“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
“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.”
–Matthew 11:16-18, 28-30
On a terrace just off a smoky Kathmandu street, I sat in a circle with fellow aid workers gathered from across Asia. It was called a retreat – and for a number of us, it indeed felt like we had waved a white flag. We were beat. Wrapped in a blanket against the fog and chill, I stared into my little glass of chai. Vaguely I heard the visiting chaplain read some words of Jesus about yoke and a burden and felt my own gut sink brick-heavy with the sorrow and stress I had hauled to Nepal from many months in Bangkok slums.
“Churning, churning,” I wrote a friend later, of my stomach – which proved to be a wry premonition of the parasite I’d pick up later in the week. At the time though, the churning was set off by the words so jarringly dissonant from my recent experience: “easy” and “light.” BS, I thought. Nothing about what Jesus had invited me into had been remotely easy or light. I had been baited and switched; promised bread and given this stone. I pulled the blanket tighter and slumped further. The chaplain from Seattle was a good soul with an impossible task; we were too far gone to be cheered.
Over the course of the week our little group wandered along the streets and alleys of that extraordinary Himalayan town, sharing conversation over bowls of dal-bhat and snapping pictures like the tourists we didn’t quite admit we were. We talked with scraggy-bearded holy men and brightly-dressed market women. I bought a Tibetan prayer wheel, gave it a few spins, and wondered aloud whether it worked. As the days passed with my companions I noticed myself relaxing and even laughing. These were people carrying their own stones from hard places, but a lightness was rising among us.
What a gift, that week together! It would be years before I would find much better ways of weaving that communal gift of lightness into the fabric of all my days, rather than grasping for it as a patch of desperation after everything was in tatters. I would find it not only possible, but essential.
Later also, I would learn that “easy” is a particularly misleading translation of how Jesus described the yoke he offers. Scholars tell us a much better rendering would be “good,” even though it’s not the usual Greek word for good. It is good in the sense of “fitting” and “pleasingly useful.” “Christ’s yoke is like feathers to a bird; not loads, but helps to motion” (Jeremy Taylor). Unlike a poorly-fitted shoe, or dull knife, or bad eyeglasses, this yoke doesn’t strain. It suits. It befits its wearer. It outfits and equips the bearer for far greater service. Sure a person may need to grow into it, but with good growth it will fit better and better.
Such goodness of yoke and lightness of burden is cultivated in communities learning from Jesus that “the glory of God is humanity fully alive” (St. Irenaeus). In such community, we may come to discover that heavy stones we mistake for bread might not be what God intends us to carry at all. At the very least, we learn that burdens of any kind are not to be carried alone. We find rest for our souls and strength for good and fruitful work.
Coming to learn from Jesus, we see children in the streets of our cities playing make-believe. As kids do in their games, they imagine all the great range of human experience. Let’s make a funeral; you play dead and we’ll play the music. C’mon now, weep and wail everybody! Ok, now a wedding. You two be the bride and groom. Dance everybody! Hands in the air!
But some of us have quit dancing, or never did. We shuffle about in ill-fitting yokes carrying stones we mistook for something God dumped on us. We learn our ways of numbness and dissociation – lashing ourselves by addiction to an array of baggage straps that constrict and constrain. We grow dead to the music of the Spirit and to the life in our bones, neither dancing nor wailing. Anyone who dares to disrupt such addiction will suffer our cynicism or worse.
Jesus dares. Wear your own humanity as vibrantly as I wear my own, his story says. Freely open yourself to sorrow and joy, to life! Yes you’ve hurt – go ahead and wail. You’ve tasted happiness – sing! Dance when the music says dance, fling your limbs and shake your hair. Sure you’ll be called a demon or drunkard – but you’ll be in good company with that. You’ll survive and thrive. You will find this burden light – so much lighter than dreary numbness borne alone.
Your fully human self will suit you just fine, Jesus’ story says. Check in the mirror, you’ll see! Take a few steps. My good yoke will fit you so well that burdens you thought would crush you will not. Work you thought impossible, you will do. This fine yoke will harness you to others – and to me as your heart’s companion – in fruitfulness and delight.
The Street Psalms Community
Photo: Nepal by Scott Dewey