Saturday, July 21, 2012

Take a Break

“He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.”
Psalm 23:2-3

“Jesus said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Mark 6:31

Familiar bible verses, like oldies rock songs, come heavy laden with clandestine memories.

The 23rd Psalm takes me back to fourth grade Sunday school in the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y., circa 1956.

The old church is gone, long ago reduced to ashes by undetected frayed wiring.

The teachers have adjourned to the village cemetery on Cedar Street.

The students have grown old and gray and only pretend to recognize one another at mid-century reunions.

But the words of the psalm bring them all back with uncanny clarity:

The crew cut boys’ in pressed white shirts and clip-on bowties.

The pony-tailed girls in billowing crinoline skirts and ankle socks.

The dusty green chalk board propped kitty-corner on wobbly wheels in the front of the room.

The smell of well-thumbed India paper in the tattered Authorized bibles we borrowed from our parents, books we caressed with our hands and pressed to our noses to experience the tactile comfort of the holy. 

We memorized the 23rd Psalm in King James English, motivated by the promise that our diligence would be rewarded by a gift of our own personal bible.

Some of us memorized the 100th Psalm, or John 3:16, or tried to stuff the Beatitudes and all ten commandments into our callow lobes.

But all of us memorized the 23rd Psalm and took our turns standing nervously in the front of the class, lisping Jacobean fricatives.

I think I was good at it. And so were Donnie and Joan and Jack and Reese and Mary Linda. I had known each of them all my life, but the first thing I think of, when I think of them, is how they stood tensely in the front of the classroom to recite the 23rd Psalm:

“…Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over …”

The poetry was delicious even to 10-year-olds, although we didn’t know it was early 16th century English so we assumed it was the way God talked.

It was a shock, then, when we received our newly published Revised Standard Version presentation bibles to discover God had taken a few steps toward assimilation into 1950s American English.

“…Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows …”

(See my article on the RSV as a 1953 best seller at

By 1989, when the National Council of Churches issued the New Revised Standard Version, God’s linguistic assimilation had advanced:

“…You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows…”

The meaning is clearer, perhaps, but my generation memorized long passages of scripture when God still spoke with an old world accent. And when the 23rd Psalm is summoned to mind, the King James Version is planted in our brains in deep furrows.

So it was in 1983 when my mother lay dying in a Syracuse hospital. Her first bout with chemotherapy weakened her to the extent that she required intubation to assist her respiration. The prospect of a second chemo assault frightened her.

Throughout the ordeal she had exuded optimism about her future, but she was a registered nurse and she knew the odds were not on her side.

One dark night I stood beside her bed feeling helpless because the intubation tube prevented her from talking and I knew my nervous perseveration was not helping either of us. She tapped on a bible that lay open beside her and I picked it up. It was open to the 23rd Psalm.

As soon as I began reading aloud she smiled behind the mask and her whole body began to relax.

“…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me …”

I stopped reading and she nodded to ask me to keep going. I sat back in the chair beside her bed and slowly read and re-read the psalm aloud. I began to relax, too.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …”

Today when I recite the psalm I am transported back in time to two very disparate eras of my life: my childhood, when I first sought to memorize the sacred words; and to my young adulthood, sitting beside my mother’s hospital bed, reciting words that once were a promise of gifts to come and now were a reassuring benediction of closing. 

The 23rd Psalm is a psalm of David. Perhaps he wrote it when he was a shepherd boy, or perhaps he wrote it years later when he was bent down by the burdens of kingship, wistfully remembering the day when all he had to worry about was wayward sheep.

The power of the psalm is its reassurance that, no matter how complicated or stressful or threatening life becomes, God looks over us as a good shepherd. The metaphor of lying down in green pastures or lapping from cool, still waters is probably meant for sheep, but it is no less appealing to us humans. And the psalm assures us that God relieves our stress, offers peace and recreation in the midst of overwork, and promises us a safe outcome – in this world or the next – when we face mortal dangers.

