A Dead Mule and a Good Horse

There is old story that is told in my Dad’s family about an Uncle Ira and an Uncle Bill, who lived several generations ago now in a place called Bailey’s Camp, North Carolina.

These two old farmers, who everybody called Uncle Ira and Uncle Bill, were brothers, and their farms were right next to one another.

One April, Uncle Ira decided he was going to plant some corn in his field. He had a nice big field, a good plow, and one good, strong horse. The only problem was that his only other work animal was an old, lazy mule.

But he had no other choice. He put the one good, strong horse in a team with the old lazy mule and yoked the two of them together in front of his plow and set out into the field to till up the ground so he could plant his corn.

Uncle Ira’s brother Bill was watching all this, and delighting in his brother’s misfortune. All morning Bill would just shake his head and laugh at Uncle Ira, because Ira was having a terrible time. The old mule wouldn’t pull, so the horse was doing all the work; the rows were coming out crooked, and Ira was fit-to-be-tied.

Well, late in the morning, that lazy mule stepped in a rusty old bucket that had been left lying out in the field and he took off.

Bill looks up and over the hill comes this rag-tag team pulling that plow – the good, strong horse and the lazy ole mule with a bucket on one foot, running right together in time, plowing a straight row; Uncle Ira’s close behind with a huge grin on his face, trying his best to keep up.

As the team goes by in front of Uncle Bill, he yells out, “Looking good, Uncle Ira!”

Uncle Ira yells back, “Yes, Uncle Bill. And I’ll be done plowing this field by dinner time if you’ll run get me three more rusty buckets!”

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Jesus, the good and strong, has shared the yoke with humanity, in all our mule-headedness and mule-heartedness. He has shared the burden with us and known what it’s like to pull beside us – to be disappointed, to feel frustrated, to get angry, to experience feeling alone, and to feel, at times, unloved.

Jesus, the kind and gentle, is glad to share the yoke with us, to go through life with us by our side, and continue to bear our burdens.

Here at the end of monument avenue we gather under the sign of the cross, which is God’s word to the world that forgiveness is freely given in Jesus Christ, but there are many people in the world who have not yet understood the meaning of the cross or heard the invitation from Jesus to share life together, side by side.

On Monument Avenue, down the street, there is another statue that captures how many people in the world feel. It sits at the corner of Monument and Belmont. The statue is of the Earth, being held up by several women and men who are caught in a terrible thunderstorm that is raging all around the foundations of the enormous globe. Waves are swirling and crashing all around these men and women, a boat is capsizing, and people are being pulled under by the waves.

Officially, it is a monument erected to Matthew Maurey, the famous oceanographer and native son of Virginia, but as you look at the enigmatic features of the globe and the storm and waves, it could just as easily be a monument of what life sometimes feels like.

Life can feel like men and women, like you and me, caught in a storm while we try to hold the world up and keep it from coming down with a crash. That’s how it feels sometimes to carry our burdens of worry, anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, or addiction, or to live through the experience of loving someone who struggles with these thoughts and feelings. And this is how it feels sometimes to struggle with chronic illness, or to love someone who is sick.

Sometimes, we feel like we’re carrying the weight of world…or we’re trying to, while the waves try to bury us. We feel like everything is up to us. We feel like we have to figure out a way to fix things, or appear normal, or to stop the storm, or to keep everything from falling apart. We may have someone to talk to about these things or we may just keep it all hidden away, deep inside and hoping no one will notice.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

These are words that we need to hear, because so often our burdens feel heavy, enormous, even crushing and we feel worn out and weary from trying to carrying them on our own.

Jesus invites us to share a yoke with him and to let him bear the burden with us, but the lazy old mule in us wants to do life alone, on our own terms.

We know we need help, but we want things our own way, and accepting God’s help would mean accepting God into our decision-making process and letting go of what we want.

The Apostle Paul knows what this is like. Listen to what he writes:

I don’t understand my own actions! For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Sometimes I feel like nothing good dwells within me, because I can know what is right, but I can’t do it. And as much as I know what is the good and right thing to do, I find myself doing the opposite!

I could have written that in my journal…You could have written these words.

Paul continues: Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Thanks be to God (because my salvation from this mess can only come) through Jesus Christ our Lord!

And that is it: thanks be to God for Jesus Christ who steps into the world to save us and forgive us. Who comes to walk by our side and to help us when we can’t go on alone.


Last week at Kairos an 18-year-old girl gave her faith testimony. The event has a tradition that each rising senior gets a chance to give a 3-5 minute talk to the whole community about how God has been present to them in their lives. This young woman shared about some terribly difficult struggles in her life, and about having times of questioning God, and she said, “I’d like to close with a poem”…(a poem I had heard so many times I had forgotten it)…a poem she read with tears in her eyes. She read these words:

One night I dreamed a dream. As I was walking along the beach with my Lord. Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, One belonging to me and one to my Lord.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that at many times along the path of my life, especially at the very lowest and saddest times, there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it. “Lord, you said once I decided to follow you, You’d walk with me all the way. But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”

He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you Never, ever, during your trials and testings. When you saw only one set of footprints, It was then that I carried you.”

In our baptism, we are yoked to Christ forever.

We know that swirling and crashing waters are all around us, but the waters of the storm don’t have ultimate power over us–

The waters that ultimately have power in our life are baptismal waters that have claimed us and joined us to the One who has power over the storm – the one who made the flood subside, the one who walked on water, and the one who stilled the storm.

In our baptism, the lazy old mule in us dies and we take on the life of our crucified and Living Lord, so that he might live in and through us for the sake of a world that feels burdened, and weary, and in need of rest.

He will help us pull our row straight. He will help us do the work to which we’ve been called…telling and showing the world the meaning of the cross and extending the invitation from Jesus to come share life together…

Jesus invites us to learn from him what it means to pull a load that isn’t our own.

Jesus can help us learn to ask: What does it mean to take the burden of a neighbor?

May you feel his strength, his goodness, his gentleness, and his kindness helping to shoulder your load, and may you hear his invitation to share the work of bearing the burdens of the people in your path who are weary and in need of help.





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