You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.
Several events and struggles converged this past month under the thematic heading of “maintenance.” Perhaps I’m just getting older, but I’ve been realizing this week that so much of the substance of life has to do with the unglamorous work of maintaining things, especially the things to which you’ve made commitments. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, since the central task handed to Adam was one of “tending” and “keeping.” But I think this realization hits with a sense of surprise for someone growing up in this day and age.
For one thing, consumerism agitates against the task of maintenance. Our immersion in digital and televisual common spaces means we’re constantly inviting the risk of being ripped out into the vast sea of new commodities, new services, new experiences, all groping for our time, our attention, our money with powerful currents of targeted advertising. We’re also denizens of a throwaway culture—things are designed and optimized to be used for a flash and then phase out, so you have to buy a replacement, the new and improved version. You can’t even say we’re a culture that believes “Ending is better than mending;” we simply have no concept of “mending.”
And yet, in our consumption, we find ourselves laden with the obligations of possessing. You wake up, and you realize that your entire day has been claimed by the demands of things you already have. You have a lawn; it needs to be mown. You have a pet; it needs to get its shots, to be fed. You have central heat; the propane tank needs filling.
We accrue possessions, slowly but surely, to fill certain needs, but then those same possessions turn out to have needs of their own. In an analogue to Churchill’s famous dictum, “We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us,” we might also say: We own our things, and then our things own us.
But it’s not just our things. Much more significantly, it’s our relationships that require maintenance. Some of these relationships are chosen, some are not, but if they’re going to flourish, they all require time, attention, care. You have a neighbor; he needs help finding his lost dog. You have a wife; she needs your emotional support, your help with the children. You have children; they need pretty much everything.
We’re sometimes tempted to conceive of the life of faith in a similar manner. Evangelicals rightly value conversion, but can neglect that conversion is the first shuffling step of a journey up and into eternity. I believe and am increasingly convinced that God intends to be fully present and alive to the believer undergoing sanctification, but thus far most of my experience of the Christian life is one of failure and confession and weakness.
Vice is real, and deeply ingrained. It takes a long time to root out, replant virtue. It takes a long time for virtue to grow, and propagate. Most of the time of your Christian life will be unremarkable, mundane, often tedious tending to the fragile plant of your soul—through unremarkable, mundane obedience in mundane, tedious matters. It’s all Eugene Peterson’s “long obedience in the same direction.”
And the spiritual struggle in all this is that maintenance is so much less glamorous, less culturally admirable, less fun than acquisition. It’s fun to buy a house (ok, it’s not actually fun) and envision your new perfect life there; it’s hard to make three separate runs to the home improvement store just to repair some stupid rotted piece of window framing that you measure wrong anyway. It’s fun to begin a relationship, to court a woman into increased intimacy; it’s hard to comfort your wife through a tragedy. It’s fun to move denominations and explore a new tradition; it’s hard to get up early enough to pray the Morning Office. I’d rather buy something new than take the time to fix something old. I’d rather scroll Twitter and try on 200 new opinions than sit down and think hard about a single idea.
This all sounds rather pedestrian, but the accumulated weight of life’s maintenance is just beginning to hit me. The temptation to novelty is strong, and it must be resisted. The goodness of a thing is not in its acquisition, though acquisition can be a good. It’s good to sell all you have for the pearl of great price, but then what do you do with it?
I yet believe that the true joys of life are on the other side of longsuffering care and patient, patient attention. I believe purity of heart is to refine the will to one thing—to love and obey God— and that the will is refined by the slow and perpetual washing of quotidian choices. The cure for novelty is, I suspect, “staying” our minds and trusting God. Now if only my living could line up with my belief.
Merciful and most worthy Father, teach me what to value. Don’t teach my mind—you’ve already done that. Teach my heart—the core of my desire. Let me forsake novelty for its own sake; make me to forsake the movements of vanity, of wanting to appear a certain way. To be is better than to seem. Teach me to be. I don’t have these things on my own, and I won’t get them on my own: Give me patience where I am restless. Give me satisfaction where I am avaricious. Give me courage where I am apprehensive and weak. Keep my attention stayed on you, and on the things you have given me to love. Make me forsake those things which hinder the sanctification of my family, my friends, my own soul. Do this for the sake of your love. Amen.