Half Full or Half Empty?

The older I get, the more it makes sense — why angels say “Do not be afraid” when they show up on the scene (Luke 1:13, Luke 1:30, Luke 2:10), why Jesus said “Do not be afraid” (Matt. 28:10) when he made his presence known following the Resurrection.

Change was on the horizon and change is always a little frightening. No  matter much preparation has gone into — starting a new job or moving into a new house or embarking on a new adventure — the unexpected will undoubtedly become part of the experience. When God has made quite certain those involved know his hand is involved — well, no amount of preparation can enable them to maintain their equillibruim.

The only stability they have during those storms of change is trust. Trust that God is at work. Trust that he can (and will) rebuke the winds and the sea, bringing a great calm (Matt 8:23-26, Mark 4:35-40, Luke 8:22-25).

Unfortunately, at least in my experience, trust isn’t  a coat you put on once and wear for the rest of your days. Rather, trust is a one-day-at-a-time choice in the face of life’s challenges.

For the past year, God has been turning my life upside down — not so much the circumstances (though there’s been a bit of that),  but the way in which he is calling me to look at the circumstances of my life and the choices I’ve made. As I do this, I am being asked to trust that he is at work, even though I have no idea what  re-envisioning my life story will accomplish. 

The most recent catalyst was the gospel reading on Monday, Aug.  20 (Matt. 19:16-22). A rich young man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus first reminds him to obey the commandments and then says, “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor … then come, follow me.” As those who have read the gospel, or heard it proclaimed, know, “When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

My first question was: what does it mean to follow Jesus today? That was quickly pushed aside by a more provoking one: what does it mean to sell everything?

My first, glib response was: “I don’t have much.” However, in the days that followed, I recalled how difficult it was for me to decide what to do with my possessions which I considered entering religious life more than a decade ago. I don’t have much, but what I have is precious to me.

Growing up, I was told more than once that I wouldn’t amount to anything — and I didn’t. Not really. I don’t have a professional career or financial security or a spouse with whom to share my life. In many ways, I’m as vulnerable now as I was when I left home at 17, though I’m not quite as ignorant and naive as I was then, so my decisions are somewhat better.

Still, without any of the accoutrements of success, I have managed to put together a decent collection of original art (primarily by bartering my work for the work of my contemporaries) and I have the supplies necessary to pursue my hobbies (painting, knitting, scrapbooking, playing guitar). I also have a few pieces of furniture which have sentimental value and a fairly extensive library.

However, as I meditated on the question — what does it mean to sell everything? — I realized that in my case at least, material possessions were of secondary consideration, if they were of consideration at all. Rather, I was being asked to empty my life of all that prevented me from being open to God, which is a good deal harder.

At the Diocesan Women’s Retreat I attended last fall, I wrote in my journal, “Humility and obedience: Those are the lessons I need to learn at present. I spent my life wanting to impress people, but that kind of pride hurts me.” I knew with certainty that to grow in faith I needed to release from my worldview the pride and stubbornness with which I maintained my personal dignity in the face of life’s dissappointments.

Trusting that God was at work in this allowed me to accept a position at a convenience store when I would rather have been hired by another newspaper. But, in my heart of hearts, I maintained the image of myself as an award-winning journalist and an artist whose work was in museum collections. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve realized that in this hidden self-image, pride and stubbornness were masquerading as humility and obedience — and standing between me and what God is seeking to do in my life.

And so, these days I’m striving to embrace the life God has given me here, the life which he is using to shape me into his instrument in the world. I am striving to empty myself of the measure of my life that I have carried within me for a very long time. I am striving to give up all of those ideas about myself that have enriched the hours when poverty has been a burden that brought me to my knees.

I don’t know how to view this process beyond seeing it as necessary, as an honest response to God’s call. I do know it frightens me at times, which I suppose is to be expected. And I do know that in striving to empty myself of those dreams and ideas about life I cherished, I find myself feeling more than a little lost at times.

Still, I am hopeful that as I let go of worldly aspirations, I will be filled with the Spirit, and this storm of change will bring the sweet calm of a life surrendered without reservation to following Jesus — whatever that means, and I suspect it means something entirely different than I once believed. Time will tell.

