"Rest," Image by Yosh the Fishhead via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-ND2.0
The invitation to rest is not one I readily or easily accept. Even from Jesus. There are at least a hundred reasons why, of course -- too much to do, expectations to be met. People need me. I can’t let them down. I have a hard time with being disappointed and therefore, work hard not to disappoint others. I make a lot of deals with myself -- once I finish these few tasks, then I will take a break. Just a few more items to check off the “to do” list and then I will enjoy an evening off. And, I am a “one” on the Enneagram -- a perfectionist. My perpetual “doing” is a frequent topic in my therapy sessions.
And the call to ministry, the call to service in the church, is not a profession that lends itself to self-care. That “the Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down” (Psalm 145:14) is perhaps more readily believed by those in the pews rather than us preachers. We are not ones to allow the lifting of our burdens when one of the primary elements of a call in the church is to bear the burdens of others. Furthermore, the church has a tendency to take advantage of the willingness of its servants to sacrifice much for the sake of the Lord. So, it’s hard to imagine that Jesus’ invitation could be true for us.
Dear Working Preachers, can we believe that Jesus’ words here in Matthew are words for us now? Jesus knew that it would never be easy to be the church and it never has been. As a result, Jesus’ promise of rest for his disciples is every bit the promise we need to hear today. We are weary, I know. The burdens we bear, personal and pastoral, individual and communal, societal, national, and global, are many. I’ve seen. I’ve heard. You’ve told me.
And don’t forget ecclesial. They say faith has become irrelevant. Enrollment in our seminaries is declining. Denominationalism is waning. The church is dying. If pastors could just work harder, the church might be saved. But we already have a savior. And if we are truly resurrection people, death is never the end. It might be necessary to ask some hard questions about the source of our fatigue -- to what extent is it the result of misplaced and misguided perpetuations of church?
The irrelevancy of the church cannot be blamed only on external situations and statistics. I suspect that much of our weariness comes from holding up structures that need to change, defending doctrines that long ago demanded new translations, and maintaining ecclesial institutions and ideals that are in need of reform. The challenges for the church are of the kind that mandate imagination, creativity, and energy -- all of which are difficult to engage when fatigue has taken hold. Much of what the church chooses to pay attention to, to talk about, to put efforts toward is neither meaningful nor life-giving. Burnouts and breakdowns are not always the result of exhaustion -- they are symptoms of passions run dry and waning joy.
The answer is not to work harder, says Jesus. The answer is to allow ourselves rest.
Not just for the sake of ourselves, but also for the sake of the church that cannot keep banking on the status quo. Without rest for the weary, nothing gets done and nothing new can be dreamed. Without rest for your soul, eventually your soul will give in to the weight of the world.
The world needs a church whose leaders are responsive, who are rested up to see forward and revitalized to have a vision. Prophetic preaching and truth-telling require rested souls. We are in a time when persistence is essential. When clear thinking is necessary. When vigilance and resistance are critical. All of which entail rejuvenation and renewal.
And Jesus’ invitation is also indicative of a central component of the Gospel, of the Kingdom of Heaven, a characteristic of the Gospel that is all but disappearing in our world -- that those who are burdened, those who are weary, will have their burdens lightened and will find help when their souls can’t find the strength to go on.
This means that the church says “come to me” to those who find themselves at the mercy of legislation set on burdening them even more. The church says “come to me” to those for whom no mercy is shown, whose healthcare is in jeopardy, who fear for their lives because of their skin color, who are banned because of their religion, who are laden with discrimination because of their gender, sexual orientation, and gender identification. To be able to say “come to me” to all who need to hear it will take all the rest we can give and all the rest we can get. When we are too weary ourselves, we certainly can’t see it or respond to it in another.
This second week of summer seems like just the right time to hear and heed these words from Jesus. Take the rest you need this summer, Dear Working Preachers. Nobody will take it for you. Find your passion once again. Figure out what really matters, why you are doing this in the first place. Perhaps then, the yoke of ministry will seem easy and light and even joyful once again.