Vol 9, Num 7 :: 2010.04.02 — 2010.04.15
This is what we are about.
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
Knowing that they hold future promise.
From a prayer by Archbishop Oscar Romero
“I don’t feel like we did very much work,” Christina said toward the end of the week. We had just spent spring break together — five college students plus me and my husband — praying, raking, scrubbing, exploring, laughing, eating, hiking, reflecting, and laughing some more. Twelve of our hours were spent beginning work at Huss School, a building *culture is not optional purchased in the spring of 2009 to eventually house an off-campus program and a variety of community development initiatives.
Our week circled around Huss. Each evening, we retreated to the woods to eat and reflect and rest and pray. Each morning, we tackled chores around the school. Each afternoon, we met with members of the community to explore agriculture, history, business, journalism and art, in an attempt to gain a fuller picture of a small Midwest town. Repeat.
I guess, since it was technically a service-learning trip, we could have worked our five students to the bone at the school. God knows there’s plenty to be done there. But Rob and I had decided pretty early on in the planning process that we wanted part of the experience to be observing a rule of life in which we stopped when tasks were not finished. Guided by our friend David’s wisdom, we sought the value of recognizing our limitations through daily Sabbath rhythms, even as simple as laying down our tasks at 12:30 to eat lunch. As a result, we headed into the week with very few expectations-or at least, expectations that would not make or break the experience if they went unmet.
One expectation I had that did not come to be was having a lot of time to read. I brought Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter, bookmarked just a few chapters from the end, along with about eight other books that are at the top of my list. However, I was gratefully caught off guard by our group’s cohesiveness. If we weren’t eating together, we were talking together or playing a game together or stargazing and night-hiking together. These practices clarified something that has become a part of my de facto rule of life: that when people are present, I try to surrender my tasks to give my full attention. I don’t always succeed, but I think I’ve come to realize that my success looks different when it is shaped by hope, rather than expectations.
Let me explain. What I did manage to read of Hannah Coulter last week contained this valuable passage:
Living without expectations is hard, but when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, “hopeth all things.” But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectations.
But whatever you hope, you will find out that you can’t bargain with your life on your own terms. It is always going to be proving itself worse or better than you hoped.
Hannah is speaking here about expectations and hope within a family, but I think her wisdom applies more broadly. I was learning, and I hope our students were, too, that what our hope for the future of Huss School consists of isn’t just getting carpeting torn out and walls painted, but building healthy relationships in the community, knowing the history of our place, making time for creativity and beauty, praying for the welfare of our little city. Some of these tasks will make us sweaty and sore, while others will stretch the limits of our knowledge and love and belief. Some of them will be checked off a list some day, while others will deepen us with their infinity. But the unifying hope — God’s love embodied in the ways of human life in a neighborhood — is a project that will never be finished. As a firstborn, type-A overachiever, I find great comfort in this remembrance. It’s what locks guilt out of my Sabbath rest. It’s what calms my anxiety when the scrolls of to-do lists start unraveling in my sleep.
In the course of our wanderings last week, I bought some seeds, sunflowers and zinnias, to plant in the flowerbeds in front of the school. We didn’t quite finish weeding the beds, so I’ll check that task off the list and then wait for the soil to warm a bit more definitively before putting them in the ground. And then I’ll wait for rain and worms and light, remembering that my planting “may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest” (Romero).
“It is hard learning,” Hannah advises, and we all felt it last week as we stared down the temptation to feel “unproductive.” But we’re in good company with a God who can breath life into an old building as surely as raise people from the dead.
Plant seeds. Host potlucks. Make art. Greet warmly. And in so doing: practice resurrection. That’s a to-do list I never hope to finish.