There is a weariness, fatigue, exhaustion that is spiritual, that has to do with our spirits. And I have the feeling that there is a lot of this kind of tired-all- over feeling abroad in the land. There is not a lot of buoyancy and surplus energy around. And it is to this condition that an old story again and again offers rest. “Rest in the Lord. Wait patiently for him,” sings the old Psalmist. “Come to me, all whose load is heavy, and I will give you rest,” promises Jesus.
What’s it all about? What is this rest for the weary and heavy laden of spirit? What is this relief for the soul? Well, it has nothing to do with a Sunday afternoon nap. This rest is anything from which we draw energy rather than deplete energy. Like the music of this morning. Jesus’ offer is renewal rather than exhaustion. I pick up at least three dimensions to this kind of rest in the offer of Jesus.
The first one is this. We all need rest against the anxieties of life in the modern world. Rest means, by definition, shutting down, letting be. The very word implies letting go. Rest is the opposite of being on. And the fatigue of anxiety, comes from over-control, having to have everything nailed down, having to manage life every minute as a way of quieting our fears.
Isn’t this the way we invariably deal with our fears and anxieties? Isn’t this the way we approach our problems whether personal or global? We will find a better job. We will read another book. We will send the children to a better school. We will get in or out of the market. We will work longer and harder. We will try to be more loving. We will get another therapist. In sum we will try to take control of our lives.
But we face a world grown so complicated, so disordered that it becomes often impossible to know what precisely to do to insure control. The psychologists tell us that the natural instinct is either fight or flight. But what if you can do neither? What if you cannot grab hold or run away, are simply stalemated before troubles beyond your mastery?
What happens when in our attempt to deal with our troubles, to help out the addicted friend, to patch up the disintegrated marriage, to turn around the troubled business, to relieve the depression of our young, we simply find ourselves at bay, feeling helpless? The anxiety rises, but there is simply no place for us to go.
Except to sit on our anxiety, stuff it until we are no longer aware of what it is doing to us. What is the meaning of much of the heart disease, emotional illness, alcoholism, marital breakdown, drug abuse, if it is not anxiety that has nowhere to go? Alexis Carrell, scientist and physician, said already a generation ago, that humans simply do not have the nervous equipment to deal with the powerlessness engendered by modern civilization.
The tragic result is men and women and young people driven to destructive habits and ways and relationships without really being aware of what is happening to them. Clearly the capacity to rest, let go, give up our controlling ways, is essential if we are to deal effectively with our anxieties, come to some peace of mind and heart, live and work effectively in an increasingly uncertain world. And as Harry Emerson Fosdick once said, “He who cannot let go, cannot get on.”
So the Psalmist calls, “Return, O my soul, to your rest.” And Jesus urges us to find rest for our souls. Time out to feel the rhythms of life, to learn that even if you are not on, life does go on. This is the meaning behind the Sabbath commandment, not so much that we must take one day off, but that we can and must take time out to learn that it is not all up to us. Life goes on.
A couple were vacationing in New England and were staying at an old inn. While finding it peaceful and quiet, they thought the place lacked enough activities to keep them occupied. To make matters worse, it was raining when they got up in the morning and there was no end in sight. The couple ventured onto the large veranda and noticed an elderly gentleman placidly rocking back and forth in a wicker rocker. “Where on earth do you find such serenity?” asked the young couple to the man. “Not too hard,” replied the old-timer. “When it starts to rain…I let it.”
“Grant us the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed,” said Reinhold Niebuhr. There is a tranquility, a renewal that comes from learning to let go, let be, not to have to always manage with either muscle or mind, but to be able to let the world spin out of control without your interference, confident that it is in better hands than yours.
Wait quietly? Rest in the Lord? Against our anxieties, learning to let be. We don’t always have to be in control. And we need rest from the guilt of never having done enough. We need to learn to be, apart from all our activity and accomplishment. The heavy burden (about which Jesus is speaking) is a special one. And so is the rest he offers. The heavy burden was the burden, the yoke of the law. Any fellow countryman knew exactly of what he was speaking. It was the burden of having to shape up, accomplish, make a success of yourself, before you could be comfortable with who you are. In the mentality of that religious community your worth was up for grabs with every sunrise, and you had to get out and re-establish it every day or you fell into self-doubt and self-loathing. In those days, you lived wracked with guilt unless you produced. Did I say those days? That yoke and heavy burden is still around. This need to prove ourselves.
Russell Baker’s book, The Good Times, begins this way:
“My mother, dead now to this world, but still roaming free in my mind, wakes me some mornings before daybreak. ‘If there is one thing I can’t stand, it’s a quitter.’ I have heard her say that all my life. Now, lying in bed, coming awake in the dark, I feel the fury of her energy fighting the good-for-nothing idler within me who wants to go back to sleep instead of tackling the brave new day.
“Silently I protest: I am not a child anymore. I have made something of myself. I am entitled to sleep late. ‘Russell, you’ve got no more gumption than a bump on a log. Don’t you want to amount to something?’ She has hounded me with these same battle cries since I was a boy in short pants back in the Depression. ‘Amount to something!’ ‘Make something of yourself!’ On bad mornings, in the darkness, suspended between dreams and daybreak, with my mother racketing around in my head, I feel crushed by guilt and failure.”
