AdventWord 2019: 22. Restore

December 22, 2019
Advent Reflections

When I think about the importance of manual labor, I think of my brother.

The winter he turned twenty, Joshua was living in my grandparents’ basement while he flailed around trying to find himself, attending community college and partying entirely too much, feeling all the things. I have read that most addicts find their bad habits while looking for community, and my brother, perhaps the most relational being on the planet, was traveling full force down this road. Joshua would call me, lost in a haze of drugs, depression, loneliness, and confusion. My memories of those phone calls are sensory: I don’t remember words as much as I remember impressions. When I think back, there is a dark room with only a pinhole of light at one end, and my brother’s voice, lost and sad, echoing in the blackness that seemed to surround him at the other end. Those were scary phone calls for me, for both of us. And each time I hung up I wept, unspoken prayers—that he would hang on one more day—pouring through my tears.

But then my grandmother decided—by some miracle of mercy and grace, or because of her upcoming knee surgery—to send Joshua in her place on a mission trip to Honduras.

So, one frosty January day, we loaded my pale, skin-and-bones brother, with his weary eyes and sideways smile, onto an airplane with half a dozen Presbyterians and sent him south for hard work and time away. Two weeks later, the man who came off the plane was my brother as he was created to be. His skin, now a golden brown, radiated health. His eyes were clear, alert and lucid, his smile thick and hearty. He looked strong, confident, free. The physical work had been transformative. Something holy and mysterious had  happened to him. Sweat and effort, and more sweat, and more effort, unlocked a peace inside my brother that sitting behind a desk never would…

I wouldn’t know until much later how much the leader of the trip, a man named David Gill, had cared for Joshua. Had led him, looked after him, helped him navigate a foreign land, then pushed him to grow. There was a beautiful dance between David’s gentle prodding and the manual, body-breaking labor, which began to break Joshua’s more unhealthy patterns.  One without the other, – only manual labor or only friendship, and the process would have been incomplete; together, they were the healing balm so needed for my brother’s wounded soul and weary mind. Together they gave my brother motive and purpose, and comfort. “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness,” wrote Wendell Berry in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays.

To my dying day I will believe that this trip restored my brother’s life.   Seeing this transformation in my brother was the beginning of my understanding what St. Benedict meant when he said, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul.” When we use the toil of our hands and not only our minds to bring newness and restoration to the world, we become part of God’s healing process in creation. When we dig in the soil and plant a seed, we enter into a cycle of restoration that produces wholeness in us. Our bodies are restored by the tilling and the harvesting, our minds are restored by the space that such repetitive works opens up within us, the earth is restored by the nutrients provided through the plant, and our spirits are revived as we become better stewards of what we have been given. And when we enter into this work with grateful hearts, when we see our work as a way to give thanks and praise to God, we are transformed further, growing more in Christlikeness with every push of the shovel, every pluck of a weed.

Excerpted from At Home in this Life: Finding Peace at the Crossroads of Unraveled Dreams and Beautiful Surprises by Jerusalem Greer, Staff Officer for Evangelism for The Episcopal Church.