The Transformation of Life for the
Stressed Out, Burned Out, and Harried.
Matthew 17:1-9 February 17th, 2002
This morning I want to step into the confessional to share some personal thoughts about my own journey with God. I have some reservations about sharing these confessions with you because I'm worried it will make me the center of the sermon. But I think it is worth the risk if my confession encourages you to examine your own relationship with God. My greatest wish is that you will learn from some of the mistakes I've made in my spiritual life.
About two years ago I found myself daydreaming about leaving the ministry. Give me an 8 to 5 job. Let someone else attend board meetings. Let someone else recruit Sunday school teachers. Let someone prepare 48 sermons a year. Let someone else field complaints. "The music was too loud. The sermon was too long. Your robe is wrinkled." Have you ever tried to move six hundred people in the same direction? If I did not have a new mortgage, a family to support, and a lack of other options, I might have actually done it. The greeter position at Wal-Mart was looking pretty good. "Do you want fries with your quarter-pounder?" didn't sound too bad either.
What happened to me happens to a lot of ministers? Working seven days a week without taking any time off, believing I could please everyone if I just tried hard enough, thinking it wouldn't get done if I didn't do it, keeping my hands in everything from setting up chairs to mowing the lawn, refusing to delegate and interfering when I did, and denying that I needed to be in control, while laying awake at night trying to gain control over situations which I had no control. Add to this self-destructive savior complex, the demands of two capital campaigns, and two construction projects, 700 additions to the church, and several new staff members, a skirmish over a Christian Sex education program, and a growing feeling that I was failing my family, and what do you get? You've got a recipe for burnout. It was all driven home when my son had to grab my face and said, "Daddy, listen to me" to get my attention.
Somewhere on my journey to serve God I lost God. The call became a job. My ministry became my misery. The hardest part: preaching about a personal relationship with God when I did not have one. I felt empty, like a treasure box that has been ransacked, like a wrinkly old orange from which all the juice has been squeezed.
My burnout mirrors what many others experience. What I did to myself is not limited to those who wear the clerical collar. People parade through my office with regularity who are victims of the same malady.
· One woman told me she feels like the man in the circus who spins plates. She has to run from plate to plate to keep them from falling. If she hesitates for even a split second the china will hit the ground.
· Another man cried while drinking coffee with me. His work habits have made him a stranger in his home. He's been out of the loop so long he doesn't know the path back in.
· Another man has been told to slow down by his doctor. His chest pains forced him to listen to his body. But he doesn't have the luxury to slow down. There are production deadlines to meet. There are people are depending on him. While we were talking his cellular phone rang three times.
· I heard recently of a man who ran up to an airline office and said, "Give me a ticket." They said, "Where to?" He replied, "Anywhere. I've got business everywhere!"
Burnout can come easily in this hurried and pressured society of ours. There are simply too many quotas to reach, too many business trips, too many demands from aging parents, and too many needs from children who have activities ranging from Girl Scouts to Little League and piano lessons. Add to these family illness, financial demands, job problems, delinquent children, home repairs and so on. Then there is the church. Committee night, teaching Sunday school, property work day. On top of these everyday responsibilities most of usually encounter are what I call "hits from Mars." We don't create them by bad choices; we can't avoid them; they just happen. They include the death of a spouse, the loss of a home or a job, changes in finances, natural disasters and chronic illness. (1) Mix all of this with a consumer driven culture that says you are what you achieve, cellular phones, pagers, and lap-tops and you've got a fast track to a coronary.
The "Coronary and Ulcer Club" lists the following rules for members...
1. Your job comes first. Forget everything else.
2. Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays are fine times to be working at the office. There will be nobody else there to bother you.
3. Always have your briefcase with you when not at your desk. This provides an opportunity to review completely all the troubles and worries of the day.
4. Never say "no" to a request. Always say "yes."
5. Accept all invitations to meetings, banquets, committees, etc.
6. All forms of recreation are a waste of time.
7. Never delegate responsibility to others; carry the entire load yourself.
8. If your work calls for traveling, work all day and travel at night to keep that appointment you made for eight the next morning.
9. No matter how many jobs you already are doing, remember you always can take on more. (2)
Burnout: The condition of being spiritually, emotionally and physically SPENT; to have nothing more to offer, to have already drawn the last of one's reserve resources.
This is where my life intersects with the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. When I read it I find myself praying for a transformation in my own life. Now I know it is dangerous to attempt to identify with Jesus. I also know the transfiguration of Jesus is unique to the experience of Jesus. And I know the transfiguration does not lend itself to contemporary analogies. Preaching professor Fred Craddock tells of a student who compared the sacrifice of Isaac to the sacrifice he made living in an apartment without an air conditioner. It just doesn't work. The transfiguration is the divine revelation to the disciples and Matthew's readers that Jesus is the Son of God. "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" (Mat 17:5b).
