Several new folks have come aboard recently at the pantry where I volunteer on Wednesday afternoons. While one of the women observed, I demonstrated the role of shopping assistant with the first patron of the day, explaining to the first patron of the day how many vegetables, grains, fruits, etc., he could select from the shelves based on his family size. She asked me to follow her through with the next client and make sure she was doing things correctly (which she did with minimal input). At the conclusion of that shopping experience, I watched her bid an effusive goodbye to the gentleman while I had already exited the scene and was on my way to call the next client. I paused to wait, and as we returned to the greeting area, she gushed over how beautiful it is to be here and how it’s important to her to treat the clients the way she would like to be treated.
Her enthusiasm called up my own early experiences at the pantry just over a year ago when each two-hour shift left me uplifted and satisfied. Like any relationship I guess, the honeymoon eventually gave way to a more routine reality, especially during the holiday months when we served more than 100 families most weeks and I departed exhausted and spent. A sense of futility occasionally surfaces. Why am I doing this anyway? What is really being accomplished? Every now and then I contemplate quitting, but that never feels quite right either; partly because I can’t imagine telling that to the hard-working coordinators!
But I think something more is at work as well, and the words of Jewish writer Jay Michaelson finally helped me articulate it. In his book called God in Your Body, he discusses the point of spiritual practices, those things we undertake to connect with God or community, as providing a means to experience ourselves and our lives. He makes the important point that practices contain preference but do not depend on it. In other words, a true practice is done no matter what mood we’re in. Giving the example of meditation, he writes, “If you’re meditating only until you feel like getting up, then, in a sense you’re not meditating at all, because the point of meditation is to see clearly whatever arises – including the strong desire to stop, the doubt that it’s working, and occasionally, redemptive, surprising moments of insight and revelation.” Strict adherence to practice is done so “that it can be a prism that casts light upon the mind.” (p,14) It’s a way to be fully present to our experience and see ourselves within it.
The past few weeks, I’ve tried to approach the pantry work as this “prism that casts light on the mind.” And like light passing through glass, certain moments or aspects separate out into various strands, like colors. I appreciate being present to join hands with a diverse group of people in prayer just before the doors open at 1:00 pm. We give thanks for the ministry, that we might be Jesus to that day’s patrons, and offer prayers for those among us who are ill or bereaved. I observe that some clients are cheerful and chatty, while others are reserved or even agitated. I notice how often they greet one another with a hug or a laugh as we proceed. I chuckle at the good-natured teasing and wry sarcasm of the volunteers who distribute meat, bread and produce at the final stop of the shopping trip. I notice when my feet begin to hurt from standing so much or my mind tires of saying the same things over and over about selecting vegetables, grains, fruits, etc. When I catch myself getting irritable or frustrated, I try to slow my steps, my breathing, and remind myself to “keep practicing.”
It’s Wednesday, so that’s what I’m off to do.