from her grandmother’s burial place. Emotions finally had found an outlet for Nancy. I’m sure she did attend the funeral of her biological mother too, at a later date. I wonder what she would have whispered then to folks nearby?
But Nancy would most likely not have whispered a single word on this occasion, for she was a woman of few words, none of them unkind. Occasionally, if pushed beyond the limits of endurance, she would utter a matter of fact statement about a situation, with the driest of humour, leaving listeners with an overwhelming sense that in her head she had written an essay on the subject of which this was only the title.
For the duration of my early childhood, Grandma and Grandpa lived in a semi-detached ‘council’ house about half a mile from the sea in a town west of Glasgow. The long stretch of sandy beach was less a tourist attraction and more a site to contain the massive sprawling ammunition factory hidden in the dunes. Locally this area was known as “the shore”. ‘The shore’ for us children was a place for long walks in the wind with the promise of home-made mushy peas in a carton at the end. The ammunition factory itself employed someone from nearly every local family, an undoubtedly impoverished neighbourhood where alcohol problems were common. Nevertheless, the community was strong here, sustained by Bunty’s “General Store and Fancy Goods” shop across the road and my grandparent’s self-appointed role of community support workers and advice on all things spiritual.
Late in my teenage years, I knew for certain that Grandma suffered from anxiety, of the kind that tortured her gut and meant she only ate limited foods. Grandma never made a fuss over her diet. She simply opted for a small plate at mealtimes and chose her foods carefully from a full selection prepared for the rest of her family and friends.
Grandma rarely strayed beyond the boundary of her front door, apron-clad, and busying herself with domesticity. Nancy was an expert knitter of shetland yoke jumpers, a lover of nature, a wonderfully kind and intuitive grandma and a good friend to many in the town. But Nancy was ill, with anxiety. A near prisoner in her own home, which ‘cell’ she turned into a place of blessing and acceptance.
If we as children cycled across the ‘back roads’ from our town to the next where she lived, her home was where we headed. Grandma would welcome us with rosy apples, shiny from her polishing their skins on a corner of her apron. Grandma noticed when we had chapped lips and foraged in her drawers for a remedy. My brother developed a nervous tic at one point and it was Grandma who calmly reassured him that it would go in time.
We went to Grandma and Grandpa’s home twice weekly for dinner after mum died. The meal served to us never varied and Grandma’s quiet presence and kindly advice were equally constant.
Grandma and Grandpa were an unlikely pair really. Grandpa was an extrovert. He loved meeting people and talking to folk. He knew everyone in the town and it was impossible to go for a quick stroll with him without being caught up in long conversations.
Grandpa cared deeply about people and had a legendary telephone bill in the days where one didn’t have a contract with a phone company for broadband which included free calls.
For the most part, Grandma tolerated Grandpa’s long-winded stories, jokes and hapless efforts at DIY but once when we arrived to have dinner with them on a Tuesday evening, Grandma was, unusually, rather unhappy. As ever, the smell of potato chips cooking in lard greeted us, the table was set and grandma had even managed to make a fresh batch of her ‘trademark’ scones and ‘paradise cake’. Above us, and around us, however, there had been some attempts at redecoration of their ‘living room’. A new plastic ceiling rose framed the familiar 70’s orange ceiling lamp overhead, but it sported a large crack all the way from the centre to its edge. Catching our eyes, Grandma stated: “Aye, it’s cracked like the folk in the hoose”. Grandpa continued to talk as if no-one had said a word.
Often I feel saddened that Grandma’s life was so severely limited by her anxiety and her life circumstances, but equally, I’m unsure which effective treatments may have been available to her back then.
The truth is that most of our lives are limited by things beyond our control. I hear so many people talk of how they will re-order their lives to make them more meaningful, to shake off restrictions, to set higher goals, to leave a fine legacy of having made a difference in the world and in the lives of others. But much of the difference that is made in life is forged behind the scenes, through the quiet but powerful effects of a life lived well despite adverse circumstances, even in a dull, cold and unattractive town in Central Scotland with crippling anxiety.
Grandma rarely talked openly of her faith in God. She came from a church tradition where women were expected to be silent and while this restriction did not extend to home life, it had an unhappy habit of doing just that. But Grandma’s faith was evident, from the open Bible by her chair and her habit of prayer.
There are many places in life where I am ‘at home’, happy and fulfilled. Most are places of inspiration and creativity, beauty and sometimes solitude, but these are not always restful places for my soul.
Like ‘Christian’ in Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress”, I am on a journey.
Lately, I’ve been keeping company with King David, who in the Psalms wrestles his way towards soul rest in a very honest dialogue with the God of Heaven. He respectfully fills in God’s part of their reciprocal conversation for our benefit (perhaps for his own too).
Soul-rest is hard fought and won for King David. A mental and at times physical struggle of flesh and Spirit.
Psalm 4, begins with King David in a position of distress and abandonment. He reaches trust and joy in God but only through a deep process of prayer and soul-searching.
Jesus tells us that in order to find soul rest, we must learn of him – meekness, humility, the willingness to take His servant-hearted yoke upon us.
The Apostle Paul writes in his New Testament letters of the same personal war between flesh and Spirit.
Sometimes I’m puzzled about why God would make it such a struggle for us as humans to reach this place of soul- rest. The answer may be that the process of the struggle is necessary.
To grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
I’m convinced that soul rest comes in and through the struggle: in the daily battle to make enough time to be in God’s presence; in our questioning prayers about God’s purpose for our lives; in our determination to forgive in Jesus name or in our reckless trust in an unseen God.
Soul-rest is not a euphoric state for holy people but rather a supernatural encounter with the living God in the ordinary of our lives.
It’s a place from where perspective emerges about human life and an eternal Kingdom; a place where it makes a world of sense to sacrifice personal ambition and dreams for the sake of Jesus Christ.