Have you ever really, really, really been at the end of your rope?
I don’t mean that you’ve had a long day or that an exam was difficult or that you sprained your ankle while running. I mean the Chevy-Chase-losing-it-in-National-Lampoon’s-Christmas-Vacation kind of meltdown in which you discover that you are at the end of yourself.
Oh, dear friends, so many people in North America have been at the end of their ropes in the past decade (and not just auto workers in the rust belt, as this excellent essay points out). Foreclosures turned one teen into a landlord and spawned many a story of food pantry donors-turned-recipients, middle-class subdivision neighbors sneaking for assistance and afraid that each other would find out, or this shining example, “This Is What Happened When I Drove My Mercedes to Pick Up Food Stamps.”
May I observe something? It’s not “us-and-them.” If the past ten years has taught us anything, it is that it should be just “us,” as so many have discovered. It’s not that “we” have and “they” don’t, so we donate to “them.” We are all in this together.
But a painful lesson it’s been, as I know personally, still flinching at the memory of nearly five Christmases ago when I waddled nine months pregnant into the unemployment office, where I waited an hour and a half to be seen until finally lumbering over to the desk and hissing at a very young employee that I was having contractions and would hate for my water to break on her as-yet dry carpet (alright, I admit I suspected they were Braxton-Hicks contractions, but this was my first child and they could have been the real thing!). Five minutes later and my paperwork had been processed (“it’s a Christmas miracle!”).
This Thanksgiving and Christmas, we need food pantries and nonprofit organizations, churches and kind social workers, homeless shelters and business donations, we need Good Samaritan funds and people who order a coffee in the drive-thru for the guy with the sign at the intersection. The Church is really good at putting programming in place.
Only when you’re at the end of your rope, it’s not always programming that you need. In fact, programming can be a tool to distance ourselves from uncomfortable need.
One time while I was in seminary (and these were the days when thrift shops were cool) a friend said, “hey! There’s a church that runs something basically like a free “Goodwill” store, do you want to go?” Knowing the church, I thought the chances were good that donations would be good quality, so I said sure. At the last minute the others had to back out, so I went alone.
What an eye-opener.
I’d grown up in church, I had a parent, a grandparent and two uncles in ministry. I had answered knocks on the front door from people asking for assistance. During a severe mid-winter power outage we’d had a 94-year-old woman stay with us for several days. Not only had I been brought up to help others, others sometimes liked to try to help out the pastor’s family, like the time when I was 12 and a sweet old lady handed me a bag of clothes she’d picked up for me.
At a garage sale.
It was a bag of underwear.
How could I be shocked by anything?
Yet I was.
This church with the free “Goodwill store” set-up had organized a well-oiled machine of charitable giving. It was efficient, clear, and completely inhuman. There was hot coffee and plenty of selection; the only thing missing was dignity.
I had arrived early, and when I found the registration table (starting to sound less like a “Goodwill” store), I had to present photo identification, because, the shining white teeth informed me, I was only allowed to come every few months so that the system wouldn’t be taken advantage of, and so that people wouldn’t come and get clothes only to turn around and sell them for profit (because the last thing we want is recipients selling hand-me-down’s?).
I tried, and managed, to imagine reasons for these regulations that seemed excessive but hopefully well-intentioned. But then, dear reader, then, someone assumed I was a volunteer.
Because I was the only Caucasian in the line.
All around me were well-mannered families waiting patiently for their turns, seemingly at ease while I wondered if smoke was beginning to pour from my pale Celtic ears.
“Us” and “them”…
Consider the miracles Jesus performed in which the disciples were forced to receive something. These disciples were sent out, performing miracles themselves sometimes, but when they returned – ah, they needed to have to receive (read Mark 6:6b-13 and 30-44). Before the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost, the disciples quickly slid into thinking of themselves as “us,” and of the crowds as “them” – and Jesus always, always pushed them to have to become “them” in his presence. The disciples had gone out healing others but still needed to eat the loaves and fish that Jesus multiplied.
When you’re at the end of your rope, yes, programming may be helpful, but when you’re at the end of your rope, you mostly need very, very kind love – the kind of love that makes you stand taller, that makes you laugh or hope when the world seems drained of humor or goodness. Mother Teresa did not gain notoriety for being an efficiency expert, but for her embracing, laughing love that fought against despair or suicidal thoughts or pink slips or rejection or shame.
“At Vineyard Community Church in Wickliffe, another Cleveland suburb, Brent Paulson, the pastor, said he had to post an employee in the driveway the day the church’s food bank was open to coax people inside, they were so ashamed to ask for help,” reports a 2011 New York Times piece on suburban poverty.
We all want to exercise our best for God, but have “best practices” spawned pride – or shame – in their wake?
So whether you plan to volunteer at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving Day or play Santa for kids in foster care or sing carols in a nursing home ward, remember this.
Every time you take Communion, you stand in line at God’s food pantry. We all stand in line for the bread that is the Body.