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We have about 30 beautiful blue spruce surrounding our yard. When we moved in, the previous owners told us a local tree company helped provide care because a fungal infection in the area, needlecast, targets blue spruce. It slowly kills the mature needles, increasingly leaving the trees bare. Spraying three times per year can prevent this, but covering 30 trees takes a lot of spray.

Here’s the problem: blue spruce is not native to West Michigan, and the spray that supports their life here is very likely killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of already struggling native bees and other pollinators. To maintain a questionable landscape decision, we are likely eliminating life that actually should be in our yard – indeed, pollinators are keystone species that are vital for existence.

How often do we chase versions of life that don’t fit and then defend we what create, killing off life that belongs? It’s a paradox: our pursuit of “life” is often simultaneously incompatible with its existence.

Early on in the pandemic, I began slowly naturalizing our yard, welcoming the balance of nature often deleted from our manicured yards. Merely changing what is grown, however, is only the tip of a pervasive problem. We want the display of natural life around us without its functional presence. That is, the spruce trees bring with them the feeling and beauty of life to our yard, but if you look a bit deeper, this isn’t what they do in our yard. No longer spraying for needlecast is a shift, just as naturalizing our yard is a shift, but the trees and landscaping of my yard are merely two indications of a wider tendency.  

During this Lenten season, I am reflecting on how I desire the display and pageantry of life around me, but without the difficulties of its actual existence. For example, everyone loves a good home-cooked dinner, but no one loves washing the dishes that come with it. Life-giving things often bring with them a mess that is not optional. I need close friends, but do not really want the challenge inherent in maintaining them. Lent is an invitation to bring those broken but well-worn paths in the dark out into the light.

Easter calls us all to pursue life, but Lent calls me to wonder why I shirk it. On this side of heaven, life is messy and an infinite caretaking project. While it may never get easier, within community it may be possible. Getting out of bed again tomorrow to contribute to this caretaking project may only be possible when others are there like a support vehicle in a bike race, resupplying all the blown tires one may need.  It is hard for everyone, but likely not everyone at the same time.  

In Creation and Fall, Dietrich Bonhoeffer conceives of the world as one where life is fully alive when it follows the grooves of intentionality tilled in God’s act of creating. The Fall, then, is the wayward experience of attempting to forge new ways forward. As life continues in this state, like a picture frame askew on the wall, existence is constantly grating though experientially the cause or source may be hazy. Our attempts to maintain yards, friends, or push for policy changes are on some level an attempt to make things better and closer to flourishing, but outside the “groove” maybe it is more often than not just paving paradise with a parking lot.

Anemic, Tunnel-Vision Life

I don’t like chaos in the house; toys strewn and kids yelling. In my pursuit to control this chaos I sometimes also, as a byproduct, re-route the life and excitement cascading from my eight- and five-year-old boys. Their normal level of chaos isn’t the kind of “life” I want… but is the removal of it actually a better good? A more faithful participation in those intentional grooves?

This doesn’t mean we, as parents, let anything go. On some level chaos in the house challenges and conflicts with life for the non-five-year-olds. I am, however, saying that our tendency to create “life” in our own image often necessitates the removal of life as it is or otherwise would be. What new grooves or “life” do we manicure that is a mere shadow of what life could be or should be without our domination of it?

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer tells a story of rehabilitating a pond on her property and says, “What I do here matters. Everybody else lives downstream.” If life begets life, but my life actually distorts other life in my wake, my “life” is less than it ought to be and quite possibly disallows other lives from being what they should be. My decisions and actions influence everything and everyone I am in relationship with. They are all downstream. What is the legacy of it all? There are some people and things that need me to be something in life so they can be or do what they need to be.

Everyone loves life. We fight for it, claw for it, and maybe even kill for it. But is what we end up with actually life at all? So many of the things we pursue are slowly killing us in the process.