Now I don’t want to suggest that his relationship with his mother was entirely that negative. He loved her deeply. And yet it was often an exhausting and heavy burden, the burden of guilt. The burden of trying to win her approval by living up to her law. The burden of trying to satisfy so conditional a love.
And clearly, it meant for him a life- long tendency to identify himself with what he could do or had failed to do. Which is wearying —and dangerous. Because if I am only what I can do, if I am so identified with my labor, my output, my success in this world’s eyes, then what am I when I cease to be up and at it, what worth have I when I am no longer an unqualified success, what happens to my being, the core of me when I can no longer do?
It’s a problem for all of us, this learning to be beyond our performance, beyond our labor. The rest Jesus offers is the rest of knowing that we are alright, loved, worth something, worth everything even on bad days, even when we blow it, even when our powers fail us, and we have nothing to offer the world. For his easy yoke and light burden is that of responding in gratitude as best we can to a love which is unconditionally affirming and always there. His easy yoke and light burden is that of being no longer a servant worth only his labor, but a child of God forever.
I think Paul Tillich caught it perhaps best. He wrote:
“Forget all your achievements and your failures when you come to Him. Nothing is demanded of you, no idea of God and no goodness in yourselves, not your being religious, not your being Christian, not your being wise, and not your being moral. What is demanded, first of all, is only your being open and willing to accept what is given to you, a new being.
“Do not ask in this moment what we shall do or how action shall follow from this new being, from the rest in our souls. Do not ask; for you do not ask how the good fruits follow from the essential goodness of a tree. They follow. We and our world would be better, truer and more just, if there were more rest for souls in our world. Our actions would be more creative, more conquering, if they grew out of a more profound level of our life. For our creative depth is the depth in which we are quiet.”
One thing is certain: if everyday you arise you feel you must prove yourself to God, yourself, and the North Shore in order to lie down in peace at nightfall, you are headed for weariness, confusion, and dead end. That’s too heavy a burden of guilt. Let the unconditional love of God in Jesus gently lift it from you. Learn to be beyond your labor, and let your children know. There’s fresh air out there and a tremendous sense of well-being and peace.
Learn to let be in the face of anxiety, learn to be beyond guilt, and finally learn to lean. We need the rest of a great dependency. We become weary because we try to do it all alone, tackle our problems, struggle with our sufferings, meet life’s challenges all alone. The profundity and strength of Alcoholics Anonymous is its insistence right up front that you can’t do it without depending on a higher power. Which is just another way of saying what this old word presses upon us. “Come to me.”
Dependency – that’s hard. It goes against the grain of our entire early nurture. See Johnny walk. All by himself. Stand on your own feet, Sue. And, of course, it is all important to maturation. Except it becomes hard to accept that it is not the whole story. There is an ultimate dependency that is our refuge and strength, and before the challenges of life we all remain little children who need to learn how to lean upon a higher power. And there is no greater gift that we can give to our children than this willingness to depend on a greater father.
David S. Awbrey, journalist for 25 years, editorial page editor for the Wichita Eagle, recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, tells how he learned to lean. In his book Finding Hope in the Age of Melancholy, he tells how depression exposed him to his own weakness and taught him that he couldn’t rely on himself to solve all the problems of life.
At 43 and at the pinnacle of his career the problem began.
“At first I denied that anything was wrong. I poured myself into my new job. I lost myself in the daily swirl of meetings, deadlines, writing and telephone calls – but with none of the spark of my former self. Before my experience with melancholy, all I knew about the midlife crisis came from movies in which middle-age men risk their careers and marriages to try to capture the fervor and vitality of their youth. Midlife complaints were laughable to me – men who poured Rogaine on their balding heads, lipo-suctioned their middle-aged torsos and sought a hot, young “trophy wife” because they couldn’t face the harshness of aging or let go of the “glory days” of college sports, college fraternities, or early career triumphs.
“A year and a half after my midlife crisis began, I was at a dead end. I had been on medication for a year…which helped me function smoothly, but without relieving my inner psychic tension. My job became my refuge. The moment I entered the door of the building and convened our 9:00 a.m. editorial meeting, deadlines and hourly schedules held emotional monsters at bay.
“But something had to be done. Questions kept arising: questions about the purpose of life, about the existence of God, about the meaning of death. Big questions. Fundamental questions. Gnawing questions. The questions weren’t merely academic..but intensely personal.
“My initial problem was that I had no legitimate complaints. I had had a happy childhood. My parents had been supportive and devoted. I had a beautiful, caring wife. I was well educated. I had a satisfying career. I had job security. I was financially comfortable. I was in good health. I had accepted the rules for success and they had worked for me. In short, I had no socially correct excuse for unhappiness. I was not a societal victim. I should ‘just snap out of it’ as many suggested.
“So I embraced it; the terrifying fear that my life had no meaning. And faith in God came to me out of an emptiness that could not be filled by worldly goods or egoistic goals. Faith didn’t come with a stupendous opening of the heavens to the fanfare of angelic trumpets. Faith in God was a gradual awareness that some ‘other’ was participating in my life.
“In the pain of my psychic wounds, I discovered God. My guilt, sorrows and shortcomings cried out for relief. But only Divine forgiveness and compassion could sooth my terrors, grant me peace and rest .…God offered the quiet of love and self-acceptance, and in return asked only that I give the same to others. In these personal changes, I encountered God. He offered me new energy, a new way of life, a spiritual awakening – and happiness.” “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. “ Come. Trust and serve for the rest of your life, for the rest in your life.