Earlier this week, I drove the curling, twisting country roads between my house and my youngest boy’s school. We carpool with neighbors, and I make that same drive on most afternoons.
It is twelve minutes, precisely. Twelve minutes of fieldstone farmhouses, enormous red barns, undulating fields, and one silvery, meandering brook. I see more cattle and horses than cars. I pass not one but two little houses that once were one-room schools.
We’d had sun for days, the kind of low autumn sun that blinds you all day long, but this day the sky was whitewashed. We have reached that point in November when the only green left is the dense, foreboding green of the hemlocks, the spruces, and the pines. Many of the deciduous trees are bare, and looking at them is like looking straight into the face of winter.
What remains is like a volcanic eruption: crimsons and coppers and a gold so gold it smolders. I had thought the autumn colors still here at the end of the season would be faded and delicate, but the trees I saw were heavy. They were fierce. They didn’t need sunlight to make them burn.
Those trees were disturbers of the peace.
This week, I’ve been remembering that moment in Luke when Jesus gazes out over Jerusalem and weeps.
The tears come just after he has been hailed as king. The adoration and praise were so chaotic, so exuberant, and so politically charged, that the religious leaders cried out, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” But Jesus said, “I tell you … if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
And then he weeps for this city. He cries because peace is so near yet so hidden from them.
All I want in my house is a little peace and quiet, and most days I’ll pay any price.
My youngest two erupt together with such regularity that I have no patience for detangling the threads of their accusations. I don’t care! I yell. Just be quiet!
In my better moments, I beg them to apologize. I ask them to share a hug. Please, guys, just patch things up. All I want is a little peace and quiet while I cook your dinner.
Yet I know that the prophet Jeremiah’s rebuke is for me: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
“Peace, peace,” I say, because I do not want to face their anger, I do not want to feel their hurt, I do not want to see the wounds.
I come by my avoidance, honestly. In the south we are nice to a fault. We say bless her heart, and while we sometimes mean exactly that, we sometimes mean, would you look at that fool. The true meaning of our words can be elusive.
I have missed that southern niceness in every home I have ever made since first moving away. Chit chat with the store clerk and a friendly wave to the passing driver can make the world go round more pleasantly. Southern niceness says, I see you. It says, I may not know you, but I am sure you are worth my time.
Southern niceness has not always served me well. I will always remember the teaching evaluation I received at the end of a semester-long course that included a few particularly disruptive first-year college students. One student wrote, “Dr. Purifoy is very nice. Perhaps too nice.”
Niceness is sometimes loving and sometimes anything but.
Peace and quiet is sometimes peaceful and sometimes it is its very opposite. It is sometimes a wound so well-bandaged, so hidden and obscured, there is little hope for healing.
Maybe it is enough to hail Jesus as king. Perhaps all we need do is wave our palms and sing a chorus of praise. Will that still the stones? Will that quiet the disruptive song of the trees?
I think not. Ours, after all, is a weeping king. Ours is a king with a heart broken for us. Could it be there are days when the only way to sing his praise, the only way to acknowledge his kingship over us, is to cry with him, to ask, Lord, what wounds do you see? Lord, what is hidden from me?
For months, I’ve been stumbling over the same few verses. I don’t go looking for them, but they are there when I open my Bible, there in an email from a friend, there in a sermon on Sunday morning. They are chasing me down.
The first comes from the story of Nehemiah. The walls of Jerusalem are in ruins, and repairing them is an impossible task. Nehemiah inspired a few to begin rebuilding, but the willing are mocked for their efforts. Nehemiah is not deterred: “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding.” Having been confronted by those words for the fourth or fifth time, I sat in my office trying to puzzle them out. Did they have something to say to me? But it was difficult to focus with the sound of a grinder chewing up mortar right outside my window.
Brick by brick, we are repairing the walls of this old house.
The second verse comes from Isaiah: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
Repairer of Broken Walls. I don’t even understand the meaning of that name, but the sound of it is like music. I know it’s the name I most desire for myself. For my family. For my church and for my community.
Yesterday, after dropping my daughter off at preschool, I drove the curving, narrow road down toward the center of our little town. Just before I crossed the railroad tracks, I noticed a building with a graffiti-covered wall on my left. Harsh triple K’s crawled like spiders toward the roof. On my right, directly across from the wall, was a little Missionary Baptist church. The flower pots on either side of the church’s front door overflowed with the fiery lava colors of autumn.
All it took were a few phone calls and a message on the local message board, before dozens of neighbors had mobilized to become Repairers of Broken Walls. As is often the case among neighbors, there is more passion than consensus.
Some are sure the vandalism has been there for years, some are convinced these particular stains are new. Some see racist hatred and some wonder if it might not actually be a protest against racism? The graffiti is a little ambiguous. Like many messages shared in anger, it has not changed anyone’s mind, merely given birth to confusion and outrage.
We are not sure if we’ll paint a mural or merely wash on some beige. Should we plant shrubbery? Install a light or a camera?
Thankfully, we need not agree in order to begin the work.
We can gather. Talk face to face. And pick up that first stone. That one. Right there. The one just crying out.
