This has been a tough couple of weeks. A dear friend died unexpectedly. Controversy at work and school has been brewing over Covid-19 mandates. Family members have been displaced from New Orleans due to Hurricane Ida. Our friends’ son underwent emergency heart surgery. Everywhere I turn there is something else to worry about; pray about; ask God “WTF?!!” about. Not to mention the 24-hour news cycles of Afghanistan, Texas’ abortion laws, the January 6th insurgency investigation and subsequent political wrangling, flooding in New York and New Jersey and the seemingly endless fires in California.
Hopelessness has come crashing in around me. My prayers seem shallow. My worry keeps me awake at night. And my questions remain unanswered. While praying my feeble “why?, why?, why?” prayer last night, I remembered Anne Lamott’s book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. In it she writes: “Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.”
That sentence reminded of a time many years ago when when we were living in Wisconsin and I was feeling hopeless. Battles with our then teenage son Blake were at times cataclysmic. Raising any teenager can make you feel hopeless and completely inept. This one managed to really push all my buttons. As with many teenagers, there were the usual sullen and angry moments. Life was unfair. His teachers were unfair. We were unfair. There was a lot of unfairness. I grew tired of his sulking and decided that I should show him some real unfairness up close and personal. Back then I occasionally volunteered at a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen in one of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods. He would come with me the next time that I volunteered at the soup kitchen. We’d see if his bitching about how unfair life was would be silenced for a day or two and my hopelessness about being an ill-equipped parent would be eased for a little while longer than that.
When we arrived at the church we joined the other volunteers, some from our own suburban parish, and others from city parishes, and still others from rural parishes. We were all there to do God’s work – to serve the poor; to feed the hungry. We began with prayer and then were given our assignments. I was to dole out a (not too generous) spoonful of green beans to each person; Blake was to clear and wipe tables.
As our “clients” came through the food line and settled into the battered folding chairs and worn cafeteria tables in the humble church hall, I realized that Blake was also sitting down. What was he doing??? He was supposed to be serving the poor! He had an assignment to clean the tables. I asked another volunteer to take over my bean-serving job for a moment so that I could have a word with my son. How dare he? I was going to set things straight! I was going to make this kid understand he was there to serve others; to stop thinking solely of himself for a change!!!
When I approached him full of arrogance and self-righteousness (after all I had been serving the poor for months now) I was determined to teach him a lesson in love and compassion. Instead I came upon Blake and an elderly gentleman having a conversation. Blake was talking to this man; really talking and listening to him as well. It occurred to me that while I had been dutifully dispensing food all these months, I had never taken the time to speak with anyone. I barely looked folks in the eye. Was it my embarrassment because I believed that I had so much more than they? Or was it my shame because I couldn’t face the reality of living in a world where so many have so little?
Now I was the one being humbled. I was the one learning about God’s love. My son, my beautiful son, taught me that I had been missing the point. I had been feeding bodies but he fed this man’s soul. He showed he cared. He gave this gentleman dignity. He loved him.
And I’m still thankful for the lesson he taught me that day and how he restored my hope in us. Hope is not about proving anything. It’s the grace of God through others that sustains us and gives us hope.