I spent a good bit of yesterday on the couch, cuddled up next to my middle child. He was sick, thankfully with a mild stomach bug that simply required a day of sleep.
While the sick day at home gave me the opportunity to do some much-need cleaning and organizing, I chafed at the restraint. Outside, spring taunted me. So far, September’s weather has been fickle, trying to decide whether to cling to the winter chill and clouds or to embrace the warmth of the spring sun. Yesterday was decidedly spring, and squandering such beauty by remaining inside, tethered to the couch, seemed ungrateful.
And yet love compelled me to refuse the call of spring, to give up the light and warmth of the sun for my living room’s LED light and a shared blanket.
So much of mothering and housekeeping is about giving up. We give up good, beautiful things all the time, for the sake of one, or maybe more, good and beautiful person.
Earlier this week, I again set aside more teaching work. “I’m sorry,” I told my supervisor, “I just can’t take on any more.”
A few months ago, I attended a women’s conference at a local seminary. As I sat in the chapel next to so many women who were either teaching or pursuing their doctoral work, I could have wept with longing. These women reminded me of my own seminary years, and then my brief year teaching at my alma mater, and the rich academic world I had given up in our international move.
Setting these things aside without discontent or resentment does not happen easily or often. To do so, I need to set aside my pride and my anxiety. My pride, my desire to do noteworthy, important, and public things, calls into question the work of mothering and housekeeping. These tasks are small, repetitive, and often feel like drudgery. They seem insignificant, unimpressive, and certainly not anywhere close to being world-changing.
My anxiety can also choke out my joy in setting things aside. I worry that my self-sacrifice will be, as Jen Pollock Michel describes it in Keeping Place, “a permanent fast for me.” I worry that I will empty myself so much in giving that there will be nothing left. I worry that I will miss opportunities that can never be retrieved, that it will be too late.
With these worries and my pride, my sacrifice is often begrudging, half-hearted, and bitter. Indeed, next to the mantras of self-empowerment and self-fulfillment, and to some extent self-care, self-sacrifice appears repulsive. Perhaps even smelling like death.
But this is the great paradox of our faith, the paradox woven into the fabric of creation itself: self-sacrifice, although it may look and smell like death, brings true self-fulfillment, true life. As the seed falls to the ground and dies, new life becomes possible. This possibility only comes with great sacrifice, as the farmer, setting aside part of his crop, forgoes the immediate use of it. In Psalm 126, the psalmist describes the sower sowing in tears, weeping as he bears the seed for sowing. This is because the seed is food given up — present nourishment sacrificed for a future harvest.
And this, then, is the promise for all those who have set aside, or given up, something precious: that like the sower, we “shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing [our] sheaves behind [us]” (Psalm 126:6). This promise rests firmly on the work of the one who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:6-7). Jesus’ giving of himself, both in incarnation and in crucifixion, declares the paradox of self-sacrifice to be true not only for the plants around us, but also true for all those who follow him.
Weeping still accompanies much of our sowing, as we relinquish the good things we hold here and now for a future harvest. The promise does not erase the pain of the present. Yet with eyes fixed on Jesus, our hands can open, flinging wide the seed that, after all, was only ever pure gift.