Rest For Those In Battle

“Come to me all of you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” – Jesus

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Ian McLaren

This Sunday I’m preaching a sermon I’m titling “Rest for the Weary.” I’m not sure I’ve ever preached on Jesus’ call for those who need rest in Matthew 11. At least not a whole sermon.

Here is where my mind is going as I prepare…

Yesterday, a manager from another branch stopped by ours and needed to use a computer and make a few calls. I joked with him about how he could use mine and I would spend the time in the break room. I didn’t get so much as a smile from him. So I walked away and said something to the guy whose office is next to mine, “He’s a personality plus, isn’t he?”

So yes, I can be quite the jerk.

And then last night I was mentally working on my sermon while cutting grass and I thought about him. I thought about the look on his face and I wondered. I wondered if he is fighting a hard battle. I wondered if he is trying to decide if he cuts his losses and buys another vehicle or pays for a new transmission. I wondered if he was worried about his kids. Worried about his wife. I wondered if he has to tell his friends “no” when they ask him to do something because money is so tight. I wonder if he was struggling and fearful about his job and was dreaming about something else. Does he long for rest knowing the rest is bookended by more labor? Does he look at the stars and wonder what they would look like if he were free from whatever burden he is carrying?

Maybe not. But day after day I deal with those who have these concerns or more. Fracturing marriages, financial problems, and wayward children. I cannot pastor them…and that is hard. But I can be kind to them.

My gut reaction is to be upset when they are upset with me. And sometimes I find myself on the verge of saying, “Do you have any idea what I’m dealing with right now?” Rarely, in the moment, do I wonder what they are dealing with. What hard battle are they fighting in that moment? I just assume they are mean people and like to be mean and so they are mean. Let me tell you, I have had some mean things said to me. But what if they are fighting tooth and nail and I am the closest thing to a friend they will talk with in days? What if their loneliness and hurt has caused them to lash out. I’ve felt all that from deep in my soul to right below my skin.

Another story. Imagine a young African-American man so distraught over his sins, he walks into a Lilly-white church in which he knows no one just to be prayed for. The service is over but all he wants is a pastor to pray for him. Our pastor was on a missions trip, so he gets sent to the once-pastor and is stuck with me. “I’m not a pastor anymore but I’ll pray for you.” “OK, he said.” A week later we talk again on the phone and his voice is just a weary sigh. His battles are varied and rage on multiple fronts. Judgment was easy, kindness needed.

My sermon may not even touch on these things. But I cannot help but know those who I will preach to about rest, probably need some. Far too often, I’ve looked out at people and just wanted to fix their attitudes and dispositions. I need to remember, that just like that manager, they are fighting a hard battle, most likely. And they need rest for their weary souls.

What If the Gospel Were the Only Good News?

The struggles of others and my own caused me to see something. Life can be very hard. People get sick. Babies are born with serious defects. The food that makes everyone else sing with joy is your enemy. Some starve. Some are starved for affection. And then it hit me, there are those who have no “good news” besides the gospel.

What if the gospel was a person’s only good news?
What if all the stars you once wished upon were now fires waiting to fall upon your balding head?
What if every ray of sun that once warmed your face now burned you to the core?
What if every cool breeze was a reminder of the world’s indifference?
What if every phone call was full of dread?
What if every night sighed for the coming morn and every dawn threatened tears for the day to come?
What if every life you watched lived tempted envy?
Every beauty a reminder of the ugly?
What if every smile was a longing?
What if every word of holy writ was held up to the light in hope like a hardened miner trembles for gold?
And what if you knew yourself so well, the only good news could be forgiveness?
That would be good, news indeed.

Obeying the Sadness

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“Not only preachers…but anyone who tries to express the Gospel in words, even if only to himself, has much to learn here. The weight of these sad times we must obey and must obey just because they are sad times, sad and bewildering times for people who try to hold on to the Gospel and witness to it somehow when in so many ways the weight of our sadness all but crushes the life out of it. One wonders if there is anything more crucial for the preacher to do than to obey the sadness of our times by taking it into account without equivocation or subterfuge, by speaking out of our times and into our times not just what we ought to say about the Gospel, not just what it would appear to be in the interests of the Gospel for us to say, but what we have ourselves felt about it, experienced of it. It is possible to think of the Gospel and our preaching of it as, above all and at no matter what risk, a speaking of the truth about the way things are. And it is possible to think of that truth as tragedy, as comedy, and as fairy tale.”

– Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, 6-7

He Is Called To Be Himself

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But let him take heart. He is called not to be an actor, a magician, in the pulpit. He is called to be himself. He is called to tell the truth as he has experienced it. He is called to be human, to be human, and that is calling enough for any man. If he does not make real to them the human experience of what it is to cry into the storm and receive no answer, to be sick at heart and find no healing, then he becomes the only one there who seems not to have had that experience because most surely under their bonnets and shawls and jackets, under their afros and ponytails, all the others there have had it whether they talk of it or not. As much as anything else, it is their experience of the absence of God that has brought them there in search of his presence, and if the preacher does not speak of that and to that, then he becomes like the captain of a ship who is the only one aboard who either does not know that the waves are twenty feet high and the decks awash or will not face up to it so that anything else he tries to say by way of hope and comfort and empowering becomes suspect on the basis of that one crucial ignorance or disingenuousness or cowardice or reluctance to speak in love any truths but the ones that people love to hear.

– Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, p. 40-41

The God of All Our Tomorrows

Sunrise Over the Eastern Shore by Fujishima Takeji

“…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself…” – Jesus 

“One of the things I like about jazz, kid, is I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?” – Bix Beiderbecke 

If I sit in one of the red plastic Adirondack chairs in my front yard as they are now, I will look Venus full in the face following dusk and Saturn will be on my left shoulder sitting. The cicadas and frogs will sing his praises and walkers will wave. My favorite time of the year though is when the air is almost too cool. The stars are brightest then and there are no mosquitos to swat away. There are fewer walkers and the cicadas are silent as the grave. The trains can be heard in the valley below our mountain and they sound like all the lives I have sometimes wondered if I should have lived. 

Mostly I just think about tomorrow. And even when I think about what has happened before, tomorrow takes over. For yesterday always bleeds into tomorrow.

More times than not, anxiety about tomorrow is at my elbow. Sometimes that anxiety manifests itself like silk in dreams. Dreams about what it would be like to not worry about money and enjoy waking in the morning and going to work. Dreams about vacations. Dreams of laughter that do not have clouds of fears hanging over. Dreams of dignity and fulfillment and unmitigated happiness. The stuff heavens are made of.

These dreams are not terrible in the moment but they sow the seeds of the storms of violent anxiety. An anxiety that debilitates and makes me want to act immediately and then is frustrated when answers to financial riddles are not found. An anxiety that makes me want to vacate the red plastic Adirondack chair because I cannot enjoy all that beauty anyhow.

There are times I am not thinking about tomorrow. And those are the very echoes of movement from the chair that sits at the right hand of God himself. Sometimes I sit in the silence and I am free. I dream without worry. I am thankful. I do not envy. Tomorrow is then left to worry about itself. Such moments are too few but they do happen enough to remind me that Jesus’ command can be obeyed. More than that, it can be experienced in all its glory and wonder.

And when it is, we taste, like the holy meal itself, a bit of all that heaven is for us.

And this is what I want more than anything else – to be free from worry about tomorrow. To be able to deal with today with all its troubles and beauty and wonder and terror. And then when worry rears its head, in conversation or in a red plastic Adirondack chair, I smile in faith, knowing that when tomorrow comes it will be full of all that is today. Actually, there is also the hope of it being better. Of miracles and answered prayers and a today full of childlike wonder. That could happen as well as our greatest fears.

When Jesus tells us to not worry, it is a command. But it is not the command of law alone. In other words, I do not think he is mad when we worry so much as sad when we do. I am not sure if it is a sin when we worry about tomorrow and not forget his words here. Or is it just the result of sin? Maybe it is both. But I cannot get over the belief that Jesus is looking out for our good here and is very long-suffering with our worries. He himself sweat drops of blood when he faced the cross. I do not think his anger is kindled when we worry about our crosses of tomorrow.

His command is the kind given to keep us alive to today. My constant worries about tomorrow steal all the joys of today for the hope of tomorrow’s. 

I worry for a lot of reasons all at once. I can fix it. I can’t fix it. God cares. God does not care. My kids. My wife. I have trouble believing in the God of check engine lights. And though I pray to him, I wonder if he cares at all. Very Romans 7, I know.

I fear what so many of you fear.

My great fear is not if God can care for me and my family. It is if he will. Will he take it upon himself to care for me? That’s the question no one can really answer. When you have watched all the reserves disappear and checked the corners of the storehouse for crumbs, you no longer question if God can do something, you just pray to God he will.

It’s funny, most of the time, people tell you to not worry about tomorrow because God is already there.

So?

You mean the God who has withheld something today is there to do it tomorrow also? If you could take your crocheted sentimentalities and keep them to yourself, those of us who are actually worried how we will pay the bills tomorrow would appreciate it. Thanks.

No, Jesus does what only one mired in grace and mercy would do. He dignifies today’s suffering by telling us they are truly troubles. He calls them what they are. He bleeds on all those crocheted platitudes. He knows that every ‘today’ was once a tomorrow and every tomorrow will be a today.

But then after tomorrow there is another. And another. And the God of all our tomorrows asks us join him in a garden where he will ask for tomorrow to never happen and then with bloody sweat he will say, “thy will be done.” And hopefully we will say the same.