Monday, July 13, 2009
. . .
It seems that all the things worth doing in this life are messy, and I don't like messy. And yet relationships are always that way. I keep thinking (mistakenly) that as I get better at loving people that things will work out better, go more according to plan. Those last five words expose me. I want some sort of control. I want to know what comes next. I want formula. I want to know that if I do my part, then I will get some predictable result. Loving people doesn't work that way.
Ultimately loving anyone means surrender. A perpetual giving up. Laying down my plans. Trading in my agenda. The church keeps telling me that I have to surrender to Jesus, which is true, but I need a continual reminder to shrink down below others as well. This is what Paul meant when he said that in humility I should consider others better than myself. In theory this works out fine. And on the days when all is going well, it seems like a pretty good idea. But on those other days, when someone cuts me off on the road and the waitress is rude and my friends hurt my feelings (or I hurt theirs), surrender is complicated. Instead of shrinking down, my heart cries out, "What about me?"
This is where things start to get messy and the point where my strong leanings toward avoidance kick in. I am more prone to walk around the mess than through it. Nurse my wounded pride and walk away. But if I am serious about living as Jesus did I've got to willingly enter into the messiness that is my life and theirs and all the complications that come when we try to do life together. I think this was the point of Christ's humanity. He willingly left the right hand of the Father to come down here and walk right through our messy lives because that's what love is. In humility, Jesus decided that my life was more important than His. And I'd like to believe that because He was fully God that somehow his decision to surrender was easier than mine, but I need look no further than Gethsemane to see that even for God surrender is not an easy thing.
So I have no choice but to give up. Who am I to demand that my life be neat and clean and predictable and that I be given what I think I deserve? And is that really what I want? What I want more is to be able to really enter into the messiness of life and give up enough of me so that someone, anyone, everyone could know what Jesus meant when He said love. But the reality is that Jesus wasn't really as into talking about love as much as He was into living it, and He lived out this love in the messiest places He could find. Turns out the religious people in those days hated messes too, so much so that they killed Jesus.
And that's the fork in the road where I find myself everyday…I can sacrifice Him or me. Somehow this decision used to be easier, or at least that's how it seemed; I now wonder if I've ever fully sacrificed myself for Jesus or anyone else. Where is my Gethsemane ? Jesus fell to the ground "overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death" as He struggled with the decision to give up His life for mine. My prayer is that God might strengthen me (or make me weak enough) so that I can struggle forward to a place where I might choose someone else above myself…a deceptively simple request. And maybe I never quite make it, but my heart is that I would move a little more in that direction everyday of this messy life.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Things I’m bad at: dancing, knowing the difference between clockwise and counterclockwise, doing anything in the kitchen.
I tend to steer my life toward the things I do well, and I try to avoid, at all costs, doing the things that I’m bad at. So how did I end up being in charge of the kitchen at shelter last night? This is what I was asking myself while doing mountains of dishes. I was spraying mashed potatoes and spaghetti and brownie bits off of plates and onto the walls/the sink/my hair, and I was soaking wet, despite wearing big, yellow rubber gloves to my elbows and a floor-length black apron. With 10 minutes left before lights out, there were two bus tubs full of dishes that I hadn’t even started, and most of the leftover food from the evening was still out on the table.
This was par for the course last night. The last few evenings have felt a bit like this, full of constant reminders that I’m the clueless, new kid. Every night there are things that I don’t know how to do or situations I don’t know how to handle. I tell guests no when the answer is yes. I give them things I’m not supposed to. I have to ask a supervisor to clarify what exactly I’m supposed to be doing. Someone has to redo whatever I’ve just done or clean up the mess I’ve made. So last night, after days of feeling incompetent and 30 minutes of swimming in soggy food, I hit the wall; I was done.
At that point, Kristin (aka the boss of me) walked in and realized that I was totally overwhelmed. She offered to let me do whatever would be best for me, but at that moment I had no idea what that was. We talked for a minute, and I opted to skip our nightly meeting and go ahead and finish the dishes because we thought some alone time would do me good. It was a good call.
As I continued washing dishes and trying to process what I was feeling, I was reminded of something God spoke to me years ago, “You don’t do enough of the things that you hate.” It’s an odd concept to be sure. We all do our best to craft lives around the things that we’re good at and the things we enjoy. So why bother with the things I hate? Why choose to do things I don’t do well? What is there to gain? The answer: everything.
Humility. Surrender of control. Transformation. Solidarity with those who don’t get to choose. This is why Jesus calls us to live as servants. There is something about this posture that allows us to give and receive more authentically and that puts us in a position to be changed. I am reminded that this is part of why I go to new places to do things I’ve never done before. I didn’t come here because I would be good at it, quite the opposite. Living in a world where I only do what I’m good at is a dangerous place. When I know exactly what I'm doing and am totally relying on me and my own competence, I tend to be closed off to learning from God and others. And I know that I still have much to learn…which is why I’m here.
I hope that as I spend my last few nights at shelter, and inherently stumble through new tasks and make a few more mistakes, I can remember that that's okay. As a closet perfectionist/control freak/performance junkie, I hope I can let go a little more...and relax.
