In a famous text from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus invites us to lay our burdens down. I have quite a few that need offloading. Come to me, he says, and when I hear him, I know he knows. He knows how exhausted I get. I need his rest.
So, how do I get it? He says, Put on my yoke, learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.
Jesus’ rest is connected to putting on his way of being, a way of gentleness, a way of humility. I’ll have rest, he says, when I learn to live that way too.
But how do I learn humility? Should I grovel and cry, Oh what a worm am I? When people say that they love the way I sing, or that I make great brownies, should I reply, Oh no, my sister sings much better than I do; or, It wasn’t me; it was God working through me who made those delicious brownies?
That seems false to me. Doing that doesn’t make me light. It makes me phony. There’s no rest for my soul in pretending I am not who I am. Maybe the humility Jesus is talking about is more like that—just being who you are—no more, no less.
Who I am—a creature of infinite worth and estimable achievement, and a creature who occupies only an infinitesimal place in the cosmos. A creature who is God’s crowning glory, and a creature who is also always deeply conscious of my origins in the clay of the earth. A creature unique and irreplaceable, and a creature who shares an ordinary common lot with other human beings and with everything else God made.
In other words, I am lovely and great, but in an ordinary sort of way. And that lovely sort of ordinariness just might be the secret of the rest and contentment Jesus makes available when you go to him.
It doesn’t come naturally. Which is odd, because it’s the one thing that should come naturally—just being who we are. But it’s something Jesus says we need to learn. And he says we can learn it from him. And when we learn from him to be ordinary, to be who and what we are, then we will rest.
Of course, we don’t usually think of Jesus as someone who was ordinary. I was taught to believe he is anything but. But he seems to have thought of himself that way. Remember that story about John the Baptist watching Jesus approach the Jordan and refusing at first to baptize him? Poor John: Here comes the Messiah, God’s Son, and John is supposed to treat him like an ordinary sinner and give him a bath of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.
When John sees Jesus lined up with everybody else, he wants more than anything for Jesus to step out of the line of these basic regular people. To exempt himself. To make it clear he is not like them. But Jesus doesn’t do it. He won’t. It’s where he wants to be. In that line. It’s where he knows he belongs. With us. Like us, who are ordinary, and in need of God’s mercy.
Then the Talking Dove comes down to announce that God is delighted with Jesus. What makes God so thrilled? I think God is happy with Jesus not so much because he’s God’s unique divine Son, but because he’s a human son who claims no advantage over any other child. His contentment with being ordinary is what makes him so lovable. If God is sweet on Jesus, it’s not because he’s different, divine and perfect. It’s because he’s so happy to be one with all the basic regular people God has loved with a passion ever since the world began.
Then the story tells us that Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted. What do those temptations add up to? They’re all about being special and spectacular and more than human. And Jesus resists them. His resistance sounds almost easy when you read it in the book, but it was a huge ordeal. He needed forty days of fasting and prayer and struggle to prepare to meet the intense demonic challenge of choosing to remain simply human, to let God be God, and not usurp the privilege. It was so hard that after it was all over, one gospel writer says that ministering angels came to kind of put him back together.
You wouldn’t think that just being human would be so hard. But it is, at least for me. The temptation to set myself apart, to make myself exceptional is relentless. My striving to be more than human is the source of much of the soul exhaustion Jesus says he longs to soothe. His way is a way of ordinariness; living in the truth, embracing dependence on God and solidarity with every other thing. The payoff is lightness, Jesus says. Lightness, relief, and rest for the soul.
It’s not simple being simple. It requires attention, intention, discipline. It requires simplification of life, taking your standard of living down a notch or two (if, of course, you have a choice in the matter), developing a resistance to acquisition–because all these things are deeply related to the striving of the ego to cast aside the trappings of ordinary humanity. And it requires the help of trusted others to help you keep vigil over your unruly heart and re-train your desires. It takes time and tenderness and patience and prayer to learn to enjoy life for what it is, not for what you need it to be — a stage for your own protagonism. It takes time and tenderness and patience and prayer to begin to take pleasure in the world without having to be at the center of it.
