Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Joy of A Heavy Burden*

Lectionary Readings for March 14
Morning Prayer: Psalms 39, 64
Jeremiah 5: 20-31
John 7:1-13
Romans 3:19-31

Jeremiah called it a fire in his bones.

Preachers of old spoke of unction.

Whatever it was worked in Paul’s soul as some kind of compulsion, causing him to exclaim “Woe to me if I preach not the gospel.”

Mark Buchanan calls it a Holy Must. It is a burden, a weight laid upon the heart and mind, a weight that can only be lifted or cast aside by speaking or writing. This burden is a gift, at one and the same time the heart’s yearning and the heart’s ache.

And this burden is something I too often lack. I’ve said plenty of words on a Sunday morning simply because someone expected me to say them. I’ve said them as a liturgist – praying or calling for the offering or speaking a word of benediction as purses were being gathered and car keys being fished out of pockets.

I’ve spoken them in classrooms. The words were true enough, doctrinally sound and theologically sturdy. But being right won’t feed a congregation. Better to be burdened, or perhaps – better to be burdened and right.

Having spent several years wearing the mantle of “preacher” I know there were weeks when I spoke from the pulpit because it was my job to do so. I stood there eagerly on some weeks, but not all. Nothing feels worse to the preacher than a light burden on Sunday morning. The message should feel like weight for which the task of teaching or preaching gives relief. If the task feels like a weight, something isn’t right.


So I spend a few moments with the lectionary readings for this day and find myself praying for a burden. I know the vocation of teacher in the church can’t be carried out only “when I feel like it.” But I don’t want to get skilled or comfortable as a pastor who talks without having something to say.

The Psalm leaves me somewhat puzzled. It opens with the resolve of the Psalmist to guard his mouth so that he might not sin with his tongue. I’ve made similar commitments to myself, usually after saying something stupid or after speaking in anger. I’ve felt this way when I know I’ve used words to do impression management, trying to sound clever or insightful or empathetic.

The Psalmist says “I’ll guard my mouth with a muzzle, so long as the wicked are in my presence” (Psalm 39:1). It isn’t clear to me if the speaker is reluctant to openly identify with God and God’s cause in the presence of the wicked – or if the speaker wants to be careful not to bring reproach on God’s name while the godless are able to hear it.

Whatever is going on, it doesn’t last for long. Funny thing about burdens: they are not alleviated by silence. They can’t be dealt with privately, introversion or extroversion notwithstanding. The Psalmist says he kept his mouth shut to no avail; his distress grew worse.

“As I mused, the fire burned” (Ps. 39:3). God, grant it. I’ve mused often, only to get sleepy.

The fire burns and then the Psalmist speaks with his tongue. However, he doesn’t speak to the wicked. Those from whom he had guarded his words, those whose presence kept him quiet, they are not addressed. Rather, the Psalmist speaks to God.

“O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am” (Ps. 39:4).

The most important words we speak are not spoken in classrooms or from pulpits or by hospital beds. Maybe the most urgent words we utter are directed to God. And if those words carry no burden, we’ll not likely have a burden when it comes to speaking or writing other words.

The focus of the Psalmist’s prayer is the brevity of life. Again, this isn’t what I expected. I wonder about burdens and the time we’re given to deal with them. For me, this Psalm is a reminder that I don’t have forever. There is not limitless time in which to discover the burden and then deal with it by speaking what is given to speak. The clock is ticking.


I carry that thought to the reading from John 7. The opening scene of the chapter is all about timing. The Feast of Booths is being celebrated in Jerusalem. Jesus’ brothers, with questionable sincerity, urge him to go to Jerusalem and take advantage of the great public gathering. This is savvy marketing, masses of people in one place at the same time. But John throws in the observation that Jesus’ brothers didn’t really believe in him. Their counsel is barely disguised mocking.

Jesus replies that his time has not yet come, basically saying “You guys go ahead. I’ll come when I’m good and ready – or not at all.” Indeed, Jesus remains in Galilee, but then he ends up making the trip up to Jerusalem. However, he goes quietly, keeping a very low profile.

But it seems that during the course of the Festival a burden is growing. By the middle of the Feast Jesus goes to the Temple and begins teaching (Jn. 7:14). And then at the end of the Feast Jesus stands up and cries out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (Jn. 7:37).

From guarded and quiet, to standing up and crying out. There is a time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking. The writer of Ecclesiastes had that right


The burden is seen most clearly in the prophets, and especially in the life and words of Jeremiah. In the reading today from Jeremiah 5 the burden is captured in two phrases: Declare this . . . proclaim it. And that’s what the prophet does.

What I notice today is that Jeremiah addressed his words to a “foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but see not, who have ears but hear not” (Jeremiah 5:21).

I wonder if this has something to do with my own lack of burden. I have eyes, but I don’t always see. I have ears, but I don’t always hear.

There’s too much to see, and there’s so much to hear. I can make perfect sense of the scriptures I read, but sense isn’t the point. A burden is. Something discovered that I can’t wait to share or tell about.

Strange isn’t it? A light burden is actually painful. The heavy burden is a joy.

*This concept of "burden" is dealt with especially well in Andy Stanley's Communicating for a Change.

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The Prophet said...
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