Let’s do a quick self-check. On a scale of 1 to 10, rate your degree of stress and busyness on the following scale:
10 = Someone call an ambulance!
9 = “Chief Crazy Busy” is my Native American name.
8 = I’m not going crazy … but I can see crazy from here …
7 = “Exhausted” is my middle name.
6 = I can really use a vacation – and I just got back from one!
5 = How many days (hours/minutes) to vacation?
4 = My calendar is a wee bit on the heavy side.
3 = Feelin’ groovy!
2 = Ommmmmmm.
1 = I and the Universe are One.
If you rated yourself 5 or higher, this series is for you! If you rated lower than 5, then this series is for also you, only not because it will help you eliminate busyness and stress but because it will help you focus your energies.
Our focus passage for the week is from Matthew 11:28-30, where Jesus invites us to “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Do these words sound very realistic? As attractive as they sound, our fast-paced lives make it hard to imagine how Jesus’ invitation could possibly apply to us. Our schedules are so full – between work, family, and other obligations – that the mere suggestion of a yoke that could be “easy” and a burden that could be “light” seems absurd. Was Jesus “yoking”?
Perhaps Jesus wasn’t “yoking,” but it does seem like he’s at least contradicting himself. On one hand, as we’ve observed many times before, Jesus’ core message was that heaven (God’s Kingdom or Realm) may be found on earth, not simply in the afterlife. And because it may be experienced now, on earth – where struggle is constant – then God’s Realm must be found in the heart of our struggles, not merely in the absence of them.
This is the essential meaning of the Beatitudes, is it not? Blessed are the poor in spirit … blessed the mourners … blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness … blessed are the persecuted … Can heaven really be found in such experiences? According to Jesus, if you can’t find heaven in the heart of your struggles, you have precious little chance of finding it anywhere else.
On the other hand, if our earthly experience of heaven is located at the heart of our struggles, one might assume that the yoke Jesus invites us to accept cannot possibly be as “easy” as he claims it to be.
Actually, Jesus never promises that his yoke is easy. We have to remember that Jesus didn’t speak English. He spoke Aramaic, which was translated into Greek, which was (much later) translated into English. We don’t have access to his original words, but we can find the Greek translation easily enough. And when we look at the Greek, we find that the word translated as “easy” in many Bibles is crestos (χρηστός).
A better translation of crestos would be “kind.” An even better translation, given the context of yoking animals, would be “well fitting.” If you place an ill-fitting yoke on an ox, it doesn’t matter how light its load is, every ounce of effort will be burdensome. Yet even a heavy burden is bearable if the yoke is a custom fit.
What Jesus is telling us is that, in contrast to other yokes, his fits. Jesus’ yoke isn’t a “one size fits all.” Fits you perfectly. Like it was made just for you. And it was.
I love Jesus’ invitation to accept his yoke upon us because he’s really talking about finding and living into our “sweet spot.”
At my church, more of us are paying attention to our “sweet spots” than ever before. Golf clubs, baseball and cricket bats, and tennis rackets all have sweet spots. Human lives do, too. The sweet spot on a tennis racket is that place near the center of the strings where the vibrations transmitted through the impact of the ball cancel themselves out, making players nearly unaware that the impact has occurred. Hitting the sweet spot, therefore, feels natural and almost effortless. It allows the players to invest their energies into playing the game, not merely hitting the ball.
As effortless as it feels, however, the sweet spot is difficult to locate and hit regularly. A player must practice hard, paying careful attention to how each swing feels under changing conditions, most especially the pressure of competition. Just as the sweet spot of a racket is found by adjusting to continuous impacts made by a ball moving in the opposite direction, so your internal “sweet spot” tends to be revealed though direct challenge. You keep adjusting your responses until they begin coming from a place where you feel most fully yourself – most fully free, yet wholeheartedly engaged and alive. When you live your life from within your sweet spot, life may not always be “easy,” but life “fits” you. Your burden is light because your best energies are employed.
III. Your Flower, Your Field
In the film Adaptation, based on Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief, an unorthodox orchid hunter named John Laroche reminds us of what it’s like to sense the call when he speaks of the attraction between an insect and the specific orchid it is meant to pollinate:
There’s a certain orchid that looks exactly like a certain insect so the insect is drawn to this flower – its double, its soul-mate – and wants nothing more than to make love to it. After the insect flies off, it spots another soul-mate flower and makes love to it, thus pollinating it. And neither flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their lovemaking. I mean, how could they know that because of their little dance the world lives, but it does. By simply doing what they’re designed to do, something large and magnificent happens. In this sense they show us how to live, how the only barometer you have is your heart; how when you spot your flower you can’t let anything get in your way.
