My cell phone vibrated as it had thousands of times before to inform me that I had received a text message, a simple buzz and completely out of scale to the weight of the message that it carried. I quickly glanced at it, noticing that it was from a good friend in ministry, and so I read on. But this wasn’t a normal message—it was the message that you dread receiving, the kind of phone call that you always fear, that tragic surprise that seems to lurk in the background of life. It read: “My daughter was in a terrible accident yesterday and did not survive. She is with our Lord now. I need your help.” Suddenly, the weight of life fell upon my shoulders so heavily that I was forced to sit down under the burden of it. It was undoubtedly the worst news that anyone could possibly receive—the death of their child in a brutal way. It is the nightmare that shakes any parent to their core, the kind of heartbreak that stalks you in the back of your mind. My initial reaction was one of great sorrow, but I must confess that my second reaction was one we all experience, although we’re probably ashamed to admit it—a sliver of relief it didn’t happen to me.
There is a tremendous weight that we carry with us every day of our lives, some more noticeably than others, and it keeps us from rest. It is an awareness that lies just beneath the surface of how fragile our happiness really is, how vulnerable we are to things beyond our control, and how powerless we are to do something about it. That knowledge is a burden that we continually bear, whether pushed from our conscious minds or not, and it motivates so much of what we do. I belong to what I call the short-sleeper club, a group of people who sleep halfway through the night and then wake up to think about everything that could go wrong and how we need to prepare. There are a lot more of us than you know. We live in a state of hyper vigilance about life. When you’ve experienced one of those dreaded events, you try to protect yourself against the things that you can’t foresee; it is an invisible burden that you lug around, life-baggage that you bring along just in case.
The problem is that living life in this way doesn’t allow rest, that is, deep, soul-quenching rest. This is the kind of rest that Jesus promised when he said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” In this day and age, that kind of rest is more than elusive; in fact, it seems downright incompatible with our daily lives. But when I articulate that word “rest” it is like someone stirs something deep inside of me, beckoning for me to lay it all down and experience peace. How can we find the kind of rest that Jesus promised so long ago?
Carrying the Diaper Bag
Whether we realize it or not, we have so many other places that we turn in order to generate rest, but they never really work. Early on in life, I discovered that I could find rest through diligence and being over-prepared, sort of a Boy Scout method of navigating life. I worked in the record industry doing production, and so there was this hyper-awareness of all our projects and inventory, and whether or not I had the parts on hand to meet any eventuality. As a musician, I found the same pathway to rest, preparing a gig bag with any cords and charts that I could possibly need in the moment. If you’re a parent, you do the same thing with a diaper bag, being careful to stock it with anything that you might need to avoid disaster. Maybe this is just prudent, but it means that you’ll be toting a bag with you everywhere you go.
I recently heard a TED Talk with Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, who talked about dealing with stress by planning for it—indeed, rehearsing it—in advance, and then filing it away for future use. For example, he rehearses in advance what he will do if or when he gets in a car accident. He asks himself, “Are there things that I can do, systems that I can put into place that will prevent bad things from happening?” Levitin calls this “doing a pre-mortem,” which means visualizing everything that might go wrong and then planning for those things in advance, when your mind is physiologically more capable of making good decisions.
On one hand, I completely understand what he is describing, because I have practiced that kind of approach just about every day of my life. But I have news for Dr. Levitin: his strategy might alleviate stress, but it doesn’t create rest. Quite the opposite. I have recurring dreams in which I find myself unprepared for some situation, and wake up panicking. Maybe it is the opening night of a play and I’ve forgotten to learn my lines, or am playing in some concert but have lost my music. And of course, there is the nightmare of all over-achievers that I have forgotten to go to class all semester and now am flunking. Then I wake up and must convince myself that it was a dream. You can plan ahead all you like, and maybe that is a good thing, but ultimately, you’ll still be carrying around a diaper bag in your subconscious mind, filled with strategies to keep all the disasters away.
When Jesus Wept
I am fascinated by what follows in this passage, and how Jesus proposes that they experience rest. He doesn’t give them a mantra and prescribe meditation or some kind of consciousness-emptying experience. He doesn’t instruct them to distance themselves from toxic and demanding people in their lives. He doesn’t lead them on a walk by the ocean and have them soak in the soundscape of waves lapping at the shore. Maybe those aren’t bad things, but they all involve trying to control our environment or our state of mind. Instead, he says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.” A yoke was a farm implement that allowed oxen to tow a heavy wagon or plow. Interestingly, Jesus never says that he will take away their burden; instead, he promises them a better one.
