I recently started a new job, working for an organization called Hope Collaborative. HC provides in-school mentoring for students in need of extra support; my role will be to help recruit, train, and encourage mentors as they come alongside students. I’ll also serve as a resource to schools as they seek to help at-risk students. I’m excited about the opportunity, and grateful to have it.
But getting to this point — well, it has been a unique season. It began last August when I walked away from a very good position at a very good church to step into the Great Unknown. At one of the job interviews I’ve had since last summer, one person in the room said, “Life involves risk. Tell about a time you took a risk.”
The first answer that came to mind, and the first one out of my mouth, was: “You mean, like quitting a job when you don’t have another one to step into?”
I’m not sure that was the answer he was looking for; I’m not sure it was the answer I was looking for. But it was the answer I chose. To give. And to live. And perhaps for the first time in my nearly 5 decades of life, I think I’m beginning to understand what people mean when they describe a season of life by saying: I don’t want to go back and live it again, but I also don’t want to go back and be the person I was before all this happened.
That sentence has more meaning to me now, though I’m just beginning to really understand it. But as that understanding grows, here’s some of what I think I’ve learned during the 7 months of “I-have-no-idea-what’s-next….”
One: there’s a lot of hard work to be done in this world. Let me just be honest here: I was insulated from that. I haven’t had to do hard physical work since perhaps my college days, when I spent a summer working in a warehouse, and another as a carpet cleaner’s assistant with Stanley Steemer (and, yes, the broken Chinese figurines and the broken lamp were both my fault; it was a long summer).
Since last August, I have pulled carpet. I’ve cleaned out houses with decades of dirt, detritus, debris, and even doo-doo. I delivered packages during the holidays. And in all of that, I realized how much harder it is to do that work at 49, than it was at 19.
And while I was doing that work, I began to pay attention to how people paid attention to me. While I pulled their carpet and delivered their packages, I noticed that some folks were pleasant and kind. They said hi, and even offered me a Coke or a candy bar. Others were focused on their agenda, and they kept on moving. But there were also people who seemed to act as if I wasn’t there; almost as if they wanted to avoid me and the work I represented. They needed the service I offered, but it was almost as if they felt that if they just kept their head down, or turned away, the work would get done — and they wouldn’t have to be a part of it in any way.
Which leads to a helpful lesson for all of us: Notice people; the ones right in front of you. Get to know the person at your office who cleans your bathroom and empties your trash. Be kind and generous with your server. Think once, and then twice, before criticizing the $11/hour worker who cleans the floors or bags your groceries. Better yet, smile. Be kind.
Right after I wrote my first draft of these words, I stopped by the bathroom in the office where I work. There was a guy cleaning it. I thought: I just wrote about the importance of not overlooking people; maybe I ought to practice what I preach. So I got to talking, and learned his name is Eric. And he told me that he used to mentor in the very program where I am now working. Eric shared his story, and offered some helpful insight.
Turns out — the guy cleaning my restroom has a story to share. As does everyone you will encounter. How many will you take the time to get to know?
Which leads me to another lesson, one I desperately need to learn: Be present in the moment. One of the strange dichotomies of ministry was that I so often felt busy that I felt too busy to be with people if I hadn’t already planned to be with people. Chance encounters and crises were often seen as challenges to my schedule, instead of opportunities to be present with the people who had come my way. With a schedule that almost always felt full, a to-do list never ending, and an even longer list of people I needed to visit — I often let ministry become more about checking things off than checking out what God was up to.
Perhaps this is why my new role is the right job for me at the right time. I have the chance to encourage mentors and share opportunities — in a context that doesn’t feel like there’s always something else I should be doing. (It also helps that I am only scheduled to work a set number of hours; when the work day is over now, it’s really over. Ministry never felt that way.)
In a way, I feel like I’m detoxing from the constant sense of urgency to do the next thing. Instead, I’m just now beginning to learn to be in the moment; to truly be with the person/s I’m currently with; to receive the gift of now.
So, I’m learning to stop and talk to my neighbors when I take out my trash. I’m learning to shoot baskets with my son even when I’m tired. And perhaps in all of this I’m learning a lesson I should have learned a long time ago: ministry often happens when I stop worrying about doing ministry — and instead, just receive the moment, and the people, who are right in front of me.