Advertisements

Serpent in Paradise

Why was there a serpent in paradise?

That’s the question that popped into my mind this morning while I was writing in my journal. I’d been documenting some problems at work, noting not only what has happened but also how I felt about it and my brothers’ advice. Suddenly, there was that question.

The situation at work upsets and alarms me. An employee who is failing to do the work assigned to his shift has begun threatening me. He doesn’t know that until now, I have stood between him and the door. When the manager was talking about firing him, I suggested retraining and closer supervision instead. Needless to say, at this point, I am regretting that.

The employee, instead of being grateful he’s still employed, has become hostile because we expect him to work instead of read while on the clock. He began, on the night he was told he would be retrained, to bully me, telling me that nobody liked me, that I had no people skills, that I had no business working at a job involving people, that I should quit. About the third night I heard this, I told him he had no business accepting a paycheck from an employer if he wasn’t going too do the work for which he was being paid.

Since then, the verbal assaults have escalated. When I told him to stock the beer cooler, he threatened to go to the owner with all of his co-workers and demand that I be fired. When I told him the floor wasn’t properly mopped, he threatened legal action, saying I was creating a hostile work environment. He went on to write  the manager a note about my “foul attitude and harrassment.”

With the most recent attack, I felt in danger physically even though he didn’t actually threaten to strike me. The extreme response to what was an appropriate evaluative remark from a supervisor, though, set off warning bells. “This man,” something inside me said, “is an abuser nearly at the breaking point, watch out.”

I didn’t say a word in his response to his vitriolic tirade, but I did notify the manager. The manager just laughed — not at me, but to indicate it wasn’t anything about which I needed to be concerned. I am concerned, though; the disproportionate response to a normal workplace remark terrifies me.

I have been around abusive people. I know that when an abusive person is ready to snap, provocation is totally unnecessary. An abusive person will find an excuse to strike out at the selected victim — and the victim is selected. An abusive person doesn’t lash out randomly, like an angry person who snaps at everyone and anyone. An abusive person will often be charming and even professional with everyone except the selected victim. The abusive person will collect all the little frustrations and irritations life offers and unleash his response on one person.

I am afraid of being that person with this man. I was writing about these feelings in my journal this morning, and noted that fear has slipped into my consciousness like the serpent in paradise. Suddenly, my mind was off on a tangent. Why was there a serpent in paradise?

God creates right and left in the first book of Genesis, declaring what he has made to be good. Then he creates man and woman for one another,  placing them in the Garden — with an enticing serpent. I’ve often wondered if the serpent was incredibly beautiful — Whitney Otto writes in the novel, “How to Make an American Quilt,” that beauty makes us want to listen — or if Adam was the strong, silent type and Eve was just lonely for conversation. Really, why talk to a serpent?

But, this morning, the question changed. Why was there a serpent in paradise?

I’ve heard — I’m thinking this came out of Anthony Hopkins’ mouth when he portrayed C.S. Lewis in “The Shadowlands”  — that God wants us to grow up, that he allows suffering so that we can grow up. I suppose that answer would make as much sense as any other in response to my question. We do, after all, learn from experience.

In Adam and Eve’s case, the learning curve must have been rather steep. One day they were in paradise; the next they were on their own.

Maybe the answer is a little subtler and a little deeper than that. Maybe God wants us to grow up AND as we grow up, to develop fully into individuals created in his image and likeness — individuals who are creative, as God is creative, and capable of building community. After all, Adam and Eve ran around naked as a jaybird — a 20th Century idiom, which replaced the 19th Century idiom, naked as a robin, both of which are strange since birds have feathers — until the serpent entered into their lives. Then the spark of creativity which God placed in them lit the fire of their imaginations and they clothed themselves.

If I am going to theorize in that direction, I must ask myself this question: why this serpent at this time in my life? Why this fear of this man at this juncture? How can I grow more fully into the image of God in this situation? What is God attempting to spark in me?

I wish those were rhetorical questions. They aren’t. I don’t know the answers. I will have to live my way into them. But, oddly enough, just knowing God is at work in this in some way comforts me. That has to be a good starting point.

