What We've Got So Far (2006) -- Katie Anderson and Samantha Hamernik
- The content herein was developed via e-mails, phone calls and one coffee shop bender during tumultuous times in both authors' lives — break-ups, major life transitions, and general anxieties over what the world wants from us and what we want from the world. We could say that we did this to connect better with our readers (after all, you aren't going to be in some serene place, literally or figuratively, when you read this). But, the truth is, we are still living these ramblings.
- The answers to all of your burning questions about service or anything else will not be found in these paragraphs. In fact, you'll probably have more questions when you finish. Don't be afraid to ask them.
- We are not the type of alumni who are typically asked to write essays. We are not ebullient, highly successful, overly responsible citizens who have their lives together.
- This essay is not the retelling of our respective years/lives of service. Nor is it a call for you to join the Presbyterian Church (USA) Young Adult Volunteer program, or a guilt trip to make you take that alternative spring break trip. Rather, this essay is an honest reflection of who we are right now: two women with just enough perspective to be dangerous.
- Trust us, in both this essay and in life, what you expect to happen won't happen. What you want to happen won't happen. What you've planned to happen definitely won't happen. Figure it out as you go along. That is what we're doing and this essay is what we've got so far.
This is essentially a tale of two cities (for you Dickens fan[s]) — a tale of being recalled to life, resurrected from a valley of dry, brittle bones and given new life to breathe; a telling of the golden thread in our lives — the good and gentle Spirit and Source that brings joy and miracles of grace; and a tracking of the storms in our lives lived out in service, where the same Source who gives goodness also brings loneliness and fear. This is a tale of two cities; two lives longing for meaning and fullness and grace, longing for something more than the banality of daily existence, relying on the irrational certainty that living in uncertainty might just be the way to go.1
You should know that writing and reading this essay is an exploration, a journey through service. What is service? We don't really know. But we do have a few ideas to offer about our own experiences. Throughout this journey with us you'll find some great bumper-sticker-lines, but most likely no answers. Remember, this is your journey, too. You decide. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . We departed Hasting College as promising yet disillusioned graduates — one an English major, the other physics (very practical disciplines, we know) — relieved to be taking what we thought was a "year off" from real life. We thought we'd do something good, something important, something terribly admirable for a short time until we were ready to go to graduate school and eventually become every student's favorite college professor. After entering the Presbyterian Church (USA) Young Adult Volunteer program, we found ourselves in places very different than those from which we had come. Surprise, surprise: Miami and Nashville are nothing like Sterling, Colorado, or Clarkson, Nebraska — not even like Hastings, God forbid. We constantly met blank, confused stares when we tried to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it. A year of volunteer service may make sense to some of you; however, the majority of folks, including our families, could not begin to understand.
Let us run down the list of questions and comments we received:
- What the heck is community organizing and what do you know about it? You're from a small town. Community means your uncle is the mayor and your grandma lives down the street. You wanna be a leader? Be the homecoming queen. If you want community action, then organize a yard sale or a church potluck!
- Why would you leave the Eden that is the Midwest? The only thing a big city can offer is sex, drugs and (pre-gasp!) diversity, not to mention a total rejection of family values! When you've been attacked by a stampede of country music fans or run out of town by a vicious hurricane, just remember how safe and peaceful our little bubble really is.
- How are you going to put food on the table making $100 a month? You made more money working at Perkins Library. Parents dream of sending their children to college so they can have good careers and live more comfortable lives, not so they can go off and do slave labor for a "greater cause."
