Thursday, May 5, 2016

How to Give


When I was nine, or maybe ten, a family from our church swooped in on Christmas eve, inviting us to their house where they showered us with second-hand gifts. All I remember thirty years later is the towels, practically new. They ranged from brown to tan to dusty orange, some striped, stacked on our laps as she pulled one more out of the bag at her feet. "It's Christmas at our house!" she crooned in a feverish, sing-song.

I glowed. I was stunned by their kindness, wrapped up in it. I was loved. We were loved.

I wonder now how the day felt to my mom and dad, whether they remember it at all. I wonder why I only remember the towels.

~

Tuesday, my neighborhood snapped awake. We'd been restless for a while, walking a bit bleary-eyed through the occasional warmer days, grinning sleep-drunk, then slinking back into hibernation. Maybe it was the puffy clouds or the fact that a warm day in May is measured on a weighted scale, but everyone seemed to be out.

Driving back from dropping Calvin off at Tae Kwon Do, I spotted them, my heart surging in that familiar blip of relief. When one of my adult neighbor-friends steps back into the picture after time away, it's often under bleak circumstances. The kids are different.

They chased behind my van, braids whipping, mouths wide. They filled me in on all I'd missed when we were frozen and quiet - moves, trouble at school, a broken arm. "She broke it last week and the next day she got popular!" she gestured toward her friend's blue cast, covered in ink and already dingy-looking.

We talked about summer, whether their moms would let them go to the city pool with us, or if they'd even be around, since there was buzz about exotic months spent in Chicago, maybe a trip to Six Flags or to the beach up in Michigan.

"Yeah, right." They laughed.

They told me they found a "big needle" at the other park earlier in the week. "It was filled with meth," she said, her wide eyes framed by grown-out bangs, a dull, purplish-brown.

"Did you touch it? Never touch it. Promise me." I thought about the hour I spent at the same park a week ago, how it rattled with a quiet despair.

No. They didn't touch it. They know better, these fourth graders of a different kind of life, where breaking your arm without crying means flash popularity and you already know about syringes filled with meth.

~

After fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, my mind drifted to the pot of stock simmering on my stove-top. It was 5:15 and I had a meeting at 6. I attempted a polite exit, but they just followed me inside, no invitation necessary. (Sometimes I offer hospitality as worship, more often it's wrenched from my hands by a God who wants me near and knows I need help.)

The dinners I cook are a long-standing joke, not just with the two of them, but with almost everyone from my neighborhood who has taken a seat at my island. Honestly, it's giving me a complex and growing me up. It's training me to plan more spaghetti and ground beef taco nights, just in case. It's causing me to buy bags of Takis when they're on sale.

But last night, the soup I stirred was extra-weird. I wasn't even sure how to pronounce it, and they were highly intrigued.

We chattered about this and that, the two of them giggling and light. Without thinking a thing about it, I opened the fridge. And they both lost their minds.

~

I've seen the show Hoarders before, though not on purpose. It doesn't strike me as dignified, more like using the poor/the lonely/the sick as entertainment. Like so many of the ways we position ourselves as better or more right, this is just another way to normalize our own failures. "I'm not that bad."

It makes my stomach hurt.
Guess what else makes it hurt? Watching two young girls gasp over how much food I have in my fridge.

I found myself making excuses that only made matters worse. "I got groceries two days in a row! We needed everything! People eat a lot of food!"

I got groceries.
Two days in a row.
We needed everything.
People eat a lot of food.

Meanwhile, they were still telling very short stories about what they usually had in their refrigerators, and how they had never even seen a fridge that full. Not once. "Maybe they're that full at a restaurant, but I don't know..." one of them trailed off.

~

When I was in second grade, my aunt bought all of my school supplies, hand-delivering them with a smile. For a second I was sad that I didn't get to choose my own backpack, but one whiff of that intoxicating cardboard-and-wax aroma and it didn't matter. I had pencils rattling around in a red plastic box. I was loved. The end.

There were bags of hand-me-downs from the "rich" girl at church.
There were DIY haircuts and canned frosting spread thin on Saltines.

There was the time I found my mom hiding on the floor by her bed, Elmer's-gluing lace around the perimeter of a needlepoint hoop for my handmade birthday gift, quietly crying that they couldn't do more that year.
There was the time a few years later when I found a brand new ten-speed bike in my room, light violet and gleaming, and I knew that it had cost them.

And I knew I was loved.

~

Community is a pinball machine, grace and goodness rocketing up and pinging around. Give and take. Learn to receive or don't bother offering. Feed another quarter into the slot and start again.