You can’t just decide to be ordinary and voila! It’s a practice. We need it because we’ve lost the art.
Jesus calls it ‘taking his yoke.’ It’s a yoke that binds us to others and to himself so that together we can all walk in step to the everyday rhythms of human ordinariness. His yoke keeps us from getting unhinged again from our own humanity. It keeps us from getting loose and chasing after something better than being human, and from exhausting ourselves in the effort, because that ‘something better’ just isn’t there. There is, in God’s eyes, nothing better than being who we are.
I retired last June. I laid down my professorial burdens. Not all of them, but most of them. I really needed to. I was exhausted physically and spiritually. I loved the work—I still do—but I wasn’t in love any more with working. There’s a difference. Anyone who’s ever spent time in academia knows what I mean. Students and colleagues you can really engage and learn from are great. Institutional maintenance and politics, not so great. And the grind of daily commuting, less great still.
Before I retired, here’s what I most looked forward to—an empty email inbox. I detested my inbox. That box had a life of its own. It was always full. Every two minutes another message would land in it, and instantly I’d feel vaguely oppressed with obligation. Almost angry about it. The thought that I had to put one more thing on my to-do list depleted me. I especially loathed messages that came flagged with one of those aggressive little icons that tell you how to feel—this message will make your day, this one is a PROBLEM, this one is more important than reducing the federal budget deficit.
I was yoked to my inbox. It represented all the dehumanizing things about working that I had let creep into the definition of me and had now grown so tired of. That kind of yoke chafed and wore me down. I longed to wake up the day after my retirement and find my inbox empty.
Then I woke up the day after my retirement and found my inbox empty. I was overcome by an unexpected, surprisingly powerful sense of abandonment. Nobody wanted my advice. My expertise. My charm. My leadership. Nobody needed me to fix something, to do something, to arrange something, to teach something, to be someone special for them. Who was I? The waters had already begun closing over my head. Soon I would completely disappear from view.
Or so I imagined. Or so my Tempters, ego and neediness, whispered in my ear. I had what I said I wanted, and it was not what I wanted, and yet it was, but, no, it wasn’t. It was a perverse moment. It hit me then that for me the spiritual challenge of retirement is going to be the rediscovery of ordinariness. I will be spending time peeling away the layers of accumulated not-so-ordinariness, especially that stubborn layer that says my gifts are the definition of me, and that nobody but I can satisfy the need others have for gifts like mine.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I am seeking to deny my gifts or downplay the contributions I’ve made over my career—I actually think I’ve done pretty well. To say otherwise would be phony. It would make liars out of many people who have told me that I did well. But now that I’ve stopped working full time, I see more clearly the ways I let those things obscure the simple, ordinary creaturehood that is my true glory and my best gift to others. I’ve cultivated those other things well, but simple humanness, not so much.
I have a lot to learn in the days ahead about how to be who I am, and how to walk in step with the ordinariness of life and the wonder of everything else that, like me, just is. I also realize that this is not a retirement challenge only. It presents itself more acutely now that my affiliations and daily activities are no longer what they once were, but it’s been the challenge all along, the challenge of my Christian life, which means the challenge of my human life; the challenge of humility and truth and spiritual realism in everything I am and do. And I think I may not be the only one who has it.
If it’s yours too, I hope you will believe Jesus when he says to us, If you learn humility from me; if you love your common human lot in all its ordinariness; if in all your ambitions and activities you aspire first, last and always to be simply human, nothing more and nothing less (for it is a very great thing); then you will know my rest. Your life will lighten up. This truth will set you free. You will put down self-imposed burdens and take up the only one worth carrying—my yoke, the bond of human solidarity. You will see how wonderfully common you are, how much you need each other, and how much you belong to each other; and you just might just learn to reverence one another. To learn these things is to live in my world, the kingdom of God, where love makes all things easy, and simply being who we are together makes every labor light.