If you made it all the way to the end of my March 21 sermon, you may have noticed that I concluded with an invitation to rest. Here are the final paragraphs of that sermon.
“The last word, and the first, is a grace we can never earn, only receive. Rest in this grace. Rest in Christ and his cross to which the world’s sin, self-loathing and shame, have been nailed and destroyed. Rest in his grace as long as you need.
“Then, when you are ready, go again into the world God loves and take up the struggle for justice and peace, the work of mending God’s creation, trusting his promise that far more can mended than you know. Amen.”
I had two levels of meaning in mind with these words. I had spoken in the sermon of the Atlanta shootings (which were followed this week by another mass shooting in Boulder), and the burden of sorrow and grief we bore that day to worship. We needed a place and time of rest in such a broken and bruised world.
But I also had in mind another kind of rest, “resting in the Lord.” That is, resting in what God has done on our behalf, resting in the victory God has won in Jesus Christ and his crucifixion and resurrection. Other times and places I have put it the way: it’s not all up to you. Let God be God for you.
Earlier in that sermon I had spoken of the classic Protestant theme of “works righteousness,” of “the stuff you must do to show that you are on God’s side or to get on God’s good side.”
I suppose that remains real for some, but I wonder if this sense of burden — that it’s all on you — has been altered in a secular age?
These days we are, perhaps, less worried and exhausted by the effort to gain God’s approval, than we are burdened and exhausted by a different imperative: to be your best self, to optimize your self.
Earlier this week I wrote of the work of theologian Andrew Root who draws on the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor and his influential tome, A Secular Age.
One aspect of Taylor’s work is to describe how an ethics of authenticity has, in late modernity, replaced an ethic of duty. Here’s a bit from Root.
“This ethic (of authenticity) asserts that every human being has the right to define for himself or herself what it means for him or her to be human.” While there is a freedom in this, it ain’t all peaches and cream. The demand to create and continue to curate your own self can be exhausting.
Root: “It is your job in a constantly changing environment to be a self in the always-increasing pace of late modernity. And you need to be not just some generic, bland self, but a happy, recognized, successful self who’s not spitting out water but riding the rapids with style. Needing to swim yourself to the crest of the current means that the self in late modernity can never rest.” (italics added)
This ties in with the argument of two other recent authors which I have highlighted here: Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit and Yuval Levin (A Time to Build). Sandel speaks of harshness of a strict meritocracy, while Levin points to the ways that institutions are no longer formative (of persons and character) but performative. Platforms for performing one’s identity.
This — the idea that there’s a constant imperative to create your authentic and amazing self — may have begun as a sort of liberation, but it has become a new tyranny. “Not coincidentally, those who seem most authentic are those moving fastest, those with the most Instagram followers, those who most directly perform their identities to win recognition.”
An illustration from Root. “There’s Madeline. She’s so interesting! She started her own charity after visiting Mozambique. In ninth grade she launched a nail polish business. She has three hundred thousand Instagram followers, AND she went to Yale!”
When you add the imperative to be the authentic you, the best you, the happiest and most fulfilled you, with the acceleration of modernity driven by the constant updating of technology (the latest phone, app, device), it can be harsh. You gotta keep up!
“In a secular age,” comments Root, “sin is my inability to optimize myself . . if I can’t be the self I want to be; I’ve failed myself by not being the unique self I should be.”
In such a world, rest is hard to come by. We are constantly challenged, as in nightly words on PBS, to “Be More,” (which you presumably do by watching more of PBS). It makes me glad I’m 72 and not 27. It also makes me wonder how much these new imperatives contribute to the tragic increase in youth suicide as well as widespread depression.
Churches often become yet another voice in the “be more,” “do more” chorus. Youth group as resume building. And “our church is very active! Yay, us!”
Perhaps a different word is needed? “Rest.” “Rest in the Lord.” “Come to me, all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, rest for your souls. Take my yoke upon you for my burden is light and my yoke is easy.” (Matthew 11: 28 – 30)
Rest in Christ whose yoke is easy, whose burden is light. Your identity — your true identity — as a child of God is given in mercy and grace. The Holy Spirit of Christ is at work in you to bring you to an altogether different kind of completion and wholeness than the world gives.