Though it is not an age you’ve ever really looked forward to, you will eventually turn 33. You probably think there is nothing to look forward to about being 30-something. If you could look ahead, you might even roll your eyes at the cliche suburban mom you’ve become. (“Oh, a minivan? How original.”)
But it’s not that bad. I promise.
What they don’t tell you when you’re young is that you get to decide how to measure your life. Sure, it may not measure up to someone else’s standard, but it doesn’t have to. You can’t win at everything, dear. (And yes, I know you hate the condescension of being called dear. Get over yourself.)
I have a facebook friend with a wall full of little glass jars of sand collected from beaches all over the world. Every few months, it seems, she and her husband are off to another exotic beach. That’s her way to measure her life. It isn’t yours.
I have friends who have careers, who make more money than their husbands and are always well-dressed. I have friends who have 5 or 6 children and still manage to get adorable photos of all of them in matching outfits. I have friends who have no children and no husband who seem always to be reading something new and interesting. I have friends who have children and husbands and careers and still manage to run crazy mileage per week… and I have hardly run since 3 pregnancies ago. You simply can’t compete with all of them.
That’s okay because the good news is? Life isn’t a competition against other women.
Whew. That’s hard to say even at the ripe old age of 33. It’s hard to acknowledge how much that competitiveness has driven me, still drives me even after I recognize it has no hold on me.
Competing with other women turns everyone into your enemy, especially those who are doing better or doing more than you.
It will take planting a garden for you to realize the real enemy. The real enemy is weeds. Yes, this same world that is so full of beauty and promise and so good at perpetuating and sustaining human life, is also the world that produces weeds and decay and disaster. Don’t worry: you still buy most of your food at the grocery store. You haven’t turned into a canning pioneer woman… yet. (Is there a competition for that? Because you totally could win it. Just kidding.) But even in the process of growing a few vegetables and flowers and maintaining a raspberry patch, you will learn your true enemy is the blessed, blasted soil. Everything you need to sustain life is in that soil that soaks up the sun and the rain that are freely given year after year, yet everything that frustrates and hampers growth is also in that soil.
The world is cursed. You know this already, or at least you think you do. You know all about Adam and Eve and the curses they receive, the back-breaking labor that accompanies all planting and all childbearing. You’ve experienced the pain of childbirth and pregnancy four times now. (Really! Four kids! Did you ever think THAT would happen?)
Every endeavor you undertake will be a lot like planting seeds because the success of your endeavor will be dependent on precisely three things: the quality of the soil, the work you put in, and the mercy of God to provide the sun and the rain. By learning about gardening, you’ll find an analogy that helps you understand what it means to say that world is really and truly blessed and cursed in ways you haven’t imagined yet.
Everyone has their own patch of Earth to work with. These are the givens in your life–the talents and energy you’ve been given, the amount of money and time you have to work with, the raw materials you have access to. I would even include in this category the people you can depend on: in your case, your family, friends, and your generous church family. Some people have natural advantages in this category but it is really no use comparing. And while you can change some of it (like a farmer could bring in a big load of fertilizer), much of your success comes in learning to make the most of the life you’ve been given. And not unlike gardening, you’ll find it is sometimes the really smelly stuff, the seeming garbage, that enriches your life and prepares you for productivity.
Here’s the thing you will be tempted to think determines all your success. If you just put in the work, you’ll succeed, right? Well, sometimes. You can get a long way on hard work. And success in any endeavor requires a lot of quiet, determined behind-the-scenes work. You’re not afraid of that. The mystery is that even those who’ve put in the hard work, sometimes don’t see the results they want, so you also have to learn to rest. There is a certain pride in working hard, a certain sense that everything depends on your effort. But this kind of hard work fails to take into account the importance of…
Listen, farmers know this better than anyone. You can have the best soil and be the hardest worker, but your success or failure rests on having the right kind of weather. You need enough but not too much rain, and enough but not too much sun. Even more mysteriously, your success really depends on the invisible seeming impossibility of a seed bursting out with roots and stem, and learning to bear new life ALL BY ITSELF. When God multiplies your efforts with his gifts, your seeds can yield a harvest 30, 60, even a 100 times what you’ve planted! This is true in life, as well. Every endeavor is mysteriously dependent on factors you can’t control and on invisible processes you can’t force. This is what you need most to learn, I’m afraid.