Wisdom: intelligence or maturity of the heartFoolishness: all the crap you have to wade through to get there; and even then, you never really "get there."Just before my time ended at Hastings College, I was on a walk with a good friend. I remember talking about future plans, not knowing what would happen after graduation. I spoke of pressure from my parents, I talked about hopes of professors, and mostly I expressed fears of disappointing both. I was worried I would make a bad or wrong decision. My friend stopped me in mid-ramble. "Katie, stop. Please, just stop. Go out there and (bleep!) up your life! Don't worry what anyone thinks of it!" Umm, okay. That's not something you hear everyday. The funny thing is, that may have been some of the best advice I have ever received. And right now, it feels like that is exactly what I did. "Go and (bleep!) up your life" could mean whatever I needed it to mean. For me, I think it meant entering into some of the dark spaces of my life, embracing some of my shadows and challenges and letting them take me into mystery and even loneliness. (For more on my personal darkness, please see this through to the end, as I will have to.) In traditional terms, my life, right now, seems like complete foolishness. I live for free in a cottage in the woods next to a pen of loquacious goats and roosters, who both enjoy my front yard better than their intended grazing places. I sleep in the sweet Georgia heat with air-conditioning and satellite television. I split the work day between a restaurant and an organic farm. I almost rejected such a seductive deal because what about (pre-gasp!) service? What about (second pre-gasp!) justice? I just spent two years pouring love and time and energy into organizing Miami's urban poor. This Georgia gig wasn't service. It was far too easy. But I am serving — I am literally serving safe food that does no harm to people who are hungry, and I am serving the Earth by growing food in a way that takes care of it. You see, service is not an either/or — there is not one right way to do it. It is more like an aura, a way of being or a place from which one operates. Once service becomes a sort of posture for you, it also becomes natural. You can always serve no matter what you are doing. Maybe service is as simple as doing all that you normally do with a spirit of love, justice, and gratitude for life. I think a part of service is choosing to be reflective about our lives, deliberately looking into how and why we serve and are served. It is about going deeply inside ourselves and becoming intimate with our own souls, embracing our faults and foolishness. It is about always looking for wisdom, most of the time not finding it, yet always being grateful. . . . it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity . . . It seems to me that people (maybe even you, heaven forbid) make assumptions about those who serve the church or do church-related service like we have. One thing that I know people assume with me is that I have done so because of my faith and/or rock-solid beliefs. Not so. If anything, I have served and continue to serve because of my doubts and my incredulity. Let me explain the difference. Even though I may not agree, doubt is usually defined as a bad thing, in negative terms of fear, suspicion, lack of confidence, and, almost always, lack of faith. Incredulity, on the other hand, is simply an unwillingness to accept what is offered as true. Tada! We have a winner! Doubt is static. Incredulity is dynamic. Doubt is: "Umm... well... I'm not sure...." (To be read in a wavering voice.) Incredulity is: "Yeah right. Prove it. Or, better yet, let me prove it." (To be read in a sassy voice, with a triple-snap.) I encourage incredulity — it's much cooler than doubt. Incredulity is the process of actively searching, taking on doubts, and putting them to the test. Service will put both your faith and your doubt to the test. There is no better way to stretch belief, Thomas, than to stick your hands into Jesus' bleeding side. . . . it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness . . . I once stayed at a Benedictine monastery while on a discernment retreat, and I heard the most wonderful and heartbreaking story. Mother Teresa took her ministry to the streets after experiencing God's powerful and real voice inside of her, telling her she was needed there. But she never experienced that kind of calling, so loud and so clear, ever again. She lived in constant darkness for the rest of her life, never knowing again what to do or where to go. Yet she remained faithful to the darkness, and she continued to serve for the rest of her life. That is darkness, pain, and loneliness that I cannot even imagine. I am starting to realize that service is like this: God rarely gives us specific, map-quested directions telling us exactly where to go and whom to serve. More often our paths and lives of service will be a kaleidoscope of joy, despair, comfort, pain, doubt, and confusion. The beautiful thing is that we get to make our own decisions. God isn't "out there" controlling our every thought and manipulating each move. God is within and around and here and there, breathing life into us and letting us wander, sometimes even into darkness. I have been told more than once that I am a "light-bearer" to others. But I wonder: what if the light-bearer is inside of her own darkness? What if I am so exhausted and consumed with my own shadow that I have nothing with which to serve? I've learned that that's okay. It is part of my process of "bleeping up my life." I keep thinking of a William Blake line: "And we are put on earth a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love."2 Maybe that is another bumper-sticker definition of service. Service is not only about loving it is also about being loved — allowing others to meet your needs and to serve you. So I say let the darkness be your womb when you need it to be. Steep in it. Remain in it. Risk being alone and feeling lonely. Bask in the glory of light when you have it, but don't be afraid to get down and dirty with the darkness. . . . we had everything before us; we had nothing before us . . . At the end of a term of service, the PC (USA) asks each YAV to complete a simple evaluation. It's been ten months and I have yet to complete my evaluation. The same can be said of my co-author. Yes, we feel a tad guilty about it. Yes, we understand that our responses can help to shape the future of the program. No, we are not terribly lazy or irresponsible people. We just aren't ready to process. We are not Veg-o-matics, people, and our experiences are not blocks of cheese, so back off! If this hasn't happened to you yet, it will. Soon — very soon — someone will ask you to "process" a recent experience, reflect on it, journal about it, discover what significance it has for your life. When I first did this I thought it was the corniest thing in the world. It wasn't until I started dealing with the big stuff — faith, vocation, living intentionally, doing justice — that the structure of processing started to make sense. It became both invaluable and infuriating.
