Back in the day when I owned a home in the Catoctin hills of Northern Virginia, one summer I decided to plant a garden. I knew nothing about the endeavor, but I did check a book out of the library. I decided to try only three things: tomatoes, yellow squash and peas. It wasn’t going to be a large project, but I have to admit I had an inner vision of this garden, rows in prefect, soil turned up just so, and weed free – all due to my meticulous care and fastidiousness in proper vegetable garden maintenance. My neighbor Bill Leigh, came over one day. He explained the difference between peas and this other thing in my garden which he called pigweed. There was difference that he could see and that I could pretend to see. Of course I wanted to weed the whole thing right then and there. Bill said it was too late to do that as I would just uproot my entire crop of peas.
I heeded his advice and my once-perfect garden began to become tattered and worn, perfect rows a fading dream. Soon enough there was a discernible difference in the plants, so I decided to pull out at least one pigweed stem. And sure enough, the good plants around it also came out, roots all tangled together. A very imperfect garden eventually bore good fruit; the peas were harvested, the other plants pulled out and tossed in the treeline for next year’s mulch, and nature over took the plot of ground in due course. Bill’s advice was good. The peas were what counted.
I did not care for living in the sustained ambivalence: to pull or to wait. Ambivalence is one of those words I suspect people misunderstand. I used to think it meant to be indifferent, that either option is OK, or some middle-of-the-road-whatever attitude. Actually, it means to simultaneously experience opposing or contradictory feelings, beliefs, or motivations. Pulled in two directions at the same time. It is like the servants in the gospel – they want to do their jobs, they want to make the landowner happy – it seems so obvious what to do. Yet there is a wisdom, a longer-play at hand – which makes sense…. still ……
I think we all have these moments of ambivalence – some singular and passing, other sustained, and sometimes for a whole lifetime.
It’s your first baby. It has been great. Sure it has been hard work, but what a bundle of joy. And tomorrow is the last day of maternity leave. You have a great job and love the people you work with. Maybe you should stay home longer? Maybe you can get by on one salary? But there is a great day care center near work. Maybe we could nanny-share with a neighbor? But the big project that you really want to be part of is coming up….
There are any number of situations in life that will drop us in the stew of ambivalence. And keep us there – this same moment plays out again each time you consider the job and spending more time with the family. Sometimes it is hard to know what are peas and what are pigweed. Here is a short list of just some of life’s ambiguous moments:
- The great college you have been accepted to or the one that you and your family can actually afford.
- The conversation that you need to have with a loved one – but it’s not clear how it will be received. Odds are high this will lead to a scene. You know you need to have it; you want to avoid the crossfire and conflict
- Midnight at the dinner table, a stack of bills, and you know there is not enough to cover it all – and one of your children’s birthday is a week away.
- The dance recital, swimming meet, soccer tournament, or event for which your child has been practicing so hard, and the scheduled celebration of First Communion or Confirmation.
- The moment of when peer pressure collides head on with values, beliefs, and the good; and all of it is in the mix of friendship and social status – what is clear to the parents is less clear and more urgent to the teenager.
- Staying in a parish you love or accepting an assignment 1,000 miles away but closer to your aging and ailing mother.
- Keeping you aging mother in her own home she has known for almost 30 years or moving her to a managed health care facility
- The great neighborhood with OK schools or the area with great schools but whose house prices are just beyond your comfort zone and economic prudence
- Different treatment options in responding to an ambiguous diagnosis of a grave illness.
- Changing jobs, changing careers, changing cities…
In the midst of all of these situations that lack clarity and obvious choices, the gospel asks us to be mindful that, we are promised, in the end, God will sort things out. Which doesn’t mean everything will turn out just fine. Sometimes we don’t choose well. Sometimes things go wrong. The peas come up with the pigweed.
The promise here isn’t that Christian faith prevents hardship; the promise is that we are unconditionally loved by God in spite of our poor choices. Some decisions we’ll get right, others wrong, and still others we won’t know whether we were right or wrong for months or years to come. But we still need to make them. We live in a world colored by ambiguity. A world where the only absolute is found in absolution. And so we pray certain the Spirit knows our heart.
Dear Lord, our lives are colored by ambiguity and we don’t always know the right or best thing to do. But we do know that your love is guiding us and that you have called us to live as your people in the world. When we face hard choices, give us eyes to see the best path forward and the courage to follow it. When we make mistakes, forgive us. When we are hurt by our choices, comfort us. When we hurt others, help us to reach out to them in love. And above and beyond all these decisions, remind us that you still love us and call us back to this place that we may be forgiven, renewed, called, and sent forth once more as your beloved children. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Prayer from David Lose at In the meantime…