© 2020 Evan D. Garner
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Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
What do we do with grief when grief has nowhere to go? How do we bear the weight of that burden when there is nowhere to lay it down and no one to help us shoulder it, even for a few hours? In this strange season, when we are cut off from extended family, friends, colleagues, and congregations—when the closest we can get to someone is six feet away—the burden of grief, loss, pain, and anxiety are magnified and intensified by our isolation. Even those of us who have not lost a spouse, a sibling, a parent, or a child are drawn into a deeper sense of loss by the powerlessness of circumstances beyond our control. And those who have experienced that first order of loss face a magnitude of complicated grief that I cannot comprehend.
In normal circumstances, the cycles and patterns of grief are mostly predictable, even if they show up in our own particular circumstances in unpredictable ways. Normally, we start by keeping ourselves busy with details—people to contact, services to plan, travel to arrange, meals to coordinate, death certificates to acquire, medical equipment to return, paperwork to file. The list of things to be done is exhausting, but we like it that way. Otherwise there’s nothing to do but face the depths of our grief. In these pandemic times, however, most of those details disappear. Instead, we are propelled unprepared into that place where our grief has no outlet.
As the haunting silence and stillness of grief wear on, we would normally rely on close friends to call us, visit us, and insist on taking us out—to lunch, to shop, to do anything at all to give us a reason to get dressed and do something besides sit at home alone. Friends can be a helpful distraction like that. Usually without realizing it, they teach us that we are allowed to think about something other than our loss, even for a few minutes. Eventually, we learn how to put our grief on a shelf for a little while, and then, with practice, how to take it back down again without feeling guilty for having ignored it for a time. But, during the pandemic, we can’t do that. We’re told that we are supposed to stay at home, and we know how important that is, but we wonder whether people know how dangerous that can be at the same time.
For so many of us, church is the place where our grief finds its ultimate container. Unlike the busyness of details or the belovedness of friends, which help us focus on something other than our loss, church is the place where we are allowed to confront it fully and to do so within the fellowship of those who love us not by pulling us away from our grief but by wrapping their arms around it and us. This is the place where we are allowed to be imperfect, to be broken, to be lost, to be overwhelmed. This is the community that allows us to not know if we are going to make it—to not need to be sure that we can take another step. Without saying a word, the people we meet in this place offer us signs of hope and healing that emerge from the ashes of our loss. And, when our friends are able to love us like that, they do so not only out of friendship but also as representatives of that particular community of love. There is such comfort within these walls and in these pews and among these people. But not now. For now, this church remains empty.
Strangely enough, the pandemic has brought an emptiness to the church that many of us feel every year at this time. This is the one season of the year when it is hardest to bring our brokenness to church. As Christmas approaches and the magic of the holidays spreads throughout the community, even the church—that last place where we are permitted to be our true and honest selves—begins to ask of us what we cannot give genuinely in return—a happy face, a joyful spirit, a dose of Christmas cheer. At St. Paul’s, we try our best to hold onto the spirit of Advent—that hopeful, needful longing for comfort and consolation that are actually the focus of our life together during these four weeks—but even centuries of tradition are not strong enough to hold off the little encroachments of premature celebration. In that strange way, this year is like any other. Even in the church we find no room to lay our burdens down.
Yet Jesus is the one who says to us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus did not say those words from a pulpit. Nor did he say them as an invitation to come to church. He spoke those words of comfort to anyone who would follow him. And, in this season of longing and heartache, we find the deepest fulfillment of those words not by returning to a building that waits to be filled again but by returning to the one who speaks them again to us tonight.
Jesus did not call to himself those who were spiritually gifted or religiously proficient. He did not invite those who had it all together or who had figured out how to master the emotional, financial, and physical challenges that came their way. Instead, he beckoned to himself those who were weighed down by life. He reached out to those who had nowhere else to go. And he promised them rest.
Most gurus, masters, and teachers ask their disciples to engage in rigorous training. They throw upon us physical or spiritual exercises that are designed to strengthen us and prepare us for the challenges ahead. They train us for whatever exhausting tests await us. So often that is what churches do to us as well. They ask us to do more, to give more, to try more. But not Jesus. Jesus acknowledges that life itself is the exhausting test, and he promises to give those who follow him the rest that they desperately need.
The church is not the rest we need. The true church is the community of disciples who have found their rest in Jesus. We are the people who know what it means to be welcomed, accepted, and loved even with all the grief and struggle we bear. When we are cut off from that community, we experience the loss of those who know how to help us carry that weight. That loss is real, and its consequences are terrible. But, still, there is one who speaks to us words of comfort and hope. There is one who reminds us that we are loved even when we cannot see or embrace our loved ones. There is one who reaches out to us and invites us to come to him and find again that rest for which our souls long.
Hear those words of Jesus spoken to you again this night: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Wherever you are, no matter how heavy your burden, no matter how completely cut off you may feel, hear Jesus speak those words to you. Come to him, and find in him your true rest.