More sleep vicar

More sleep, vicar? In 2004 Channel Four ran a reality TV show called Shattered. Ten contestants tried to avoid sleep for a whole week! To ensure their safety each contestant was allowed to sleep one hour per day. The eventual winner, Clare, endured 178 hours of sleep deprivation, winning £97,000 in the process! By my reckoning each hour of sleep-loss gained her nearly £545. Was it the pound signs in her eyes that kept her lids open?

Trying to stay awake when your body is very tired is incredibly difficult. But is the reverse even harder… trying to sleep when your body is wide awake?

I’m the kind of person who requires a good 8 hours per night in order to function well the next day. But last autumn, during a period of anxiety and depression, I slept extremely lightly. I recall the frustration of dozing only 2 to 3 hours on 5 consecutive nights. That may not sound like much of an ordeal for some, but for me, at the time, I seriously questioned whether I would ever regain the ability to sleep again. Something that I just do when I lay my head on my pillow was suddenly taken away from me. The funny side of me wondered just how long I could keep this going – if this rate continued would I become the first human being in history ever to survive on no sleep at all?

In all seriousness I became very anxious, repeatedly walking up and down the hallway and eventually finding things to do during those dark hours when everything was quiet, the house was silent, and the rest of my family were sleeping deeply. I went on long car journeys, I watched Bond films and BBC News, I read books, I even wrote a 3.00am sermon ready for the following Sunday! My philosophy was that if my body didn’t need sleep then I should just carry on doing the stuff I did during daylight hours and make the most of all this extra time. A friend offered to hit me over the head with a sledge-hammer to induce sleep but it never came to that!

What depressed me the most was the overwhelming fear during those 5 days that I had totally lost the ability to sleep and that I may need to go to hospital to be put to sleep so that my racing mind could rest. It felt that bad. I tried to stop thinking about my sleeplessness during the daytime but the more I tried to banish the thought the more it intensified in my mind. Every time I went up to my bedroom, at my normal bed-time, following my normal bed-time routine, I got under the sheets, lay my head on the pillow… but just could not sleep.

On the third, fourth and fifth nights I could feel the anxiety grip me even tighter as I turned my bedside lamp off. My eyes were shut but I had that sinking feeling that I wasn’t going to sleep that night. The knowledge that even the apostle Paul experienced sleepless nights (2 Corinthians 6:5) seemed little solace at the time!

Thankfully, after the 5 day episode, I did begin to sleep better, but for a week or two my sleep was still very light before it returned to normal.

I now look back on that experience last November and thank God for bringing me through it.

During my life so far I’ve probably slept for over 100,000 hours! Sleep is something we do for approximately one-third of our lives and so it’s something we ought to reflect on biblically and theologically. So, here are some points to reflect on:

1. If you’re struggling to nod-off, use the time for nourishing your spirit. Instead of ruminating over your lack of sleep and the encroachment of tomorrow, use the opportunity of the present moment to feed yourself prayerfully. Try reading a Psalm. Psalm 4 is written out of distress and ends with the words ‘I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety’. Repeat those words in your head and claim that promise for yourself.

2. When you cannot sleep, go to another room. Health professionals advocate ‘sleep hygiene’ as a way of overcoming insomnia. For example if you haven’t dropped off after about 20 minutes get up and do something positive in another room but without switching too many lights on. Don’t watch BBC News 24 with its rolling headlines! Avoid doing anything too stimulating but try to use the time effectively. Have a relaxing bath or do some reading in another room, but don’t clock-watch because this will reinforce the negative thought that this sleeplessness is just terrible.

3. If sleeplessness persists over some days, develop good strategies. Avoid caffeine, stimulants and nicotine for at least 4-6 hours before bedtime. Avoid daytime naps, eat a healthy diet, keep to the same daytime routine and don’t use your bedroom for working on your laptop, making phone calls or work-related tasks. Bedrooms are for sleeping.

4. During periods of sleeplessness, remember God is with you. Psalm 121 says ‘he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep’. God will not nod-off. He is supreme over both day and night. There are treasures to discover about our relationship to God that can only be gained in the ‘dark night of the soul’.

5. When you do eventually sleep, accept it as God’s gift. SLEEP stands for Stress Level Elimination Exercise Plan! Sleep refreshes us in body, mind and spirit. The American pastor John Piper recently tweeted: ‘Adequate sleep was not merely a matter of staying in health, it was a matter of surviving emotionally in the ministry’. The writer Eugene Peterson remarks ‘While we sleep, great and marvellous things, far beyond our capacities to invent or engineer, are in process – the moon marking the seasons, the lion roaring for its prey, the earthworms aerating the earth, the stars turning in their courses, the proteins repairing our muscles, our dreaming brains restoring a deeper sanity beneath the gossip and scheming of our waking hours. Our work settles into the context of God’s work. Human effort is honoured and respected not as a thing in itself but by its integration into the rhythms of grace and blessing’ (Working the Angles, p45).

6. Sleep is a God-given marker, putting a boundary between one day and the next. The pressure-cooker, I-am-in-indispensable, burning-the-candle-at-both-ends, 24-7 culture we live in needs a divine corrective. Sleep should be more than the briefest of pauses. Sleep brings closure on today before the advent of tomorrow. Pastor Ian Stackhouse devotes a whole chapter to a theology of sleep in The Day is Yours. In it he writes ‘Our lives roll from one day to the next, accumulating debris like a tornado, until one day it all catches up with us in one almighty disaster’. Sleep is God’s boundary marker from one day to the next. He adds, ‘God in his ordinance of the world causes the sun to go down, the sun to rise, and then the sun to go down again. What keeps me going is the knowledge that however awful today has been, tomorrow is another day… Each day comes fresh. His mercies are new every morning’ (The Day is Yours, p77-89).

So, what time of day are you reading this? Is it morning, afternoon, or evening?

If it’s morning I hope your day opens up into a day of opportunity and blessing. If it’s afternoon and you’ve hit that post-lunch slump may God renew you. If it’s evening and you’ll soon be under the sheets may God grant you deep sleep. … and if, like me, you ever experience the frustration of being wide-awake-in-the-dead-of-night may you be encouraged that God will carry you through it.
Rev Andy Scott, 02/05/2013