An easy yoke?

Man carrying bananas - Indonesia

“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light”.

How many of us quote these words of Jesus, thinking they should be a comfort, and yet knowing in our hearts we don’t believe it?

We want to believe it, but the bewildering truth is that we don’t find it to be true in our experience, nor do we see it to be true in the lives of others.

These days the thought of being yoked to any religious culture is  likely to make many people grit their teeth to resist.  After all, religion is at the root of so much trouble between humans.

My impression of a yoke has always been about carrying a burden alone.  I think back to a time when I lived in the Far East.  Men of all ages travelled about carrying their goods strapped to a rod over their shoulders. The loads were clearly heavy.  They trotted along with a distinctive light-footed, bouncing step that set up a rhythm to keep the pressure of the load off their shoulders as much as possible. The heavier the load the faster they trotted.

So why would Jesus use a yoke and a burden as a metaphor for his relationship for us?

We can see that the metaphor is relevant for life as most of us lead it today.  We are bound, or yoked, to all sorts of things – our relationships, our possessions, our work.  And we know what it means to be burdened.  Who hasn’t felt weighed down with responsibility or burdened by guilt?

We rush through life to avoid giving attention to the things that weigh us down.  Being busy becomes an excuse for living with chaos.

So what can Jesus mean when he talks about his yoke being easy and his burden light?

Recently I discovered that the yoke Jesus would be referring to was a double yoke used to link oxen.  As a carpenter he is likely to have made many of them and been familiar with the need to match the yoke to the oxen.

Suddenly the metaphor feels completely different.  Jesus is inviting us into his yoke with him.

When Jesus spoke about his yoke, he was talking to  people who were weighed down by the burdens placed on them by the religious leaders of the day.  These leaders  would “tie up heavy burdens , hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others”. He was speaking of the burden of religious rituals and rules that were added to the laws, making them unachievable.

Having no chance of ever being good enough is an impossible burden to bear.

But Jesus spoke tenderly to the people who were worn out on trying to be good enough.  He knows God and he knows how to get close to Him.  He is willing to spell it out slowly and clearly in a way that we can understand and follow. Reading the words in the Message translation of the bible help us to understand what Jesus is saying.

 “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.”

If you want to know God, the more you think about what these words mean the more attractive Jesus’ yoke feels.

He knows the way.

You can take advantage of his strength, wisdom, knowledge and experience.

You find yourself slowing down . . . a burden shared is lighter.

You glimpse the possibility of learning to live freely and lightly.

Yes, perhaps it can be an easy yoke.

 

Joy made possible

So, our Easter celebration is over. We are released from the self-discipline of Lent. Now we can reflect on what the resurrection of Jesus means to us as we move back into our normal routines.

Doubts, disappointments and numbness can begin to creep in.

I discovered that the first Sunday after Easter is called Low Sunday or St Thomas Sunday, named after the apostle Thomas who declared he could not believe in the resurrection of Jesus unless he could see the nail marks in his hands for himself. Thomas speaks for many of us who need help to believe and to know what the resurrection means for us.

Choose_Life__Chr_512ca52449d24In my explorations about what Life to the Full might be I discovered  Choose Life, the collection of Rowan Williams’ Easter and Christmas Sermons given in Canterbury Cathedral during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury. The sermons are inspiring. Each from a different perspective, and each sharing Rowan Williams’ incredible learning and knowledge. He leads us into layers of understanding about what life is and what it can be.

The first one to catch my eye is called Happiness or Joy, delivered in Easter 2011.  Rowan Williams suggests that the deepest happiness is something that creeps up on us when we are not looking.

We can look back and say ‘Yes, I was happy then’ – and we cannot reproduce it. It seems that, just as we can’t find fulfilment in just loving ourselves, so we can’t just generate happiness for ourselves.  It comes from outside, from relationships, environment, the unexpected stimulus of beauty – but not from any programme we can manufacture. (page 192)

He goes on to explore what he calls authentic happiness or joy. To do this he takes us to the beginning of the resurrection story in John chapter 20:1-10 where the disciples are in the midst of shock, amazement and utter disorientation. As Jesus appears they are jolted out of everything that was familiar to them into a disturbing new world where even death is not what they thought it was, and so anything is possible. Jesus’ presence would bring alarming uncertainty. Hope mixed with terror.  And yet we are told that the disciples were filled with joy.

