There were no sloes this year in the place we usually gather them: a few feet of hedge, mainly hawthorn with a couple of stalks of sloe. Maybe the blooms were trimmed in the spring or maybe some unusual weather stopped them coming.
People say to leave the sloes until the frost has burnt them, but I never do. I want to strip the branches bare before anyone else gets there. I like to watch my children round the table with darning needles puncture each hard sour fruit and throw it in the kilner jar: the kilner jars, with their orange rubber seals and pantry shelf ethos. I like burying the fruit in grainy sugar and watching the purple juices bleed. I like pouring the macerating vodka or gin and taking the jar from the shelf each day to shake up the liquor. The sugar dissolves and the sloes shrink to the size of peas and the ruby liquid grows darker and more intense in colour. We make our own food and we work hard to do it.
The year I remember must have been two or three years ago. Warm, late August, we walked out with our friends and a whole tribe of kids, along the lane by the school, dads with boys on their shoulders and little girls dragging sticks and snaking precariously on bicycles and scooters. Then up ahead we saw that the tar of the road was plashed and stained and we stop to see over ripe plums had fallen and spilled their contents there. As we stood they kept on falling like heavy rain drops on a day begging a storm. Buried deep in the six foot wide hedge was a tree nearly toppling with the weight of fruit and we’d never seen it there before. So the men and the boys climb into the branches and shook a little fruit down and we collected it in the bags we brought for the sloes. Some local children stopped and watched, ‘Can you eat those?’ they ask and we demonstrated that you could, putting the stretched-to-bursting skin to our teeth and breaking through into the golden flesh. The fruit was ripe and fell off the stone like roasted meat from the bone. The children cycled away but soon returned with their own receptacles. There was plenty for everyone: us, our friends, all our children, the children of strangers, fruit to eat, fruit for jam and fruit for pies. The rest we left for the birds and for the passer-by.
I remember this day so well and not just because of that too-much-to-carry-harvest stumbled upon right there in the road, but becauseof a conversation later, round the kitchen table over coffee and cake. There we all are basking in the glory of a summer holiday, no school, no cares, nice weather and I announce to those assembled a new plan to free myself from the rush of work and not-enough-time and everyone stops because we are on holiday and we all know how much we need more rest.
I am more convinced than ever that we find rest within and that we find rest in God. I am more convinced than ever that rest is something that can not be found in an absence of activity or a re-ordering of our external plans. You can clear you diary and learn to say ‘no’. You can pay someone to clean your house and have your shopping delivered to the door. You can live a stripped down life, in a minimalist interior. You can sell everything you own, give up your day job or move to an island but true rest comes from the radical reordering of the inner you which is a true work of God.
The world is full of hard task masters, deadline dictators and slave drivers. The world will work you every waking hour and rob you of your sleep. It will set you sky high targets and when you achieve them, by way of gratitude, it will raise the targets higher and laugh that you ever thought there might be satisfaction in a job well done, for this job is never done.
As Pharaoh said,
“Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their labor? Get back to your work!”
“Look, the people of the land are now numerous, and you are stopping them from working.”
“You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”
“Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw.”
Exodus 5:4-18 NIV
Pharaoh dug his heels in hard. Through plagues, destruction, disease and death he grew more determined to hold on. Yet the Lord kept vigil during that dark time to bring the Hebrews out of Egypt and when he did he did it gloriously. As Moses stretched out his hand, the waters of the red sea parted, making a way and they walked out of that sweat shop of a land, treading the dry ground of a freedom shore. They had a new Master and He led by clouds of glory and fire. They no longer fed themselves by their own bruised and calloused hands but God fed them a heaven supply of manna and quail that couldn’t be earned and could not be stored away.
This is our salvation rest: that God, having seen our labour, leads us out through the waters and from the opposite shore we see our old slave masters swallowed up by the waves. In this new land we no longer work for our living and our new master grants us rest as a gift.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30 NIV
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 6:23 NIV