“I’d rather burn out than rust out!” was a frequent comment I heard from the pastors of my youth. This was usually followed by an exhortation to get off our lazy duffs and begin to let our light shine. To be fair, this was a time before burnout and workaholism were seen to be equally as harmful as rust on a fender. I suspect the word picture was drawn from those fuel booster rockets that detached and burned up in the atmosphere once the spacecraft was on its way to the moon. Complete annihilation in the service of a grander mission—yes, that would have been the style of those preachers.
The comment came to mind some years ago when I was walking and sometimes jogging along the rim of Clifton Gorge. I pondered whether the pains I got from moving were worse than the pains I get when I don’t move, compared the burning of my muscles to the creakiness of my bones. At my age, some pain is almost unavoidable. I finally decided that the muscle pain, tempered with arnica and massage, was better than the stiffness, and picked up the pace.
My mind kept working with the choice I’d been offered in that world that so loved black-and-white choices. Now, with the Anglican tradition rooted ever more firmly in my approach to life, I think, “Isn’t there a middle way? Are burning out and rusting out my only two options? What about a nice steady glow, like a long-burning taper at a festive meal?”
Looking for a role model, I thought of the prophet Jeremiah, a man I really admire. He was telling truth to power, never a very safe job, in ancient Judah, which Babylon, the superpower of the day, was about to conquer. Jeremiah didn’t want the job, lamenting his unique position and the loneliness and outsider status it brought. He didn’t make nice with God either, accusing God of seducing and then abandoning him (Jeremiah 15:15-18).
Still, he kept doing what God had commissioned him to do, through imprisonment and captivity. Tradition says he died in Egypt, carted there by the unstoppable enemy. By his own testimony, “For twenty-three years… the word of the LORD has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.” (Jeremiah 25:3) That’s a long time to keep going in the face of rejection. The word persistent catches me. It’s based on a Latin root that means to take a stand. It reminds me of the passage from Ephesians, exhorting the Christians there to “take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” (Ephesians 6:13) Jeremiah must have donned each piece of the armor descibed in the next verses: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, a readiness for peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit. Only someone so clothed could have continued a ministry with no visible results for more than twenty years. Only someone convinced of being called by God could have continued to shine like a taper in the darkness.