Saint Ignatius: priest, theologian, and founder of the Jesuit order passionately worked for God, saying:
Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest…
– Saint Ignatius, 1500s
Like A Rented Mule
The phrase “to work a rented mule” implies getting your money out of it with disregard to the mule’s well-being. Most of us in ministry understand the commitment and passion in Ignatius’ statement, and many of us work ourselves like a rented mule. There are times to work hard and times to rest (ideally). There are definitely sacrifices to be made in doing church ministry, but sometimes these sacrifices are compounded. It seems somehow that there is a pound of flesh to be paid, and that pound is never one of your choosing. The Apostle Paul tells us:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. – 2 Corinthians 4:8-12
The Apostle Paul also tells us of his own thorn in the flesh. Martin Luther, Saint Francis, and many others were buffeted by one which Saint John Vianney simply called “Old Scratch.” If you’ve made a commitment to ministry, then you understand the struggle, the hardship, the warfare, the sacrifice of foregoing a better paying “gig.”
The disciples said “Jesus, we have left everything to follow you.” Sometimes you’re asked to walk away from an investment of blood, sweat, and tears that you have made over many, many years; sometimes you have to walk away from it all, out into the unknown, only to begin again with empty hands. Sometimes there is a parting of ways with old friends, which is heartbreaking. Many times you are asked to pick up the shattered pieces, while you are also commanded to pick up the cross and deny yourself (yet again), and to move forward without giving up, giving in, or becoming embittered. Even the good stuff, which is more easy to fight for and to not heed the wounds for, can still leave you completely exhausted.
While I wholeheartedly agree with Saint Ignatius’ passion, and feel the gravity of his words deep in my bones, the Lord is still kind and good, better to us than we are to ourselves. Saint Francis worked himself like a rented mule his entire life. He learned late, after living a life of great austerity, that perhaps he had been harder on himself than the Lord had ever intended. ‘
Near the end of his life Francis repented and realized that he must make great apology to “Brother Ass” (his physical body) for how he had treated, or mistreated, or not taken care of poor old “Brother Ass”. To Father-God you are not just a rented mule.
There’s an old recovery saying which uses the acrostic HALT. Never get too Hungry, too Angry, too Lonely, or too Tired, for when you do you are in a perilous place. We can fight and not heed the wounds, we can toil and not seek for rest, but at the same time our bodies, our emotions and our personality are vessels for our person. These are gifts from God, our vehicle in which to do ministry and as such we must care for our body, our mind, and our person as best we can.
Years ago I realized that though my coworkers and supervisor loved me and valued my friendship, they weren’t going to set my appointment for the doctor, or schedule my vacation, or provide for me a healthy meal. Even a good friend who is your supervisor may happily let you work yourself to death, not realizing just how exhausted you may be.
We must all be reminded that if we work ourselves to death, people will be truly sad for a couple of weeks, but then life goes on, work and obligations don’t stop, and people move forward, with or without you. Ultimately, only you can take care of you. The challenge for me (and perhaps you) is to do a better job of taking care of myself.
Jesus isn’t a cruel taskmaster. Yes, there’s work to do, and my dad taught me only one way to work, to work hard. But remember Jesus with his disciples: gentle, instructive, encouraging, patient. The Jesus who told his disciples to “Come aside… and rest a while” (Mark 6:31).
Ask yourself “How would Jesus treat a rented mule?”
So be kind to poor old “Brother Ass,” if not for yourself, at least for your family and your congregation. Don’t forget how God cares for you. As Francis de Sales said:
The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield you from suffering or give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.”
― Francis de Sales, Introduction To The Devout Life, 1500s
Every once in a while do not forget to come aside a while and rest.
Father Dale Hall began ministry in 1987 at Calvary Baptist Church, in Rome, Georgia, while in college. He’s been a social worker and crisis counselor, as well as a Vineyard pastor. Now he’s an Anglican priest serving at The Mission, in Chattanooga, where he leads several ministries, and lives with his wife Kimberly. They have two sons and a daughter in law.