Go on, says the stone. Disturb the peace that is not really peace, says the tree. Because one thing creation knows, has always known, is that we hail him as King by making his kingdom visible.
Brick by brick and stone by stone.
It is June, and I count my blessings.
Vines dripping in snap peas. Bowl after bowl of strawberries. Lettuces grown so large, I cradle one leafy head like a toddler in my arms. And carrots. I’ve never had much luck with carrots, but, this year, carrot tops are waving in the breeze like a dense fern forest.
And these are not my only blessings. Four wild, whooping noisemakers munch on raw peas and hunt for strawberries. Two boys can usually be found up a tree. One small girl runs after the kitties, grabs small green cherries from the low-hanging branches of the sour cherry tree, and never looks back at the big sister who follows, calling, “Elsa, come back. Elsa, are you ready to go inside?”
Yet even blessings can weigh you down and wear you out. Four small faces sticky with berry juice seem to ask more of me than I have to give.
We like to speak of callings. We acknowledge the dignity of difficult work when we say I am called to this.
And parents do the same. I am called to mother. I am called to father. But I have always imagined a calling to be like the revelation of something already there. God has called me to be a writer. God has called you to be a teacher. Or an encourager. Or a farmer. This is calling as the meeting place of God’s work and your talent.
Which is why I have never said I am called to be a mother. I am blessed, richly blessed, with four young children, but I have no particular talent for the work involved. On tired afternoons, I might even say my need for quiet, alone time makes me especially unsuited for the job.
Perhaps I have misunderstood the word. Perhaps a calling has nothing to do with talent or giftedness or any kind of suitability at all. Was a poet shepherd suited to battle giants? Was a young boy asleep in the temple especially gifted at hearing the voice of God?
It seems he wasn’t. Three times Samuel got up from his bed having confused the voice of heaven’s King with the voice of his master Eli.
And so I acknowledge all the ways I can never measure up to the blessings I’ve been given. But I will follow in Samuel’s incompetent but faithful footsteps. I will say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
And I will tell of what I hear.
Because our God calls.
I worry a great deal about the shape of my days.
This worry is a symptom of privilege. It means I have choices. For the most part, my days are not ruled by desperate necessity.
Instead, each one of my days unrolls like a red carpet. It is a carpet woven with hundreds of tiny choices. First, what should I feed the baby for breakfast? Next, should I spend this hour playing Candyland with the four-year-old or cleaning the kitchen? Then, should I read a book while the baby naps or try to write something? Until, should I spend the evening balancing the checkbook or watching PBS with Jonathan?
Choice after beautiful choice until my day is spent, and I lie in bed wondering where the hours fled. What did I accomplish today? Why did I never manage to send those emails? How could I have forgotten to do the grocery shopping / take that book back to the library / return that phone call / schedule that appointment?
Worry. Guilt. A resolve to do better tomorrow but never quite sure what tomorrow should look like. This is the blessing and the burden of choice.
I am an overly sensitive, introverted person. I require a great deal of space in my days: time for sitting and thinking. Time for sitting and reading. Time for taking that walk, pulling the baby behind me in her sled. Never enough time for cooking or cleaning or whatever else it is I’m supposed to be doing in my life as wife and mother.
Which means, I rarely do anything without guilt. Guilt says, shouldn’t you be doing more / working harder / accomplishing bigger?
(photo by yours truly)
I don’t think this is only a problem for mothers at home with small children. I can remember breaking out in hives from the stress of life as a college student. My life is more complicated now, but I have, at least, learned to avoid that kind of strain. I have learned, at least, to let myself live slowly, even if the price I pay is no longer hives but a constant, low-level guilt.
I want to be done with guilt. I want to believe that my most important job, the most critical task, requires space. It requires quiet. It requires rest.
The most important item on my daily list is always this: to be his witness. To open my eyes and see. To open my ears and hear. And only then, to open my mouth and sing of what I have seen.
It might happen while I sit still. It might happen while I work. But it will never happen when I rush.
I want to remember that the person with the most important job of all was never in a hurry. Jesus knew there was time enough.
(photo by yours truly)
“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “that I am God.
Yes, and from ancient days I am he.”
And I am sorry. I wanted to give you metaphors that sing, but I have only this empty page and a blinking cursor. This is doubly unfortunate because today’s essay was intended for the column at Living the Story. In other words, today’s essay had a deadline.
I feel embarrassed by this blank page, as if it exposes something of which I am deeply ashamed. It seems to matter more than a blank page should.
This page is my life, I think. I rush and worry, trying to fill it up with words. I am terrified that I might run out of words.
Typically, I fill my empty pages quickly. So quickly, in fact, I rarely notice their emptiness. That this page has stayed blank longer than most, I blame on my ragged throat and tissue-burned nose. I blame it on my flexible work-from-home husband who was not, this week at least, able to work from home. I blame it on the baby girl whose cough matches my own.
She knows the baby signs for “milk” and “more” and “banana” but not for “sick.” I have to read it in the way she clings to me, the way she asks for food then tosses it down, the way she makes it impossible for me to live. Because isn’t my life composed of tasks ticked off, essays written, deadlines met? Which means today my life is not being lived. It means today this essay is not being written.
