I was sitting on top of a rickety ladder, on uneven ground, on a windy day this week, picking cherries from the top of the tree, and thinking about the week’s Scripture lesson from Matthew 11:29:

“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 light.” (NRSV)

All of this for some reason made me think of my great-aunt, Sister Agnes Claire.  I didn’t know Sister Agnes Claire well–and quite frankly, as a child, she terrified me.  A large woman in a full, floor-length habit, wrinkled face peering out from a huge head dress, large crucifix swinging from her waist.

At a family reunion in the 1970s, not long before she died, my dad asked Sister Agnes Claire what she thought of nuns wearing street clothes.  “Oh, I think it’s just fine for the younger nuns,” she said.  “But I’ll probably keep wearing my habit.”

Sister Agnes Claire went on to say that she had nearly reconsidered her habit after falling off the top of a ladder while picking apples in the orchard in the Motherhouse.  After the other sisters made sure she wasn’t hurt, they all burst out laughing.  “They said I looked like a big old black crow, floating to the ground,” she laughed.

I’m glad this story is my last and best memory of Sister Agnes Claire.  It gives me a glimpse of a woman who absolutely took her faith seriously enough to dedicate her life to serving God–but also a woman who didn’t take herself very seriously.

In Jesus’s day, the most educated rabbis devoted their lives to studying the Torah and developing their interpretation of what message God had for people of the era.  These interpretations, which they would then share with their students, were called their yokes.  People were called to follow harsh rules and restrictions, under the threat of exclusion from God’s people.  It’s hard to criticize people who dedicate their lives to studying God’s word.  But like some religious people today, the rabbis of Jesus’s era took themselves so seriously, they couldn’t recognize God’s word living before them in the person of Jesus Christ.  And Christ’s yoke, or teaching, was easy: learn the kindness, gentleness and humbleness towards others that he practices. 

Have you ever listened to someone going on, and on and on–and on–and thought “Oh, just give it a rest already?” I can imagine Jesus listening to the great religious theologians waxing eloquent about God’s character and thinking, “Oh, just give it a rest.” He says in Matt. 11:27, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

I read a study a while back that said 50% of Americans feel they are under  more stress than five years ago, and a full third says they are regularly under extreme stress.  We live in a country that values freedom and pursuit of happiness, yet another study ranks Americans 16th among the happiest nations in the world. In my own unofficial poll of listening to friends and acquaintances talk about how tired they are and how busy they are  (and not just a little bit cranky about it, either), I’m convinced we’re becoming a people unable to give anything a rest.

To seek His purpose for our lives, we are called to measure our decisions and attitudes against how Christ lived his life.  The best place for doing this, I’ve found, is in a cemetery.  It’s bittersweet to walk around pioneer cemeteries and see the number of grand headstones engraved with the words, “Gone, but not forgotten”, marking graves of people whose names are unfamiliar and lives are unknown.  

One of my favorite markers reads, “Remember friend, as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I.  As I am now, you soon shall be, So repent, for God and eternity.”  That saying marks the grave of a young man named Roy House, who died at the age of 17 in 1919.  

So if the burdens you are carrying feel heavy, here’s what I recommend:  Go and take a nap.  Everything seems worse and hopeless when you’re tired.  Then go sit somewhere quietly, and listen for any lessons or blessings God might be trying to teach you about the particular situation you’re in.  Cast whatever frustrations or worries you’re bearing at Jesus’s feet–and then give it a rest.