Saturday, July 24, 2010

The smell of bread

This morning I got up at 7, showered, and hopped in the car for a quick trip to the store. Even before having my first cup of coffee. We forgot to get bread for the closing prayer for the Week 3 people. I came back with some hoagie loaves.

At circle, Nancy and I broke the bread and slowly went to each person, giving them a piece of it and a blessing. This has been a hard week. Some of the folks, I think, did not really want to be here. But enough of them did to make it good. I looked into their eyes, touched them, gave them the bread, blessed them. Warm skin, warm hugs as they finally boarded the bus to return home.

Then, three more volunteers left. It seems I am often too tired or distracted to feel the impact of these goodbyes when they happen, and it's only later I look around and say, where's Megan? Where's Leroy? Where's Marco? But today, I felt the goodbyes. I have to say, it was hard for me to see Jenna, Erika, and Michaela all go. One by one, I just wanted to hang on to them. I hope they know how good it was to share this mission with them for these past few weeks.

And then, before I was really ready, the next bus arrived. So now I get to entertain everyone by hacking my way through announcements and explanations in Spanish. We got them settled in, we fed them, and then we introduced them to the theme for the week. As they entered the meeting room, the smell of bread greeted them. And at the close of the gathering, we fed them bread still almost too hot to touch, pulled from our bread machine before their eyes.

My hand still remembers the warmth of the people of Baltimore as I touched them to bless them this morning. And my hand still remembers the warmth of the bread we fed and distributed to the people of South Philly tonight. It seems odd that of everything this day has held, it is the warmth in my hands that is with me now.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Biting the Onion

I am supposed to be writing something about the virtue of patience. It's kind of ironic that this virtue was assigned to me to reflect on. I used to think patience was something I was fairly good at. When I worked in a lab, a friend of mine visited me at work one day and ended up watching me prepare a series of reagents. It required precision pipetting, slow and steady. She sat silently, waiting for me to finish so we could go. Afterward she told me she was amazed, seeing how the work required an assent to tedium as well as a steady hand.

I thought patience meant doing that kind of work. Assenting to tedium instead of resisting it or avoiding it. Just sit there, focus, get it done.

Well, that is a kind of patience, it's true, but in my later years, I think I need a different kind of patience. Hanging on my wall right now is an action plan our congregation arrived at at our last chapter, two years ago. It contains many elements we had already agreed to work on at the previous chapter five years earlier. Unfortunately, we did not make enough visible progress the first time around--many people did not even recognize the previous chapter statement when it was read out loud to them. We firmly resolved to do better this time.

And I think we are, in some ways. The rub is, I want more. I have strong feelings about certain things I believe we ought to be doing, and it feels like after two years, we ought to be further along than we are. In other words, I am feeling impatient.

A virtue can be carried too far. Patience must be tempered by zeal or it becomes passivity, even laziness. I think that my impatience for my congregation's progress on our plan is appropriate. Surely we can do more if we try harder! But this works both ways. Zeal must be tempered by patience or it becomes arrogance. So, my challenge, if I want to grow in this virtue (and I really do), is to discern where to draw the line. Where does my passion for progress need to be tempered? I don't want "patience" to let us off the hook to make real, tangible progress on our goals. But I don't want to be obnoxious and arrogant, either!

The theme for our summer program is "Our Daily Bread." Each day, we explore some bible story about bread, and on Tuesday nights, Nancy gives a presentation on "The Bread of Troubled Times." She illustrated a life lesson to the group by preparing a special banquet just for me. She sat me at a little table laden with prunes, parsley, an onion, and Tabasco water. Yum! Sometimes, life does not go so well. Things go wrong. An illness. A failure. A wrong turn. And we have no choice but to go along for the ride.

I sat there in front of the gathering, looking at the unpleasant meal set before me, and reflected while Nancy talked. I can sit here and wait patiently for a better meal to come around.... or I can accept that, like it or not, this is what's for dinner tonight. While Nancy talked, I picked up the onion, peeled it, and took a bite.

Well, it wasn't so bad, really. Patience is not passivity. Patience is not meek acceptance of less than our best. Patience is active. Patience is seizing reality and biting into it, chewing and swallowing. It's eating what is set before you.