The following was presented as a reflection on November 6th at the Historic Salem UCC 10:15AM service.
I did not truly know what exhaustion was until I entered my second year of seminary. The academic schedule is grueling: six to seven hours of class-time every week, followed by another fifteen to twenty hours of independent study: reading, writing, and reflection. That, of course, is in addition to the time we spend on our internships, community service, cross cultural seminars, comprehensive vocational review preparation, ordination engagement, and, of course, work, family, sleep, and all of the other personal concerns of life. I sometimes feel like I barely have time to go to the bathroom, much less rest.
So when Mark asked me to take over for him today, I immediately thought of this passage from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Alice has only been in this new strange and wonderful land for a few moments before she finds herself whisked away by the Red Queen, running as fast as she can in order to stay in the same place. That metaphor is exactly what being in school sometimes feels like. Just as one paper is finished, another is due; one term is finishing, but planning is already well underway for the next. The unfinished work of this year’s internship is sitting on my desk, right next to my applications for next year’s internship. I am running as fast as I can to stay where I am.
This is nothing new, of course; lots of pundits (both religious and secular) regularly decry the American exaltation of commercialism and materialism. I can’t tell you how many books I read for school last year that earnestly sought to convince me that pursuit of a bigger TV or a shinier car might not be the best use of my time or talents. They suggest that I should really re-think the race “to keep up with the Joneses” – although these days I suppose the race is more against the Kardashians – and to consider perhaps limiting my consumption. They suggest that perhaps there is truth in the adage, “less is more.” Unfortunately, these books are sorely out of touch with my reality and the reality of those I know. My friends aren’t worrying about making enough money to obtain the latest and greatest gadgets; they’re worrying about being able to pay their bills and have enough left over to feed their kids. They’re choosing to miss piano recitals and date nights because those extra work hours might provide just enough money to get through the end of the month. Some of us are running as fast as we can just to avoid being trampled.
Even our country’s social reality feels like a never-ending treadmill. News reports (fake or otherwise) often elicit a feeling of fatigue and frustration. “What? This again?” I have heard individuals on both sides of the political aisle express a sense of working long and hard, yet feeling like nothing has changed. Whether you’re a proponent of gun control or first Amendment rights; whether you support freedom of religious speech or freedom from religious speech, whether you consider yourself pro-choice or pro-life, there is a sense that victory might be spiraling out of reach. God’s Justice is competing with the human concept of “Just Us” – perhaps if we push just a little bit harder, and run just a little bit faster, we’ll be able to pull ahead. Some of us are running as fast as we can so that we won’t lose everything.
In all of these cases, is it any wonder that we focus so hard on the outcome? We look forward to graduation, when we’ll have better control of our time; we’ll be able to finish one project before embarking on the next. We dream of the breakthrough job that will provide enough money to allow us finally sit down and enjoy life. Finally, we’ll have the opportunity to enjoy our families. We yearn for social and political victory over our opponents – a reality where we’ve transformed the world to match God’s vision of how everything should be.
We want to get somewhere through our efforts. We deserve to get somewhere through our efforts. Otherwise, what’s the point of working so hard? Why run as fast as you can, if everything remains just as it was?
Ironically, this state of being is quite similar to that of some apocalyptic Jewish communities in Jesus’ time. They were eagerly awaiting the arrival of a special person – one chosen by God to enact massive change in the world. This Anointed One (in Hebrew, the “Messiah”, or in Greek, the “Christ”) was usually imagined to be a conquering hero – someone who would bring military victory over external empires, and would restore the nation of Israel under Jewish rule for eternity. He is supposed to kick A and take name – an Iron Age version of Chuck Norris or Arnold Schwarzenegger; she brings salvation through action sequences, leaving broken bodies in her wake. For these communities, the Christ’s job was to get them over the finish line – to make all the running in place that they and their communities had done worthwhile.
So this is the context of today’s reading from Matthew. In the previous few verses, Peter has admitted that he believes that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus has confirmed this impression as fact. Then, however, Jesus explains what’s going to happen – a series of events that must sound to the disciples like the exact opposite of what they’d been expecting! Of course Peter steps forward to correct Jesus – like Fred Savage as “The Grandson” in the Princess Bride, he’s rather upset to hear that the hero dies violently instead of the villains. “Jesus, you telling us the wrong story!” The implications are unthinkable: the arrival of the Messiah wouldn’t bring about apocalyptic change. No new kingdom of Israel, no crossing the finish line. The Messiah would lose, and the Jewish communities with him. All of their running would be for nothing. Jesus’s reaction is swift and sharp. “Shut up, Peter – you don’t see the larger picture.” Evidently, following Jesus means being willing to run for however long it takes, and regardless of wherever such running leads. The desired victory will take place on terms that the disciples did not expect; and if they want to be a part of it, they’ll need to keep going, even if they don’t know where they’re going or why. To me, this discontinuity between the disciples expectations and Jesus’ reality is instructive. Perhaps there is value in remaining in motion – we’re giving our all, regardless of the outcome.
But there’s more to see in these stories that I’d like to highlight. Alice wasn’t running alone; the Red Queen was with her, leading the way. From a quick read, that might not seem like such a positive thing – after all, the story literally states that the Red Queen was, at times, dragging Alice along so fast that “it was all she could do to keep up.” That sounds unpleasant, to say the least. But note that the Queen is providing instruction as they run – “Faster! Faster!” and “Don’t try to talk!” Why does she do this? Through the Looking Glass is built upon an overt metaphor with chess; the world is divided into a patchwork quilt of squares, and the major characters Alice meets are Kings, Queens, and Knights. In fact, immediately before this passage, the Red Queen acknowledges that Alice, who has joined as a Pawn, has the potential to become a Queen when she reaches the Eight Square – at which point, she begins the process of teaching Alice how to run like a Queen. Alice, of course, isn’t ready for this; her thinking is still trapped in traditional ways of thinking about movement. “In our country, you’d generally get to somewhere else – if you ran fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.” The Queen’s reaction is swift and sharp. “A slow sort of country!” Perhaps Alice can’t quite see the larger picture; even though she chose to become the Queen’s disciple, she doesn’t quite yet understand what that looks like. Even still, the Queen – like Jesus – doesn’t expect her disciple to fully understand; instead, she simply continues to instruct and correct, encouraging her disciple to run even if she doesn’t appear to get to somewhere else. Alice expects external change – like Peter – and – like Peter – ends up perplexed by the outcome. Perhaps there is value in continuing to try – we might not experience the external change we expect, but an internal change instead – transformation of identity or capacity or ability.
Finally, note what happened when Alice is almost completely out of energy – the Red Queen stops. “You may rest a little now,” she says kindly, and helps Alice lean against a tree. Just as it is important to learn how to run, it’s just as important to take time to rest and recover. Implicit in the Queen’s comment, however, is the presumption that Alice will not rest forever; at some point, she must get up to resume running. The New Testament is rife with parallels; even the Hebrew Scriptures cite “keeping the Sabbath (a day of rest) holy” as one of God’s most fundamental commandments. Even the the Sabbath does not last forever; rest always leads back into further work.
These three ideas, I think, form a good foundation for discipleship. First, don’t expect that the outcome will look the way you expect. Be open to the idea that change may occur in ways that are not immediately obvious. Second, recognize that there will be leaders to help you progress, but their activities and methods may not make immediate sense. Those aiding you are often further along the same path; they may be helping to guide your learning. Finally, know that rest is an important aspect of continuing to work. Being able to stop for a while prepares you for the moment when you’ll need to continue.