A Practice of Sleep (For Restless People)

A Practice of Sleep (For Restless People) May 20, 2019

Sleep ended for me this morning at 4am.

It wasn’t an accident, either. In fact, it was very intentional. My alarm goes off and I stumble down the hallway. I exercise first for an hour, then reading until the girls stir and begin their ascent into the day. Sleep is well behind me by that point.

I don’t write this to boast. In fact, I’d love to never get up before the sun again. At least on purpose.

The truth is that the way my day begins determines the way the day goes. In my daily planner I wrote the word “Snooze never wins.” What I mean by that is the use of the snooze function on my phone typically precedes a day of fumbling for productivity, clarity, and purpose.

Which is why I want to talk about sleep.

It seems counterintuitive to talk about getting up early, aka “giving up sleep,” and then precede to talk about the goodness of sleep. Yet that’s what we’re doing here.

The reason why this makes sense to me is that we are designed to be integrated beings. Our bodies work in concert; each system supporting and compensating for the others. The time we spend on this earth is also integrated. What we give to one thing is taken away from another.

In other words, we can be in the same room as our families while checking email on our phone. However, we are not “with them.” Saying “yes” to our device is a way of saying “no” to other things happening around us. The same is true for sleep.

Sleep is the outcome of our ability to manage circumstances, details, and distractions in a way that lets us rest.

I’ve always believed there is a spiritual health dimension to the conversation about sleep. From 2009-2010, my wife and I lost 60 pounds each. As a result, I noticed that I had more focus during times of prayer.

I also had to figure out my sleep patterns. Losing weight meant finding space for exercise, and the space I found was early in the morning. To get up early in the morning meant I had to go to bed earlier. Early to bed meant I had to plan ahead. Watching a movie after a certain hour was out of the question, because the priority feel to sleep. The sleep led to exercise. Then the exercise led to a healthier body, mind, and I believe a healthier spiritual life.

I wonder if today the greatest obstacle to your spiritual life is unpredictable or unsustainable patterns of sleep?

There are seasons of life, of course, that call the “sleep shots” for us. A newborn baby, the move from 2ndto 3rdshift at work, or the completion of a graduate degree often require long nights and less sleep.

However, the wisdom required for the spiritual life is the kind of wisdom that helps us decide what is a season and what is an excuse.

The simple act of choosing when we want to wake up creates a domino effect in our lives. If we choose better sleep for the sake of physical and spiritual health, it requires more than an alarm clock. We have to begin putting things in order around our times of sleep that allow us to do what we need to do.

Rising early to pray, read, meditate, or write begins with how we close the day before.

Here are a few practical suggestions from my own experience that may help:

First, remove the morning obstacles.

You can take this idea as far as you want, but for me preparation is the key. I set out my exercise clothes, headphones, and whatever book I want to read on the stationary bike before going to bed.

Also, I fill my French press with coffee grounds and the electric kettle with water the night before. This way I’m not rushing to prepare the morning’s beverages. Honestly, I can’t read without coffee. It’s an essential element.

If you plan to read, write, or meditate, make sure the books and accessories you need are prepared and placed in the right area.

The spiritual disciplines of removing obstacles is key, as much as throwing off dark things (see Hebrews 12:1) that inhibit us in our moral and ethical lives in the world.

Second, set a deadline.

My wife and I have set a deadline for what we will do in the evenings. If we are in the midst of a Netflix show, we’ll look at the episode for the night and gauge when it will end. When the episode fits under the deadline, we’re good to go. If not (I’m looking at you, BBC’s Sherlock) we make another choice.

The deadline determines when we turn off the TV and close up the house for the night. It is helpful to have a partner in this, for sure, but even then the deadline can be a test of our discipline. Especially when Netflix is so accommodating in automatically playing the next episode without any effort from us.

Without a deadline, without a plan for when we will shut it down for the evening, we won’t do it. Then any morning plans will fall to the whims of what we “feel like” doing.

One further note: I think an earlier deadline for the use of technology is important. The blue light from phones and devices has been shown to inhibit the production of melatonin in our brains. Melatonin helps us begin the descent into sleep.

Finally, be flexible.

The best I can say about my plan is that I don’t always hit the mark. Sometimes my wife and I want to finish the show or the series so we “binge on” past the deadline.

In the Chicago season transitions, our sinuses ache and the dizziness forces me back to bed. A call from a family member or friend in the evening pushes across the deadline.

However, when these our interruptions are the exceptions and not the rulewe’re able to create space for sleep. Don’t make a new law out of your sleep practices, but make it a priority to the point where the whole of your life begins to wrap around the rhythm of resting and recharging.

When we make the commitment to sleep, we give our full selves (body, mind, and spirit) a chance to engage with God at our full capacity.

Think about your own sleep habits and ask the following:

  1. What are my current sleep habits? Are they healthy?
  2. What obstacles stand in the way of my getting the sleep I need? How can I do small things to eliminate these large obstacles?
  3. When am I at my best for engaging in spiritual practices? *Many people are better in the evening than in the morning. If so, then flip these suggestions around and put the deadline around your evening practices.
  4. What could God do in me and through me if I had a fully rested body, mind, and spirit? What have I missed by neglecting this rhythm of sleep?

May you know the goodness of your head hitting the pillow, knowing God is caring and creating even as you shut down and recharge. And may you learn the goodness of a rested mind, body, and spirit for the sake of a Kingdom that never sleeps.

(Photo by elizabeth lies on Unsplash)


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