Last week, driving a bunch of overtired teens back from a rollercoaster day (literally; they were at Cedar Point), my car flashed me a warning light. Well-trained in the vagaries of overworked technology, I ignored it until it went away. Then it came back. Then it flashed me a few more signs. We were almost home, so I held my breath and crossed my fingers and sure enough it got us there, albeit in darkness and without the benefit of power steering, since all the electrics appeared to shut down just as I hauled it onto the driveway.
Next morning, of course, it started first time. It got halfway to the service centre before giving up for good.
All was well. I had AAA, and the tow truck got me to the repair place in time to get back and pick up the cake in time for the graduation party we were throwing that afternoon, and the rain held off on Monday while I got around all my errands by bike (my daughter pointing out that it was very fortunate that I had picked this summer to train for the Bishop’s Bike Ride and was thus capable of sustaining forward motion for more than a mile or two), and the car was fixed just in time to swing by and pick it up at the end of another essential outing yesterday – all was well. Everything got done for everyone that needed things doing.
One of my spiritual friends disputes the “all was well” approach. She insists that the car is a symbol of my lifestyle: I ignore warning signs, I drive it when it really needs to go in for a good rest and a few repairs, until it breaks down uncontrollably at the side of the road. According to her, I should have ditched the bike and taken a day or two off while my car and my equilibrium recovered.
“But,” I argue, “things needed doing. This person needed to go here, and that one there, and I needed to get this for them and and get that done …” And I only work half time, and my family is a lot more self-sufficient than it once was, and I have it a lot easier than many other people do all the time. (I think that my friend sometimes overestimates my work ethic and altruism.) And it did, after all, work out pretty well in the end. Didn’t it?
The gospel story we read this Sunday gives ammunition to both me and my friend. She will point out that Jesus went away to a deserted place. He led his friends away to a deserted place, knowing that they all needed a time-out, some peace and quiet, a retreat, a rest. They had been so busy that they barely had time to eat, and when they did, they never had time or space to sit down to a meal.
But, I will reply, when the people followed them, Jesus was moved with compassion to help them anyway, and he taught them, and (in the part that we leave out this Sunday) he fed them, and even after they moved on again, so many people were healed as they pressed back around him, how could he fail to help them? He couldn’t; he didn’t.
Other friends have shared online a story about clergy wellness which is headlined “Selflessness can threaten clergy members’ health” (http://www.womenshealth.gov/news/headlines/666244.cfm). It tells of clergy who know that self-care is important, but who still make it secondary to their ministry to others. It speaks of the need to address clergy health in language that clergy will accept; by implication, language which shows them the benefits to their ministry and those to whom they minister of care for themselves. Still, at the bottom of the piece, the journalist acknowledges that, “The study, recently published in the Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, doesn’t prove that ministering to others causes chronic disease. It merely noted an association between clergy members and poor health.”
So is my friend right or wrong to be concerned about the state of my car and whether or not it is symptomatic for my life and well-being? Or is the emphasis on self-care and the wellness of the minister overstated? Should ministry – and let’s expand this now to the ministry of all believers, to the parents who are constantly ministering to their children, and the grown children caring for older parents, and those who feed, and those who heal, and those who teach, and those who clean up, and those who pray for all of the above – should ministry be understood as sacrificial, and if so, how far does one go in self-giving before one has to go into hiding or on vacation? And how many compassionate demands should it take to drag the minister back from his or her wilderness retreat? What about the other aspects of the minister’s life which seek attention: family, friends, valued causes and groups? How much is too much to give of ourselves? How far is too far to retreat?
(I don’t pretend to have answers. I’m just asking questions here.)
Jesus still tries to take time out to retreat, to pray, to recharge and refresh himself and his relationships with God and with his closest companions. He got interrupted; but if we don’t even try, we don’t stand a chance of success.
Returning briefly to yesterday’s comment on the Old Testament lesson, and Nathan’s God-check moment, if we forget to take time out, to pray, to rest in the presence of God, what will we miss?
Where are the warning lights which you are ignoring? How long can you drive safely forward without stopping to get them taken care of?
And yet, I tell my friend, my wise and compassionate friend, Jesus, in this gospel, still hasn’t reached his limit of sacrificial self-giving. Will he? Will we?