Asleep at the Wheel
Race car driver Dale Earnhardt was known for being so calm before races that occasionally he would take a catnap just before the start. While other drivers would have a pulse rate of 100 to 120 before a race, his would be less than 60.
But on August 31, 1997, at the Southern 500 race…Earnhardt unintentionally took catnapping to a dangerous new level. At the start of the race, Earnhardt fell asleep at the wheel-he went into a semiconscious state but kept on driving. When he reached the first turn, he hit the wall but kept on going. At the second turn he again hit the wall, harder this time. He continued slowly around the track for two laps, looking for his pit but unable to find it. Finally he pulled off the track. Later he would say he remembered nothing of this.
Sixteen doctors examined Earnhardt to find out what had happened. They found nothing definite…The doctors didn’t think the problem would recur, and they cleared Earnhardt to continue racing.
Frightening but true, it is possible, for a while, to drive over one hundred miles an hour and yet be asleep. In the same way, we can be busily racing through life-our eyes seemingly open, our hands on the wheel, our foot to the floor-yet spiritually asleep. Sooner or later, though, the trouble begins.
A Deeper Look at Sleep
Sleep reminds us of our helplessness. Asleep, we have nothing to commend us; we accomplish nothing to put on our resume. Because of this, sleep is a counter-formative practice that reminds us that our assurance is not the sum of our productivity, prowess, or power.
Or even in our ability to stay alive. In the Christian tradition, sleep has always been seen as a way we practice death. Both Jesus and Paul talk about death as a kind of sleep. Our nightly descent into unconsciousness is a daily memento mori, a reminder of our creatureliness, our limitations, and our weakness. When we go to sleep, we get as close as we who are alive and healthy come to the helplessness of death. And we do it every night.
Because sleep is so vulnerable, we sometimes have a hard time embracing it. We stay up late, staring at screens, working, or vegging out, lightbulbs buzzing softly into the night. We resist our bodily limits in every way we can.
But of course our bodies and brains are not inactive in sleep. There is a whole world of activity happening inside our heads. We dream. We fight illness. We form, sort, and strengthen memories from our days. Scientists tell us that learning actually happens in our sleep, and is even dependent on our sleep. Information that we take in during the day is subconsciously repeated again and again in our brains as we sleep so that we can absorb, remember, and integrate it into our lives.
But the crucial part of all of this is that it happens completely without our knowledge, consent, or control. Our bodies are set up so that we have to loosen our grip on self-sufficiency and power if we are to thrive. Both physically and spiritually then, we must be willing to embrace vulnerability if we are to learn or grow at all.
Taken from Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren Copyright (c) 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
When my eldest son, Drew, was a toddler, bedtime was a battleground in our house. I think he felt cheated by the prospect of sleep. He hated the thought of going to bed while the rest of the world continued on. Instead of welcoming rest, Drew confronted it. He steeled himself against the prospect of sleep the way a wrestler braces himself to meet an opponent. “No night-night! No night-night!” he cried in indignation. To no avail. He was consigned to his crib by the superior force of parental authority.
One night my wife walked past his door and heard him muttering to himself. There was nothing left for him to do but mutter. “Stay awake! Stay awake!” he commanded himself. The prospect of sleep can be unnerving. While we sleep the world continues to be active. We are oblivious to our surroundings, supine and powerless. We are not in control during sleep but must depend on the mercy and protection of God. Our vulnerability is captured in the familiar children’s prayer: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Relational needs are not a by – product of the fall. Likewise, the need for rest, or Sabbath, is not an aftertaste of human sinfulness, unlike our chronic inability to receive rest. In fact, as we shall see, Sabbath is a foretaste of heaven. All of this means that humans’ need for rest and sleep was not a result of sin or disobedience. Sleep does not come after, but before, the fall. In fact, we see that the first act of “deep sleep” (Hebrew tardemah) is initiated by God , resulting in the creation of the woman . Sleep is a result of God’s activity, intended to take place in paradise before it was lost.
Let Him Rest
The following story comes from the collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt, teaching that would have first been transmitted orally (around 350-450 A.D.) and later written down for the spiritual nourishment of generations to come (much like the Old and New Testaments). The material is rich and profound and can be applied to a modern audience, as the following encounter demonstrates:
Some old men came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, “We see some of the brothers falling asleep during divine worship. Should we wake them up?” He said, “As for me, when I see a brother who is falling asleep during the Office, I lay his head on my knees and let him rest.
Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, had quite the sharp wit. After hearing about a Roman nobleman who had passed away with enormous debts (which were kept private throughout his lifetime), he sent one of his emissaries to the auction to bid on a single item. Augustus told him to bid on the man’s pillow. His reason: “That pillow must be particularly conducive to sleep, if its late owner, in spite of all his debts, could sleep on it.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.