Or is it?
Perhaps even our blank pages have stories to tell?
I hope you’ll click through to read the rest of this one for the Living the Story column at the website BibleDude.
While you’re there, I hope you’ll leave a comment and let me know you stopped by.
A few people have recently asked if this place feels like home yet.
I haven’t been sure of my answer. I know that it is home, but does it feel like home?
Lying in bed last night, I finally puzzled it out. It seems presumptuous to call this place – the old brick house, the long maple-lined drive, the falling-down barn – my home. I haven’t earned it yet.
The house has been here for more than 130 years. The farm for longer than that. The stone remains of the ice house and various other outbuildings (we’ve taken to calling them “the ruins”) testify to just how long this place has been cultivated, lived in, and cared for.
How can I waltz in and call it my home?
I need to sweep a few more floors, plant a few more trees before I can feel comfortable making that claim.
And we will plant those trees. We’ll wait for late winter or early spring, and then we’ll dig in four fruit trees. One for each of our babies.
We have plans for blueberry bushes, a few more maples to fill in the gaps, and I’m trying to decide exactly where to carve out the asparagus bed.
Did you know that asparagus can come back every spring for twenty years or more? Placing that bed is a big decision. It matters.
Or, does it?
I can remember someone in the Christian circles of my childhood saying this: “The only things which last forever are the souls of men and the word of God.” I can’t remember who said it, and I can’t remember (or perhaps never knew) if they were quoting someone else.
I can remember, even as a kid, feeling the rift between how those words were supposed to make me feel (focused, committed, inspired) and how they actually made me feel (depressed, primarily). And now I know why: those words aren’t true. They leave out too much.
They leave out fruit trees and asparagus.
Clean floors and campfires.
God is making all things new, and our lives, our daily this and that, are a part of that great project. This is an old place, yes, but it, like all other good things, is being renewed.
In God’s kingdom, the stuff of earth can become so much more. This is true of bread and wine. It is also true of bricks and trees.
For His glory.
Yesterday was all about the space shuttle in our house. The littlest boy jumped up and down when he saw the rocket poised for takeoff on television. The older boy zoomed around the house with his own plastic space shuttle. The husband kept his eyes glued to the live feed from NASA.
The daughter and I watched them for a bit and then decided it was a good morning to replenish the refrigerator with a visit to Costco.
Later, as I carried warehouse shopping odds and ends from the car to the kitchen, I could hear from the television and the three boys on the couch that the shuttle was finally beginning its journey. I walked outside for another load and spied the southern stretch of sky where we've watched other shuttles speed away, chased by their fiery tails. Because of the low-lying clouds, we could only watch this historic takeoff on television. The husband and I are both glad that he took the time, months ago, to drive our two oldest down to a beach where they could feel the rumble of space flight deep in their bones.
Perhaps it was the tantalizing thought of "right there but unseen" that prompted my thoughts. I knew exactly where the shuttle's flight path arced over my neighborhood, but I couldn't see it. I wondered if God was watching. What did he think of it all?
I imagined his delight as his tiny yet magnificent creatures explored a little patch of space.
I've always given space exploration little value, both with my political self (I'd rather see tax dollars spent on teachers and healthcare) or my spiritual one (shouldn't more of that innovation and energy go to helping AIDS orphans?).
For a moment, I let go of my usual practical mindset and glimpsed the joy of our creator when he watches his people. Creation isn't comprised only of stars and trees and rivers. It is also everything we add to it with our minds and hands and hearts: our work, our play, our praise.
I won’t try to convince you that washing dishes is holy. It may be, but I’m afraid if I begin to argue that point I’ll find myself typing out bitter phrases like unending cycle of futility. It is summer, after all. My kids are at home and eating all day long, and I loaded and unloaded my dishwasher four times yesterday. I think some bitterness is understandable.
Still, I’ve begun to think that we sometimes needlessly complicate our lives by insisting on purpose and meaningfulness in all that we do. Surely that can lead to a whole lot of dissatisfaction. For the born-evangelist who spends his days trying to build a small business. For the one called to be a teacher who must spend more time mopping floors than instructing. And for me, who has a paper on the wall that says PhD but picks up stacks of academic journals only because the youngest needs a booster seat.
I’m sorry, but washing dishes will never seem meaningful to me, and yet, I think I can begin to understand how even this menial work contributes to some bigger, some more glorious creation. From the perspective of vast, unexplored space, the effort of this space shuttle flight also appears very, very small. Inconsequential, even. And it may be exactly that. But I don’t think we should measure our work by the weight of it or by its duration. There is a perspective that says the just-cooked meal and the space shuttle’s flight are both a blink of an eye.
I think we can take our cue from the mind of the maker. The one who made redwoods that live thousands of years is the same one who makes mayflies. He has given his effort to both. He isn’t a God who sifts his creation into worthy and unworthy, like a man sifting gold from rock. He’s a God who delights in more, more, more. Especially the small more of our own contribution.
“How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”
(Psalm 104: 24)