By Millie Sweeny
I agree with Wendell Berry about a lot of things, but I am not a dandelion lover. We live out in the country, so our yard is what is cheerily termed “an organic lawn” — which means it’s a chaotic mix of clover and grasses, daisies and dandelions that look somewhat decent when mowed. When we moved into this house a couple of years ago, we were in the process of fixing it up after several years of neglect and sitting empty. The yard was a mass of dandelions, waving yellow heads and prickly leaves under bare feet.
I have put off the tedious task of trying to bring them under control, feeling daunted by the sheer size of the yard and their number, by their resilience and seemingly spontaneous growth. But the longer I wait, the more they grow. This spring, I decided to go to war. Armed with an audiobook, brand-new garden gloves, and a hefty set of gardening implements, I set to work. I lost myself in the fictional world of my story and in the repetitive tedium of plunging my spade into the rain-soaked earth. I dug up hundreds of dandelions. Uprooted many innocent bystanding plants in searching for their stubborn roots. Rubbed blisters into my hands and an ache into my back.
When I stood slowly, stretching out my cramping muscles, I was pleased. The rest of the yard stretched away, but one small corner was freed of yellow blooms. I could begin to imagine the space as an herb garden, a peony patch, or a sweep of soft grass for playing baseball.
I did this for days, slowly working my way through the side yard. Every morning, I walked outside to see new bursts of yellow, cheerful and contagious. While the areas I had already cleared were less concentrated, there were always a handful of new dandelions in the very place I had emptied the day before. I tried to be patient, meticulous, working my hands and spade into the soil to free the roots. It was hard. I wanted to quit. There were too many.
I wanted to yank the stubborn plants out, snapping off the roots and trusting the soil to cover up my insufficient efforts. But if you leave the root in, the dandelion will grow back. It is a futile exercise.
As I worked, I thought about many things, but mostly about sin. In my own heart, in the hearts of those I hold dear. My usual response is to try to correct behaviors, to attempt control, to snap off the visible problem and think that sufficient.
I feel like my yard most of the time: slightly unkempt from lack of perfect daily discipline, overgrown with weeds that inhibit positive growth, covered over with deep roots of past neglect and habits and patterns. I don’t want my yard to be a dandelion jungle; I’d rather have soft grass, lush clover, garden beds filled with tomatoes, basil, and sugar snap peas.
After countless hours of digging, pulling up roots, disposing of those puff-ball seeds, I grew weary of pushing back against their insistent growth.
Like my own heart.
I am often weary of trying to do all the right things, of the daily disciplines that push back against the roots of sin, selfishness, dissociation and lack of presence and intentionality. It is harder to root out the depths of my own struggles and hurts than it is to get rid of those thousands of yellow flowers in my yard — and more painful.
Thankfully – oh thankfully! – this is ultimately the work of our triune God. It is He who calls, He who convicts, He who gently and kindly not only leads us to repentance but enacts the growth and change in our hearts and lives. It is all grace, all love, all gift that brings our wayward hearts home.
And yet, though I am forgiven and made new, I live in the tension of the already-not-yet, still struggling daily to rise and believe the gospel. And this is often work. Not work that saves me or earns God’s love, for that is already done and given freely, but part of the mysterious journey to make my own heart more like Christ’s, a work somehow done in partnership with, though primarily by, the Holy Spirit.
Unless I dig deep, unless I uproot the surrounding grasses and runners of clover to reveal the deep root hidden far beneath the visible surface, I cannot begin to address these problems. I cannot even see it clearly, understand it. Unless I see the depth my own sin has sunk its fingers into my soul, the rot of hurt caused by the sins done by me and against me, I cannot begin to appreciate the scandalous beauty of the gospel and the forgiveness and life it offers. Until my fingernails crack and bleed from seeking to understand, until I throw up my filthy hands in frustration at my own inability to find the deepest point of pain, hidden beneath layers of sliding mud, I cannot know the relief of Jesus kindly reaching in, revealing, removing, leading me to repentance.
The Benedictine monastic tradition holds to the principle of Ora et Labora. This is Latin for Pray and Work. Pray and work. This means many things, but primarily a whole and healthy blend of private practices of spiritual disciplines and public action towards community flourishing. Physical labor, solitary prayer, social activities, community participation, private examination – a life centered about the individual and community, balancing both with the idea that we are in partnership with the Holy Spirit’s work. Pray and work.
This is what I am yearning for. What I hope to model for my children. What I hope to grow into with my husband, my friends, my biological and church families. A life lived in the tension of the already and not yet, knowing I am firmly Christ’s, and also still seeking the renewal of all things, including my own heart.
There will always be dandelions in my yard. I realize this. There will always be sin and brokenness in my life, in the lives of those I love the most. It will probably come from the same places, the same hidden roots, over and over. It will cause hurts and broken connections, over and over. But acknowledging this as a truth of living in a broken world is different from resignation, from throwing up my hands and letting entropy take its course. Many, many days I am indeed very weary of doing good, of rising to face the day and choosing hope over despair.
However, the Jesus who leaned in to embrace lepers and prostitutes, who promised forgiveness seventy times seven times, who wept at the death of a dear friend — this same Jesus is working with me as I seek to sow peace instead of resentment, forgiveness instead of bitterness, courage instead of despair.
I rise, then, and go to the gym. I talk with my counselor. I pray through the daily liturgies, sit in the dark with my children at bedtime, lean into my husband as we watch the moon rise across the field. Today and tomorrow and tomorrow, by the grace of our gentle and kind God, these small things will build into bigger habits that will reap a harvest of more fruit than weeds. There are fewer dandelions today than there were yesterday. Next year, I pray there will be fewer still.
With blistered hands and hopeful hearts – pray and work. We do not labor in vain, nor do we labor alone.
About the Author
Millie Sweeny is a Southern transplant in love with the Pacific Northwest, where she moved with her husband and kids eight years ago. A former writing tutor, she can usually be found kneading dough in the kitchen, driving to piano practice, or taking book club way too seriously. She writes regularly for Story Warren, occasionally for the Rabbit Room, and geeks out about books at instagram.com/millie.sweeny.