The Gospel of Rest
For us Black folk, this idea of rest and making space for rest, is personal and political.
The Gospel of Rest
“God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” Genesis 2:2-3
“Work, work, work, work, work, work. . .” - Rihanna
Rest is so important that it appears in the second chapter of the Bible. Rest is a sacrament. Rest is magical. Rest is how we tap into physical wisdom – our inherent gifts and talents that make us who we are.
Much of the power, prayers, and philosophy of the practice of hoodoo stem from the Bible. The Bible is the book our African American, and African (cough, colonization, cough, slavery, cough), ancestors used to do their magic. Psalms 23 is a foundational spell in hoodoo. While society often attempts to separate culture from practice, for those of us in the African Diaspora they are intertwined. The prophesying, shouting, dancing, hand-laying, prayer closets in our world are African traditions that we as a culture have effortlessly brought into Christian traditions. As the daughter of an African-Christian preacher I’ve seen this first-hand my entire life (church three-plus times a week adds up over the years) and I know the Bible better than most..So now let’s talk The Gospel of Rest.
Are. You. Resting?
The answer, likely, is no. Our culture is inundated with an unhealthy obsession with work. Late-stage capitalism has us all thinking we need to hustle or die, rise and grind, work harder than everyone else, be an entrepreneur and have a 9-to-5, and we are working ourselves into early graves. The life expectancy for African Americans continues to lag other ethnic groups, largely due to a cultural expectation and celebration of us working ourselves to death.
This Juneteenth I wanna talk about John Henry and how the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves can spell life or death.
According to legend John Henry was a steel driving man. A steel-driving man was someone who was tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives. (So hard, hard, work.) There are beautiful statues of him in Talcott and Hinton, West Virginia—John Henry is that important to our history. Now why is our beloved ancestor John Henry so lauded? Because he worked himself to death trying to outpace a machine.
John Henry was strong. As strong as WE get, and we know that’s a big, strong, black man. ☺ Somehow someone decided to set up a race between John Henry and a new-fangled, steam-powered rock drilling machine. And being a proud black man, he agreed. He won – then immediately died.
I’m not going to tell this story in detail the way it has been told in lore. You can find his story all over. My point is different from the one normally told.
“For what doth it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life?” (Jesus) Mark 8:36 (ASV).
We are giving our lives in exchange for showing that we are worthy -- and we get applauded for it. And I’m saying, it’s not necessary. This was forced upon us. This is generational trauma, the legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow, of forced segregation, of being made to feel as though we are a problem rather than an asset-playing itself out in real time.
While we love John Henry (Áse) and we honor all our ancestors who worked themselves to the grave to help create the economy, our society, to create life, to create us, the best way we can honor their legacy is to move beyond this idea that we are chattel, that our value comes from our labor. This is a false premise. Our value comes from ourselves, our authentic selves.
“Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are worth more than [a whole flock] of sparrows.” (Jesus) Luke 12:7
“Is it not written in your Law, I said, you are gods?” (Jesus) John 10:34
For us black folk, this idea of rest and making space for rest, is personal and political. Many of us came to this country as enslaved people, forced to create the wealth of this country, while receiving only scars in return. Our value came from what we could produce, and that is how many of us are still viewed and view ourselves. We are conditioned by a society that praises what we do, rather than the universal truth that there is inherent value in the fact that we exist.
Rather than treat rest as sacred and make true time for it, we run ourselves ragged proving our importance by doing, doing, doing – and lying to ourselves by telling ourselves that all this doing is rest. It is not. Most of us stay so busy, we don’t know what our inner voice sounds like, and we’d be shocked to hear our inner voice is a taskmaster that keeps us on a treadmill of DOING not BEING. We live for a future that has not yet come – and run from a past that no longer exists.
I’m saying we need a paradigm shift. We free now. You’ll find that there is praise and glory in rest and once you get some real rest you will be closer to your God. But this runs counter to society’s narrative. You gotta experience true rest to have that experience. If we as a people start to prioritize rest, prioritize idleness, we will find that rest is what makes room for expansion. Rest is what allows the body to heal (and makes room for us to listen to what our body is trying to tell us). Rest is how we create the fertile ground that will allow for us to thrive. From rest we can cultivate beauty. From beauty we can cultivate joy. From joy we can create a life that is fulfilling for ourselves, rather than one defined by the value that others place on us.
Let’s cultivate a practice of real rest. Of not going anywhere; of sitting around doing nothing; of creating, just for the sake of creating; consuming art just for the sake of consuming art; reading, meditating, sleeping, bathing – fully indulging yourself, for yourself. Taking time to listen to your inner voice. What is it saying to you about you and how you must move in the world? Would you value yourself the same if you lost everything you have today? Have you put yourself in mental slavery beholden to the idea that you are only as good as your last accomplishment?
Do you have a day that you set aside once a week for you? A day with no obligations? A day where you do exactly what you want to do and not what you have to do or are expected to do? I specifically do not mean a day where you attend church, or go to your kids’ ball games, or do anything for anyone. Having a super-packed, super-busy, no-days-off schedule is another way of keeping the masses in bondage, and prevents us from having the space to dream. You don’t have to outpace the machine. We free now. Massa doesn’t set your schedule unless you let him. Happy Juneteenth.
I sincerely mean, Do you have a free day, to do nothing, and then you DO NOTHING. You don’t clean. You don’t work in the garden, on your home, for others, for yourself or your business, or go anywhere -- you rest. You sleep. You be.
If we are wonderfully and beautifully made, (Psalms 139:4) then we need not run ourselves into the ground working, trying to prove our value to the world. A rose doesn’t go around doing things to add value to our lives. A rose contributes by being itself. By being beautiful, by waving in the breeze, and opening to the opportunities (the bees!) that come its way.
“In vain you rise early and stay up late, tolling for food to eat – for he grants sleep to those he loves.” Psalms 127:2
We must treat rest as a sacrament. This is divine order. Treat rest as though it is as necessary to your life as eating and breathing and you will experience expansion like you’ve never seen before. You are not bound by the scars of your ancestors. You can heal generations through your actions. Make room for rest and you will open the doors to living your truth. Once you do that, your contributions will come from your inherent gifts. It won’t be forced. It won’t be a grind. You won’t have to work to death. You will shine and have value just as you are.
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