My barber makes sure I don't get a big head about my beard. "You know," he says, "people will tell you you're growing a beautiful beard, but the truth is you've just decided to stop not growing one. It's weird that the verb goes to the person who has decided not to act. I mean, it's the clean-shaven look that takes the daily commitment to do something, but nobody ever says to those folks, 'Hey! I see you've decided not to grow a beard today!'
Of course, my barber is right. Growing a beard has become a source of humility for me, just to the extent that people are impressed by something I decided not to do. I didn't grow the beard, I just stopped not growing it.
Paradoxically, "stop" is a verb, too, and ceasing action is a kind of action. Still, that "stop" might be the most important action one can take to make room for a beautiful, new thing is a profoundly humbling realization.
I know it's true, though, when some action of my kids pushes me over the edge and I nearly lose it, or I do lose it, but then I stop my verbal exasperation, drop to their eye level, ask their forgiveness, and we embrace. I know it's true when, after a friend has finished talking, I stop the standard back and forth pattern meant to ensure we will each fit approximately the same number of words into the conversation and instead double down and say, "It sounds like you're hurting. Tell me more about that." I know it's true that when you play fewer of the strings for a given chord, that's when you hear the harmonies most clearly.
"Stop" is a verb, and ceasing action is itself an action. And some stopping can be fruitful.
If the beautiful, new thing born of non-action, requiring non-action, is humbling, in 2017 it is also heretical. Most of us carry powerful computers in our pockets to make sure that we do not have even a single unproductive moment. We want to change the world and make things better. Never mind that this approach carries with it an impossibly high opinion of the things we produce; whatever it is must be better than an empty moment, right?
Some friends and I were talking about the idea/commandment of sabbath the other day. We talked about practical considerations; for example, keeping the sabbath allows introverts time to recharge and acknowledges that human beings aren't as productive over time when we work without rest. But we also talked about some of the more challenging (i.e., less obviously productive) aspects of sabbath keeping:
- Times of intentional rest confront us with the extent to which we find our identity and worth in our work and call us back to trust of God's love for us and the identity in God we receive as God's gift.
- Sabbath locates our narratives within the larger narrative of God's work and action; we remember that we are prophets of a future not our own.
- Visibly trusting God's love for us makes us, also requires gentleness with one another.
In all of these things, there is humility again. There is William Cavanaugh's reminder of the possibility that the assumptions that we know enough, are good enough, and are powerful enough to affect positive change do not always hold, and that "When you're standing on the edge of a cliff, progress is defined as a step back." There is, additionally, the humility that comes with trusting God and one another to meet us in the spaces we do not control and cannot fill with more of our good intentions.
Importantly, to say that God gives the growth is not an argument for complacency or passivity. Far from it! The most significant political act of the last two weeks has been a federal "stay" on an immigration order - a crucial call and action to non-action! A ceasing as doing. Part of what needs doing, says Cavanaugh, is to engage the world with the humility that knows that we are not God.
Finally, then, there is a real sense in which I am growing a beard. That is, what I first conceived of as inaction has proven to be anything but inactive: I have put down the blade. I have made room for new possibilities. I have exercised patience. I have looked for what God is doing (we're talking in metaphor here). I have asked for help when I've needed it. I have waited. I have oiled and balmed. I have received what I've been given. I have been grateful.
As it turns out, sometimes you have to move to be still. We will not find the humility proper to us by riding the raft of the society's status quo.
In addition to all the other things not shaving has meant doing, I have also grieved and remembered.
On November 11, my wife's birthday, she became concerned that she might be experiencing a miscarriage. On November 18, my birthday, the doctor's test confirmed it. At one point, I realized that the beard I had begun in July on a whim would be a year old (a "yeard" in beard parlance) about the time the baby would have been born. Though I am still not sure I will let the beard grow for the full year, remembering is why it has lasted this long. Mine has not been a melancholy remembering, but an honest one, because we faced a reality I could not change, but desperately wanted to. I was simultaneous confronted with the limits of my actions and invited in a new way into the difficult and beautiful space of humility and trust of God: the God of the cross, and the God who makes all things new.