Tonight I swept, for the third time today, the dining room and kitchen floors. First I used our large, angled broom to gather the food, both crumbs and larger chunks thrown from the high chair; the shavings of colored pencils carefully sharpened; the scraps of paper from a craft project; and stray pieces of grass and leaves tramped in from outside. Then, wielding the small brush, I knelt down to coax the gatherings into the dustpan. I sighed, as I so often do during this chore. The thought of the day’s previous repetitions of this same task, and what tomorrow almost certainly holds as well, often provokes my exasperation, sometimes overwhelming.
Sweeping is not the only task that needs to be repeated, usually daily. Picking up toys, washing dishes, wiping down countertops…chores like these are part and parcel of maintaining a house that is lived in, thoroughly and exuberantly, by several people —especially several little people. Each one demonstrates very tangibly the lack of forward progress. Again and again, the same mess is made; again and again, it requires attention. The progress we’ve made scrubbing the stove until it shines, however satisfying, will not continue in increased cleanliness.
To the modern psyche, the scandalous thing is not, perhaps, the repetition, but the lack of progress. We are experts at practice and routine when it comes to the realm of athletics. Running, yoga, weight-lifting: we commit ourselves to these and other exercises, often daily. And why? For the sake of progress in our personal fitness. We strive for goals such as stamina, body-tone, and flexibility, and, through programs and fitness plans, progress is assured. To not progress, but to return again and again to the same exact task with no discernible improvement — this is cause for discouragement and despair.
As someone who values checklists, reachable goals, and the satisfaction of a task completed, housework often looms before me as an ever-present specter of my own insignificance and failure. The most important people, I am told, work towards progress, towards change. The work is arduous and exhausting, but in the end, they say, it is worth it because of what is achieved. In light of that standard, my work as a housewife is doomed to failure.
“The narrative of progress and success,” Father Stephen Freeman writes, “fails to describe life as it truly is. To make matters worse, failure and suffering in our culture can often make us the objects of shame. The gospel of progress is the gospel of never really being ok – and being ashamed of it. The few who are described as successful and making progress mostly serve as examples that condemn the rest of us. We imagine ourselves working towards becoming the spiritual one percent.”
“The gospel of progress.” In much of our language and attitudes, the church has absorbed the fixation on self- and world-improvement. As time goes on, this gospel proclaims, you will become a better and better person. This gospel, however, has little to do with the stories that fill out the Biblical narrative. Abraham, a man of great faith, sacrifices his wife’s safety for his own. Noah, the only righteous man on earth, succumbs to drunkenness and indecency. The Israelites, witnesses to extraordinary salvific acts of God, grumble and complain their way through forty years in the wilderness. David, a man after God’s own heart, commits rape, deceit, and murder. These stories confront us with the reality of living here in this fallen world, as sinners, prone to stumbling and backsliding.
Our personal lives are not the only area in which we expect to see progress. Our theology, too, we believe, is on a trajectory of progress. Our understanding of cultural contexts, our skill with Greek and Hebrew, our enlarged sensibilities and understanding of people unlike us, all allow us to read Scripture better — better than we did a few years ago, and most certainly better than people in less modernized and liberated cultures as ours.
However much I may try to put off sweeping, or laundry, or the dishes, my avoidance often doesn’t last very long. Feeling the crumbs underneath my feet, running out of clean socks, and an overflowing sink force me to hunker down and do them anyway. Other daily necessities do not confront me as visibly as those. It’s easy to fly through my day so intent on accomplishing something that even while I work to care for my home, care for my soul is neglected. My exasperation with sweeping mirrors my exasperation with prayer: what has been accomplished? How can I make any progress? And confession — in the narrative of spiritual progress, the discipline of confession is quite problematic. In confession, I’m confronted with the same sins as yesterday — perhaps, even, more serious ones. Nothing quite bursts the bubble of self-improvement like rolling out a list of the ways you’ve fallen short, or neglected to do good.
In truth, the potential for despair and acedia to settle in is high, particularly if we preach the gospel of progress to ourselves each day. But what if these repetitive tasks, these reminders of our failure to progress, are received as gifts of grace? After all, our hope for the future is not found in the progress we will make, but in the One who has set the world right. Because of him, our daily tasks are not onerous or futile. We do not lament, like the author of Ecclesiastes, the vanity of all things. Instead, we proclaim that
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
Each day, the morning returns. The sun rises, and we begin again. It is not progress, but it is a transformation — the darkness into light — that reminds us of the transformation we wait for with eager longing.