Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life (and) learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Jesus the Christ – Matthew 11
I’m sitting here on my weekly day of Sabbath, staring out the window at fir trees laden with wet, dripping life down onto the soil and melting snow below. There are candles; a fire in the wood stove and choral Christmas carols fill the room. Warmth. Good coffee. Beauty. Shalom.
I’m thinking, “Wouldn’t it be good to sit here bathed in this kind of peace and beauty the rest of my life?” until I remember Jesus’ words a little bit later, after that bit about the “unforced rhythms of grace.” Jesus had taken the disciples on a little wilderness therapy outing, up to a high mountain where he transcended earthly dimensions and his disciples were able to see him in his pure unfiltered glory.
Jesus’ friend Peter likes this location, this revelation of glory, this peace, this mountaintop, enough to blurt out, “It’s good for us to be here Jesus, so just say the word, and we’ll start building. We’ll make some places for you and your buddies, and then we can just stay up here—because to be blunt, I don’t know if you know this or not Jesus, but we like this peace, this beauty, this joy. Preferred future: staying right here!”
The version of the story is that Jesus goes down. The disciples follow. Shortly after that there’ll be the week from hell, where Jesus goes from universal popularity to the whole world’s object of pure hatred scorn. He’ll be executed. The disciples will scatter, and wrestle with their doubts, disillusionment, and fallibility.
After that there’ll be a resurrection and things will get better. Later still, a powerful success. Then some arrests, and fighting, and martyrdom, with success and joy mysteriously interwoven into the thick fabric of trials.
Success. Joy. Peace.
Failure. Loss. Suffering.
The rhythms of unforced grace.
Embrace the reality that a life with Christ will overflow with everything, and by everything I mean there are times we’ll be drunk on joy and other times sorrow and suffering will take our breath away. We’ll have Sabbaths, if we’re fortunate, and days of laughter and beauty in the forest, or at the beach, and meals with good wine and laughter.
But we can’t stay on that mountaintop because there’s poverty, and homelessness, abuse of power and abuse of spouses. There are a million children who are refugees, and people of great wealth who have the freedom to travel the world, but are trapped in a prison of upward mobility. Beheadings. Injustice. Racism. Cancer. Ebola.
We need to get down off the mountain and into the thickness of this dark world. It’s not just that we’re called to be there as light, though God knows we are, and it feels more and more like high crime to me when the church becomes a gathering whose sole goal is the emotional and spiritual well-being of its congregants. The reality is that we need to get down off the mountain because nobody is ever shaped well by pure sabbath and shalom, not in this life at least. “The testing of your faith produces endurance,” is how James writes it, and Peter says, “Even though now, for a little while, you’re beset by various trials…” and Jesus himself says, “In this world you will have tribulation.”
All this stuff down there below the summit is shaping us for the better, or can at least. That’s because in the wisdom of the way God has created the world, it’s not just the beauty and rest that brings healing and transformation, but the suffering and loss too. The enemy of our souls can throw everything at us, but our glorious hope is that no matter the stuff, though we may have scars, even the scars will become part of the beauty in our lives.
How do we open ourselves up to both deep beauty and deep suffering?
1. Actively seek both engagement and withdrawal. Jesus is a good model for us here, as you’ll find him alone in the wilderness a fair bit, as well as in the thick of things in the city, confronting religious hypocrisy and control, casting out demons, gifting people with forgiveness, healing, restoration, and teaching too.
This rhythm is best sought by paying attention to the way God made the world, with that day of rest each week, and that continual rhythm of sunrise and sunset inviting us to both work and rest. You need all of it if you’re going to be fully in God’s story, and continuing your journey of transformation.
2. Don’t shy away from the edges. A favorite book of mine posits that if you’re afraid of great suffering and as a result, build walls around your soul so you don’t see beheadings, don’t give a damn about ongoing racism, poverty, or a million child refugees, you’ll also become numb to great joy on the other side of the spectrum. The result will be a bland middle, whereby we not only don’t let the news of our city and world affect us, but we also fail to pay attention to the profound beauty of art, music, and creation that could have filled us with the confidence and strength of Christ to continue shining as light in the midst of darkness.
Don’t let yourself settle for the middle—unmoved by Van Gogh, or Rainier, or human touch—resistant to hard or painful truth and conversations; avoiding solidarity with the suffering of our planet. The middle ground knows little suffering and little beauty. The boredom, though, is soul killing.
Better to be on the lookout, always, for the inbreaking of beauty, whether art, music, generosity, creation’s glory, or intimacy. To go there, though, requires a willingness, too, to come down off the mountain and enter into the thick of suffering, loss, sickness, death, injustice, and hard conversations.
Rainer Rilke puts it this way:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
All right then – let’s go.