Despite knowing the story of the transfiguration is not about us, it addresses me where I live. I really want things to be different for me. I don't want my own son to have to fight through other people to get my attention. I don't want to just talk about Jesus I really want to know Jesus. I don't want to be one of the those burned out pastors at 50 who hate the church but who is too old to change careers.
The trouble is I have lost all confidence in my ability to make it happen. Our insides are flawed. A consumer driven culture has programmed us. Our whole lives we've been told our worth is determined by what achieve, what we possess. Which explains why most men talk about their jobs when they are asked to describe themselves, without even mentioning their family. You can certainly see it in Peter's response to the transfiguration. Before his very eyes Jesus is transformed and an enterprising Peter proposes a building program. In The Message, a contemporary translation of the New Testament, Eugene Peterson said Jesus changed from the inside out when he was transfigured. Well it's going to take some outside intervention for that to happen to us. God is going to have to rewire us if we are going to be transformed.
The Good news for those desiring such a change is found in the transfiguration text. For imbedded in the text is an invitation to join Jesus on the mountain.
· The one who said; "come to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest," invites us to spend some quiet time alone with him.
· The one who said; "Why are you worried? The lilies of the fields neither spin nor toil" invites us to climb a mountain with him.
For stressed out, burned out, the one hundred million tethered to cell phones this means:
· Carving out some margin in our life for some time apart with Christ. This means leaving behind the palm pilots, the cell phones, and the laptops.
· It means sitting with Christ in solitude and breathing in his presence. This means resisting the Peter syndrome to do something like build a booth. I'm a lot like Peter when I have an experience with God. I have to fight the desire to start designing programs. We've always got to be doing something.
· It means shutting up, stopping the chatter, and listening to Jesus. "Listen to him!" God says in the text. This means we've got to stop talking, stop analyzing, and stop explaining. Why do we feel the need to explain everything? Can't we just take a deep breath and listen to the transfigured one.
· It means allowing Christ to redefine who you are. You are not what you produce. You are not what you can do for me today. You are a child of God. You don't have to do anything to earn that name. For just as God names Jesus the Son of God Jesus names us co-heirs.
· And it means worship. Thanking God for his presence. Showing God our adoration. The disciples fell on their face in the presence of God.
The Good News for harried people is this: God's presence dwells completely in Jesus. Peter wants to build a booth for Jesus. But the word booth is the wrong word. Tabernacle is a better word. It should say he wanted to build a tabernacle. And this is significant. In the Old Testament the tabernacle was a place where God was known to dwell. But Peter's request is ignored, because Jesus is the new tabernacle. He is the place where God's power and light has come to rest.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of the things I've listed as causes for burn out. Recruiting people for Sunday school, taking your kids to soccer practice, caring for your aging parents, taking on the AIDS crisis are all good things. You should be active and involved in the world. This isn't a 1960's call to drop out. In fact, some of you need to be more active in the world than you are now. Instead, the lesson learned here is that the presence of Jesus in your is the difference between thriving and burning out. Make note that a failed healing immediately follows the transfiguration. The disciples who were left behind were unable to drive the demons out of a boy who was convulsing. After Jesus heals the boy he tells the disciples that this kind of demon can only be driven out by prayer. We cannot do ministry without our time alone with Christ.
However, we need to know there is a death involved. Death must precede the transformation I'm describing. The transfiguration of Jesus takes place between two passion predictions. Before the transfiguration Jesus says that he will die. And after the transfiguration he says that he will die. This means the transfiguration foreshadowed the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, to undergo his metamorphosis in his being he had to die. Nothing less is expected of us either. The part of us that defines our worth by what we do, that defines our worth by what we achieve, that defines our worth by what we produce, has to die before we can be transformed.
As for me, I'm doing great. These past few months have been a time of great renewal of faith. My eyes have been opened to what I was doing to myself. As well, I know what I need to be healthy. I also know this is going to be a struggle for my type A personality for the rest of my life. But this sermon isn't about me. It's about all of us. And if all you've heard is poor David you've haven't been listening deeply enough. This is an invitation to a spiritual transformation in your life. It's an invitation to carve out space for God in your life. It's a reminder of what happens to those who try to serve God without God.
Lent begins next Sunday and lasts forty days. What a wonderful opportunity to examine those parts of your life that need to be buried. What a wonderful time to be still and listen. But you are going to have to turn off your cell phone.
1) Psychology For Living; Elizabeth Glougland, Fall 2001. The first four sentences are almost a direct quote from the article. She does a good job of describing the factor that lead to burn out. I discovered the essay in the Austin Presbyterian Library while preparing this sermon.
2) Bits & Pieces, January 7, 1993, pp. 9-10
Raymond Browns Introduction to the New Testament. A great resource for some background into the issues of authorship and the composition of Matthew's Gospel. The New Interpreters Bible Commentary on Matthew. This has been a trusted resource in the preparation of this sermon.