Tuesday, September 4, 2012


On my left wrist is a yoke (Not to be confused with a yolk. You'd be surprised how many people make that mistake.) with Matthew 11:28-30 inscribed below. I got this tattoo with my intern in Wyoming after hearing a compelling message on the beauty of the yoke. Behind this tattoo you will find a story about my difficulty completely surrendering to God. This tattoo represents a specific story, but know that there are times every day when I have trouble trusting God, walking with him in faith and allowing Him to lead...especially when I have no clue where he is taking me.

To understand everything, I should inform you that I like to drive. I get such a weird feeling sitting in the passenger seat; especially when it is in my own vehicle. You see, when I'm behind the wheel I make the decisions. I determine the speed. I determine the stops. I determine the course. Ultimately, being behind the wheel means I am in control. When I'm in the passenger seat, everything changes! I tend to get a bit antsy. The future of me and my vehicle is in the hands of someone else. Things start going through my mind like "I would pass this car. We should be in the other lane. That route would have been quicker. You better slow down so you don't rear-end them."

Often times, this spills over into my spiritual life. Here's how it usually unfolds. After a time, I relinquish control of a certain area to God. As time goes on and we navigate various twists, turns and detours I begin to get antsy. That's when I resort to being God's back-seat driver. I begin asking questions like: "Do you really know where you are going? How is this all going to play out?" And then I reach for the wheel and offer God some advice along the lines of: "You should speed this up. We should change directions. I really don't want to go there. How about we take a different route."

Now for the story behind the tattoo. I was about a year into my first ministry position. To say things weren't going as I hoped and expected they would is an understatement. I was a young man with visions of grandeur! I was going to make a difference. I was going to change the church. I was going to change the world. I would be someone! About the only thing I became was frustrated and discouraged. The reality of ministry and my expectations were separated by a vast canyon. There were lots of meetings, a bunch of paperwork, and plenty of other boring responsiblities. I felt very little of my time was actually spent doing anything worthwhile and productive.

That first year I had my fair share of disappointments and struggles. There were numerous battles to gain the trust of the parishioners (in their defense, previous staff gave them reason to be wary). The anemic youth ministry gathered two evenings a week--one night about 5 Jr. High students would gather and another night was reserved for about 3 or 4 Sr. High students. Mediating between parents and teens in the youth group created struggles I hadn't foreseen. The parents wanted to see a thriving ministry of small groups, outreach events, mission trips and various other programs. I wanted the same things but to be honest, putting hours into prep every week, not even knowing if anyone would show up became exhausting. It took months for others to agree merging the two groups into one night a week would be beneficial. A while later the youth was granted a room dedicated to the ministry I had envisioned. Momentum was building and on a weekly basis we saw 30 some students come through the doors. There was just one problem, in my mind, nobody still seemed to get it. And then things seemed to plateau.

Some of this was partly due to my feelings of inadequacy, but mainly because of my own unrealistic expectations. Throw into the mix a new city and a new marriage at the age of 21 and you might see the picture a bit more clearly. There were mornings I woke up, so stressed and full of worry, I spent the better part of breakfast--how do I put this delicately--throwing up. I was on the verge of throwing in the towel. It was then, the summer of 2006 at youth camp, the speaker delivered a message on the yoke.

I was certain the message was directed right at me! It was as though he had been following me around for the past year making notes on my hopes, dreams, frustrations and struggles. And now, he was able to see all the symptoms and diagnose my ailment. I was trying to be self-sufficient! I was doing everything on my own strengths, according to my own passions, out of my own giftings. I was no longer following God's vision but my own. And to top it off, I hadn't tapped into the source of true strength he was offering. That is why I felt the way I did. That is why the ministry seemed to become stagnant. That is why I was nearing burn out.

In his message, he talked about the the yoke as a symbol of submission. By using this illustration, Jesus was pointing to the fact that we are to submit ourselves to Him every day, in every way. None of this wasn't anything new to me. For those of you who don't know what a yoke is allow me to give an explanation. A yoke was a wooden crossbar with two U-shaped pieces placed around the necks of a pair of oxen. Usually a younger, more wild ox was yoked with an older, more mature ox. This way the younger ox was not allowed to stray and kept focused on the task at hand. It also was a way to allow the older ox to harness the power of the younger. A yoke caused the two animals to rely on each other. It kept them in balance and unified their effort. As I mentioned earlier, the word yoke tends to have a connotation of submission. For many of us, this tends to be a bit negative. It reinforces the improper idea that we are under God's control and have no freedom. No wonder we hate this idea!

Let me paint a little different picture for you. First you should understand that a yoke was usually hand carved. This means time and the utmost care was taken to make sure it fit the neck and shoulders of that specific animal. A yoke isn't a one size fits all kind of thing. The reason being, the customization was meant to prevent pain or discomfort. Creating a perfect fitting yoke was a labor of love. That's why Jesus says "his yoke is easy and his burden is light." That day, I began to understand the yoke is more about sympathy, understanding and grace than it is about limitations and suppression. I could now see the freedom offered in the yoke.

On it's most basic level, this tattoo serves to remind me that I am yoked with Christ. The two of us are walking this sometimes rutted, narrow path of life together. While he is not physically present, his spirit resides within. Whatever comes my way, I am not alone! It reminds me he has been in far more desperate circumstances than I...and yet he did not stumble. It reminds me that if only I will submit, the burden will be more bearable. It also symbolizes that in my submission, I am able to rely on his strength to carry the load when I no longer can. The image of the yoke brings to mind a couple of verses in the fourth chapter of Hebrews, "This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most."

Understanding this makes it a little easier to willingly place my neck and shoulders beneath the weight of his yoke.

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