A while ago, one Sunday morning after church I met my son and daughter at a local café. They went upstairs while I got the drinks. I set off up the long, wide, wooden staircase carrying a tray full of hot chocolate, teapots, milk, and cups and saucers. And then disaster. At the very top of the stairs. On the very last step. Down I went. Drinks splashed and cups smashed. Down the stairs it all flowed. And yes, I did cry over spilt milk. It had been a hard week. A very difficult weekend. And now this. A symbol of it all getting too much. The tray of life was too full and too heavy.
We all have times like that, don’t we? (oh, please tell me you do too…) When the load we are carrying is too heavy. When work and home life all gets too much. When we fail, worry and make poor decisions. Times when our behaviour towards others changes. We become irritable, quiet or stick our head in the sand. We might even call it stress.
Stress is a much overused word but there are times when we struggle to cope, whether at work or home, or both. There is no such thing as ‘good stress’. We all need a degree of pressure to get things done, to perform well, to do a good job or to please others. But when those pressures exceed our ability to cope with the demands upon us then that’s stress: and there’s nothing good about it.
We all respond to stress in different ways too. Stress affects us physically (palpitations, eczema, muscle ache, sleep disturbance, for example), emotionally (anger, worry, tearfulness etc) and behaviourally (irritability, restlessness perhaps). People talk a lot about ‘work-related stress’ but the biggest cause of long-term sickness absence are non-work related issues. Financial difficulties, care for the elderly, care for the children, relationship problems, difficulties at church and numerous other factors affect the ability to work. Left unmanaged, stress causes health problems and affects our mental wellbeing.
Of course, it’s nothing new. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (7: 22-25a) ‘that which dwells within us turns us against ourselves, the law of our body is at war with the law of our mind’. Paul also sums up the feelings we have about ourselves: ‘Wretched person that I am’. Stress exacerbates our inadequacy: “I am so stupid. I’m hopeless. I am such a failure.”
So amidst this rather depressing passage (and this rather depressing post), come some surprising words. Paul writes, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ A simple statement of a fundamental truth but also a far too simple statement. Profound and deeply meaningful and yet one that trips off the tongue in glib repetition. When I fell at the top of the stairs, thanking God through Jesus Christ was not at the top of my list.
And yet, all the same, let’s turn to Jesus own words: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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 is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30)
Familiar verses. There will always be burdens and heavy loads to carry, but it’s what we do with them that matters. At times when the tray is full (or, preferably, before then) we can hand it over to Christ and receive the promise of rest. Through that rest comes strength: a strength that is made perfect in our weakness. Alleluia!
And what do we do next? We take it right back again, don’t we (oh, please tell me you do too…).
Over the next couple of posts we’ll look at managing such loads and gaining that rest and strength. We’ll consider the difficulties of comparing ourselves with others, some practical ways of addressing the balance of work and the rest of life, and looking after our mental wellbeing.
We may still have to carry the tray, but Christ can make it lighter.