Advent Day 4: Insomnia and the Kingdom of God

Oh how I struggled to wake up this morning, and oh what a blessing that is. I’ve been suffering from insomnia – in the form of very early waking – for years now, and have only recently discovered the care regimen I need to get a full night’s sleep AND be functional/awake during the day (so many treatments give you one, but not the other.) It involves a careful dance of increasing and decreasing two different prescriptions every few days, careful listening to my body in terms of how tired I am throughout the day, and responding accordingly.

So, even though it’s painful to wake up at 6 am to my alarm in the middle of December when it’s dark and cold in New York City, whenever I am able to sleep until my alarm goes off, I feel immensely, deeply grateful for the gift of sleep that night. The struggle to wake up really feels like a gift. It happens maybe once every 2 weeks, and I relish it.

The reading I’m looking at today – from the RCL readings for last Sunday – focuses on this idea of being “awake.”

Romans 13:11-14 You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Oh, this reading is so churchy, it’s so hard for me to connect to it. As though wakefulness and sleeping were really in binary opposition to one another, as though night is “bad” and day is “good,” as though “living honorably” were as easy as avoiding overindulging in alcohol, fighting, and being jealous. As though as human beings we can easily divide our selves into spirit and flesh, with the spirit being “good” and the flesh being “bad.”

It’s only when I take a few steps back from it that it starts to resonate with me. Much of my life has felt like groping in the darkness, trying to find whatever points of light I could, trying to muddle through disorienting and strange circumstances. This is normal, I know: we are all born into this world not really knowing what we’re doing, and deciphering that is central in the spiritual journey.

But what has often gotten me through the muddiest waters and foggiest nights has been a little bit of advice I received from a harp teacher when I was sixteen. I was taking a lesson with Deborah Henson-Conant, then a well-known jazz harpist who lived outside of Boston. I had only ever played classical harp but knew I really wanted to break out of the box somehow. So I drove eight hours to Boston to take an hour lesson with her.

She had me playing through a samba vamp and it was totally different rhythms and patterns than I had ever had to play anywhere. I was trying to get my left and right hands to work together, but every time I tried to add the right hand pattern to the left hand ostinato, everything would fall apart.

Out of frustration, I decided to just start trying to play one note with my right hand while my left hand continued. I apologized as I was doing it, saying, “Sorry, I just need to get my right hand to do something before I try to make it do the right thing.”

She laughed and said emphatically “YES! That’s how you learn this kind of thing. If you can’t do right out, you just decide, ok, I’m going to do something. Take one step in any direction you can that expands your skills.”

So she sat with me while I did this, this doing something, and within about ten minutes, I was cruising through the vamp. A slow cruise, but a cruise nonetheless.

It probably doesn’t sound very profound to you, but it stuck with me and still stays with me now. Whenever I feel lost, like I don’t know my way through the world, who I am or who I’m supposed to be, how to contribute to healing and growth, and I feel paralyzed and stuck, I remember these words. And I do… something. When I was recovering from trauma in my late twenties, it looked like volunteering to tutor a child from a low-income background through a neighborhood organization. When I found myself broke and jobless in New York City, it looked like committing to a unit of CPE. When I’ve struggled with feeling isolated and getting to know my neighbors, it’s looked like committing to saying hi and smiling at my neighbors even when they don’t seem interested in getting to know me. I can’t figure out how to build a community at the outset, but I can do… something.

I feel like I can see that in this excerpt from Romans. I mean, how do we put on the “armor of light?” How do we deeply and truly “wake up” in a spiritual sense? It’s overwhelming to think of all that. It makes me, honestly, want to go back to sleep. But Paul says here, we can do something. If you’re in the dark and you don’t know what to do, try to refrain from arguing. Try not to drink too much. Turn off your phone for 2 hours. Try to drag yourself out of bed in the morning when it’s still dark and cold and put some water in the kettle. Pick one self-destructive habit today and decide to give it up. Maybe not forever. Maybe just for today. Do something.

These little somethings, Paul seems to be saying here, actually aren’t little. They are actually of cosmic significance. They help us wake up, step into the light, and see who we are, who other people are, and what the Sacred energy is that is holding us all together. Imagine if we all went through life truly “awake”?

The world would be transformed.

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