There is important information in this. Authentic happiness does not take away the reality of threat or risk of suffering. One of the hardest things to take hold of is knowing that we can we feel happy in a world so full of atrocity and injustice.  (page 194) Authentic happiness is not about feeling cheerful, or putting on a brave face. It is . . .

an overwhelming sense of being where you should be, being in tune with something or someone, being rooted in the moment in a way that doesn’t at all blur your honesty about what’s there in front of your eyes but gives you what you need to sit in the presence of horror and grief, and live. (page 195)

This is what having Life to the Full is about!  It does not come from our own efforts or will power. It comes from being connected to a reality and strength that is outside of our own efforts.

Christian joy, the joy of Easter, is offered to the world not to guarantee a permanently happy society in the sense of a society free of tension, pain or disappointment, but to affirm that whatever happens in the unpredictable world . . . there is a deeper level of reality, a world within a world, where love and reconciliation are ceaselessly at work, a world with which contact can be made so that we are able to live honestly and courageously with the challenges constantly thrown at us.

This is not a theoretical idea for our passive engagement.  Rowan Williams suggests two clear ways that we can actively support our own authentic happiness.

  • Make space to receive the gift of joy. For most of us, like the disciples at the first Easter, it takes a shock to break through the routine of our normal thoughts and experience before we can see things differently. Whereas those who take time in silence and reflection are often the people in whom we can see the greatest capacity for authentic happiness. Jesus often withdrew to a quiet place to pray. He modelled how to be in the midst of horror and grief and live. We ask ourselves ‘How can I make space in my life to receive the gift of joy?’
  • Challenge the things that make us anxious.  Jesus’ resurrection breaks open a new reality for us in which victorious mercy and inexhaustible love make the rules. With this comes the potential for joy that is not at the mercy of our feelings. We can create our own reality where anxious thoughts set our boundaries, or we can challenge our thoughts against the new reality where anything is possible and death is not the end. We  ask ourselves ‘What can happen when I challenge my anxious thoughts?’

When we do these things we can find ourselves after Easter, like the disciples, with our world turned upside down and joy made possible.

Justin Welby’s Thought for the Day for Good Friday

Justin+Welby

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, gave the Good Friday Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4.  You can Listen to his talk here.

He said that Good Friday is an extraordinary day .

“Whoever you are, whether rulers and rich, or ordinary people dealing with the worst of times, the death of Jesus is both a challenge and a promise of hope.

“The challenge is to show that same self-giving love for the sake of others.

“The promise is that nothing is beyond His reach and even despair can be healed.”

Good Friday – it’s ok to ask why we suffer

Surely God is good . . . to those who are pure in heart.

But is it true?

Is there anyone who can explain why bad things happen to good people?

Today is Good Friday.  “Stay with the suffering at the Cross” says our vicar.  “Easter will come, but today we must focus on the pain.”

And so we get into the story of the crucifixion of Jesus and see it from all angles.

We feel the guilt, fear, abandonment, confusion, anger and deep, deep pain. We hear one muttering “Why me?” and another declaring “This is not my fault.”

“Now look into your own life” says our leader. “See what grieves or embitters your spirit. Write it down and nail it to the Cross. Leave it there.”

“Jesus’ suffering brings our healing”

Surely God is good . . . to those who are pure in heart.

But bad things do happen again and again to good people.

Why?

We read Psalm 73

Surely God is good . . . . to those who are pure in heart.

But as for me . . I envied the arrogant

when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

. . Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure

and have washed my hands in innocence.

All day long I have been afflicted

and every morning brings new punishments.

Is there an answer to why bad things happen to good people?

Even the Vicar says he does not know.

But today is GOOD Friday.

And it is GOOD because Jesus’ suffering shows that God is present WITH US in our suffering.

 . . you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel.