Working with Chalk

When I drive to work this time of year, I start looking for the plume of smoke two miles before I reach campus. It’s not that I want the two ancient buildings that house Wesley Foundation to go up in flames. As much as I’ve complained about them, the insurance company would never believe I’m innocent of arson. Besides, when a catastrophic fire tops your wish list, you’re setting yourself up for a disappointing day.

Nonetheless, I look for the smoke. It’s a pessimist’s habit. Somewhere along the way, I’ve convinced myself that the likelihood of disaster grows according to the amount of effort I put into a given endeavor. The girl I loved in junior high? Destined to break my heart. The car I’ve just paid off? Prime for a crash. The great American novel I’m writing? Doomed to fry along with my hard drive just before the last keystroke.

Ergo the more work I do on the Wesley buildings, the more confident I become that some disaster will befall us. And lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work—painting, cleaning, repairing, resetting, and trying to move our facilities one step closer to respectability.

Not I alone, of course. Brookland UMC came in to replace light fixtures and paint two rooms. A few Cornerstone UMC friends helped put primer up on the worship room and start resurfacing the deck. Blake and Muriel have done what staff always do: the tedious jobs no one else wants to do, but that must be done if the project is to get finished.

And what do we have to show for our work? So far, mostly chaos. As our Delta PRIDE camp approaches, we’re neck deep in drop cloths and electric sanders, frantically trying to finish the work, and—for my part—half convinced the whole thing will go up in flames tomorrow.

To me, this fear seems to be the human condition in microcosm. We work and fret, hoping that what we create will last, if not forever, then at least longer than we do. No one wants to be around to watch their castles crumble.

But we know the truth, however loathe we may be to admit it. No matter how creative or substantive our efforts, our work will eventually pass into nothingness. Today’s Coliseum is tomorrow’s pile of stone.

All of which brings me some comfort. Like many pastors (and many people in general), I spend a great deal of time trying to preserve the status quo. We invest in stability, or at least the illusion of stability. We are enslaved by that which we fear to lose.

Yet an honest reflection on the temporary nature of our work sets us free. Our task is not to build and preserve, but to create something worthy of God’s gifts to us in our time. Our lives are performance art, a beautiful moment that can never quite be repeated.

Eugene Peterson once wrote of the Songs of Ascent that they are not monuments, but footprints. A monument, he writes, says, “At least I made it this far.” A footprint says, “This is where I was when I moved again.”

So back to work it is, albeit with less fear and worry. We walk through the sand, even as the waves wash away traces of our journey. We paint the sidewalk with chalk, knowing the if the rains wash away our work, heaven will hold that moment for us and gently say, “That was terrific! What’s next?”

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