This relationship to God the good shepherd works best when we think of ourselves as sheep, and when we make it a point to avail ourselves of God’s offer to relieve the strains and worries of life.

But a lot of us tend to gird ourselves with the pervious armors of own self-sufficiency, because we think reaching out for help – to God, to anyone – is a sign of weakness.

That dubious and often self-destructive approach is particularly common among the shepherds themselves: pastors, executives, parents, teachers, anyone given charge over others. For them, shepherding may be perceived as so essential a calling that it must take precedence over personal needs. Naps, days off, vacations, or sabbaticals are postponed indefinitely lest they take time away from vital ministries or dependent sheep.

For the record, Jesus didn’t call anyone to such an exhausting, soul-draining ministry.

Nor did he set that kind of example. He napped when he was tired, dined and imbibed with friends, and encouraged his hard-working apostles to take breaks when they needed them.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Mark 6:31

That is a message of crucial importance. It’s too bad we don’t encourage kids to memorize it along with the Beatitudes and Decalogue. We may not realize it when we are 10, but almost certainly our lives will devolve to the point at which our jobs and careers will keep us coming and going until we don’t have time to rest and eat.

If we don’t get that under control, we will lose our ability to employ the gifts God has given us to carry out the tasks and ministries to which we have been called.

It’s an alternative form of the Peter Principle, which observes that companies and institutions, including the church, keep promoting their best people until they rise to a level at which they no longer have competence.

In the alternative, gifted shepherds work so unremittingly hard that they burn themselves out and are no longer useful to their sheep or to themselves.

There have always been leaders who work themselves to irrelevance, but it’s hard to think of a time when it has been more prevalent than now.

In thousands of non-profit service organizations, denominations, and congregations around the country, leaders are pushing themselves to the brink of collapse to keep their ministries alive.

The Great Recession of 2008 still has a death grip around the neck of the churches. There is not a mainline denomination in the United States that has not been forced to cut critical programs and hundreds of employees to minimize financial deficits.

Once august and indispensable ecumenical councils, no longer able to depend on contributions from struggling member churches to maintain their ministries, have slashed programs and staff until they are mere shadows of their former selves.

The resulting dynamic is that surviving staff feel obligated to work harder – often at significantly reduced salaries – to maintain the same level of ministry as before. The reality is that no one individual, however gifted and eager, can do the work of five or ten fired colleagues.

In most cases, the well meaning CEO’s and boards of church institutions can do nothing about it.

Their statements exalting the creativity and devotion of overworked staff are necessarily mitigated by periodic memoranda announcing salary reductions and furloughs.

But these staff are not mere bureaucrats; they are shepherds who have heard God’s call. The more their hours and salary are cut, the more energy and time they pour into their jobs.

In too many cases, it becomes a race to see who will expire first: the fiscally beleaguered institution or the savagely overworked shepherd.

Certainly these harsh realities are not restricted to the church. These are harsh times, and unemployment figures remain unacceptably high. Congress continues to propose budget cuts to programs that support individuals and families living on the edge and below the poverty line.

People are exhausted, struggling and stressed out. And the greater the stress, the harder it is to hear Jesus’ voice amid the tumult:

“Come away … rest a while.”

So let’s stop whatever we’re doing, take a deep breath, and listen.

“Come away,” Jesus said. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”

Jesus, we should note, is not saying, “Come away because what you’ve been doing is not important,” or, “Come away because we’ve decided to cut your program.” When he says, “Come away,” he means there is nothing more important to him or to you than your mental, physical, and spiritual health. And in order to maintain that, you’ve got to come away and rest a while.

No doubt those of us who take a break from important ministries will soon discover God has other plans for us. In the same chapter of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are back to work almost immediately – tanned, rested and preaching to the multitudes.

But none of us will be of any use to future ministries if we don’t take a break when it’s offered, and when we need it so badly.

So this is the Scripture message of the day:

Take a moment.

Lie down in a green pasture with a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and an iPad of verse.

And let the good shepherd restoreth your soul.

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