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On Sleeping - Issue #12

Poems help when you are not sleeping well. The other day I was sitting around a table with friends an
On Sleeping - Issue #12
By John Starke • Issue #12 • View online
Poems help when you are not sleeping well.
The other day I was sitting around a table with friends and explained how I hadn’t been sleeping well. I’ve had a hard time falling asleep and sometimes wake up with my mind racing. One of those friends sent me a poem (instead of a sermon), by Wendell Berry,
A man with some authentic worries
And many vain and silly ones
I am well-schooled in sleeplessness;
I know it from the inside out.
I breathe, and I know what’s at stake.

But still sometimes I’m sane and sound,
however heart or head may ache;
I go to sleep when I lie down,
With no determined care to breathe
I breathe and live and sleep and take.

A sabbath from my weariness,
I rest in unwaking trust
Like clouds and ponds and stones and trees.
The long arising Day will break
If I should die before I wake.
This poem is true. I go to bed with some authentic worries, but with some vain and silly ones too. The problem is that I often can’t tell the difference and neither can my heart. When I read this poem, the last stanza seemed like a good prayer. I wanted “a sabbath from my weariness,” to “rest in unwaking trust.” As the lyrics of “6” from Sleeping at Last goes, “Oh God I’m so tired, of being afraid.” And then I remember that Psalm 127 tells me that the Lord grants sleep to those he loves.
Sleep is a gift. It really is. You can’t make yourself sleep, you can only receive it. I have to put myself on my side and wait for God to give this gift that comes only because he loves me. When that happens an exchange occurs that I neither witness nor oversee: he takes my cares and exchanges them for rest. If only for a little while.
One morning after a fairly restless night of sleep, I was praying through Psalm 53. It’s a psalm you’ve read or heard quoted. It begins, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.”’ It’s one of those psalms that almost immediately tempts you to consider someone else who says with their mouths 'There is no God.’ Atheists! But the psalmist doesn’t say “mouth,” he says “heart.” In verse 3, he gives a characteristic of who this is: “There they are, in great terror when there is no terror” (Psalm 53:3). They are afraid when there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Reading this passage was a gift to me. In some sense, my sleeplessness came from things unknown, irrational, or just not there! I have been in terror when there is no terror. Terror may be too strong a word to characterize my sleep in the way atheism would characterize my beliefs, but nevertheless, you get my point.
What we have going on here are disordered fears. Similarly, Augustine talks about sin as disordered loves—love God most and the rest of our desires will follow along as they should. Psalm 53 is aiming at a man who does not fear God, or at least does not fear him most. He does not fear God, so he ends up afraid of things he has no business fearing. His fears are disordered. He may have some authentic fears, but mostly vain and silly ones.
Christianity presents the sleep strategy of fearing God more than anything else in order to get better rest. Our world fears everything but God and our anxiety is through the roof. We live as if we are merely at the mercy of a universe indifferent to our causes and griefs. And so we put on courage and individuality, using our best “defy-the-universe” selfie face on Instagram. But the universe is never defied. Pain and sorrow, even terror come to the good and the bad, the righteous and unrighteous alike. Age is not just a number, but something that steals our loved ones and leaves us alone, waiting for our own time to disappear. Come to find out, you are right to be afraid. At least, that’s what the sleepless, like me, say to themselves. We have every reason to be anxious. If we are truly just at the mercy of the universe, yes, there is reason to be in terror!
I started that last paragraph with a Christian strategy for sleeplessness, but ended it with secular realism. Sorry, bad habit. Again, Christianity teaches us a strategy for sleep. The secular realism I mentioned in the last paragraph is rational, it just isn’t right. It’s consistent, but it’s consistency begins in the wrong place.
In 2 Kings 6, the king of Syria was mad at Elisha. That man of God had caused too many problems. So he sent a great army to slaughter him. An entire army of horses and chariots for one man. That’s maybe a $90 response to a $10 problem, but, hey, sometimes you gotta flex. So the army goes out and Elisha’s servant walks out of his house to get breakfast and sees the chariots and the horses kicking up the dust in the distance, surrounding the city. He drops whatever was in his hand and runs to Elisha and says, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?”
Elisha responds “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Elisha, who’s statement didn’t solve the fear of the servant, took him outside, in full view of the horses and chariots coming to destroy, and prays to God, “Oh Lord, please open up his eyes that he might see.” And the passage says, “So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”
A mountain full of horses and chariots of fire is not a more “safe” reality than the horses and chariots already coming down upon Elisha, it’s just that the ones on fire were on Elisha’s side. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.
The fears that keep me awake may or may not come to fruition; they may be authentic or vain and silly. I may even die before I wake. Nevertheless, those who are with me are more than those who are with them, and those who are with me will have the last say. Open my eyes, Lord, that I might see and sleep.


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John Starke

John Starke

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Pastor of Apostles Church Uptown, New York City