Bishop's Message

Sleepwalking in church

Nov 2011    

Some church members go through religious rituals but they are in a state of spiritual slumber

AMBULATORY PARASOMNIA – this is the big umbrella word for the phenomenon of sleepwalking, a condition that is difficult to understand, and yet occurs fairly frequently. It is said to affect 4-10 per cent of the population.

Sleepwalkers have been known to perform actions that are normally associated with conscious states and not when one is asleep. ey have been known to walk around the house or even outdoors, send emails, cook, or even murder people – all while they are in an unconscious state. They are not able to recall their actions when they awake from their sleep.

Scientists have been trying to explain how sleepwalking works. Sleepwalking commonly occurs during the earlier cycles of sleep (a cycle being about an hour-and-a-half long), and especially during the NREM (non-rapid eye movement) phase of sleep. e REM phase is the dream phase during which the body is paralysed to prevent it from acting out dreams. is is reversed in the NREM phase. Sleepwalking is believed to result from “switching errors” in the brain where there is an overlap, with the person in a dreamlike state and yet able to move about.

Interest has also been shown on parts of the midbrain that control automated behaviour through what are called central pattern generators. is explains why we can drive on the highway without giving much thought to the details (highway hypnosis), or why a driver can be busy talking on a mobile and yet manage to drive on a busy road. Incidentally, similar brain mechanics are used to explain why headless chickens can still run around the yard.

It is this aspect that we need to consider as it relates to the Christian life.

Developing good habits in the course of living the Christian life is important. These are associated with what are called spiritual disciplines – such as praying, reading the Bible, singing hymns and spiritual songs, taking part in the worship service, and the like.

The downside of habits is that they may affect attention. As an experiment, the next time you are in church see if you can catch yourself when you sing songs or read familiar printed prayers, or even when you recite the Lord’s Prayer. How many times do you drift in your consciousness and fail to notice what you are singing or saying? I suspect there are many who can sing all four stanzas of a hymn and not be any wiser as to what they had just sung. At least some would realise what was happening by the time they come to the final stanza. A rare few may pay full attention to what they are singing.

The same thing happens in reading set prayers. Take, for instance, the prayer of confession. How often is this read like a bullet train with no stops for the heart and mind? When the part “We do earnestly repent” is read, could it be that it goes no deeper than the pronouncing tongue? And yet, many feel that they have gone through the process of worshipping in church, said their prayers, sung their hymns, and received their communion.

Could it be that there are a significant number of sleepwalkers in church? ough they go through religious rituals, out of habit, they are in a state of spiritual slumber. And when asked what they sang and what was preached the previous Sunday they have difficulty remembering what happened.

The danger of ritualistic religion is that it may promote spiritual sleepwalking. e comfort of the repeated words and actions lull the soul to sleep and take away any real connection with God, the self and others in worship. In ancient Israel, there was worship of the Lord, but not the kind that made connection with God or made any difference in the lives of the worshippers. “Even while these people were worshipping the Lord, they were serving their idols” (2 Kings 17:41).

The same thing can happen outside church. We can go through the daily routines without being awake to God and what He is doing in and around us. Some commentators have observed that Moses may have passed the burning bush many times, but he failed to notice its uniqueness the previous times (Exodus 3). Perhaps he was too busy going through the motions of shepherding his sheep, or looking at the distance to be covered. Familiar paths, familiar actions, and a missed epiphany. 19th century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem describes this eloquently:

Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes — the rest sit around it and pluck blackberries We cannot sleepwalk with God.

God has called us to walk (not sleepwalk) with Him or before Him (Gen 17:1).

In order to do this, we must pay careful attention to God and what He is saying or doing. We must consider what is going on within us and around us. e writer of Hebrews urged his Jewish readers to pay careful attention to what God had said and to awaken from the ritual-induced sleep over the centuries. “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Heb. 2:1). Biblical religion is one that pays close attention. It is aware of the dangers of spiritual sleepwalking produced by falsely-calming rituals and familiar comforting words.

Religious activism often masks sleepwalking. It is amazing what sleepwalkers can do by way of physical feats. But activism and religious busy-ness cannot substitute for the true religion that arises from a soul that is really awake to God. What the Lord says in Matt 7:21-23 is a warning against the mistaken assumptions of a religious activism that is disconnected from God.

The Bible’s rallying cry is “Wake up from your slumber,” and “Wake up, O sleeper” (Rom. 13:11; Eph. 5:14). In his sermon “Awake, thou that sleepest,” Charles Wesley urged his Oxford congregation in 1742 to consider their ways. ey were so used to their ancestral religion and its ways that it did not go beyond superficial familiarity. ey had an empty shell of outward religion, and few among them worshipped God in spirit and truth. Charles Wesley’s powerful sermon remains freshly relevant for every generation of spiritual sleepwalkers in church.


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