Discouraged

At least my cats love me — I hope.

That’s what I’m telling myself today.

Working at a convenience store is taking its toll in more ways than one. Physically, I live at the edge of exhaustion. Most days — or nights — I work eight to nine hours straight without a break. Very little of that time is spent actually waiting on customers.

Instead, I do the work other employees feel is beneath them  — stocking the coolers (which involves lugging around cases of pop and beer), changing trash bags beside the gas pumps and carrying the bags around the building to the dumpster (what do people throw away? bricks?), cleaning the bathrooms (men, the handle on the urinal is for flushing), putting out backstock, mopping the floor and generally cleaning the store. I also help the manager with special projects such as the twice monthly inventory of merchandise.

By the time I get off work, my back and feet hurt so much I can barely hobble home to collapse in the recliner for a bit after taking some ibuprophen. Then I need to get up and walk around — even though it’s painful — to work off the stiffness or I won’t be able to sleep. My hands are so swollen I had to take off the Black Hills gold ring I’ve worn for more than 20 years.

This morning, my shift ended with an adolescent temper tantrum from the mother of three who hasn’t liked me since I told her a 5 cent per gallon discount on gas is not the same as a 5 percent discount. She claims that’s an indication I don’t show her the respect she deserves.

In all honesty, I may have precipitated this morning’s explosion. Tuesday night’s shift was hectic because an event occurred in town resulting in as much business overnight as the store sees during an entire day during the winter months. In addition, I had the usual cleaning to do and was supposed to get a chunk of the grocery inventory completed. By shifting into high gear, I was able to get most of it done.

“Most” is the operative word in that sentence. I ran out of time before bagging the ice and changing trash bags by the gas pumps. When I got to work last night, I found a snide  little note from the little gal who says I don’t respect her implying I sat around all night and twiddled my fingers.

If I could afford to be unemployed, I would have quit on the spot. But I can’t, so I worked through the night — normal business, all routine tasks finished, another special project for the manager tackled. This morning, when she came in, she started talking about how busy she’d been yesterday and reiterated that I needed to get my work done at night.

I just looked her and said six words, in a quiet but firm voice, “You could have phrased it differently.”

I don’t know if it was the look,  the tone of voice or the implication that she had handled the situation inappropriately — she doesn’t like being corrected — but she quit, throwing a tantrum in front of customers and delivery men. Then she texted the manager, who called and half an hour later she was back behind the register.

That’s the second time this week I’ve had to deal with verbal attacks from an employee, which is taking a toll on my spirit. For the last  couple weeks, the manager and I have been discussing whether to fire an employee who is literally reading on the job instead of working. On one hand, his laziness means others (mostly me, but another employee does help) have their workload increased. On the other, he’s just seasonal so the problem is temporary — and having him around does ease scheduling difficulties.

We finally decided to give him a second chance and to retrain him. When I explained the situation, his first response was that he’d never been told what to do. When I reminded him that I had done so on several occasions, his second response was to say he didn’t know it was important to actually do the work. When I suggested to him the wisdom of doing the work a supervisor tells him to do, he told me he didn’t like my manner.

These experiences, seen in combination with several from the past, have me wondering if (a) God really knew what he was doing when he created me, (b) I’ve committed some unforgivable sin for which I will be forced to do penance for the rest of my life, or (c) I am tragically flawed and unable to see the flaws in my character which prevent me from living in a way that reflects God and his love into the world.

Granted, physical exhaustion is probably distorting reality a little at present. Not only is the job physically taxing, but also the resulting physical discomfort prevents me from getting much sleep. Still, it would be foolish to simply ignore feedback provided by the world.

I live in the world, and as long as I live, must navigate the waters of work responsibilities, financial responsibilities, relationships — and the vagaries of a spiritual journey that not only has me marching to my own drummer half the time, but also sets me at cross purposes to others on occasion. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have the knack of doing it well, and am tired. Part of me cries out, like Moses, “If this is the way you will deal with me, THEN PLEASE DO ME THE FAVOR OF KILLING ME AT ONCE, so that I no longer face this distress” (Numbers 11:14).

