Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Serving and the Change of Heart

I want to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to God for all He has done in my life, and my family's life. Life is full of daily challenges, and becoming fixated on the issues and problems of life takes virtually no effort at all. But life is also full of daily victories and blessings, and I've noticed that becoming fixated on the "good stuff" of life often takes real effort.

Case in point: Last Sunday our family volunteered for the second time at the New England Dream Center in Worcester. The Dream Center is an organization, run by the church we attend, that helps and ministers to destitute individuals and families in various ways. One of those ways is by cooking and serving a hot meal every Sunday to homeless and other needy people each Sunday in the Dream Center "Diner," a kitchen and small cafeteria located in the basement of the church's Worcester campus.

I'll be honest--as our family headed out for the dream center Sunday morning, my focus was not very much on the people we'd be serving that morning, or on their needs. Actually, at the time I was a little bit irritated that we'd committed to serve that day and that we actually had to head out to do so. Right before we left the house I had just discovered that some sort of drink had been been mysteriously spilled by some unnamed person on my MacBook Pro laptop in my office, and after a quick examination of the computer I came to the conclusion that it was dead. This issue on top of the broken shower and broken mailbox challenges of the previous week.

So as we traveled to the dream center Sunday morning I took the opportunity to dwell on my, shall we say, less than jovial mood and mentally troubleshot and planned for my next steps in dealing with the various associated loose ends of issues that needed to be followed up on. We got to the dream center diner about an hour before church started and jumped in to help the volunteer team get all the tables, chairs and food prepped and set up. Even Chloë helped - she was a whiz at setting out the salt & pepper shakers on all the tables (while also managing to gobble down 2 chocolate donuts along the way).

Then we went up to join the church service, and I'll admit I was still focused on myself throughout. Then, as the service was winding down we re-joined the team down in the Diner to prepare for the arrival of all the folks we'd be serving that morning. Our family divided up into different stations - some of us on the serving line, some helping to wipe tables in the dining area, etc. And then, hundreds of extremely hungry guests arrived to claim their hot meal.

People from all walks and stations of life formed a huge line, filing in and making their way through the serving line and then locating an empty seat to enjoy their meal. I was assigned to roam around and clean tables as folks finished their meals and left. As I worked this job, I couldn't help but notice the people all around me, and wonder about what unfortunate or tragic set of circumstances brought each of them to this place. Old men and women, young men and women, people of all ethnic backgrounds, individuals and families, mentally handicapped, those not in their right mind for whatever reason, the clearly homeless and the borderline homeless. And kids, way too many kids...

So many different people, and I supposed with so many different stories. But all had one thing in common: they all were extremely hungry and without other means to eat on a bitter cold winter day in January. As I bused tables I tried to say hello to folks and to make them feel as normal as I could for a few moments. I imagined they were at a restaurant and I was their server, and tried to treat them accordingly. One older gentleman asked me to watch his food for a minute so he could go up to the dessert table and bring some sweets back. I did, and it suddenly occurred to me what a scared trust that man had placed in me. I have no idea when he'd last eaten but I found myself moving closer to the table and, before I realized it, surrounding and hovering over the man's food like some pack leader guarding the day's kill. He came back, sat down, and mumbled some things I quite honestly couldn't understand. So I smiled politely and moved on to go about my business. He seemed like a nice guy, normal in so many ways, but I noticed one eye seemed not to be working right and I couldn't understand what he was saying. I could somehow tell he had once had a regular life, and felt a tinge of sad despair as I thought of what could have brought that man to this place.

I moved about wiping tables and observing the people, while trying not to look like I was observing them. But I could tell many knew. Some just didn't care. Others cared but were embarrassed. Some seemed beyond hope and some just left their dirty dishes lying on the table as they slid out unnoticed. Most cleared their own dishes, and were quickly gone. Some were too proud to be completely served or dependant and joined in to help put away chairs, or to otherwise pitch in however they could to clean up. I saw a family doing their utmost to appear normal, not in need. A husband and wife and kids, smiling as they gathered themselves to leave. On first glance they pulled it off, but upon closer inspection I could see the slight desperation in their eyes and behind their smiles.