I love this image of the insect pollinating the orchid because it provides not only a metaphor for our “sweet spot,” but because it also suggests why living within our “sweet spot” connects us to an unhurried God. That insect isn’t busy trying to pollinate every flower in a given field. It lives to pollinate just one flower – the flower it was created to pollinate. So it flies by hundreds of flowers without giving them an ounce of time or energy, without feeling the slightest bit guilty or duty-bound to go after more than the kind of flower it is meant to pollinate.
In contrast to the insect, we tend to get crazy-busy in our lives because we have a hard time saying “No” to others. Therefore, we spend a lot of time and attention – and life energy – wrapped up in all kinds of activities and pursuits that have little or nothing to do with what brings us alive in the world. We hear all the other “flowers” calling to us, saying, “Hey, come pollinate me! Don’t you have a heart? Why are you flying right past me? Really, I won’t demand very much of your time. And aren’t I just as deserving of your help as the next flower?”
Guilt sets in. Duty. Once we respond to one such flower, a hundred others raise their voices, asking us to come their way. “It’s not fair if you help that flower and not me!” they protest. Pretty soon, we’re pollinating every flower except the one we were created for. Over time, we tend even to forget what flower that is. We’ve paid so much attention to the calls of others that we’ve lost touch with the flower that calls us most deeply.
How do we get back in touch with our flower? And how do we gain the confidence to say “No” to the 99 that call to us in order to say “Yes” to the one flower that best fits our “sweet spot”?
Jesus offers us an important clue, which most people overlook. He says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Most of us tend to react to Jesus as if he’s just one more flower that’s not our flower demanding our time and attention. So we resist his yoke, feeling like he’ll burden us with all kinds of work that isn’t ours to do.
But he’s not.
Remember, he’s offering you a “well-fitting” yoke. In other words, he’s offering you the chance to do exactly the work that you were created to do – the work that brings you most fully alive.
And he’s offering to help you.
IV. The Yoke Jesus Offers
In ancient Israel, just as in early America and the developing world today, the yoke that is used to plow a field fits two oxen, not just one. When Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you,” he’s offering you the other half of the yoke, expecting to be connected with you in such a way that you are both working together. His yoke is “well-fitting.” It was made just for you. And this yoke connects you to power and ability that far exceeds your own. In other words, the yoke of Jesus connects you to your “sweet spot” (your “calling”) and provides you powerful help to live within it. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”
Being yoked with Jesus does one other thing. It helps us find our “sweet spot” or “calling” to begin with. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” On our own, we tend to wander about, get off track, and plough any field that calls to us, much like an insect pollinating every flower but its own. Yet if we have accepted the yoke of Jesus – which is really a metaphor for submitting ourselves to the Spirit of the Living Christ, or Holy Spirit – we are kept from wandering. The Spirit pulls us back when we start wandering into other fields. We feel it in our gut when we are headed in the wrong direction, and the feeling increases the longer we roam abroad, until we finally get back on track and it feels wonderful again.
This might sound coercive, but remember: You are invited to wear the yoke, not required to. If you think you can stand up to all those competing calls to plough all the fields within earshot on your own, then go ahead and wander and remember to keep asking yourself, “How’s this working for me?”
No, we accept the yoke of Jesus of our own free will. What keeps us willingly wearing that yoke in the long run is the discovery that Jesus isn’t asking us to help him plow his field. He’s offering to help you plow yours. Your field is not any old field that happens to suit your fancy at the moment, but the one you were created to work in … the one where your work hits your “sweet spot” … pollinates your flower.
Let’s set aside the metaphors at this point and cut to the chase. I’ll illustrate what I’m getting at by speaking of my own experience of being yoked to Jesus and working within my “sweet spot.” If I were to set down on paper what the field looks like that is my greatest joy to plow it looks like this:
The above is a hierarchically-arranged list of my six greatest passions, around which I spend the majority of my time and attention. Together, they represent my “sweet spot.” When these six aspects of my life are moving in a similar direction and are healthy, I’m a very, very happy person. I am most fully alive.
I’ve come up with this list after years of narrowing it down in prayerful reflection and conversation with God. Admittedly, the most effective way I’ve narrowed the list is by trying to do far too many other things – plowing a hundred other fields; pollinating a hundred other flowers – and finding my energies drained as a result, until I get back in alignment with these six.