I strongly suspect God is not going to answer that prayer, though. So, I guess I’ll have to implement Plan B … just put one foot in front of the other — and breathe.

After feeding the cats.

Working the System

I guess I knew it — that some people work the system.

Back in the long ago days when I was a struggling single parent, I knew another single parent who didn’t struggle nearly as much. She actually had a pretty sweet deal. She collected welfare — it was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children back then — for her family of four, but didn’t actually use the monthly check to provide for her children. She had dumped the children with her mother, and lived in our college town as a single woman free of encumbrances.

And later, when I was working one of those low-paying state jobs that don’t have the cachet, salary or benefits professionals in the state system enjoy, I worked with another single parent, a women who had five children. She lived across the state line in Minnesota and commuted 80 miles a day — 40 each way — because South Dakota’s neighbor had such generous welfare benefits. I have to confess, I didn’t have much sympathy for the demands this placed on her because she was a staunch Republican, opposed to paying taxes, but not opposed to milking the system she denigrated.

Since I, too, had been a welfare mom while going to college — and to the best of my knowledge, did not abuse the system — I tended to think of these women as exceptions to the rule. I assumed that most welfare recipients were like me, using benefits as a stopgap measure while attempting to craft a better life for themselves and their children.

Working at the convenience store has made me wonder, though — but not just about those who receive welfare. A recently-hired co-worker makes me aware that there are other ways to work the system.

The individual in question dropped off an application when I was working. Since supervising employees is one of  my job responsibilities — though the manager does all the hiring — I took the liberty of a conducting a cursory interview. He was articulate and definitely overqualified for the position — but so am I. He indicated a desire to work a specific shift for family reasons — something I understand.

The manager spoke with him and decided to offer him the position. After being hired, the individual kept moving back his start date for one reason or another. Since starting, he has been late for work every single day (not an exaggeration for emphasis, the simple truth), has not learned the most basic tasks (such as stamping the back of checks), makes excuses for not doing the work assigned to his shift even though there’s ample time to do it (which I know from personal experience,  having worked it), wants to set his own schedule rather than working assigned days, and has managed to irritate everyone with whom he’s worked thus far.

I had the uncharitable thought that he wants to get fired, so he can collect unemployment. But, I’m not the only one who has had that thought. Several of the individuals with whom I work have the same impression.

I have to admit, that approach to employment completely baffles me. Yes, I left a job last fall when my employers gave me an ultimatum — I could take a job no one else wanted or I could leave their organization. Since I knew I was ill-suited for the position and knew the negative impact it would have on my mental and physical health, I respectfully declined the transfer. Yes, I attempted to collect unemployment.

But, I didn’t quit to collect unemployment. I quit because it was the only viable option for me at that point. I think the fact I now work at a convenience store testifies to my willingness to work.

That is not to say I don’t understand the allure of life without the demands of work. I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom that unemployment gave me, the freedom to spend time with my grandchildren, the freedom to help people who were in need of companionship or other assistance, the freedom to spend hours in prayer  and to write. I could easily build a full and satisfying life if I didn’t have to work.

But, I simply cannot understand working the system in order to avoid work. In the simplest terms possible, that’s stealing. How is it possible to take pride in stealing? How can you live with yourself if your livelihood is the  result of a lie?

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers that what they use, grows in them. At least, that’s how I interpret the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30). It’s a simple and obvious lesson. A woodworker who takes pride in his craft and continues to perfect it, will do remarkable work. One who’s haphazard and does little to improve his skills will have mediocre results. If the two are in business, the hardworking craftsman will prosper and the other will not.

In the same way that skills grow in us, attitudes grow in us. If we have an attitude which justifies working the system — or stealing — we soon develop a sense of entitlement. When we feel entitled, we have little regard for others or the consequences of our actions so long as we get what we’re seeking.

In the long run, this is self-defeating. We fail to strengthen relationships, families or community ties by focusing on our needs rather than on the common good, and it’s only in healthy, loving, mutually-respectful relationships that we find what gives our life depth and meaning. Do those who work the system — whether by fraudulently collecting welfare, approaching employment as a path to unemployment benefits or avoiding taxes whenever and however possible — understand this?