sermon: August 13, control, and burnout

Scripture: John 17:1-2,6-19
Uncited and unedited by J. Lavoy

There is something that I don’t care for, in our two stories today. (from “Tell Me a Story” by K. Rondthaler, a book for children on Moravian history.)

The first story, in its truest sense, is of a community of disparate, frustrated, homesick people, coming together in conflict, and becoming a coherent, love-oriented community of joy.  (August 13, 1727)

The second story, of the two girls praying, in its truest sense, is the realization that this new community of joy, experienced its greatest renewal at the leading of two, pre-adolescent girls. (August 17, 1727)

It reminds me of that scripture passage from Isaiah, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

The thing I don’t like about our stories today, as portrayed in this little blue book, is that somehow, they’ve been reduced to the idea that, through prayer, God will teach us obedience, and to behave. Perhaps some of us need that message, but I don’t know if that would be my message in a children’s book.

And, I also think, there is irony in this conflict between the book and the historical account. It seems to me that a lot of the conflict that was so disturbing, the conflict that really inhibited this community of religious refugees – Moravians, and Schwenkfelders, and Mennonites, and Lutherans – the disturbing conflict was basically about control. Who was in charge, and who was responsible. With whom did the so called “buck stop”?

And the miracle was that, despite the immense conflict, where many were already making preparations to leave the community – and in fact, some already had – the miracle was that, they found, by releasing control, by opening a clenched fist, God moved in and invited the whole community into a time of renewal. Almost instantly. What a great exhale.

So, no, I don’t think the story is about God teaching children obedience, which is just another word for control, is the message of this story. Rather, I think it’s a story about Christ’s invitation to release control, and wait for God to move.

When Karen and I read through our assigned scripture readings for this August 13th Festival, commemorating the events of our spiritual ancestors turning from conflict to community, and these two young girls teaching a whole community how to pray, well, we were puzzled why the scripture lesson was about Jesus praying for his disciples.

As I’ve wondered about that, I had an insight. Our scripture lesson for today is about Jesus, at the last supper, knowing what will happen the next day, praying for his disciples, who don’t have any clue what is happening tomorrow, or even later that night. Jesus is letting go of control, that God might work through the disciples who might otherwise feel totally unprepared. Jesus is blessing his disciples by, essentially saying: “God, if these people just be themselves, in all of their quirkiness, differences of opinion, and varying capacities for leadership, then everything will be Ok! I turn over control to you, via them.”

What a powerful thing.  By releasing control, we all become capable of powerful ministry.  Each and every one of us has a vocation, a calling from God. Some of it is standing up here letting words fall out of my mouth. Some of us it is cultivating a Garden where people can have a quiet moment with loved ones. Some of it is maintaining a budget. Some of it is baking cookies for new neighbours. Some of it is putting your blood, sweat, and tears into teaching children, some of it is offering your treasure for the use of people in need, and most of it, I have yet to name here.

By releasing control, we become capable of powerful ministry. This is the August 13th lesson.

And so, my insight for the week – my lone insight – is that anxiety, control, and burnout are all related. I’ve long known that anxiety is rooted in a desire to control lots of moving parts. I, personally, become anxious when I try to anticipate other peoples emotional responses to things. Rather than being myself and letting things fall where they may, my anxious self will create conditions for people to respond favorably. Building little condos of cards is a sure-fire way to flame anxieties flares.

And, my insight is that burnout is related to this. It is exhausting being anxious. It is exhausting doing everything that I feel needs to get done, which is an impossible task. It is exhausting trying to manage the emotions and responses of an entire community. I think that’s what those people in Herrnhut were feeling. They wanted to recreate their lives, as they might have been in the old country, so when they arrived at Herrnhut, and found they had to compromise, they burned out, due to their desire to control.

This isn’t necessarily an evil or manipulative impulse. If I had to label our church, at this present moment, I would diagnose us with a case of congregational burnout. We are a congregation of wonderful, caring, compassionate people, but there are so many things on our individual plates, from aging parents, to children behaving differently than you’d expected (if only they had prayed to learn obedience), to death of loved ones, to careers progressing differently than you’d expected, to retiring and uncovering and responding to God’s new vocation for you. In our desire to make sense of and foster all of this, our soul flames burn dimly.

And here’s the hinge: we cannot be open to renewal if, in our desire for control and order, we do not open our hand, to let it go. To let things fall where they may. So, in this way, being open to renewal and God’s healing and equipping, takes a particular kind of courage that is buried deep within.

Life is different than we’d imagined as children. But the simple prayers we learn as children may be among the most potent.

So I offer this prayer to you:
“God, give me the courage to be myself. Let this be my ministry and my rest. Amen.”