At church this morning, the pastor preached about Matthew 11:28-30, in which Jesus exhorts those with heavy burdens to come to him for rest and to take his easy yoke upon them, and they will find rest for their souls. The pastor opened his message with a story about the philosopher John Stuart Mill. In his autobiography, Mill talks about his childhood. His father, recognizing that Mill was gifted, tried to cram Mill’s head with information. But, because Mill’s father did not have a religious background, he did not teach his son about religion. Mill relates that he felt as if he had a lot of facts, but that his soul was starving. In his eyes, he had a well-equipped ship that was going nowhere.
The pastor also quoted baseball player Yogi Berra, who remarked that, if you don’t know where you are going, you will not get there. The pastor talked about how Christ gives meaning to aimless lives. The pastor tried to tie this into repentance, probably because repentance was an essential element of Jesus’ message, plus Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 exhorts people to take on his yoke, which may relate to obeying Jesus. The pastor encouraged us to change the things that do not line up with God’s will.
I identified with a lot of what I heard this morning. I can understand where Mill is coming from: Feeling as if he has a lot of information, but not enough nourishment for his soul. I have been reading and writing a lot about the historical-critical method of reading the Bible, and—although I believe that I have learned things that are true and interesting—I have not found lasting nourishment of the soul from that. But I don’t think that reverting to conservative Christianity will nourish my soul, for I did not feel all that fulfilled as a conservative Christian. I could not find the inspiration from the Bible and Christian doctrines the way that other conservative Christians I knew did. Nowadays, I don’t worry as much about being inspired on a continual basis, but I do feel that I receive nourishment: from meetings I attend, from church, from movies and television programs, from books, from life, etc. And I trust that God loves me, even when I don’t feel inspired.
Yogi Berra’s quote got me thinking. When I worked at my school’s library, a co-worker told me that he didn’t understand the pressure on young people to figure out what they want to do with their lives, for his library job was something that came to him. I could identify with what he was saying. I’ve often felt pressure to know exactly what I want to do with my life. And there is not an age-limit on confusion over this issue. I was once talking to a guidance counselor, and he said that he didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up!
At the same time, I think it’s important to have a plan, to be going somewhere. For part of my academic career, I had a hard time coming up with a plan. I just went from school to school, taking classes. I heard that getting an academic position was difficult. I didn’t really fit in with my colleagues, wherever I went, so I did not think that I had a strong network that could help me. I wondered if I should even try to get an academic position, or if I should get a degree that I did not use for any vocation. I felt somewhat aimless.
But, now that I’ve passed my comprehensive examinations (I found out about this last week), I have more of a goal. I need to start developing a plan for my dissertation, but I also hope to start writing book reviews to get some publication experience. Then, I can develop my CV and hopefully get a job, perhaps an adjunct position. Knowing where I am trying to get, and developing strategies to get there, can give me some peace of mind.
As far as repentance goes, I’ve never really found Jesus’ yoke to be light—at least if it is defined the way many Christians have defined it: to be an extrovert who fits into communities and reaches out to people in love and service, proclaiming the Gospel. I think it’s good for me to grow from where I am and to become more extroverted—while preserving the strengths of my own introverted personality. But I’ve pretty much had it with performance-based religion: religion that is about me looking at my performance and evaluating how I am doing, then seeking to change as I pull myself up by my own boot-straps. Or perhaps my problem is more with how repentance is presented: if I’m given a better way to look at life, and manageable steps that I am able to take to become better, then I don’t mind that. But when I’m told that God wants me to change right now so as to appease him, I tend to shy away from that. Such an approach hasn’t produced good fruit in my life over the years.
I enjoyed this morning’s service. I liked something else that the pastor said: that when he preaches, he’s often preaching to himself!