Last year’s Christmas letter from my friend in England startled me. He is a Roman Catholic priest who I have known since our time together at Georgetown University. Always energetic, always on the go, he never seems to slow down. For the last 15 years, he has been the only full-time priest in a parish of more than 5,000 members, which includes a convent of nuns and a day school. I have often wondered how he does it. But in last year’s Christmas letter, he mentioned that as he grows older, he finds himself without as much energy, more prone to feeling tired, more easily exhausted, and less able to handle the long days in ministry.
It happens, doesn’t it? The energy we had at 30, we don’t have at 50, and certainly not at 60 or 70. I remember an Episcopal priest in Pennsylvania who seemed to be in excellent health, but constantly lamented how the burdens of ministry were weighing upon him and sapping him of his strength. Before I left Pennsylvania, he had taken early retirement.
Ministry burnout is a serious problem, but it’s not just clergy who are subject to exhaustion. We all seem more concerned about our energy level nowadays. And so we try to eat the right food, watch our diets, and count our calories. We take vitamins and natural supplements, exercise more, get adequate rest and monitor stress levels. Even non-religious people have made a spiritual discipline of meditating, practicing breathing techniques, doing yoga, listening to music, reading a book or having a quiet time.
The advent of computers promised to reduce our workload, but that has not happened. We are busier than ever before-working more hours, stretching ourselves from one activity to another, doing this thing and that.
Parents can travel all over the place transporting their children from one program to another. No rest for the weary there. For many of us, it’s non-stop from morning to late evening. And what about caregivers who support loved ones in declining health? Their 24/7 job can drain the life out of them.
Students know the same feeling. There comes a semester when the growing list of assignments hits you hard. You’re already stretched with work and other commitments, and you wonder if you have the endurance to make it through the term.
Couples in troubled marriages also know that feeling. You love your spouse, but there are problems with your marriage. You have tried to live with it, work around it, keep it in perspective, and honor your vows. You have done your part, but the problems in the relationship remain and nothing changes. One day you realize that it has worn you out, and relationally you find yourself overburdened.
Whatever kind of exhaustion or weariness you may be facing in life, whether through age or circumstance, we all know that feeling. We simply do not have the energy we wish we had. We want it, but real stamina is not with us; and-frankly-we feel too drained to recover or replace it.
So what do we do when we feel bone tired, exhausted by life’s demands? Maybe we sit down in front of the television and try to revise our appointment calendars! Or maybe we surf the web, or play a computer game, or click on our favorite App from our smart phone. But none of these things seem to work, because exhaustion is more than a matter of being physically tired. It’s a matter of being spiritually drained, feeling empty, without purpose or passion, living in a vacuum.
It’s amazing what we are able to do when we feel called to do it, when the work we are doing feels like play, when we live for a cause greater than ourselves, when we know that what we do really matters, really makes a difference in life. Sometimes we will hear someone say, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!” That’s the passion and purpose that allows us to live a life of significance, a life that really matters.
So where do we find that spiritual vitality to keep going when the going get tough?
The prophet Isaiah talked about a God who never gets tired: “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary…” This God shares his energy with tired folks like you and me. God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. …Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, and shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
This is God’s remedy for the weary! We are exhausted too much of the time, and we all have felt sapped of energy. When we take stock of ourselves and examine our lives honestly, we know that we are not indestructible. There is only so much we can do for ourselves by ourselves, but God can do the rest. God can hold us up when we are ready to fall down. God can carry us forward when our bodies are ready to collapse. God is that force in our lives that values us and believes the best of us when we are using all our energy to demean and diminish ourselves. God is the motivation to take us to the next step, regardless of whatever threatens our hope and courage.
It is God who gives vigor to the weary. God! It is God who gives new strength to the exhausted. God! Suddenly, there will be stamina enough to face the challenges that come our way. There will be strength enough to finish the task, strength enough to find a solution to the problem, strength enough to be appropriately active in ministry; strength enough to resist some damning temptation; strength enough to live well and to end well.
Some of us know the name Eric Liddell from the 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. He was the gold medal winner of the men’s 400 meters at the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics. Eric Liddell was born to Scottish missionaries in China in 1902. He studied at the University of Edinburgh where he became known as the fastest runner in Scotland.
In 1924, he was chosen to be on the Olympic Team for the United Kingdom. His best event-the one in which he had the best chance of winning-was the 100-meter race. However, as a devout Christian, Liddell refused to run in a heat held on Sunday and withdrew from the race, resisting pressure from Olympic officials and even the Prince of Wales.
On the Sunday Liddell was scheduled to run the 100-meter race, he preached at a Church of Scotland parish in Paris. There, he took as his text, Isaiah 40:28-31. “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Liddell entered the 400 meter race. It was not his best event and the Americans were expected to win. When the day of the race came, Liddell went to the starting blocks, where an American Olympic Team member slipped a piece of paper in his hand with a quotation from 1 Samuel 2:30: “Those who honor me, I will honor.”
Liddell not only won the race, but broke the existing Olympic and world records.
Where did the power to win the race come from? Liddell firmly believed that it was only in God’s strength that he had strength, only in God’s energy that he had energy to go the extra distance, make the extra effort and win the race.
The film ends there, but there is more to the story. After graduation from Edinburgh, Eric Liddell returned to China as a missionary where he lived until his death from a brain tumor in a Japanese prison camp in February 1945, just five months before liberation. According to a fellow missionary, his last words were, “Its complete surrender,” a reference to how he had given his life to God.
What has become known only since 2008 is that Eric Liddell refused an opportunity to leave the prison camp and save his life, but instead gave his place to a pregnant woman. Apparently, the Japanese made a deal with the British, with Churchill’s approval, for a prisoner exchange. It was another act of sacrifice on Liddell’s part that characterized this remarkable saint, and in 2009 the Episcopal Church in the United States added him to its liturgical calendar, with his feast day on February 22.
In 1991, a memorial headstone, made from Isle of Mull granite, was unveiled at the former prison camp in China where Eric Liddell died. A few simple words taken from the Book of Isaiah form the inscription: “They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary.”
Dear people: that is God’s promise to you and me, and for everyone exhausted by life’s burdens. Whatever our struggles, God will replace our weakness with his strength, replenish our stamina, renew our lives and give us the perseverance to run the race to the finish. Whatever God has for us to do, we will do it with passion and purpose. Those of us who actively and eagerly look to the Lord will win new strength, and with it we will soar like eagles.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.