This morning’s devotional reading called to mind a poem by Marge Piercy:
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
I talked to my grandma the other day, who told me that my aunt Susan had sent her a new/old quilt for her bed. “I sort of thought it was too nice to use, you know, but Susan convinced me to put it on the bed and use it, so I did.” Her nursing home has been in some version of lock-down for almost a year, now, and she lamented the fact that no one other than the nurses and aides who come by her room would get the chance to see her new/old beautiful quilt. I told her that I’d be sure to take a photo and upload it to her Instagram page whenever I am allowed back in to see her.
I have several beautiful quilts – made by my grandmothers, great-grandmothers and church-lady quilting groups. I LOVE them. In a “grab what you can because the building is on fire” scenario, I pick up my dog, my laptop, a few important papers and probably one of those quilts – for practical as well as sentimental reasons.
These quilts weren’t made to hang on walls; they were made for a purpose. When I was little, I sat under a few quilting frames in the First Church of the Brethren basement while my grandma and her church lady friends stitched and chatted above me, and I know that those ladies weren’t imagining the fruit of their labor ON DISPLAY. They were working together at a task, creating something beautiful with a purpose. They set to work, together, on something that would go to work for someone else.
Over the last months, when in-person visits and funeral services have been hard to carry out, I have found myself resorting to food delivery as pastoral care. I made soup. I shared jam. I showed up on porches with beef stew and homemade bread. I wasn’t doing any of that to impress people with my culinary skill; it was a way to share care and warmth in physical form, a way to show up when showing up is complicated and difficult.
We need to be of use. It’s how God created us. We are not creatures who thrive in isolation; we are human beings created from the very beginning to long for interdependence and mutuality. If you listen closely, you can probably hear your own soul crying out in these times when interdependence is cursed and mutuality is cast aside. It’s why I share stew, and it’s why I rant about how we are ignoring the ways we harm each other with our ignorantly selfish actions. My soul is longing for a community and a context where I can hitch myself to the rest of the team and pull together in the same direction. I want to be of use.
My tiny congregation is a place like that, and I am deeply, humbly, bowed-down grateful for that reality. I know that when I show up with soup, someone else is coming right behind me with cookies. I know that when I suggest a book study, someone else will follow up with an embodied plan to put what we’re learning into action. I know that when I grow weary, someone else is right behind me to pick up the slack. It is a gift and a grace.
There are other contexts where I am less certain of my usefulness, less convinced that the gathered crowd is all looking in the same direction, much less straining in the mud and muck toward the same destination. No matter how much energy and effort I sink into these pursuits, the isolation of patiently pulling on my own – or as one of a few partners situated far apart among the many – is deadly.
“I want to be with people who submerge in the task,” Piercy writes, “who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm.”
May I, may you, may all of us together find places to be of use, to move in a common rhythm to do what needs to be done.