The way the above list may be interpreted is like this:
At the top of my list is my relationship with God. I’ve learned that God knows more about who I am and what makes me tick than I do. So every day I submit myself all over again to the Holy Spirit in prayer and meditation, and through listening to the voice of the Spirit – which often comes to me from people like you – throughout the day. If I pay attention to what I hear, I find that I am led, step by step, in the path of my fullest energies. I’m not a perfect listener, by any means, and I make plenty of mistakes, but even despite my wide range of shortcomings, I find that if I keep turning my will over and promising obedience to God, I tend to follow my path of greatest aliveness far better than when I don’t.
My relationship with God also helps me develop the insight and confidence to stay true to my path. When other people working other fields call to me, trying to get me to work every field but my own, I am able to say “No” much easier (and much more graciously, with far less guilt) because I know that working my field is part of what it means to be obedient to God.
The other reason that my relationship with God tops my list is because I’ve learned through hard experience that when this primary relationship is a mess, it doesn’t matter how many other aspects of my “sweet spot” are going well. I’m going to be miserable.
Under God is my family. Through my relationship with God, I learn what it means to even be a family man. And my family is high on my list not only because I love them above all others, but because I’ve learned that if my family relationships are going poorly, everything lower on the list can be going swimmingly well but my life will feel constrained and heavy. Conversely, a lot of things can be out-of-kilter on my list, but if my relationship with God and family is healthy, I can make it through most any ordeal.
Underneath family is my church – Countryside Community Church (UCC) in Omaha, Nebraska – which reflects the fact that I feel called by God to the vocation of Christian ministry, and specifically ministry at Countryside. It also reflects the fact that I love Countryside. In fact, I love my relationship with Countryside so much that these top three aspects – God, family, church – are heavily weighted in my list. Meaning, if these three are going reasonably well, I tend to be an extremely happy person even if the last three aren’t going as well as they could. The amount of time and attention I give to the bottom three, therefore, is directly dependent upon how well the top three are going.
Incidentally, if you’re presently employed in a career and your career isn’t high on your “sweet spot” list, or doesn’t make it on the list at all, you may want to prayerfully consider if God isn’t calling you either into another form of work or to making adjustments to your present work. After all, our careers absorb a full half of our waking life. That’s a lot of time and energy! So if you’re not investing that time and energy into something that’s pretty central to what brings you alive in this world … well, you’re not having nearly as much fun as you could have, or as God wants you to have. If it is impossible to make a living doing what brings you alive in this world, then you would do well to work in a job that takes very little physical and psychological energy. That way you can more fully devote your remaining energy to your “sweet spot.” (The apostle Paul did this – existing as a tentmaker to earn money so he could devote his true energies in work that would not sustain him financially.)
Back to my list, it’s not as straight-forward as it may appear. There is a certain seasonality to my it. We’ll be discussing seasonality later in our series when we hit Ecclesiastes and talk to a really great guest named Todd Wynward (Sept 15), but for now I’ll just mention that, over time, different aspects of my “sweet spot” receive varying amounts of attention. When I go on Study Leave, for instance, I may be paying more attention to writing than to my family. When I go on vacation, I’m likely paying more attention to my friends than to Countryside Church.
The last item on my list – Wider Church – has to do with the involvement in the wider Christian movement to which I feel called. It’s where I experience the unique joy of helping other Christians beyond Omaha connect with their God, and other churches move into the 21st century faithfully. And its about shaping the wider Church in such a way that it will continue to be around for our children and grandchildren as a place of vitality, inspiration and hope. Activities that trigger this “sweet spot” aspect include speaking at the Wild Goose Festival, and at seminaries and conferences. It also includes responding to questions about how to “be church” in the modern era from those who contact me over email, or Facebook, or by phone.
While this Wider Church aspect is the lowest on my list, bear in mind that it’s higher than a lot of things that would normally be found on other people’s lists. It’s higher than personal hobbies, for instance, and sports – even Huskers games (That approaches blasphemy in Nebraska!). It’s higher than going out to the movies, or reading novels, and so on. It’s not that I don’t do these other things. It’s just that I only engage in them to the extent that they don’t interfere with my core energies. I also try to integrate them with my core list – like connecting with friends by going to the movies with them, or connecting with my church members by going bicycling with them or attending a sporting event.
I’m guessing that my list looks a bit different than your own, particularly the bottom half. And that’s the point. My list is my distinctive “sweet spot.” My flower. It is the distinctive shape of the well-fitting yoke I have accepted – quite willingly and quite enthusiastically. When these six aspects of my life are healthy and in alignment, I feel the presence of Jesus most powerfully in my life – like he is walking right beside me. I “find rest for my soul.”
What does your “sweet spot” look like? Why not write down a few ideas and pray about them this week?