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Church Leadership Magazine, Issue 61, Autumn 2006 (CPAS)

 

Oasis

Get a life!

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28)

We have heard these 'comfortable words' of Jesus many times - during the Communion Service and on other occasions. They tell us that God understands the pressures we face; that Jesus is willing to come alongside and share the load. But, asks Pamela Evans, are we right to find them so reassuring?

Double-edged

We worship and serve ‘the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort’ (2 Corinthians 1:3), who has shown himself willing and able to bear our burdens. But when Jesus spoke as he did, he wasn't just reflecting this aspect of God's character and welcoming those who knew their need of him. Some powerful people had been relentless in their criticism of Jesus and his ministry, and here we see him challenging them head-on.

Jesus' words still have the capacity to cut in more than one direction. If you dare, ask God how he'd like to use them in relation to your own thought patterns and working practices. Here's one way of exploring some of the issues...

Imagine for a moment that you're working on the world's biggest cruise ship. You've settled into the routine, happy to be employed by a well-respected company. There are the usual gripes about cabins and whose turn it is to dine with the Captain and, of course, you're never really 'off-duty'. But basically it's not a bad place to be. Then you notice a small crowd gathered around someone you've seen before but have not yet got to know. You edge closer to hear what he's saying. You're amazed to discover that he's telling passengers and crew alike that they need to disembark - right there in the middle of nowhere!

He says: 'This ship has lost its bearings and it's much too big to turn round quickly. See, down there.' He points over the side to a small boat. 'Join me in that. We can hoist the sail and head off together.'

How do you feel? Alarmed? Confused? You cannot be serious?

Now try a different scenario...

It's the first century, and you're a good Jew. You have always tried to live according to the scriptures. The complicated traditions of Sabbath observance have at times felt more of a curse than a blessing but you've hung in there, doing your best to follow the teachings of the rabbis. Then, one day, you come across someone who's saying things which jolt your centre of gravity from its customary position.

He's asking: '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, Eugene H Peterson, The Message, NavPress)

How do you feel? Alarmed? Confused? You cannot be serious?

Swept away

Eugene Peterson's version exposes layers of meaning which are lost when these words are taken out of context. Jesus seems to be asking everyone to abandon familiar, tried and tested religious means of 'getting there', and to join him in something completely different. The rabbis were in the habit of emphasizing the need to shoulder 'the yoke of the Law', urging all who sought true piety to load themselves with heavy religious burdens (Matthew 23:4). So Jesus' offer of an easy yoke and a light burden (11:30) would be laughable to the experts, were it not so undermining. And all their careful deliberations over the Law in general and Sabbath rest in particular are being swept aside in favour of... what? Something disturbingly vague, something about spending time with Jesus. They're apoplectic (12:14).

Me and my burdens

‘The yoke of the Law’ as borne by pious Jews of Jesus' day may no longer be a la mode. But fashions tend to recur with only trivial alterations, so take a moment to reflect:

  • which burdens does today's Church see as 'must have' for the up-and-coming Christian leader?
  • which heavy loads might you be ever-so-slightly proud to be seen bearing?

I believe the expression 'a hardening of the "oughteries"' was coined by psychiatrist Frank Lake. Whatever its origins, most people seem to know what it means - and there's a lot of it about. Many church communities have experts who know exactly what the leadership ought or ought not to be doing. But 'oughting' also comes as a result of our own desire to have everything shipshape and water-tight, in order to overcome fears of being found wanting.

Which company?

So, does daily ministry feel more like being permanently on call on a great big liner where you never get to meet whoever it is who plots the course? Or is it like sailing in a boat with Jesus at the helm?

Jesus offered his contemporaries an alternative way of living and serving rooted in relationship with him. When people heard his invitation to leave behind a legalistic culture policed by religious experts, it may have felt like being asked to step off a big, safe ship in mid-ocean. But the choice was guaranteed to be life-saving.

In today's world I'm sure Jesus would frame the invitation differently, but the thrust would be the same: 'If you want to get a life, keep company with me.'