Suburban Diarist: Whatsoever Thy Hand Findeth to Do

I don’t write like I used to. I reproach myself for this. Over two and a half years, I wrote and revised a book almost entirely between the hours of 8 p.m. and midnight. I broke up that long project with many smaller ones–book reviews, short opinion pieces, long essays and features–for various journals. Last summer, when the book came out, I made a big push to support it with bylines everywhere I could get them, with at best mixed success. Half-written ideas languished, pitches got ignored, drafts came back needing more work than I could muster.

It was around this time that a fourth child turned up on our proverbial doorstep, so I can at least give that circumstance part of the blame. She gets sick a lot–on her insistence I have in her a carrier on my back right now–and that makes it hard to get extra work done. A crowd of medical appointments pushed my day job into my writing time, and even when they didn’t, I found I didn’t have the energy for a late shift. When I heard from an editor, which was rarely enough, I usually did the work. But I stopped trying. I’ll start again, I tell myself. Or at least I could. This child’s health and welfare are my big freelance jobs for the time being. She can’t read yet and she has no appreciation for Scriptural exegesis or theological argument, but when she’s under the weather and I’m rocking her back to sleep she loops her arm around mine like a Boy Scout tying down a tent. I like to think of this as audience engagement.

It’s good to have projects. It’s important to expand oneself with tasks that go beyond the boundaries of daily needs. And it’s hard to live with only the exigency of the moment. Closer and closer it comes–the meal, the sermon, the meeting, the Wednesday night Lent worship talk, the coughing that pierces the night, the shopping for baseball gear–like the secret police, narrow escape after narrow escape until the knock comes before you’ve had the chance to slip out the back door.

That’s what it feels like, anyway. That’s what it felt like when Holy Week got the drop on us, and everything seemed to come out like a stammering story being improvised when we were already in custody. The Maundy Thursday footwashing was organized at the last possible minute and the Good Friday sermon came off by the skin of my teeth. As we heard the Passion and sang hymns, a nine-year-old boy was frantically being sought after a boating mishap in the lake. His body wasn’t found until noon on Saturday.

I texted a few colleagues to ask if anyone could open their church building for the community. The pastor of the Catholic parish said yes right away, and after a few texts to finalize details asked “who is this?” Sometimes you say yes before you know who’s asking. Three hours later the doors were open and a crowd was gathering as my wife and I arrived to do some improvised pastoral care. The parish pastor was there, along with the police and fire chaplains. We offered a few words and prayers. Later the boy’s family came, and a few of us tried to talk and pray with them.

One imagines oneself knowing what to do in a situation like that. All the wisdom and understanding collected in study and prayer and experience should be coiled up and ready to unspool gracefully. I think a lot about this passage from Phil Christman’s essay on being a man:

Most of all, we feel like a bad joke. When we’re two or three drinks in, we’ll tell you that we feel like impostors—not merely in our jobs, but in our skins. I stand in front of my English 101 classes and explain what a thesis statement is; at no time do I cease picturing myself as some Ricky Gervais character, covered with flop sweat, flapping his flabby jaws in a travesty of expertise. I clear the dead branches in my backyard, thinking all the while of some Heideggerian peasant-in-the-Black-Forest archetype who would do this job better than I, his head clear, his feet never tripping, as mine repeatedly do, over the downspout. I run and work out a lot, feeling always like a shambling, pale parody of a man who runs and works out a lot. Why, from the top of a nasty gender hierarchy, should we feel so risible? 

Phil Christman, “What is it like to be a man?” The Hedgehog Review 20.2 (Summer 2018). 

No Heideggerian peasants are in my head, but I admit to being haunted by the literary and cinematic super-padres who always know what to say and how to move. That my role is mostly more structured and bureaucratic–not that I’m any good at those things either–doesn’t really enter into it. So what if the improvised response to a horrific tragedy, for people whom one has just met then and there, is only the tiniest fraction of the job? Isn’t all the rest of it for that moment of competent unfurling, like a dancer?

At any rate the moment ends and we’re off to the next thing. The Easter Vigil sermon needs to be rethought in light of a community in shock and grief. It’s a small crowd, smaller even than usual, but enough. My sons sword fight with their candles. There’s fire, readings, and the water of baptism, and then like that Christ is risen again. I preach my desperate howl of a sermon to twenty-six sets of ears. Someone sends it to Ross Douthat, and by Tuesday it’s been seen by more people in Australia than heard it in person.

Also on Tuesday a person who had no idea that I have readers in Australia called up the church out of nowhere, dialing church after church to find someone to talk to in the midst of a crisis. I shambled out to meet him on a warm April afternoon, trying to manage anxiety about this chance meeting from him, from my staff, and from myself. Two moments in four days that called for Super Padre and on hand only me. I handled it badly, alienating everyone who had a stake in the matter, including myself. I thought briefly about packing up the van and driving the family off to anywhere else.

But it’s always another day and another task, planned or unplanned. On Saturday we celebrated the confirmation of twenty youth of the congregation. Thanks to a mix-up, the scheduled musician was running late and we had to decide what to do about the gathering song. I got out my guitar and tried to piece the chords together. No joy. So I tracked down the publication information and then the sheet music. Two dollars and one stuttering download later I had the music and fifteen minutes to prep it before the biggest non-Easter, non-Christmas service of the year. There are plenty of people for whom this is enough time, but I am not among them. After it was over I was again thinking of the van and the road to any other place.

Not that there would be any use to that, either. Wherever you go there’s just more midnight knocks at the door, more moderately planned or frantically busy days ruptured by chaos or crisis or stupidity. Eighty percent of life may, in fact, be showing up. But the last twenty percent is still rather a lot. It’s the difference between the stumbling deflection and the deft getaway, between the abandoned draft and the finished product, between the sluggard mass of pastoral flesh prodded this way and that by the shock of events and the Super Padre who takes each moment in hand, as if he’d been waiting for it.

I’m not much for Scriptural mottos, but I do think a lot about Ecclesiastes (who really belongs in the KJV): “whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor wisdom, nor knowledge in the grave, whither thou goest.” But along with this, one needs the words of Jesus in Matthew: “Come to me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Between the one and the other is a great gulf of paradox. Here there is only the work of one’s hands, whose duty is unconditional and self-contained, and even being faithfully discharged gives no assurance of success or even adequacy. There–there–is something else: not work begun by us and completed or perfected by grace, but laid down as a futile burden. There is no road from one to the other, but only a dancer’s leap over a chasm. Will it land as we practice it, in words and sacraments over and over again? Or will it collapse in an undignified pratfall? I’ll tell you when get there.

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