Dear Church, Rest with Jesus
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11:28-30 MSG
The words of Jesus from Matthew 11 are a timely invitation for us in this moment. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly functioning at capacity. In Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo Baggins frames it this way, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter being scraped over too much bread.” As if the typical stressors of life weren’t enough, we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic that does not seem to be going away anytime soon (can you believe it’s been 8 months?). The murders of Ahmad Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor have mobilized many across the nation to demand justice and systemic change in their communities. We are less than a week away from a presidential election that may well be the most consequential of our lifetime. Unemployment numbers are the highest they have been since the Great Depression and this has resulted in millions of Americans losing health insurance when they need it most. Corporations and billionaires have found ways to profit off COVID-19 while the average American is living paycheck to paycheck. Personally, this year has been filled with difficult diagnoses, financial strain, and loss, but also surprising moments of joy and anticipation. As a pastor I have struggled to navigate the challenges my faith community is facing in this particular moment. As a partner and spouse, I have struggled to maintain relational health as each day has presented new obstacles. As a human being I have struggled to be present in the moment and prioritize my own mental health. I am tired. I am worn out. And I imagine you are too.
When looking at the ministry of Jesus, it appears that he was always on the move. He went from town to town proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God, the God Movement, had come. This movement turned the world upside down by critiquing the religious establishment AND the Roman Empire. While the religious establishment valued grandiose, performative religion based upon observance of the Law, Jesus embodied humility and reinterpreted the Law solely as a vehicle to greater love of God and humanity. While the Roman Empire asserted power over its citizens, Jesus modeled a “downward mobility” in which power is relinquished for the sake of others. The religious establishment served as Oppressor by, “…crushing people with unbearable religious demands and never lifting a finger to ease the burden,” (Matthew 23:4 NLT) while the Romans colonized indigenous peoples and occupied their lands for the sake of Roman dominance. The Jesus of the Gospels comes to bring liberation from these oppressive structures by bringing healing and wholeness to those he meets. Jesus begins his public ministry by reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and proclaiming, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” (Luke 4:18-19 NLT) The God Movement is serious, structure-altering, transformational work. This movement embodies Good News for ALL people, not a select few with power and privilege. The work of the God Movement is not confined by racial and cultural barriers, socio-economic divisions, or sexual orientation. It is indeed the very vehicle by which healing and wholeness come into the world. Jesus’ implication that following him will involve recovering our lives and finding real rest doesn’t appear to align with the daunting task of participating in the work of the kingdom of God. So how did Jesus keep it up? And more importantly, how are we supposed to follow his example and continue the work he began?
Though Jesus seems to always be busy “doing the work,” a closer look shows that Jesus was aware of his limitations. The Gospel is filled with moments in which Jesus withdraws to pray and recharge following times of preaching and healing (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:15, Luke 6:12, Matthew 14:13, Mark 6:31, Luke 11:1 to name a few). Jesus seems to acknowledge that, as a human, there is only so much time in the day. No matter how pressing or urgent the work may be, Jesus recognized that it would be there the next day and that recovery and self-care were absolutely necessary to sustain his work. As Jesus withdrew to spend time in solitude, he was able to be still and not only listen to the voice of the Father, but quiet the outer voices (including his friends) that had very different expectations regarding what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus clearly sees the value in rest. In the midst of bringing healing and wholeness to others, Jesus tends to his own health and the health of his disciples. If Jesus has modeled this for us, why is it so difficult to care for ourselves as we do the work of the kingdom of God today?
Have you ever felt like there’s not enough time to get things done? Have you ever prioritized your ministry/work obligations over your own mental, emotional, or physical health? Have you allowed yourself to spiral checking emails, social media, or replying to every text message in fear that something might fall through the cracks? Have you ever said, “This will just take a minute,” only to find yourself neck deep in a problem hours later that could have waited until Monday? In our capitalist economy that values efficiency, metrics, and results it is difficult to let go and prioritize self-care. Particularly as faith leaders, it doesn’t take much for the lines to begin to blur and before we know it, we’re running on empty. Maybe you’re like me and you tend to overcommit to projects or initiatives that, in and of themselves are exciting and life-giving, but on top of the countless other obligations, stretch you too thin. If our approach to kingdom work is like drinking from a fire hose, we find ourselves depleted, disconnected, and burnt out.
A number of months ago my wife and I found out we were expecting our first child. This news, though filled with joy and wonder, was completely overwhelming. Up until that point I had been navigating life as well as I could, but this surprising news revealed the pace in which I was functioning was not sustainable. After years of saying, “It might be a good idea to see a therapist,” I followed through and began a process that continues to bring healing and allows me space to do the inner work so necessary to healthy leadership. In addition to therapy, conversations with my spiritual director have brought a sense of connectedness to the ways in which God has been present with me on my journey. Other spaces of rest and healing have included time with family, Facetime or socially distanced meetings with friends, exercise, playing the piano, or just walking the dog around the neighborhood. Each of these practices, whether overtly “spiritual” or not, are opportunities to slow down and be aware of the loving presence of God in the midst of a chaotic world.
At the end of each session with my spiritual director, my director poses the question, “What might the Spirit be inviting you into today?” As you reflect on where you find yourself in this moment, what brings you life? What stirs joy and peace within you? Where are the places you find rest and healing? The Spirit invites each of us into deeper communion with Jesus. It is by walking with Jesus that we can recover our lives, no matter how disjointed, disconnected, or disillusioned we may feel. When we walk and do the work of the kingdom of God WITH Jesus, we see what it means to experience real rest. With Jesus, unforced rhythms of grace become tools for mental, emotional, and physical well-being. In keeping company with Jesus, we learn what it means to live free and lightly. Dear Church, though we are tired, worn out, and at our wits end, we must come to Jesus. Though there is work to be done, it is only when we rest with Jesus that we can thrive and experience the fullness of life that empowers us to build a world “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Grace and Peace,
Ethan Asters serves as Worship Pastor at Vineyard Church of New Orleans. Ethan is a graduate of Samford University and is currently studying at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Ethan has a passion for exploring the intersections of justice, the arts, psychology, and spiritual formation. Ethan and his wife Hannah reside in New Orleans, LA and most importantly, are reconcilers.