TRUSTING IN THE HIDDEN WORK OF GOD | MRS. LAURIE HOWELL
Laurie Howell teaches Upper School Humanities and Rhetoric at Veritas. This is the first of two articles.
Who wants to hear that large portions of adult American life involve routine – the day in and day out, the wax on and wax off, the petty frustrations that come with trying to do the business of life through the maze of internet passcodes and traffic congested intersections? Who wants to hear this, especially at a graduation? Evidently over 2 million people do. That is the latest number of views at one of the sites that posts David Foster Wallace’s famous This is Water address at Kenyon College in 2005. Wallace went on to say that the beauty of a liberal arts education is that it gives you the ability to choose what to think about in the middle of the day in and day out routines that characterize much of life. Wallace said that a good education gives us the power to experience routine frustrations as “not only meaningful, but sacred.” While I have much respect for what Wallace offered in this speech, I am left wanting more – more assurance that redeeming this huge part of my life doesn’t depend entirely on me or the quality of my liberal arts education. I want assurance that the struggle to live well in the routine of life is not all for naught – that real change is taking place in my heart and mind and that one day, as the great hymnist William Cowper wrote, all “duty will be turned into choice” – choice that flows from a heart totally in love with Jesus. I want to believe that disciplining my thought-life, that opening the Word daily, that confessing and praying regularly, that eating and drinking at the Communion altar weekly, that being faithful in the small moments will yield a harvest. I want assurance that God is at work in me and through me in ways that I don’t see or understand. I must say that many days I don’t sense it. Perhaps I’m not alone. Maybe that is why so many people are drawn to Wallace’s speech. Christian and non-Christian alike long to infuse meaning into the mundane, because, let’s face it, that is most of life. I am grateful that even in this area of life, the Bible speaks.
Agricultural metaphors abound in Holy Scripture. From Genesis to the prophets to the New Testament, God’s people are compared with vineyards, gardens, branches, soil, trees, etc. I appreciate this helpful imagery more and more. What little I know about gardening convinces me that much of the health of a plant has to do with what takes place underground. Eugene Peterson draws this parallel, “There are many slow days when nothing seems to be happening. A lot of the Christian life develops underground when we aren’t looking.” Maybe that explains why the righteous will be surprised when the Son of Man, at the final judgement, invites them to a place of honor. “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” His reply sounds a little like – in the day in and day out, in the small choices, in the quiet faithfulness of your daily routines.
In his book Habits of Grace, David Mathis suggests that “true and lasting change happens in a less straightforward way than we may be prone to think. The vast majority of our lives are lived spontaneously. We just act. Our lives flow from the kind of person we are—the kind of person we have become…” To further the gardening motif, perhaps what we need to keep in mind is that the rich loam that yields a harvest a hundredfold (Matthew 13) is made from years of surface processes that remove soil, rock, and material from the hard earth’s crust and the accumulation of organic material through thousands of little deaths. The spiritual parallels are clear. The dystopian society depicted in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is described as a time when “flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam.” In other words, people want the bloom now. I get it. I want to see my students blossom under my nose. I want to start reaping the harvest of my efforts. Rocky soil doesn’t sound so bad; at least I can see something of what I’ve planted.
But Jesus describes that kind of bloom “as one who hears the word and receives it with joy, yet has no root in himself and endures for a while…” I’ve been teaching long enough to know the pain of encountering former students well into adulthood who seemed to “blossom” under my tutelage, only to find them “scorched by the sun, because they had no roots.” Let me not neglect to say, however, that there have been times in my gardening experience where I was convinced that a plant was all but dead in the middle of winter, only to be surprised by fragrant blossoms in the spring time because the roots were deep enough to withstand the cold. So it can be with people.
As a parent, as a teacher, as a church leader, my perspective needs to be informed by the reaping and sowing metaphor. Anyone who works to awaken and nurture faith and virtue in other people as well as herself needs this perspective. Christian writer Emilie Griffin reminds us that God is more patient than we are. We spend lots of time worrying about a late spring that shows no signs of buds or blossoms but we must trust that the Christian life is growing in us and in our children in hidden ways. Jesus affirms this mystery in Mark 4. “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” Perhaps we need to learn, like Bradbury’s characters, that as we go on putting truth, goodness, and beauty into ourselves, as we go on positioning ourselves in the path of grace, as we go on struggling to work out our faith with fear and trembling, “someday, after it sets in us a long time, it’ll come out our hands and our mouths.”