Friday, April 30, 2010

when the good is the enemy of the best

ecclesiastes 3 tells us that there are seasons in life. different priorities occupy us at different times; different things are important in different phases.

"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace" (ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

(the byrds, anyone? turn, turn, turn...yeah.)


but what are we to do about those times when what we're called to do--whether it is to mourn or to tear or to give up--is just exactly what we feel sure we cannot bring ourselves to do? certainly, there are times when we have no choice: there was no question whether i would mourn the loss of eliza or zeph, as i had no power to make that decision. but what about when a choice itself, one over which we do have power, promises to lead to tearing or killing or war or searching in ways that we feel certain we cannot bear?

and what of the voices that say, it can't really be what you're called to do if it's so painful! God can't expect you to do that! ? what of the voices that say, trust your gut! or this can't be a bad thing!? what of the voices that say, don't worry about all those other voices; this is good!?

voltaire is credited with having said, "the best is the enemy of the good." but you've probably equally often heard it said that the good is the enemy of the best. the question of the day--of the year, of my life--is how to discern what is best. there is a lot of good to be had, a lot of good to be done. but can it be true that there are times when pursuing something that is good may in fact be to the detriment of what is best?

i have watched (and coveted in the watching, okay, i'll admit it) my neighbor cultivate a beautiful lawn over the past couple of years. in order to do it, though, in order to acheive the best lawn he could, he did not start by planting. he started by uprooting, by killing. you see, he had a yard full of things that were not the best, like crabgrass and weeds and dandelions and clover. (since i still have just those things, i'm going to label them "good" or at least "good enough"; otherwise, i might be driven to even more covetousness.) he used tools and chemicals and lots of elbow grease to kill and uproot what was good in order to plant what was best. and in the process, there was dryness and sparsity and death. (okay, i know; it's just a lawn. but it was brown and dead-looking and stuff. hang with me.) but after he had killed the good, he was able to cultivate the best. as a result, he has a lush, green lawn with beautiful grass and very little else. there was, in the rescue of his yard, a time to kill and uproot before there was a time to plant and build. the good(enough) had to be eradicated in favor of the best.

but that's a lawn. what does that look like in a life? what does it look like to choose to kill what is good--to uproot what is familiar and okay and good enough--in favor of what is best?

and how can we be sure what is best?

there's the rub that's rubbing me, if i'm honest. if we always knew what was best--like my neighbor, who knew full well that a carpet of real grass was absolutely far superior to the assorted stuff he was replacing--we would not have so much trouble eliminating what is good in favor of it. he had no qualms about dousing those weeds with poison, even though it meant he'd have a season of brown in his yard, in anticipation of growing something far better. but it's not always as clear as uprooting and planting, so how do we know what is best to pursue? how do we know what to tear in order to mend? what to keep and what to throw away? when to be silent and when to speak? and where do we find the courage to know when to search and when to give up?

i'm still pursuing that one Voice over and above all the rest. but it can be so hard to drown out the many voices, not the least of which live in my head, in favor of the One i must pursue. i need quiet and patience and rest to really listen, all the things i have learned to avoid so well. the more i fill my time with people and places and voices the more i kill the stillness i cannot afford to lose. is it fear? sometimes i think it is. do i really want to listen well enough to hear what may be a call to mourn or tear down? is it not easier to wrestle with the voices i can locate with a simple phone call or email or sleepless night of writing than to wait--and wait and wait--on a Voice i am told only to wait for?

"The Lord said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.'
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper" (1Kings 19:11-13).

i have been brought back again and again to these verses. Lord, please silence the wind and the earthquake and the fire; may they be still and quiet so that i may listen for the whisper, for the call to what is best.


Ellen said...

I was just asking Tim last night what it means to 'seek first the Kingdom'. I guess what I meant by that was how do we know when we are doing what we are supposed to be doing? How do we know which path it is that we are supposed to take? Does G-d really speak individually to us? I question all the times when I thought it was Him speaking to find that it was my desires or opinions that I was following. Tim's answer was long and convoluted and I fell asleep before really understanding what he was getting at. I think you're asking the same question, though. I don't know about you, but my fear is that when all is still and quiet there won't be a Voice.

Rebecca said...

I think that the difference between the good and the best is also the difference between you and Him. Remain in the good, and you'll find eventually that the good isn't good at all. But He is indeed the best-- even when He looks like tearing, shredding, destroying.

It's a fearful, terrible thing to pursue the best sometimes, but it's the only way to life. I haven't experienced it the way that you are, the way that you have, but I have experienced it, and it's terrifying-- and So Good.

Thank you for sharing some of that terror here, for reminding me to pray for you.

Aslan tells Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, "Courage, dear heart."

Courage. Go.