In the midst of the struggle, Jesus challenges them to the weight of discipleship. He calls upon them to learn from him. He wants them to follow him. Jesus was a different kind of teacher than those we know today. He didn’t have his students sit in a classroom, but instead, he took them on a journey. He led them into situations that would not be easy, that were going to stretch their faith, sometimes drastically, so that they could learn from him, so that they could grow as people. But the thing is, he never abandoned them in those situations. Sure, he sent them on journeys to stretch their wings, but he debriefed them when they returned. With the exception of the cross, Jesus never left them. It was his presence they needed for true rest.
There is a great example of what I am talking about in the biblical book of John. Jesus has learned that his friend Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, is very sick. Instead of hurrying over to Bethany to heal him, however, he tarries for a few days and arrives after Lazarus has died and been buried. That almost sounds cruel. He made no effort to spare them the struggle—to shield his friends from suffering. But in the shortest verse in the Bible, we see the depths of his heart revealed to us: Jesus wept. The person who divided the biblical text into verses so long ago clearly understood just how important those two words were, and made it a kind of punctuation. Some people think that Jesus wept because he was dismayed at their lack of faith, but that is sheer nonsense. Jesus wept because he was fully present with them in their struggle. But he was more interested in their spiritual growth than in preventing suffering, and so he shared their pain as he built their faith. Honestly, as much as I hate that fact, it gives meaning to the struggle.
“My yoke is easy”
Jesus finishes with perhaps the strangest statement. “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” All of my life I have wondered, “How in the world is the burden of Jesus lighter than other burdens?” I mean, the burden of walking with him, of dying to ourselves, how is that a light burden? Some biblical scholars think that Jesus was referring to the religious burden of the Mosaic Law that the Pharisees placed upon the people. However, nothing in the immediate context justifies it. How is following Jesus lighter or easier than the other burdens we carry?
I was asked to do the burial service for the daughter of my friend, and I have to admit that as I watched that casket descend into the ground, I was feeling a lot like Mary and Martha must have felt as they watched their brother Lazarus, wrapped in linen cloths, being placed in the tomb. Hope was extinguished, at least in the here and now. Going forward, life for them would change radically. They could never have expected what would happen when Jesus showed up. Somehow, they had to experience rest in the new reality that was presented to them. I have had to bury friends before, but never my own child. In the midst of that kind of devastation, how do we balance stress and serenity, heartbreak and hope, reality and rest?
The only way that I can understand this dilemma is to revisit Jesus’ promise. He didn’t promise the absence of a burden, or that it would be taken away; instead, he promised rest in the midst of the trouble. He wanted them to know that faith yields rest, whereas control never does. It never can. As much as I prefer to over-prepare my way out of stress and trouble, it never works. For one thing, control will never shield me from the unexpected or the unforeseen, and let’s be honest, that is more than half of what troubles us. But as we go through life, trying to control trouble away keeps us on hyper-alert, and never lets us rest—truly rest. What Jesus was trying to teach Mary and Martha by staying away is that you can’t control this situation—you have to place your faith in me. That is where rest originates.
I was reminded of this truth some time ago, when my son was still a toddler. We used to visit a bagel bakery together every Friday, along with the masses of others who would crowd the small store. On this occasion, I remember waiting in a long line, and when I turned around, Drake was gone. I quickly scanned the store, but he was nowhere to be seen. Of course, I began running around the store, looking everywhere, panic increasing. I envisioned in my mind how he could have been snatched by someone, and ran into the parking lot to see if I could see him being carried off. When I came back into the store, I asked two ladies if they’d seen a little boy. They seemed strangely unconcerned, and smiled an ironic smile that caught me off guard. “Lost your child?” He was standing right behind me.
I understand that it doesn’t always end so well. Some children are kidnapped, I know. Sometimes people or their mates get cancer and die suddenly, and we are powerless to do anything. And I know that sweet young girls in their first year of college are in the wrong car at the wrong time, and are crushed by a construction crane that collapses on them. We can’t control these things. But if that is you, I want you to know that Jesus is with you in this crisis. His presence is there. In fact, he is standing right behind you. Right now. He isn’t going anywhere.
© 2019 Daniel Radmacher