By Matt Gordon
You want to talk about end times? My wife is my barber now. That’s how I know the end is nigh. The Jehovah’s Witnesses give out those little pamphlets full of images of lamb-lions and hellfire, but they ought to just skip all the sensational and show a picture of my wife standing over my unkempt mane out there on our deck.
The worst part isn’t the haircut—she actually does a pretty admirable job of that. The worst part is the conversation. I used to be of the mind that a haircut should be a silent, spiritual experience. As my “stylist” would begin the wave of chatter about her teenage kids or ex-husband or barbecue that weekend, I’d have to go to a special inward place not to lose patience. I’d return words about my own teenage kids or ex-husband or barbecue that weekend, not because I had any of those things but because I was expected to say something, anything—these are not truly conversations but just sounds in the void, like bats finding their way in a cave.
But with my wife it is different. She is my life-mate of nearly a decade! Forget the small talk, the jilted clichés, the feigned curiosity—we can dive in and dive deep. She is a captive audience, my new barber.
So on the last haircut I recall regaling her with just some of the ways the world is in big, big trouble. Forget the barbecue chit-chat, this is a meatier fare.
I began with the storms that occurred in Iowa. Called a derecho or some such thing, this storm had all the makings of a hurricane. That’s right: a hurricane. In Iowa. Forget Kansas, this just became the perfect scenario for a Wizard of Oz reboot. But of course, this is real life. There is no place like home, but the sentiment is much crueler when home is ravaged by hundred mile-per-hour winds. Over ten million acres of crops were destroyed, leaving many lives feeling similarly flattened . . .
Snip. Snip. Snip. My wife pressed on. I continued too . . .
But the real hurricanes have nothing to be jealous about. They’re already having their way and more are expected. They’ll, I’m sure, get theirs . . .
Snip. Snip. Snip.
This world is not enough, though. We must consider space, for even it is hurling its opposition at us. Have you read about the asteroids? First, they are always sized, when one reads or hears about them—“the size of two pyramids” or “football field sized.” I want to reverse the construct and attend a football game and comment on the field being “asteroid sized” just to see if it works. But of import is not so much how large they are but where they are—close. Very close. Too close. They are coming and the collision will be epic . . .
Snip. Snip. Snip.
But that probably pales in comparison to the collisions in our city streets as social justice movements collide with counter movements. Our very population-centers like dried-out tinder boxes on a hot, hot day. There is chaos in the . . .
And the election. Oh, the election! At least this will be a nice quiet one . . .
The economy is a castle made of sand and it feels like the waves are lapping the shore all about it.
Buzz-buzz-buzz. My wife cleaned up around the ears, and after the clippers had been turned off and scissors reclaimed, another buzz was heard. A bug descended gently on my covered knee . . .
Oh, and the bugs. The bugs! There are like nine bugs being found in places they shouldn’t be doing things they shouldn’t be doing. The Murder Hornet is the least of our worries. We are in so much trouble, don’t you think?
Snip. Snip. Snip.
“You forgot the pandemic,” my wife said matter-of-factly. “All done.” She swooped the cover off of me and hurried to the safety of the indoors, well away from the world and me.
I sat there alone—I forgot the pandemic!
The pandemic! The global to-do that is causing fear and worry and death and confusion and masks! Masks! I watched a baseball game the other day and the pitching coach donned faithful mask before consulting the pitcher about his breaking ball. And it was totally normal to me.
If we were to take a poll called “Is this your worst year ever?” I think the results would be pretty staggering. Usually our worst years are localized. It is based on when we got the diagnosis or when we lost a loved one. It might be the scare of 2008 or when the house flooded back in ’16. Maybe it was the year of the divorce or wreck? Whatever causes a year to be your worst typically isn’t the same issue that impacts your neighbors’ worst year.
But 2020? There is nothing localized about a global pandemic or asteroids or inland hurricanes or bugs. It feels like Harry’s and Lloyd’s declaration in Dumb and Dumber: “Our pets heads are falling off!” Murphy’s Law is very much in effect and so even if you don’t feel the low-level thrum of stress and depression acutely, you’ve likely become the barber for someone who does.
We are all in this together—with this being an anxiety-inducing, end times-feel worthy of a Jehovah’s Witness Revelation picture book.
As a self-described “person of faith” (whatever that means) I think of Jesus and whether he’d consider this to be a truly terrible year? Would he feel it? Would he be lamenting the loss of crops and freedoms and sanity?
When I glance through Scripture what I see is him constantly entering into trouble. He sees a mess and he dives in. Of all the made-up jobs in the world can you imagine being Jesus’ realtor?
“I don’t know, Jesus. This is a pretty rough neighborhood—“
“I’ll take it!” Jesus would declare.
That is the weird thing about Jesus—at least one of them. In most religious/societal constructs there is a pain center and a power source, and those things are kept apart. If one is in the pain center, he or she must transcend to the power. They must clean up their life, their thinking, practice certain do’s and don’ts and somehow move, like those asteroids, closer and closer to positive collision point.
Jesus, though, moves in. Leans in. Dives in. He incarnates to a broken world because of its brokenness. It is the heart of the gospel that God so loves the world—in its brokenness and cruelness and “sin”—that Jesus enters a womb to come to the world. A womb of all places!
I land on one passage in particular in troubled times. Jesus looks at his ragtag group of followers and some seekers that are still considering all that he may (or may not) be. And he says:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”
Bad haircut and all, I want that to be true. But why don’t I feel the things that Jesus is promising there—things like purpose and rest and comfort?
Well, the first reason I don’t feel that could be because Jesus isn’t all he said he was. He is not God. Or perhaps he isn’t quite as historical as many recent findings have suggested him to be? Maybe he is a charlatan—a snake-oil salesman? He has a good message and all, but what good is the sales-pitch if the product doesn’t work?
That is where many people land, and where my unbelief takes me sometimes. The problem is, that doesn’t do a thing for my problem. What I want is “rest for my soul.” What I want are these promises to be true, not a way to bring an inland hurricane down upon the house of cards and the stacker of the cards with them.
I’ve got some unbelief—it is true. But as long as I have a modicum of belief—and when I study the life and times of Jesus juxtaposed with the way the world works and feels, I have much more than that—I want to chase these things down and have them be realized in my life before I discard the whole of the idea entirely.
So eyeing the world and Jesus as if both offer realities, I want to discern how to have it be “well with my soul.”
One reason I tend not to feel that kind of peace and comfort is because I forget to yoke up. Now, a yoke is a thing that is placed on an ox. Usually it affixes two oxen side-by-side and allows them to plow forward with some measure of ease and comfort. And what people love to do with this passage is talk about yokes and oxen. A lot. But here is my belief—it doesn’t matter and you don’t care. Or you do care. But either way, care or not, that is a decision you’ve made that has very little to do with Jesus or his meaning here and more to do with oxen. How do you know if you care or not? If you can’t tell me three things about oxen, you don’t care about them and likely never will. If you can tell me three things, you do and probably are a farmer or zoologist or some such thing—congrats on that. But none of this has much to do with Jesus—he was simply connecting to a crowd who all did know three or more things about oxen and ancient farming and whatnot.
Lost in all this yoke nonsense is a thing Jesus says clearly and unstrapped from metaphor: “Come to me.” As I sat there and recounted to my barber-wife all the things wrong with the world, I can tell you where I go to deal with these things: the news. If I can just read one more article, then I’ll feel better. I want control and information is my means of getting it. But all it really does is showcase how little control I have, which, in turn, ratchets up my fears and anxiety.
With these renewed fears and anxiety, I find myself turning to self-help gurus. These guides swoop in, take Twitter by storm, sell about a billion books on hope and perseverance and building a better you and whatever else. I read the latest expert, quote the sage, form thirty-nine small groups about their life-changing work, and feel appeasement in my soul. For about ten minutes. Then I forget all about them, find the latest and greatest expert, and do the whole process over again. The cycle becomes: Investment, appeasement, letdown; investment, appeasement, letdown; investment, appeasement, letdown; investment, appeasement, letdown; death. That’s it! The self-help industry is not a bad thing, and it can be quite self-helpful. But when I run to it for my soul’s rest, I end up more anxious than before.
I do the same thing with techniques or practices or behaviors. I try these nine steps or this series of meditations. Again, nothing wrong with these things, but they can be misguided all the same. And when I say misguided, we tend to think of something landing in the wrong place. Often, however, something lands in the wrong place because an error in its launch point—so much depends on the proper take-off.
Jesus is an afterthought rather than a starting point. I end up white-knuckling my life, hoping to control enough aspects and personally manifest enough goodness and control just enough breathing and . . . on and on the list goes. But Jesus says, “Come to me.” Not near me to eavesdrop. Not to some faux-version that agrees with my political sensibilities. Not to some baseless, judgmental morality structure. “Come to me.”
Sometimes I do just that, but still the promise of rest and peace and an alleviation of burden is unfulfilled. I come to Jesus, I take his yoke upon me, but then I try to take back some of the weight; I try to control the direction of things. Jesus took my sins upon himself, but I’m constantly trying to tug-of-war the responsibility of Savior back from him. Yes, he can have the big stuff or the past misdeeds, but I can handle it from here, Jesus.
Or, like Peter, I question his trajectory. On the way to suffer and die in Jerusalem, Jesus gets unsolicited advice from Peter. It is a one-man intervention, a Peyton Manning audible—OMAHA-OMAHA! “Okay, Jesus, I’ve looked over the plan, and, well, it could use some work. Here is what I’m thinking: we form a little army or set up a new government here or just go into hiding a bit and work on something better than what you’ve cooked up—which, not be rude, is about anything!”
“Get behind me, Satan,” came Jesus’ pithy reply.
And so goes my own conversation with Jesus. I watch the news—“Gosh, Jesus, do you know about this hurricane? Might want to look into that.”
“You seeing these asteroids—got a plan there?”
“This election? You know what to do, right? Need my help out there on social media?”
“Seems like you’ve forgotten this COVID stuff, Lord. I’ll get with Fauci and read some Twitter and come up with something. Cool?”
The chief end of Jesus is to build a Kingdom. Recall the old prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” Jesus is relentlessly pressing onward toward his Kingdom fully realized. Not only is he undaunted by Murder Hornets and hurricanes, he is purposeful: turning even this momentary affliction into eternal glory. He is making every bad thing untrue. He is establishing a disease-free New Eden, with perfect haircuts and so much more. They aren’t downloading self-help or arming up against the woes of the day up in Heaven; they are cracking knuckles and preparing to leverage all things for good and for glory.
When I come to Jesus and take the fullness of his yoke upon me, allowing him to shoulder the burdens of this life, I still live with storms all around me. But I know at any moment he can still them. I witness the menacing waves but can realize the power to walk upon them. I come to a Red Sea boundary and see it part before me—taking me to a promised land, now delivered. I stagger to a tomb emptied and hear the sweet statement: “Why are you searching for the living among the dead?”
In Jesus I have the promise of life. I can be yoked to a God who is fully man and says in great trial, “Take this cup from me;” and yoked to a man who is fully God and goes on to say, “Thy will be done.”
The trials are real—asteroids and hurricanes and insects and, yes, the pandemic.
But the will of Jesus prevails. In that I find a deep, gratifying soul-rest that isn’t pinned to the man who is elected, a vaccine, or a world that permits barbers to be barbers and spouses to be spouses.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”