One of my fellow workers was pushing a candy-laden cart around the room handing out sweets to the kids. All kids love sweets. I hoped the candy would somehow help to ease the inner and outer turmoil some of these kids must be going through. I hoped it would give them a little normalcy. I wanted to run when a boy, maybe 12 or 13, came up and asked me if there was any more candy. I knew in my heart there was not, that it was gone. I pointed him toward the lady with the cart, hoping she'd have some left, but if not at least I didn't have to deliver the bad news and see the boy's disappointment.

A lady asked if she could use the kitchen sink to fill up a jug to put water in her car's radiator. I said "Sure, don't see why not" even as I wondered if she was living in her car. I saw her in the parking lot afterwards, filling her radiator, and wondered even more about her situation. Her car was a relatively late model Honda sedan. I wondered how that could be, and again pondered if it was her home.

Our family completed our duties, said good-bye to the volunteer staff, and then headed out to go about the rest of our day's activities. I didn't think a lot more about our morning serving, as I got busy and back into our own needs and routine. But I've reflected on it a bit since then and have had a few thoughts. I think I often don't really know what it means to be blessed, and don't acknowledge most of the time that I am. I'm upset about my laptop--one of the 9 Internet-connected computers, tablets, and smart phones in our home--getting ruined. But many of the people I served Sunday morning don't have homes or computers of any kind, let alone premium MacBooks, and it occurs to me that most of those folks would probably have little to no real use for one in their present circumstances anyway.

I get upset about one of our 2 showers breaking for a day. But I wonder what it's like to not have a shower, or water. I'm put out by a plow truck knocking down our granite mailbox post in a recent snowstorm and having to make a trip to the post office to attempt to retrieve mail as I labor to get a workable mailbox back up and in service. But I wonder what it's like to not have a home to host a mailbox, or to not have an address.

I'm tempted to also complain about the relentless, never-ending, bitter sub-zero cold spell we've been in. But I remind myself that we're spending the entirety of that cold spell either in our cozy warm house or out driving around in our heated cars with their heated seats. I wonder what you do on days and nights like this if you don't have a car or a house? Where do you go?

Through all of this, through all of our time serving at the dream center last Sunday, I was drawn to the overwhelming sadness and despair I felt for the people we served. But I also saw something else, something much slighter that took more effort to see: Joy. And maybe even a little hope. For at least some of these folks. Despite the overriding negativity of it all, I would be remiss if I didn't also share that there were a few genuine smiles - not placating or veneer smiles, but real, genuine "I'm happy and how are you?" smiles. There were happy kids, among the homeless and among our home. I saw real joy in the faces of Colette and our kids as they lent a hand to others in need. And I saw just enough smiling and glimmers of smiling among those being served.

And of course there was our Chloë - either too blissfully ignorant at 4 years old to understand the plight of the folks all around her, or else smarter and more genuinely in tune with it all than the rest of us. I prefer to think it's the latter, as I recall her running and dancing all around the room, excited to "serve" and eat donuts and happily point out--with no preconception or judgment at all--the nice little destitute but to her perfectly normal girl seated at the table nearby, who was in children's church with her just a short time ago. I am happy that right now Chloë doesn't know anything's wrong with this picture or that girl. I'm happy she knows a life free from the issues the dream center people deal with. I'm happy our whole family knows this life, and I realize that's the essence of being blessed, and of being a blessing. And that's why I'm grateful. I know it's ultimately not my doing that's responsible for any of this blessing - it's the goodness and grace of God Almighty, and His goodness alone. It's Jesus dying on the cross for me, for all of humanity, that makes all of this possible. And for that and all He has so richly done in my life and my family's life, I am eternally thankful.

Reflecting on all this, I find myself aware that there is a common link running through all of this experience. The same hope and grace that I'm expressing gratitude for is precisely the same hope and grace behind the smiles I saw among some of the dream center folks. Right now there's just a tiny spark in that room, among those folks. But sparks are made to grow. And I realize I hold the fuel, the fuel of God's rich blessing, that can be poured on that spark to hopefully ignite it. I know God doesn't need my help to do anything, but I also know He's asking for my help anyway. And so I pray that He will help me to answer that call, and that He will use me and my family to ignite fires of His blessing wherever He chooses.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Thought of the day...

Mark 4:37-41
37 And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. 
38 Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, "Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?" 
39 And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Hush, be still." And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. 
40 And He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?"  
41 They became very much afraid and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?"