I don’t have this thing figured out, but I’m beginning to think that’s good news.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
There is a rhythm and routine to my work at the shelter that brings me comfort. Upon arrival each night we put on gloves and begin lugging gray mats to their assigned places. Each mat has a number, and we deliver 29 of them to their designated spots according to a detailed map. There is a red number on one side and a black number on the other side. On odd numbered days we place the red side up, and on even numbered days, it’s black side up. We have to leave at least two tiles’ space between them. Then we put a pillow on each mat and a Rubbermaid container for belongings at the foot of each bed. We disinfect the mats and start stacking bedding with one blanket, sheet, and pillowcase for each guest.
Getting the shelter ready each night is a series of small, easy tasks. My body is more engaged than my mind. There is steady movement and the satisfaction of a job well done. I’m really good at setting up mats; my success is guaranteed. I don’t even fully understand all of what I’m doing. Don’t ask me why we have a map for our numbered mats. I have no idea, but it doesn’t really matter. Someone else is in charge here; someone else is "the boss of me". I’m just following directions. I love these kinds of jobs. I always have. Secretly, I like doing meticulously scripted work. I crave more structure and supervision than anyone would suspect. It makes me feel safe.
I’m beginning to think this is true of us all. People often talk about how children crave structure or need boundaries, but so do adults. That is why 25+ guests show up at ROOTS every night. Because they are seeking a structure and routine that is never present on the streets. For 11 hours at a time they are happy to trade in the independence and freedom of their street lives for the rigidity and rules of shelter life.
My experience is that successful programs for homeless friends tend to be pretty rules-y. They gave me pages of rules at volunteer training, but after being here only a week I understand that they are necessary. These are not rules for the sake of having rules. All the systems and procedures for beds and food and bathrooms and clothing and the ways we monitor conversation and behavior, they are the structure that holds this place up. And ultimately, it is all part of the attempt to make everyone feel safe. And it seems to work.
When guests check in for the evening, they are asked a series of questions. The first is whether or not they feel safe. I love this question. Why? Because safe matters. The health of individuals and communities depends on it. It’s a question that we all answer for ourselves a hundred times a day in each of our many contexts and relationships. Am I safe? Unfortunately, many of the horrible things that happen in our world on both a global and relational level happen when individuals or groups feel unsafe, but when people feel safe it opens the door for unlimited possibilities. This is why ROOTS goes to great lengths to create a safe space. And I love that. I love the sanctuary that this place provides for guests, many of whom I suspect have had very unsafe journeys that have brought them here. But at least for tonight, they have a safe place to land...on these gray numbered mats in nice, neat rows. And that makes me happy.
Friday, June 26, 2009
I’m in Seattle for the next few weeks as a part of a volunteer work camp. I will be working a few nights a week at ROOTS, which is a homeless shelter for young adults. They provide shelter for 25 people each night, ranging in age from 18-25. Most of the regular volunteers are university students, so we are here to help fill in during the summer.
I basically started yesterday; we started with conflict de-escalation training and general volunteer training. I am inclined to find the humor in any situation, and let me say that conflict de-escalation was no exception. I sat in front of a guy who said “Word” any time he agreed with the presenter, which was often. Loved that. The training was really good, and most of the information and tools we learned were extremely helpful. However, at one point the presenter did suggest we could hop up and down when dealing with someone who’s mentally ill or delusional. What? I mean, I guess that’s a good way to use body language to communicate, “Hey, I’m on your team. We’re all crazy here.”
Then we did everybody’s favorite, role playing with strangers. I was chosen to pretend to be a meth addict who thought I had bugs coming out of my skin for an audience of 20 strangers (shoot me). So there I am in my acting debut screaming and pretending to have elaborate hallucinations, and this shy woman in my group with limited English is playing the part of the staff member who is supposed to intervene. Unsure of what to say or do, she just stands there and stares at me. Forever. So unfortunately, the show must go on. After what feels like an eternity of me screaming and dancing, the trainer stops the madness. It was ridiculous. Then at the end of the three-hour training we each had to say the best thing we learned that day, and the woman said her best part was learning to deal with me, the girl with the bugs. Of course it was, glad I could help out. My life is a comic strip. Add another frame. (The only thing that could have made the situation better would have been if she had started hopping. Too bad she didn’t think of that.)
Anyway, the comedy of conflict de-escalation training also served as good bonding for me and my team. Thankfully we didn’t know each other well enough to laugh about it in the moment, but afterwards, we reveled in the shared awkwardness of what we’d just done. My team is made up of a girl from the states and a guy from Belgium, and we get herded around by a woman who works at the shelter who takes really good care of us. Thus far, it’s been great. We are all pretty laid back and flexible, and we like to laugh and eat good food and wander the city together. My living situation is pretty great, too. I live in a condo downtown with a very kind host family, not exactly what I was expecting from my first volunteer work camp, but a pleasant surprise.
Then last night was the highlight of our time so far; we all got to work the evening program at the shelter, which is basically all the stuff that happens before lights out: checking people in, getting them bedding, toiletries, clothing, etc., and feeding them dinner. I got to work in the kitchen doing my favorite thing, feeding people. It was great. The other volunteers were friendly and helpful, and the homeless guests felt sort of familiar, like friends I know, kids I’ve taught, me. That seems to be part of the take-home message of my many trips all over the world doing these sorts of things; at the end of day, on some fundamental level we are all the same. And I like that.
Tonight I’m working my first overnight shift at the shelter, should be interesting. I’ll do my best to keep you friends posted. We’ll see. I don’t want to sacrifice the opportunity to live life for the chance to write about it. Hopefully there will be ample time to do both. ;)