As summer ripens in its final weeks, the days grown syrupy with orange heat, I pick raspberries in our backyard. We have three rows of raspberries on trellises that–except for the way the elements have warped a permanent bow into some of the posts–would make Martha Stewart proud. The canes cluster along the rows, leaning on the wire with red berries that develop in clumps during deep summer. Each morning, I walk those rows in turn, filling a plastic container as I go. It’s delicate work, done slowly and tenderly. Raspberries are fragile fruits that have to be handled with care. Move too quickly, and you risk dropping them–and feeding the chickens who trail my feet. Move indelicately, and they crush between your fingers.
Picking raspberries challenges my tendency to rush through life. I get bored. I sugar and salt my brain. Shake shake. I allow external events to drive me because stress whirs like an electric motor and I admire its sound and speed. I’ll admit it: too often, I’ve lived desperately. The cicada has been my spirit animal, unwinding its insectoid spring in a frantic branch to branch to branch life. Somewhere along the way, I decided that picking raspberries is the spiritual discipline I need right now.
I learned the hurried life in my youth, some combination of upbringing and the incessant press of farm work, school work, and a real hunger to do something more with the scattered snatches of time leftover–like write a book or something. Speed got ingrained in me. Move fast. Work hard. #SlowSucks.
The last couple of years haven’t helped either. We may have all been stuck at home, but months of pandemic set my amygdala spinning in a do-or-die sort of way. Stakes were high. Everything felt Really Big and Very Important. Stop me if this sounds familiar.
But to hurry is not to live truly and well. The desperate life is not the good life, and in my better moments I aspire to something more. I continually need to recenter myself in the practices of humility and presence.
There’s a kind of self-centeredness that comes from hurry. It’s that sense that everything is up to me. We rush around because we think we have to solve all the problems, make everything happen. Maybe sometimes so. But there comes a time when we have to learn to simply let things be as they are.
Ministers are especially prone to this sort of egoism. The church, we’re tempted to think, will go dark without us. But however much we strive and strategize, it’s not all up to us. In part, this is a faith claim about the nature of the church. As Paul puts it, the church is the body of Christ, a divine-human alloy inhabited by and infused with the Spirit of God. We play a part, but the Spirit blows where it will to accomplish “abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine” (John 3:8; Ephesians 3:20-21). But at root, this humility is a willingness to come vulnerably before the Creator and surrender our notions of success and failure. I keep learning this again and again whenever my best laid plans fail to translate into the outcome I’ve planned for. People move away or die or ghost the church. Life being what it is, it takes some humility to keep at ministry.
Humility translates into presence, the ability to be with people as we discover them. Here is the do-gooders’ curse: we start to see life as a series of problems to be solved and situations to be fixed. Need some advice? Because I’ve got some, by golly. I’ll admit it: I’m a recovering people-fixer.
But that won’t do. People have to be received and treasured as Christ receives and treasures them. Sure, the gospel will work its slow-wending transformation, but that’s from within, from love, from God. We can’t fix what most needs fixing in people. Our first task is presence-keeping. In any case, the biggest struggles people face can’t usually be addressed head on. Space for change only opens up after we’ve done the work of presence. We have to be patient with people.
And ourselves. It’s all too easy to focus on our own need for renovation. Sometimes, we’re our worst critics. Maybe this is especially the case for earnest Christians, living as we are with the expectation of personal transformation. Self-work can be good work, but always seeing our souls as fixer-uppers means we can miss the gift of ourselves to ourselves, our made-in-His-image givenness. Accomplishments–even the soul-work kind–don’t define or value us. God has made us for himself, meant to be alive here and now, and that is enough.
Of course, really hearing that little truth is a kind of renovation of the heart. But it’s the slow and tender kind, delicate as picking red raspberries.