Our living room windows open onto our backyard, a narrow swath of turf that quickly fades to weeds on all three sides. To the right and the left of our house are empty lots. They hem the sod like nasty bands of rough at an abandoned golf course. The patch directly out back, well, it’s interesting. It slopes up to a chain link fence that surrounds a retention pond, offering a view that promises to go away when the trees lined up on the slope fill out and we finally erect a fence back there. I love the light these windows let in, but I don’t love the view, so I usually take my sweet time opening the blinds.
The other day I peeked out through the slats at midmorning and saw a small, Asian child toddling toward our house. This is not normal. As I’ve said, our backyard is encompassed by a veritable wasteland. We call this area West Nile Park because of the retention pond and because it is decidedly not park-like. People do not wander back there. Certainly not small people.
I was curious and not quite sure what to do. I tilted the blinds all the way open and saw three women squatting in the weeds—our weeds. Just then, one of them called to the child and she changed course. The women were digging around for something straggly and green, collecting baskets full of it. Now that I’m describing it, I realize I have no idea what it is they were after. I do know I’ve seen women do the same kind of harvesting on the sides of roads in our neighborhood. I’ve wondered about it, but never enough to ask around for answers. My mom suggested something called “poke salad,” but I told her wrong continent.
I’ve learned to not be surprised by anything here. We live in a one-square-mile community with neighbors from over 600 ethnic groups, most of them chased here by war or famine, or both, in their homelands. The women in our weeds looked Nepalese or Bhutanese. I decided not to go outside because I didn’t want to scare them away or confuse them with my over-friendly American overtures when I was fairly certain they would not speak English. I just let them be.
But I thought about them all day. They represented something big to me, something biblical and important. They reminded me of the Old Testament law that directed the Jews to leave a margin of their fields untouched during harvest time so that the poor could glean food from their land. Boaz, grandfather of David and second husband of Ruth, a refugee just like the women at the edge of our yard, obeyed that law.
I know better than to think turning a blind eye to three refugee women pulling weeds in my backyard is in any way a modern reflection of this law, but it got me thinking.
For every Boaz in the Old Testament days, I wonder how many farmers didn’t obey this command. They meant to, they really did, but when harvest time came, they just couldn’t bring themselves to not reap every last stalk of wheat or pick every last grape from every last row of vines. I wonder how many of them hoarded that last little bit, protected it even. It would be inefficient not to, after all. I wonder if, because it had forbidden fruit status, the bounty harvested from the edges of their fields became all the more precious to them. If they began to believe they deserved to keep it.
Jesus accused the Pharisees of calling the margin of their crops an “offering” so they could avoid giving it to their parents or to the poor. Apparently they were so entrenched in this habit, they even did it with the margin of their kitchen gardens, their “mint and dill and cumin” (Matthew 23:23). They managed to justify their greed by spiritualizing it. And, in doing so, they turned their margin into an idol.
The Almighty Margin
Margin gets a lot of really good press these days. Margin is “me time” in a schedule full of other people time. It is the space I carve out for myself so I won’t get burned out, tired out, or maybe even a little wigged out. It is the downtime in a week full of up-and-going time. It is the time I desperately need to be alone, to read a book, take a nap, prop my feet up on the couch, drink a good cup of coffee, play solitaire on my phone, watch an inane show on TV, or just turn my brain off for a while. Margin is precisely the one thing I have that I can’t/won’t give away. It is “my precious,” to give it a creepy, Gollum voice.
I work, often pretty unsuccessfully, at living an intentional life, which makes my margin even more valuable and necessary, right? The more I feel I deserve it, the tighter my grip becomes, so that I can be downright territorial about it, as in “Woe betide the person or agenda that gets in the way of my margin.” And, thus, it has become my idol.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer issued a challenge that relates more to the margins of my life than any other part of it:
We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, as the priest passed by the man who had fallen among thieves, perhaps—reading the Bible. When we do that we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised athwart our path to show us that, not our way, but God’s way must be done.
Nothing erodes the margins of a margin more than interruptions. Bonhoeffer describes a life that is “balked and crossed” by interruptions as a life filled with holy potential. The problem I have is that I refuse to see that these interruptions bear the image of Jesus. Like a preoccupied Pharisee, I regularly pass by the “visible sign of the Cross,” precisely because it is all cattywhompus and out of place or, as Bonhoeffer says, “athwart” my path, kind of like, say, a toddler showing up in my backyard.
But if I don’t create margin for myself, who will? This question gets at the heart of the matter. Idol worship springs from our terror that, unless we protect it, the thing we need to survive will be withheld from us. No wonder ancient peoples worshipped the sun, the moon, the harvest, the earth itself. Their core necessities. They worshiped the sun to assure themselves that it would come up day after day. They bowed down to their harvest to guarantee it would be bountiful. Today we see how absurd this is. Or do we?
The other day, I read these words in the 139th Psalm:
“You chart the path ahead of me and tell me where to stop and rest. Every moment you know where I am.” (Verse 3, NLT)
Yes, I need rest. I need to be alone, to read a book, take a nap, prop my feet on the couch, drink a good cup of coffee, play solitaire on my phone, watch an inane show on TV, or just turn my brain off for a while. I might even call this need to recharge a core necessity. The Bible does not say I don’t need it, it just says God has the prerogative to give it when and how he chooses. Conversely, he has the right to withhold it, to instead of telling me to “stop and rest,” to interrupt that rest by telling me to “go and give.”
I’m not sure it’s fair to compare an Old Testament use of the word margin—meaning the edges of a field carved out for the poor—to the twenty-first century reincarnation of the same word—meaning the edges of a busy schedule carved out for me, but I wonder. See the problem? The former is for them, the latter is for me.
(I inserted the following paragraph yesterday… a few days after I wrote this post. Or, rather, in the time it took for me to flirt mightily with being a hypocrite.)
Just today as my “afternoon window” cup of coffee was brewing and the book I can’t put down but don’t pick up often enough was waiting on the couch, the phone rang. Amina, who else? (You can read more about my favorite Somali rabble-rouser here.) I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say I drove to Jimmy Carter Blvd. to fetch Amina and a woman from New York who had “victim” down to a science more brilliantly than anyone I’ve ever met. Everything in me said to make up an excuse not to go. But I thought of this post and my own words made me do it. I hate it when that happens. I’d tell you all about it, but that is another story for another Thursday. Don’t get all excited—it was a very ordinary experience. Just God reminding me to mean what I say.
If my life is a garden plot, God owns it right up to the edges. And he has made those edges for others, not just for me. Have you ever noticed that interruptions, usually in the form of someone else’s need, occur just when you stop to rest, when you turn the ringer off on your phone, when your eyes finally close, when the book finally gets your full attention, when your favorite show gets really interesting, the show you can’t DVR because you don’t pay for that feature? Of course it happens like this. The entire field of my life may fit in between the pages of The Purpose Driven Life, but the edges? The edges seem so much more likely to slip through my fingers if I don’t make a fist around them.
But then I remember the women squatting in our weeds and the little joy-nerve it struck in me to watch them gain something—however mysterious—from the absolute ends of our property. I remember them, and I think I may see my margin a little differently from now on.