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Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 July 19, 2009
So Jesus has just sent the disciples out two by two into neighboring cities and towns to preach and teach and heal and when they get back and tell the wonderful stories of how the Holy Spirit used them in bold and amazing ways, Jesus takes a good hard look at them and tells them that they need some time to rest. To re-charge. To eat. To just be, rather than doing all of the time. In fact, he makes them get in a boat and head off to a deserted place just to make sure that they take his advice.

My ministry, and in actuality, my life, has been a constant struggle to do those vey things – how about you? To find time in our busy lives to rest, to re-charge, sometimes even just to eat; to be, rather than just doing all of the time. Our struggle to slow down, rest and re-charge, to just be, can become an interesting journey, can’t it? It leads us to try new things, to shake up our ridiculously over-stressed schedule and re-orient our lives. Some might begin a morning walk or try yoga or watch the sunrise at the beach. Some might begin their day with coffee and prayer rather than letting the morning news fill them with a full jolt of dread and anxiety at what is happening in the world. Some might warm to Scripture before charging into their email and never ending to-do lists. A couple of years ago, my struggles to slow down, rest, re-charge and just be led me on a quest to find a good recipe for Sunday sauce. I told you that everyone’s journey is unique!

For those not versed in the ways of Italian cooking, Sunday sauce or Sunday gravy is typically a six hour labor of love in which one carefully coaxes from tomatoes, chesses, meats and herbs and foods with names like braciole, a gastronomic delight that bubbles merrily for half the day, filling the house with smells that no Yankee candle could come close to imitating. Throw in some succulent meatballs, sweet Italian sausage and a couple of pork chops to sweeten the sauce, and you have a work of art that you can and should, eat with profound gusto!

So what does good Italian cooking have to do with Jesus’ desire for his disciples, (including us!) to slow down, rest, re-charge, and just be? For me, making Sunday sauce provided a much needed slow down. It had to be tended and stirred and seasoned and watched with a careful eye. It helped me in my struggle against the temptation to jump on the computer and start diving back into work on my day off. If I allowed myself to become distracted or focus on other things, like work or more work, or just plain work, the sauce would likely burn on the bottom of the pot. Once that happened, the sauce would be ruined. It was the best anti-multi-tasking medicine that I could come up with and it sure didn’t taste like medicine! I could feel the stress ebbing away with each pinch of sweet basil.

Now folks like to opine how wonderful serving the Lord is – how blessed and joyous. They use words like “awesome,” “grace-filled,” and “holy” that work is. I’ve used those words, too. And it most certainly is. But God gave all of us gifts and in the living out of our baptismal call to employ those gifts for the sake of the Kingdom, we can get worn out. Tired. Dare I say grumpy and even irritable. I don’t know about you, but I have been in my share of churches in my life and met more than one or two people on the edge – folks for whom playing Grumpy the Dwarf would not require one lick of acting. Folks for whom the stress of life has infected both the water that they drink and the air that they breathe. Living and giving our all for Jesus in the building up of the Kingdom, by word and deed can be stressful. Just ask Moses – he got so burnt out serving the Lord that his Father in Law had to intervene with some humbling advice. When he finally gets away from the people of Israel for some time alone with God – time to rest, renew, re-charge, to just be with the Lord (and receive the Ten Commandments), the people are busy back down the mountain inventing a new god and throwing quite the party in his honor.

The disciples go out two by two and heal and preach and teach and upon their return Jesus knows as surely as he knows his own name that they need some time apart. Serving the Lord can be tiring work – you give and serve and give and serve until joy can turn into drudgery. Unless. Unless you face the stress and take action to allow for some renewal. Mother Teresa is purported to have once said: I know that the Lord won’t give me more than I can handle – I just wish that the Lord didn’t have such a high opinion of me. If that is how Mother Teresa felt – where does that leave us?

Stress can be deadly – not only to our faith, but to our bodies. The American Institute of Stress (yes, there is such a thing) recently returned to Time Magazine's June 6, 1983 cover story that called stress "The Epidemic of the Eighties" and referred to it as our leading health problem. So what do you think – have things gotten better or worse for stress since then? Let’s face it – with the added pressure of the economy and all that it impacts there our stress-o-meters likely are pegged rather high these days. According to the AIS, it has been estimated that 75 - 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress related problems. Job Stress is far and away the leading source of stress for adults but stress levels have also escalated in children, teenagers, college students and the elderly for other reasons, including: increased crime, violence and other threats to personal safety; pernicious peer pressures that lead to substance abuse and other unhealthy life style habits; social isolation and loneliness; and more.

When National Geographic weighs in, you know that we need to sit up and pay attention. It reminds us “that in the beginning [stress] saved our lives. It's what made us run from predators and enabled us to take down prey. Today, humans are turning on that same life-saving stress response to cope with 30-year mortgages, four-dollar-a-gallon gas, difficult bosses and traffic jams — and we can't seem to turn it off. As a result, we are constantly marinating in corrosive hormones triggered by the stress response. Years of ground-breaking research by multiple scientists are revealing surprising facts about the impact of stress: It can shrink our brains, add fat to our bellies, even unravel our chromosomes.”

So stress can leave us coming up empty when we joyfully desire to serve the Lord with gladness and it can shrink our brains. Folks, this is serious stuff. But there is hope!
There’s hope for us because according to the Lutheran Magazine, Canadian researchers found that strong religious convictions can lower stress and enhance the performance of basic tasks. Researchers measured 28 students’ levels of religious observance and stress caused by making mistakes on a test. “The more religious they were, the less brain activity they showed in response to their own errors.” “They’re calmer when they make errors.” So our faith helps us cope!

We know this because you and I are 23rd Psalm kind of people, aren’t we?
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

Can I get an “amen!” to that – because I am sure that that is what we believe.
The green pastures, the still waters, the restoration of our souls, the overflowing cup, our heads anointed, dwelling in the house of the Lord our whole life long. The ultimate anti-stress psalm – we counter stress with a faith that completely and humbly trusts in the Lord.
Amen to that!

But here is my confession: I got a pantry full of canned tomatoes and a drawer full of cheeses and a freezer full of frozen meats and a garden and cabinet full of herbs for the next batch of Sunday sauce that I keep forgetting to make. The Lord says to me and to you, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For me that place might be my kitchen or my garden – it may be something quite different for you. But essentially, I tell the Lord to stuff it – that I am too busy to rest. I have too much important work to do to rest. I’ll come away when things are done. When I get a break. Tomorrow. Next Week, next month. Next year. “Lord,” we say, “We have too much important stuff to do (for you, if you are paying attention, Lord) – way too much to do to actually listen to your advice and do what you tell us to do. We’ll rest, re-charge, relax and just be some other time. We’re too busy building your Kingdom right now. Come away with me and rest a while, the Lord says.
But we’re too busy to pay him any heed.

I guess we believe that shrinking brains and splitting chromosomes and a few too many extra pounds are a small price to pay for the stress of living our lives for the Lord but not exactly with the Lord.

Next time you see me after the Youth Trip to New Orleans ask me about my Sunday sauce, and I’ll ask you what quiet waters the Lord is leading you by to rest and restore your soul

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