It’s hard to believe, given my youthful looks, that when I was first going to church as a child it was all Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient and Modern. And there were odd things about the language that both puzzled me and nourished me.
I didn’t take communion as a child, but I can remember being at lots of communion services – even at the stage where I was hustled in after Sunday school clutching a drawing and a book of stamps to prove how good my attendance was. I can particularly remember the phrase just before communion that went; ‘Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.’ And then the first of these comfortable words was;
‘Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.’
These are the words that Meg just read to us – from the Gospel reading set for today. They are from the Bible before they are from the Book of Common Prayer – and in the Bible they are come after some really uncomfortable warnings about the judgement to come – even Sodom and Gomorrah get a mention. But I met them first in the Communion service.
I think I realised even as a child that the word ‘comfortable’ was being used in an old-fashioned sense – that thee words were meant to comforting – rather than comfortable in the usual day to day sense of that word.. But I do remember that I used to look forward to those words being said – and that I somehow held on to them – I wouldn’t have wanted the priest to choose different words. I liked hearing familiar words – words that were somehow reliable and steady.
I wonder now what I thought travailing and being heavy laden might have meant. But I do remember enough about being a child to remember that life was challenging and puzzling and sometimes disappointing. I had four primary schools before I was 7 because of my father’s job. We had to move when my grandmother’s house was condemned – to live with the other grandmother in her small council house in the less glamorous part of town. But none of that troubled me much really – I was more bothered by the usual childhood troubles with navigating the trials of friendship and disapproval and childish failures – with working out that I wasn’t as pretty as some, but I was cleverer than some too.. and regretting that I wasn’t better at PE and why there were children in the world who were hungry and might be grateful for the school dinners I hated.
But I loved those ‘comfortable’ words. And If I did find them strengthening, I also found them comforting. I loved that moment on a Sunday when I could sink into the kneeler and just trust that Jesus would give me rest and take all the heaviness out of life and make it light. Even more now, I think, I love to hear those words – and often. We all do. We all need to fall with relief into a comfortable place – sometimes.
Of course I knew, even then, that my faith was not meant to be a ‘comfort-blanket’, something I simply repeated every week to make me feel better. It was was meant to make me ‘better’ in all sorts of ways, to make me a better person, a stronger person, a more godly person. And all of this has become much more complex as I’ve grown up – and my hopes for world domination or influence much more modest…
There sometimes seem to be lots of heavy burdens in life, and even heavy burdens about being a Christian; life’s hard enough without adding in the burden of being better than everyone else… That’s somehow how it seemed to me as a child. But then we have to hear the rest of the comforting words – Jesus doesn’t want to burden us with the kind of religion that could never comfort anyone because it’s too demanding, just piling on the expectations, just adding to the unbearable heaviness of being human. ‘It’s OK’ says Jesus, ‘my burden is light…’. Or perhaps, he says something like, ‘I’ll carry it for you, or with you.’. Or, ‘I will carry the cross – so you don’t have to.’ If you have heavy burdens, give to them to me… I will carry them and give you rest… ‘ What a friend we have in Jesus…
This is a tough time we – and the whole world – are going through right now. And that’s alongside all the burdens we carry. But never let Jesus be another burden. Sink to your knees instead and take a rest. Travailling and heavy laden – come to the table of Jesus – have a rest, have food for your journey, and leave here lighter of step… Amen.