Much of my life is the pursuit of new grooves that slowly starve and distort all that needs my participation to flourish. It’s like mistaking a strip mine for an old-growth forested valley. We do this in our yards, with deep envy of neighbors’ lush, green, and lively grass. Yet lush green grass is only achieved through the brutal pursuit of killing all other life. We want nature in our yards, but that pursuit so fully kills off all life that we must supplement our desires with chemical fertilizers to sustain the dream. Similarly, some of our jobs, which are meant to sustain us and our families, invisibly and heartlessly kill us from the inside out, like an emotional burr grinder atomizing selves meant to be whole.

This isn’t in opposition to grass, or some utopian dream of all people working jobs they love. I am thinking about how much of my life is a pursuit of things defined narrowly by what I know, want, and have learned to see. In our brokenness, we almost always prefer to be with people similar to us. It is just easier. But we’re poorer for it. All around me I pursue life, but as much as that “life” is just a reflection of me or my desires, it is actually a shriveled shadow of life.

Burden of Seeking Life

So, two things: First, this should drive me to lament. My life and existence is almost necessarily oriented in opposition to that of others. If “life” as I know it is connected to the loss or destruction of life in reality, I should mourn and lament the losses left in my wake. This has a communal snowball effect, because we all do the same, so the accumulation is somewhat staggering. And even within my lament the same pattern pops up: I want to see my own lament, my own struggles, my own pain, as the dominant narrative. For example, I deeply lament our broken culture, communities, and relationships. Yet buried in my lament is the frustration that others don’t see the world my way and agree with me. I must lament both the distortion of creation’s groove left in my wake, and the domineering form that lament takes. For this to work, I cannot see my specific lament as the dominant one. Others must be able to sit in solidarity with my lament as I sit with theirs. Only love in the context of community can accomplish that. This, after all, is the heart of communal reconciliation. The goal is not to leave agreeing with the one who caused hurt, but to see and be seen as persons with wounds. Or, as another example, the communities and congregations that likely came out of the pandemic stronger were probably the ones where individuals’ fears, concerns, and hopes were heard and woven into the fabric of the wider group even if their fears, concerns, and hopes did not solidify into the actual policies put into place.  

Second, the hope is that healthy, communally-embedded lament of our orientation away from flourishing can indeed bring renewed grace from God into our lives. Lament is in some ways a longing and hope for something other, a reset or realignment, which is found in repentance and forgiveness.

I am broken and see the consequences that flow from my brokenness. I lament this within a community and God’s grace fills me through his Spirit. But I am also aware of God’s work in my life through others in that community. That is, in some way my life must be a short but constant communally-embedded feedback loop of Lent-Easter-Lent-Easter. I see the same gravitational pull of defining life in my own image, lament that pull, and am generously given actual life through Christ and the community he enlivens around me. I learn to see life in God’s groove and support it in all I do. Then a new day comes, a new hour, or new meeting, or new anything, and it all begins anew.  

Lent is the time in the church year when a mirror is held in front of us long enough that our veneers of avoidance are harder to maintain. After all, what is the shock of Easter’s light without first stumbling down the dark path of Lent? If I never leave the shadow of my life, I never receive the grace of Christ. As a result, others downstream may feel the effects, like the sensation of a house full of skewed picture frames. Their life may depend on me being life to them. 

We’ve all been given life in our createdness, and with it we are bent towards seeking and engendering life. But by our broken nature, we often endanger the very life we seek. We need to constantly see that pattern and lament it. Community can both keep our lament from becoming what it laments, and also support that lament on the way back to life. God is gracious to both create new life as well as provide the Spirit to work through relationships and community to nurse our brokenness back to life. May this Lent be a season of individual and communal longing for the realigning vibrancy of Easter.

Aaron B. Franzen

Aaron B. Franzen is an associate professor of sociology at Hope College. He is broadly interested in identity formation, and especially in how beliefs and values influence the interactions between individuals and groups, often within the context of medicine.