“Just Sit There Right Now,” by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky
A few miles down Sunshine Road on Maine’s Deer Isle, just past the first sighting of the sun-dappled waters of Pickering Cove, where every bend in the road reveals another jaw-dropping glimpse of natural beauty, there is a most peculiar enterprise.
Nervous Nellies Jams and Jellies is what it’s called, and it’s true that you can buy some mighty tasty jams there, along with some sweet baked goods, some handcrafts, and assorted gifts. There’s even a little cafe where you can enjoy lunch or a light snack.
But as far as I’m concerned the jams, jellies, and chutneys are not the main reason to visit Nervous Nellies; those things can be bought online, from anywhere. What makes Nervous Nellies unique is an amazing folk art village made by co-owner and sculptor Peter Beerits from wood, metal, various found objects, and a most wonderful imagination.
The last time I was there, some five years ago now, the village had grown quite a bit since my previous visit. Among the new additions nestled amid the white pines was a small wooden chapel, complete with pews and chairs, a folky Pietá, and on the front wall, above an open Bible and between the mostly clear-paned windows, a King James Bible verse rendered in traditional calligraphy.
There’s a picture of it on the front of your bulletin; the verse is one we just heard:
Come unto me, all ye that are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Of the more than 30,000 verses in the Holy Bible, of all the many Jesus sayings, the artist chose this tender invitation, which appears only once in the gospels.
Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gently and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Now, before we go any further, I want to pause and give you a moment to check in with yourself. How do those words make you feel? How does that invitation strike you? How does your body respond?
Do the muscles in your neck and shoulders relax just a little?
Does your heart rate slow down a beat or two?
Just like that, are you breathing more deeply?
Are you feeling a little teary?
Can you suddenly imagine yourself on Sunshine Road near sun-dappled waters, lying down in a hammock strung between pine trees at what feels like the end of a most beautiful world?
Or do you feel exhausted all of a sudden?
Does the naming of your weariness give you permission to feel something you’re not sure you want to feel?
Are you, like so many of us, afraid that if you let yourself feel tired, that if you actually lay down your burden and rest, you might never get going again?
Or maybe you’re not feeling anything at all.
Whatever you’re feeling, notice it. Name it. Acknowledge it. Honor it.
I would guess that this scripture passage, this very tender and personal invitation, is, more so than some other scriptures, something of a Rorschach test. How we hear it depends on who we are and how we see the world. How we hear it may even reflect how we’re feeling in this exact moment—or on what kind of week we’ve had, or how we slept last night, how much media we consume, or how tired we are of Pandemic Life.
Our individual responses to this invitation might be influenced by any number of things, but the premise behind it reflects a common, shared reality:
That we all carry burdens. That all of us get weary sometimes.
This, is seems to me, is a basic reality of life—something so fundamental and universal that we come up with a range of coping mechanisms. There’s the self-care fad, for example, which, at its worst, uses the slightest inconvenience as an excuse to shut out the world and focus only on one’s own needs. At the other extreme is grievance culture, an all-too-real social and political phenomenon in which one group of people blames another group of people for everything they don’t like about the ways of the world.
But Jesus is not interested in escape. Jesus is not interested in the status quo or efforts to preserve it by blaming agents of change.
Jesus wants us to know rest. Jesus wants us to know wholeness. Jesus wants us to make our home in God’s heart.
Jesus of Nazareth, some 1,300 years before the Persian poet Hafiz, knows that our “separation from God is the hardest work in this world.” Or, as Saint Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in the Holy One.”
And while Jesus is not exactly offering a pillow for our head, he seems to be saying that if we would just put down our heavy burdens and yoke our lives to his, we would find rest and purpose, and even joy.
“Come to me,” he says.
So what are the heavy burdens we are carrying? What are the things that separate us from God?
Sure, we all have our to-lists, our responsibilities and chores. It’s easy to think of anything we don’t want to do as a burden. But I think Jesus is inviting us—challenging us, too—to go deeper than that.
God knows even religion can be a burden. Even religion can separate us from God.
Injustice is a burden—not only to the oppressed, but also to the oppressor.
Our privilege can be a very heavy burden, especially when it separates us from others and becomes something we feel we have to protect.
Poverty is a burden.
Hatred is a burden. Bitterness is a burden. Holding grudges and refusing to forgive are burdensome.
Anything that makes us feel we have to be something or someone other than who we really are is a burden. Anything or anyone who tells us that who and what we are is wrong or less-than is a burden.
Pretending that we’re fine when we’re not, putting on a happy face, is a burden that will wear us out.
Staying so busy that we don’t have time to really sit with our feelings is a burden that separates us from ourselves as well as from God.
Perfectionism is a burden that saps the soul.
The pressure to perform and succeed can be a burden.
Self-sufficiency can be a burden.
Fear—especially the fear of not having or being enough—is a burden that constrains us and limits what is possible.
Even self-absorption can get tiresome.
And I think we all know by know that separating ourselves from others can be a horribly heavy burden—not only in terms of logistics and inconvenience but in very real emotional, psychological and spiritual ways. That is just one of the wearying realities of living through this pandemic.
Sometimes even love can be burdensome—love that costs us something, love that changes us, love for everyone and everything we will someday lose, love for those so wounded that they keep hurting themselves and those who love them, love that isn’t returned, love for our enemies, love that willingly opens us to suffering and heartbreak.
Love is the very best kind of burden.
But all those other burdens we carry?—the ones I’ve named, the ones you’re thinking of, anything and everything that separates us from God, and especially the burden of living as if we are God, as if the world will stop if we do—Jesus calls us to put them down. Jesus calls us to rest from them.
Which is not to say that there isn’t work to do. Which is not to say that there isn’t a big ole’ world that needs loving and healing and justice and care.
Jesus is not inviting us to go on vacation. Jesus is not giving us permission to take a break. Jesus is talking about a way of living with God. Jesus is talking about work that gives life and meaning, love and hope, joy and peace.
What Jesus is saying is this: It’s not all up to you! Work with me. When we work together, the burden is shared. When you come to me, when you let God live in you, when we work together in love and labor together in joy, you will find the very best kind of rest. You will be restored, heart and soul.
So, come to me.
Just sit there right now. Don’t do a thing. For your separation from God is the hardest work in this world. Let me bring you trays of food and something that you like to drink. You can use my soft words as a cushion for my head. You can use my love as a balm for your heart.
Rest in me, and labor in joy.