Shards of sunlight shatter through the overhead leaves, meeting only the thick resistance of hats and long sleeves stained by the flying dirt. The steady click of a lone pick punctuates an army of squelching shovels. Sweat begins to singe the dusty earth as the pick approaches a furious crescendo, each blow matched with a hearty grunt. Then, a final blow: “victorrrrrrrrry,” our hero bellows, wrapping his calloused hands around his prize and ripping it, dripping earth, from the ground…
This is a story. Rather, this is a story about a story. You see, stories are not tame animals that come with a whistle; they are wild and ferocious monsters, willing sooner to eat than to be eaten. You have to catch the beast – the rude, unrefined substance of living moment to moment – shear it, and spin the wool. I like how Margaret Atwood puts it: “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”
When I stop to think about it, it’s an awful lot like that root above my head. A glance reveals a single, gnarled trunk extending almost 20 feet. It’s tempting – and easy – to forget the dozens of smaller roots attached to the main body, which all had to be severed to free the main root. Each was a battle on its own. But in order to better present a finished product, that herculean root, I’ve completely ignored other parts of my day – gathering the shovels, instructing the volunteers who helped me dig, every swig of water I took. There is really no end to the peripherals that I have omitted. But what makes them peripheral?
A story is no more than an arbitrary selection of details. There is nothing special about that particular monster of a root in the scheme of my day; the root had to come out along with all the smaller roots attached to it, it just happened to look more impressive than the rest of the day’s tasks. But with a single picture I spun a story, swept aside the clutter of the rest of the day’s activities, and cut the root free – not from the earth, but from the swath of a thousand actions and events led up to the picture, or led nowhere at all. What remains is not simply a picture of a man holding up a root, but a picture of the life of service.
Organizations like Oakleaf tend to be scattered and stretched to meet a diverse set of needs, but there is a root there – a core to our purpose and struggles. Unfortunately, identifying and presenting that root requires severing all the tendrils, offshoots, and subroots, as well as excavating all the dirt in which it grows; merely saying that Oakleaf is run by so and so or does so and so relegates hundreds of people and acts of ministry to an invented periphery. This can be a strong temptation when we view service, setting our focus on a single act or individual – that missionary doctor in Africa, say, and utterly forgetting the janitor who keeps the doctor’s facilities sanitary, or those who have donated the medical supplies – the intricate and essential web of supporting people and events. I mentioned earlier that the picture of the root is a picture of service because of all that must be cut out of the picture to present the root. In a similar fashion, service is self-effacing and self-erasing; even though it makes the picture, it doesn’t always make it into the picture.