You must learn to work the earth and watch the sky. And wait. And do it again tomorrow.
Even harder, you must learn to put in a good days’ work then rest. You’ll never feel you’ve done enough to earn your rest, but remember that rest is given not earned.
Harder still, you must learn that sometimes good things simply fall from the sky without your work, and you must have the humility to accept them. This is the humiliating and wonderful reality of being a pastor’s wife. Sometimes you simply can’t afford, can’t create, don’t have time or energy or resources to produce some thing that you need. You will learn to accept gifts from the hands of generous, loving people. This sounds easy, right? But it isn’t. It’s humbling to feel so dependent on others. To not be in a position to pay people back.
This is where your true power lies–in prayer. You have access to the merciful God of heaven who makes the earth yield it’s harvest. You learn that even when you feel invisible to the world, stuck in the four walls of your house and buried in laundry, you still can pray in a way that reaches to the ends of the universe. You can pay people back through prayer. You can ask for what you need when you can’t seem to produce it yourself through prayer. The answers will surprise you.
And when it comes to raising your kids, well, prayer is the work. You serve them with your prayers–your prayers are the way that you feed and clothe and teach–but you also pray for the years to come when they won’t need you to serve them. (Note to older me: When your kids no longer need your service, your prayer is your work. Don’t forget.)
There has to be a more elegant way to express these ideas (a poem, perhaps?) but here’s the metaphor: the earth that produces life-sustaining goodness also produces frustrations galore. Even at 33, I’m still thinking that I can just find some magic solution to just prevent the stupid weeds from growing. Every year I have renewed hope that I’ve found a weed solution. Every year I grow more weeds than seeds.
I always envy beautiful gardens and wonder how the gardeners manage to create such beauty and order in their plot of ground. I get competitive. I get defensive about my garden (I have a million excuses why my garden seems to grow more weeds.) My enemy is not my neighbor with the beautiful garden. My enemy is the same as theirs–the weeds. Get out there and tear out weeds instead of wasting time comparing gardens. Ask for help or advice if you want, but instead of resenting them their beauty, try complimenting it instead. It will be good for your soul to learn how hard it is to grow good things and thus what an accomplishment it is when your neighbor succeeds. Celebrate that.
The weeds are the sins already in your heart. They aren’t something that comes from others. Your weeds are pride–always pride–and competitiveness. These choke out the good things that God is trying to grow. Your weeds are bitterness and envy which grow like thistles do: when you’re not looking. Before you know it, you realize you’ve let it grow up all over the place. And once it takes root, it is almost impossible to remove. Your weeds are easy frustration and a hare-trigger anger reflex that can overreact to anything. You aren’t going to eliminate the potential for weeds, but you can get better at recognizing and removing them earlier and earlier.
I suppose this is all I’ve really been trying to say: Your work counts. Your effort matters. But it isn’t the only thing that matters. When you look around at the world and see people succeeding at all sorts of different things, recognize and applaud their work and its beautiful results. (Choke down your pride and give compliments to other people. It doesn’t hurt as much as you think it will!) But in your heart, recognize and understand that it isn’t just the amount of work that sets your lives apart. It’s also the plot of ground you’ve each been given, the mercy from heaven you’ve each been given. And you all have your own sets of frustrations to work against. Don’t bother trying to compete.
Your oldest daughter Claire asked you to play the game of Life last night and you did. (Yay you! You set aside dishes, laundry, and your own hobbies to spend time with her!) This game is stupid because you “win” by getting more money than other people. It is also stupid because everyone has to make the same choices at the same time in Life (time to buy a house!) and because there are some choices you don’t get to make (I hate when I land on a spot that tells me to install a $30,000 home gym??!)
So you get to the end of the game and Claire asks “Did I win?” and you say… “No. I have way more money than you.” (Finally a competition you can win! Board games against 6 year olds!)
And you immediately regret it because there are so many better ways to measure a life than retirement savings.
So don’t live your life like it is some stupid board game. Go out there and plant the seeds you want to grow and wait to see what you and the ground and God can produce. Trust me, you’ve got a lot to look forward to…