How often have you said that when you were with friends and simply couldn’t stifle a yawn? I bet I’ve said that a thousand times. (Between you and me, sometimes it really was the company. And if you say I said that, I’ll say you lied.)
As I write this, the impeachment trial of President Trump is taking place in the U.S. Senate and, as an informed citizen, I’ve tried to watch. The problem is that I’m sleeping more than watching. I just can’t stay awake to hear the same talking points over and over again from both sides of the aisle.
Church can be like that. And church shouldn’t be the place where we catch up on sleep. But, kind of like the impeachment trial, there’s a sameness to it all. The place is the same, the liturgy is the same, and the worship is the same with the same lyrics and choruses repeated over and over again as if we didn’t get it the first time.
My friend, Richard Pratt, has often said that if you make your living at religion, you’ll lose either your religion or your living. There may be some truth to that. I do know, though, that if you make your living at religion you’ll get bored with religion and still keep at it because...well, because you need the job. It sounds arrogant, but it’s simply true: I’m probably not going to hear or preach anything in a sermon that I haven’t heard or preached before, read a religious book that awakens new ideas, or listen to a Bible study to discover new and exciting doctrine. I’ve been doing this for a very long time. I know I shouldn’t say it, but sometimes it really does get old.
That brings me to a key question and I wince when I ask it:
Do you ever get bored with Jesus?
If you’re a new Christian you can’t even believe that I asked the question. But, if you’ve hung out with Jesus very long you know exactly why I’m asking (even if you would never admit it). When I read Matthew 26 this morning, I was struck again by the sleeping disciples. You’ll remember that Jesus, just before the crucifixion, and during the most painful and dark time he had ever experienced, checked on his disciples and found them asleep. He said, “So, could you not watch with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40).
A number of years ago a man made an appointment with me to ask a favor. While he was making his presentation, I fell asleep. Evidently I didn’t snore or perhaps he was so engrossed and excited that he didn’t even notice. I woke up to him asking, “So will you do it?” Without thinking, I said, “Of course, I will do it.” It turned out that he was asking me to serve on the board of an organization...and, for all I knew, it could have been the board of an abortion clinic or the National Association of Witches. I remember saying to Cathy, my assistant, “I just said yes to something and I don’t know what it is. Who was that man and what does he do?” She checked and, because God sometimes protects preachers, it turned out to be a fairly solid Christian association.
Sometimes when I find myself drifting off and bored, I wonder if I made a mistake when I signed on to all this.
I can’t believe you’re saying this. You’re probably not even saved.
Actually, Christians have been saying it for hundreds of years. In fact, we have been saying it so often that it has been codified into the much-referenced ancient monastic list of seven deadly sins. It’s called “acedia.” (In case you want to repent, the other deadly sins are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, and wrath.) Acedia is sometimes called “sloth,” but that misses it. The formal term acedia is from a Latin word sometimes translated as “grief.” Acedia is a loss of spiritual passion. A sign of it is that one doesn’t even care much that one has lost it. Acedia is sometimes called “the noonday demon” and it’s associated with depression. To put it another way, acedia is when we run out of spiritual gasoline. It’s when the flame that once burned brightly begins to flicker or the gold that once was so shiny begins to go dim. Acedia is about boredom.
Okay, if I’ve got this problem (and I don’t, I’m just asking about a friend) what can I...uh, my friend...do about it?
If you’re bored, you can’t just stop being bored. I’ve watched people grow bored when I’ve preached a boring sermon and, short of going down into the congregation and shaking them, calling their names, shooting a gun, or cussing, it’s just not fixable.
In the first church I served on Cape Cod there was a lady who suffered from Narcolepsy. We played a game and it was our little secret. When she started drifting off, I tried to keep her awake by shouting or slapping the pulpit with a loud bang. When I managed to pull that off, she would grin at me. The truth, though, was that she won the game more often than I did. Her husband and I then had an agreement that when I couldn’t keep her awake, we let her sleep unless she snored. In that event, he would nudge her hard.
Boredom isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s a statement. I’m sure I’ve told you abut the student who read his paper to C.S. Lewis...and Lewis fell asleep. The student said to Lewis in a rather disapproving way that he would appreciate a comment on his paper. “Son,” Lewis said, “Sleep is a comment.”
Boring preaching is a sin. I’ve often said to my students, “It’s hard to take something as exciting as the Gospel and make it boring. If they’re bored, that’s not a comment about them, but about you.”
However, being bored with our faith and/or with Jesus is about us. When David cried out, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12), he was expressing a pretty common feeling among Christians. It was David’s sin that robbed him of his joy and passion. It’s the same way with us. But admonishing ourselves to “stop sinning” is about as effective as “stop being bored.”
When David cried out, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12), he was expressing a pretty common feeling among Christians.
So if you’re struggling with acedia, in so far as you can, stop sinning and get more sleep. Don’t thank me. I was glad to help.
But if that doesn’t work, give it up and go to Jesus. Tell him and see what he does.
There is some good news. If you recognize your acedia and it bothers you, it means that you have made the first step toward the renewal of your passion. You’ve heard me say that if you take the first step, God will take the second step; and by the time you get to the third step, you will know that it was God who took the first step. That is especially true in our battle with acedia. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden [the first step that can include acedia], and I will give you rest [the second step]. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls [the third step]” (Matthew 11:28-29).
The boredom all “mature” Christians suffer from isn’t fixable...at least not by us. (Bet you thought you were the only one.) Thomas à Kempis, the medieval German divine who wrote The Imitation of Christ, said that God sometimes withdraws himself (the feelings) so when God says “enough,” “we might know the sweetness of his presence.”
So what do you do? Go to Jesus and tell him. And remember not to doubt in the dark what God taught you in the light.
Then go out and play.
He told me to tell you.