It looked thoroughly out of place, lying on the shoulder of the highway on the way from Kingston back to our motel: a full and bust-open trash bag. It was as innocuous as it was incongruous, since all it contained (so far as I could tell through the car window as we whizzed by) was half-rotted dead leaves. Clearly someone had been doing some Spring Mud Season lawn clean-up. This bag of future compost must have fallen off a truck on its way to the dump. Or something like that.
It looked out of place because the landscape it lay in was remarkably tidy: present and former farmland, well kept, with neat new suburbs ranked one after the other, a new suburban mall, a neat strip plaza, a very new office building, not yet occupied. True, the roadside also had a scattering of old farmhouses in that peculiar warm-pale-grey limestone that makes this area such a pleasure to the eye, but mostly we saw fresh, fine, prosperous neighbourhoods, with cropped and weedless lawns just barely green--the first real green of the new year. A very different landscape from my own town's mild untidy scruffiness.
The guys and I raked our own lawn a week or two ago, getting rid of the leaves we'd missed last fall, pulling out lawn thatch and the remains of last summer's day lilies, the lilies of the field, so splendid and resilient. But as usual, we piled the stuff onto a tarp, dragged it out back, and dumped it behind the wall. I don't bag yard stuff and send it to the dump; I let nature take her course instead, taking moral refuge in being Environmentally Correct. So behind the wall is a little unsightly. So who cares? It's a great refuge for field mice, after all, something the cats appreciate.
I have to admit, though, that I get jealous of brand-new houses, with the paint still intact and wiring that the owners don't wake up thinking about in the wee small hours. I envy those whose lawns have not slid almost past recovery, whose back yards are not full of pits and humps, whose floors are straight and corners square. I live in an old, fairly messy house, and while it definitely has its beauties and virtues, I don't think it has a single right angle anywhere, except by accident.
The neat new houses and neat new lawns proclaim (supposedly) that all's well with the people living there--that they have no significant problems, that their families are functional instead of dys-, that bank accounts are plump and kitchen floors are clean and garages and basements are well-organized and meals are low-fat and nutritionally balanced and the kids are in bed and asleep by 8. That's not what my house and yard say at all, especially the kitchen floor. And maybe that's where my long-standing low-grade guilt sets in: I should have it all together, dammit. Or at least more together than it is at present.
Maybe the way the cover looks does in fact say something about the book: people in real trouble or crisis may, in fact, have more important things to do with their time and energy than maintain the house and garden beautiful. And people who lack the time or energy to keep the joint in apple-pie order may be doing far more important things instead. On the other hand, maybe someone who's struggling like stink finds that gardening and housework are sanity maintenance--an act of love, not householderly vanity, and therefore redemptive. You simply can't tell.
Back home, the yard doesn't look absolutely awful; we did clean up the worst, and the weeds haven't had a chance to get going properly alongside the house. The worst of the mess is out back, where you don't notice it too much anyway. The house in is its usual state, stacks of stuff everywhere, books piled on the front stairs, and the kitchen's under there somewhere, if I dig through the dishes.
It shouldn't matter, this mess; it shouldn't have the power to drag my spirit down with a constant low-grade grinding sense of shame. Nobody minds it but me, after all. And even if I recruited the guys and made a Herculean effort and got it COMPLETELY CLEANED UP, it would be back in this state within a couple of weeks. I know my limitations. I merely can't accept them. They make me feel too much like that bag of trash dropped by the roadside.
I can't accept, either, that God might know and accept my limitations, as I can't seem to do--that God is better at forgiving me than I am, because God understands me far better than I ever can, and loves me as I cannot seem to love myself. But this intimate loving knowledge is, as the psalmist says, "too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it." In fact, it's scary. Perhaps one of the reasons we tend to cling to the notion of God as Hanging Judge is that it's so difficult to believe in a God so much more merciful than ourselves, especially about ourselves. We stand indicted at our own bar, pleading guilty, without even listening to the real evidence. And we prefer a God made in our own image.
The alternative is too stunning; it goes against all the evidence of life itself, which convicts us of failure every time we turn on the TV or open the newspaper or a magazine--all the sources of blame that prove to us that we're really abject failures. Jesus chose to accept that verdict, unjust as it was, to show a sort of solidarity with all who, by this world's view, have really truly blown it. And for that reason, the state of my house and yard ought to matter less than a pinch of sand from the driveway, less than a handful of dead leaves, less than a dustbunny. For the good news is that God does indeed love me, as lousy a job as I do at loving myself.
I have no way of knowing whether the people in those neat new houses feel as I do, or whether they're happy with themselves and life. I have no idea of the state of their souls. I know only that while I may not be able to feel and enjoy that sense of God's love, because of my own limitations (and, more fairly, because of my own history), the love is there. I can sense it as a fish can scent chemicals in the water and moves in their direction, without really understanding why. I too can move in God's direction, almost without volition or consciousness, because that's where the love is. Even if I don't always seem to be able to receive it.
Someone will, no doubt, collect that bag of yard waste (and the dead raccoon a few yards along from it), and the roadside will against be as neat as the rest of the landscape. But a few miles to the north, back into the Shield where the landscape is anything but calm and managed and tidy, the trilliums are just starting to bloom shyly in their thousands. In a few weeks, the great racks of wild lilac which seeded out from failed farms and unsuccessful steadings will burst out in all their rich colour and scent. Life isn't tidy, most of the time, and failure's infinitely more common than success, and the poor will never be worthy enough, not by this world's standards. But God has a way of seeing differently, and for that we should give God praise.