the greater work, a letter to preston
Do y’all remember when Preston and I were writing all those letters last year, Tuesdays and Thursdays, writing out this ramble through faith and life and coffee late at night and Gossip Girland all the rest? And how, those letters, they were the beginning of something wondrous? We are beginning again, new and the same, our selves familiar and not. You can read his last letter to me here.
She asked me while the rest of the congregation was singing the third verse of the hymn, which I can’t remember in this moment, why I was so nice. She smiled up at me as she said it, flung her arms around my neck and hugged me as if she might never see me again. Her hair was in two braids, which she proudly swung from side to side to show me – “do you like my braids? Mommy did them!” And I held her close, feeling the small weight that is somehow cosmic, that in this small person there are more wonders than in all the world, because she is fearfully made, because she is. That wonder of being – that you talk about in your letter, that simple and terrifying complicated wonder of being. She is, and as I hold her, and she says, in her outdoor voice, “I love you so much!” I close my eyes.
But before I really pray, before I really get to the moment of something deep and beautiful whispered over her, before any of that, she crawls off my lap and runs back to her pew, flings her arms around her brother and waves to me, before they both take each other’s hands and go to Sunday School.
I think that’s the way of the world, Preston, the way that I have trouble with – that what we cherish we must somehow release.
I got to hold her for a few minutes, but as she wriggled free and tumbled off my lap and ran back to her family, her lavender dress billowing from the fan and the wind that always moves through the sanctuary, I remembered that the act of holding is, must be, an act of release.
I want to hold onto her forever. I want to hold onto people and places, hold the whole wide world in my hands (I played that for you on the backroads, your hand in mine). I used to think that was the great work: to hold fast, to hold people secure in your heart and your arms and your thoughts about them. I used to think it was the great work to stay close with your arms encircled and your eyes closed, praying over the little girl while she nestled against you.
But the truth is the greater work is to hold one another, hold this world that we want, as you say, through the threaded grace of wanting it because of God, who is the first mover and the first lover of the world – hold all that, and then release it.
And I think about the Cross, how those arms outstretched are at the same moment holding us close to the heart of a God who is too terrifying to be understood, and releasing us into the water that flows from the right side of the temple, releasing us into the life that He came to give fully, releasing us from the embrace of the world into the embrace of God. Offering and release. They’re connected, I think.
If we close our selves, even around the things we love most, arms encircled around the little girl and her braids or around the best friend or around even the moments of walking through fields of shocking red and purple in Southern France -
if we hold them too closely, we cannot make the gesture of offering. Our bodies which mirror our hearts cannot do the greater work: the work of loving so fiercely and so wildly that we do, in fact, release our hold on that which we love -
if we hold them too closely, we lose the moment to see them as gift, to offer back praise to the Giver -
if we hold them too closely, we miss the greater work of love.