Here are a few helpful hints to avoid burning out your Veg-o-matic motor:
- Be choosy. If you take the time to process every little aspect of you and your actions, you won't have any time to do anything. You have to be particular about what is really worth reflecting on. Trust me. It is possible to become so reflective about your life that you can't see straight enough to actually live it.
- Take your time. Don't rush into processing, as I have exemplified by not yet writing my evaluation. It's not that I don't have a lot to say about my year. I just don't feel the need to dig through it all yet.
- Don't let the process or the other people participating in the process dictate what you are actually feeling. It's easy to get sucked into the assumption that there is a right way to think about, feel about, or learn from each experience. In conversations with people over the last two years I have honestly found myself making up things to say, either because I didn't have anything highly reflective to say at the moment, or because I felt that my true reflections weren't what they were supposed to be. Sure, I feel like I grew closer to God in my own way, but not in a praying-all-of-the-time, let's-talk-about-how-much-I-love-Jesus way, and that's all right.
Live it and learn from it, but don't force it. . . . we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . . I once threw a little "dollar dinner party" where everyone pitched in a buck or two to pay for the food. Afterwards, one of my friends said to me as I was clearing the plates for everyone, "You really have a servant's heart." Umm, ok. All I did was clear the dishes, but thanks, I guess. What did he mean by that? I knew it wasn't a negative comment, but I wasn't sure how positive it was either. Little did I know how important that phrase and the inclination to serve would become in my life. You may have a very similar instinct, especially extending to those closest to you. The hard part for me was cultivating that into an instinct to tend to strangers, as we are also called to do (Heb. 13:2). Sure, I'd gone on mission trips in high school and done the work and experienced the spiritual high that a lot of people experience, but it never really clicked with me that service was about more than a one-week expedition to "the other side of the tracks." A couple of weeks ago at Sunday school, my kids (1st and 2nd graders) were doing an art project with watercolors and straws, "blowing as the Spirit blows." Not surprisingly, there was a mishap and an entire cup of magenta-tainted water spilled down the front of my jeans and onto my sandaled feet. After the project, when we had all settled down and were recapping the lesson, something amazing happened. Like a scene right out of the last supper, two little girls, ever so seriously, took their little wet-wipes and started to wash my feet. As these Sunday school children so often do, they reminded me that I should not only have the faith of a little child, I should serve as one too. You do what people need to have done. It didn't matter that I was older than they were or that I could have wet-wiped my own feet. They were there and they were willing to do it for me. For me, service has provided me with new insight into looking out after the needs of "the least of these" (Matt. 25:33-45). I now define this group in a new way. Service is not just about the material "haves" giving to the material "have-nots." It is also about those who have love giving to those who have not, those who have patience giving to those who have not, those who have a smile giving to those who have not. Give freely because you can never really know what someone's true needs are, just as you likely do not know what your true needs really are. Service is more of a way of life than anything else. It's a posture you take, whether you are eating with friends or preparing the taxes of a low-income single mother. We'd like to say that our year of service helped to forever cement our faith in God and perfect our practice of spiritual disciplines. (Insert wild, uncontrollable giggles here.) All sarcasm aside (yeah right), we grew spiritually by coming to know a greater sense of the divine mystery in our lives. The mystery of godliness is great. Damn right, it is. We have more questions than ever before — questions about God and our lives as Christians, our roles in the Church, and the Church's role in the world. Paul says, "Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries" (1 Corinthians 4:1). We used to want to be astronauts, opera singers, library ladies, or even cats when we grew up. Now we feel that if we can simply be stewards of God's great mysteries we will have fulfilled our calling. Another Blake line:
I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball
It will lead you in at heaven's gate
Built in Jerusalem's walls.3
Take your golden string. You know you have one. We all do. Wind it, twirl it between your fingers, scrunch it up tightly in your fist. You can even use it to play "cat's cradle." But do something with it. Serve with it. Its mysteries will surely lead you into the darkness at times, but . . .
1 All sub-headings contained herein are from Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1949) 3.
2 William Blake "The Little Black Boy," Songs of Innocence and Experience, ed. Andrew Lincoln (Princeton, NJ: The William Blake Trust/Princeton University Press, 1991) 148.3 William Blake, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, ed. Morton D. Paley (Princeton, NJ: The Willaim Blake Trust/ Princeton University Press, 1991) 258.