Notes of Rest

Notes of Rest

by Julian Davis Reid

Responding to the “Strange Magic” in these Last Days

It is good to make an end of movement, to come to a point of rest, a place of pause. There is some strange magic in activity, in keeping at it, in continuing to be involved in many things that excite the mind and keep the hours swiftly passing. But it is a deadly magic; one is not wise to trust it with too much confidence.
– Dr. Howard Thurman
During the COVID lockdown, we witnessed the world grow restless. Yet ironically, much of the theological language I saw from churches and seminaries in the US still depicted God as simply being on the move. That is, there was not much consideration of God resting. Here we were in the midst of a world-stopping phenomenon, yet we had locked God in days 1-6 of Genesis 1 – always creating. Somehow we missed the lynchpin of the Decalogue in Exodus: God rests, and thus should we.

Perhaps we overlook God’s rest because we are fascinated with the “strange magic” of constant activity. Thurman helps us see that our desire for constant activity can make us see God through that lens. These views of self and God feed one another. Our constant activity leads us to want a more active God, which then motivates us to be even more active in order to keep up.

We need just look at theological education and the church to see the effects of over confidence in this “strange magic.” In the academy, professors and students live under the demands of constant performance (for professors, it is “publish or perish” or serial adjuncting; for students, it is taking on multiple jobs to afford seminary). In the church, we see pastors burning out at a severe rate (in the States, many do so after 5 years).

But there is good news still: God did not give into the strange magic of overwork, and through Christ Jesus ushered in an era of eschatological rest in which we all can participate. In Sabbath as Resistance, Dr. Walter Brueggeman reminds us that our weekly and daily commitment to Sabbath rest resists our pharaonic tendencies to seek our own ruin and each other’s. And as we rest now and provide rest for others, we practice temporally the eternal rest explained in Hebrews 4, one of abiding intimacy promised with the Creator who chose rest and bids us welcome.

For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.
– Exodus 20:11

But given the restlessness of modernity, how do we practice this rest? One way I have responded is with Notes of Rest. After graduating with my M.Div. at Candler School of Theology, I started this contemplative-musical project in order to draw attention to two resources for rest that are available to all: contemplation and creativity. Where we place our attention and what we choose to create moves us towards God’s rest or away from it. I thus host retreats, workshops, lectures, and concerts so participants can reflect on how they are training their attention and their creativity. As we contemplate the Lord of rest via contemplative engagement with texts, questions, music, and each other, we are empowered to respond creatively to our restlessness.

A fundamental commitment of Notes of Rest is that rest is possible to all, not just the middle- and upper-class. To this end, I close every session with the Negro spiritual “Give Me Jesus.” In Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, Dr. Barbara Holmes teaches us that this sorrow song and others like it exemplifies the connection of contemplation, creativity and rest for a people not afforded the luxury of determining their own work schedule – enslaved Africans. Nevertheless, my spiritual and racial ancestors used music as a means of contemplating and creating to participate in God’s eschatological rest possible even amidst hell on earth. Contemplation and creativity know no bounds.

Imagine: What if Christians were known primarily for being well-rested and creative? As we await Christ’s return, may the Spirit free us from the clutches of that “strange magic.”

Julian Davis Reid is an artist-theologian who uses words and music to invite us into the restful life we were created to live. A pianist, producer, and composer, Julian is a founding member of the jazz-electronic fusion group The JuJu Exchange (with Nico Segal and Nova Zaii) and hosts contemplative retreats called Notes of Rest.