The following is taken from a funeral I performed on 3/18/10. Please note that names have been changed.
“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, 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.” Matt. 11:28-30
While I do have the occasion to perform funerals for our hospice patients from time to time, it’s not often that I get to include a eulogy. I always have some sort of message where I try to speak of what I learned from this person, or provide some words of comfort. But I usually don’t know the person whom I am speaking of well enough to provide an actual eulogy. However I did know Norman more than I knew almost all of our patients because we had him on for over two years – he outlasted most of our other patients and several of our own staff. But Norm was also different because he and I could talk and actually get to know each other. That’s relatively uncommon in my line of work. So I wanted to speak not only of what Norm taught me, but of him as a person and a friend.
Norm was one of the warmest people I’ve met. He prided himself on being able to make friends with complete strangers while driving, camping and motorcycling. He could easily strike up a conversation and keep it going for hours, or at least until his wife picked up on it. Whenever I planned a visit with them I learned to put it in the afternoon and block the rest of the day off. I learned to say “I’m going to have to be going in a little bit” an hour before I had to. I didn’t mind at all because it also gave me a good excuse to blow an afternoon and call it work.
He was also a very honest person. He was honest to his co-workers, his family, and his friends. I think from time to time this honesty hurt some feelings, but honesty does that sometimes. And I think folks respected that. He was also honest with himself, and didn’t avoid the tough questions and harder answers that came toward the end of his life.
Norman was also a strong man. He liked to work hard and do things himself. He prided himself on his self-reliance, and always wanted to help out with tough tasks.
It was this strength of body and soul that was so hard for him to lose as his disease progressed. For men like Norm, weakness is a hard thing to take. It takes something away – not only the things that you once enjoyed; it takes away part of your person. You are no longer who you once were. It is hard to go from being one who does things to being one whom things are done to and done for. I know this was hard for Norm, even unbearable at times. Witnessing someone’s weakness is hard for us as well. We want to be able to fix things, or at least do something, whenever one we love is weak. When we can’t, it reveals our own weakness. It reveals the things we can’t do, the things we can’t fix.
I chose this passage to reflect on because Norman’s life was one where weakness crept in, gradually taking more and more and not giving anything in return. We don’t like weakness. We consider it a flaw. If you want to insult someone call them weak or a weakling. We value strength, the ability to do for one’s self as well as for others. When we are strong and do need something we repay it, favor for favor, so we are left in no one’s debt. Weakness, however, makes us a debtor. When we are weak we need and cannot give back. Weakness can feel like less of a person, that we are not ourselves.
This passage reminds us, though, that we do all wear down, but not only that. Not only do we become weak and weary, we are weak and weary. It is truer to say that we are weak people who occasionally are strong, than it is to say that we are strong people who occasionally weaken.
This is one of the hardest lessons we Christians face. We are taught to do for others and to “be strong and courageous” and to “bear one another’s burdens”, and these are all true. And as long as we are the ones doing for others and bearing another’s burdens, that’s all fine. But when it is our burden that needs carried, when we need things done for us that we can’t even begin to compensate for, when we can’t be strong and courageous, that we hide. We ask God to give us strength in our weakness, but don’t want to show that weakness to others. However it is at this time, and I think only at this time, can we ever really learn what grace is. Remembering the Beatitudes, we cannot be comforted unless we mourn, and we cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven until we are humble. Neither can we understand God’s love and grace without first understanding that we cannot do anything to get it because we are weak.
Jesus says, “come to me, you who are weak…”, meaning all of us. He does not say “if you are weak”. Instead he calls you to realize that you are weak. It is who you are. You cannot come to me in some show of strength, for then you do not feel that you need me. I am not here to bless your strength, I am here to reveal your weakness, because it is when you know your true self that I can reveal my true self.
When we come to Jesus in our weakness he promises two things. First, he promises rest. This is the one thing a person weary in heart, soul, and body needs more than anything. Resting involves accepting weakness and yielding to it. When we stop and rest and reflect, healing takes place. This is something we do less and less of. I find that when I “rest” I am not really resting, I am preoccupying myself with some other task or problem, or some kind of entertainment that doesn’t really feel restful. So I need to learn to rest, as do we all. The kind of rest Jesus speaks of is a refreshing and calming of the whole person. It quietly lifts us up and allows us to not rely on our own strength for a while. It is then that we are strengthened with a strength that is not our own.
The second promise is more puzzling. He says that we are to take his yoke upon us. This seems to imply more hardship, as yokes are for controlling and suppressing farm animals, using them for labor and slavery. Yet Jesus’ yoke, he says is light. It is a guide that is meant to preserve us, not burden us further. It is a burden that we can bear. An animal that bears a heavy burden tries to work against it to throw it off. But when an animal’s burden is light, it works with it to accomplish its task.
These are the gifts of grace promised to us in this passage: rest leading to renewed strength, and a removal of the burdens we carry leading to renewed purpose.
So what did Norman do in my life? In the middle of his own weakness, I wanted to be strong. All caregivers feel that we need to be strong. I wanted to figure out the problems and give him the answers. I wanted to take the burden off him. But I think we both realized that I could not do that. He did look to Jesus when he was weak, something that he had done long before, and Jesus did give him that rest. It was hard to wait for but he was blessed, even at the end, with an end that was gentle and humble. I am glad that I have known Norman and his family. Through Norm God reminded me that His grace is sufficient for all of us, including myself. That after such hardship and difficulty we do need to rest and recover, and that the Lord is ever waiting to accept us. So at this time my prayer is that even as we recognize our own weakness, that we can be drawn to Jesus, who is the giver of peace and rest that can never be taken away.