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The tragic tale of the starving chef

The chef had a name, yet his name did not matter, because his identity was not in his name, but in what he did… He was a chef.

His passion for food was obvious to all, and so he embarked on a journey to see if he could turn his hobby and his passion into his profession and he opened a small restaurant.

Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, months to years, and his restaurant grew, his passion for food and for people became clear as he put everything into feeding others and giving them the best possible experience that he could.

His restaurant started getting the attention of newspapers, now not only did he struggle to provide enough seats and grow his business to keep up with the demands of hungry customers but now came calls for interviews and demands of a growing business, a larger staff to care for, salaries to pay, larger orders to put in and fulfill.

The chef got so caught up in feeding others that he forgot to feed himself. The passion for the food and for the joy of the people eating his food gave way to ever-increasing hunger pangs and withering strength… It wasn’t that he didn’t want to eat, it’s that he couldn’t find the time to eat, after all, look at all these people depending on him for their food and their good experience this evening.

What used to bring joy had begun to bring dread. When his passions weren’t enough to keep him going he turned to guilt… “Chef, what are you complaining about? Do you know how many other passionate chefs would LOVE to have your problem? Oh, you’ve got too many customers? BOOHOO, so sad that you have to get paid for doing what you love, go tell your problems to the people in war-torn countries and see what they think of your pity party.”

The chef slaved away, using whatever fuel he could to keep going, be it fumes of former passions or guilt over his dreadful outlook now, all these people depended on him, and he was going to deliver.

But one morning the staff came in and found the chef laying on the kitchen floor dead, his cause of death was the lack of food that he brought to others but never himself. And all the people who depended on him for food and a good experience would never again get to enjoy it, his life and their joy had been cut short because he could not slow down to give himself the fuel he needed for the long journey, and so he had to settle for the short journey.

And so ends the tragic tale of the starving chef.

This thought popped up today as I yet again started to experience now the uncomfortably familiar and cyclical signs of burnout, it happens just about every year when I get close to burnout, and the reason for why I can say that I know for certain that I’m close to burnout is because one year particularly I decided to ignore the warning signs and see what would happen… At the time I honestly didn’t believe “burnout” was even a thing, I thought that was just something people said when they felt extra tired and maybe had felt tired for a while.

It turned out that burnout is a thing, and once I went over the symptoms of burnout I had all except for passing out, I had come pretty close a few times, but not yet passed out… Digging yourself out of that hole is a horrible experience.

When you’re headed towards burnout, or in the middle of it, it feels a lot like the tragic tale of the starving chef, where you’re doing your best to feed others and give others what they need and expect of you, and yet you feel yourself withering away, what used to bring you joy has now begun to bring dread.

People tend to look to pastors to give a lot of different things… Give advice, give wisdom, give counsel, give a hug, give a rebuke, give a lesson, give answers, give hope, give joy, give time, give friendship, give leadership, give Jesus, give a budget, give programs and on and on the list goes.

It can be so easy to get caught up in all of the things people expect you to give, that you forget to get… After all, as someone said, if you want to give people fresh bread, you have to spend some time in the kitchen, perhaps an odd line to say after our little analogy of the starving chef, but hey, you get the point.

But here I am again, tired, exhausted, and starting to feel the physical and spiritual signs of burnout again and I stand at the fork in the road, now I have to choose, to stop for a moment to get before I give, or to go down the road of the fool, lying to myself saying that I can keep going like this.

It’s time for me to limit some things that I would like to do, and feel at times that I need to do, but at this moment can’t do so that I can focus on feeding myself to have something to give to others.

For me, this first step in walking back towards sanity is limiting my interactions online, fighting for more time with God, getting my sleep pattern back in order, and exercising and eating better.

I hesitate to write about this, because much like the starving chef I tend to think to myself that I see too many articles and blogs written by pastors about how hard it is to be a pastor and I cringe, or I think of my actual friends who’ve had to flee their countries due to persecution for following Jesus, and other friends who are experiencing bombs going off and shelling going on in their cities, and here I am complaining about how hard it is to actually make a living teaching and preaching God’s word… It is a privilege, not a burden, and yet because of my own sinfulness and shortcomings, I’ve allowed myself to get to this point, but by the grace of my merciful Jesus, I will regain strength.

But the tragic tale of the starving chef by no means applies only to pastors, it applies to so many different people in different contexts, with different roles and responsibilities, if we are not careful, our joys can transform into burdens, and our passions turn to dread, if we are in the roles of giving away as many of us are in our jobs, families, service roles within our communities and churches, we must make sure to get first, in order to be able to give.

I suspect this is now more prevalent than ever, especially in light of COVID and bad news around the world this past year or two, if you weren't out of whack before, I suspect 2 years of on and off social distancing rules, quarantines and isolations will at least make a good attempt at getting you out of whack.

If you find yourself at the point of exhaustion, at the point of giving up and realizing you can't do this by yourself, I have good news for you, that is the only prerequisite you need to run into the arms of Jesus who promises you rest.

Matthew 11:28-30

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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