There's no science to loving, only art.

Layer on layer, we learn and we lean. But most days, I don't want to paint.
I'd rather not step back and survey the landscape, finding my unique place within it. I want to cram for this invisible test textbook-style and call it a day.

There's so much room for error here, in the land of the living. In so many ways, I wish I could make it different. More for you, less for me. I'd even the playing field if I could, rather than being accountable for my tendencies to believe I'm the one who still needs more.

I want the formula to balance. I want prescribed answers I can memorize and trot out when needed. I want to guarantee I'll never inflict harm. I don't like being reminded of the work I still have to do, or the fact that I bought more food than we can eat before it rots.

~

That decades-past Christmas still rings in my ears. I haven't seen the woman in a lifetime, but I can hear the precise pitch of her song, and all of the magic. It's proof that maybe it's not so much about what or how much or exactly when, but how. And why.

We all have something someone else needs.
We all need something someone else has.
It will require all of our courage and all of our humility and we will still muddy up the canvas, now and then.

But we'll move toward each other because we want to, wielding our brushes lightly. We'll bleed together and make something new.

With any luck, we'll all walk away under the weight of knowing we're loved.



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33 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for reading along, Ann!
      Happy Thursday. :)

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  2. Love this. And what is it with Takis? They take my breath away every time I open a bag, but a napkin full of Takis is like gold that buys the attention of my little Bible club group. :)

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  3. Touched this morning by your honesty and reminder of the great need that lies within all of us. Happy to be your neighbour. :)

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    1. Aw, man! That last line of yours got me hard. :)

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  4. Shannan, thank you for your thoughts and writing. I know you don't have an answer for me, but HOW? HOW do we do this? HOW do we help? When, how much, in what way, with what input? I am not asking theoretically, but because of a real life friend and church member, a dear family. I need wisdom. I need Jesus eyes and brain. I am often trapped in my middle-class ways and need help to know how to think. Just venting now. Thanks for writing about these things.

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    1. Kit, I find myself in the same boat as you. Love what you said about needing "Jesus eyes and brain." I, too, didn't even realize how trapped I am in my middle class ways. Muddling through.

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    2. Christe, yes, muddling through, trying to just keep loving. I am glad to know you feel the same.

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    3. Ladies, let's all take a breath! (haha, I love us.)
      I really want to have better answers to these questions. The problem is, I'm still asking them along with you. I will try, though. I will try to put some more thoughts together. But I can't make any promises! xo

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    4. Thankful for community! Even if we're messy!!

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    5. Thanks for the reminder to breathe, Shannan! Ha! Oh yeah, I don't have to fix everything! Because I can't! But I do need to listen, to learn, to consider. Have either of you read the book Merciful by Randy Nabors? Very helpful. But I want MORE help! :)

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    6. Haven't even heard of it. But, I'll add it to my list!

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  5. I listened to a sermon THREE times yesterday about singing the song God has placed in our hearts, the one that comes from the place where the world's deep need tugs at our sense of justice, and when I read your words about that woman's sing-song Christmas voice, I saw it in action. She was singing the song God wrote in her heart and it was tuning your ears to hear his grace. I so want to sing my song and hear the song of others. Thank you for sharing this story. It hit me right in the feels.

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  6. You inspire me so much ... I have really been plagued lately by the thoughts that we (or perhaps I) expect more from others than I am willing to give ... mainly the areas of charity. My husband and I have been given so much by others, and yet it is so shamefully hard for me to give back. Thankfully, God is working on me big time in this area ... and I currently have my van full of baby items that I am dropping off today at our local pregnancy center. A very nice crib and mattress, pack and play with all the bells and whistles ... all items that I could easily sell on Craigslist and make some good money. And yet, I have been called to give them away. Jen Hatmaker challenged me in her book "7" to not just drop off items, but to find the perfect recipient. I love that. And so, I want to give with reckless abandon. I am a season of my life with 2 very little ones that I don't have a lot of time to give, but I do have stuff!

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    1. YES. This was a great starting point for me as well. I used to consign all of my kiddos' outgrown clothing and my own. When I made that switch to just freely giving it away, it was a true heart shift. Thanks for this reminder.

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  7. Thank you for this post. And all the ways you share with us how you struggle with what hospitality and making intentional connections with people different from yourself. I've been following along for a few months now and you inspire me every day. We live on a little plot of land in the country where its quiet and "safe". But just 20 miles away, kids can't go to school because the district can't pay teachers. My fridge is full to the brim from my recent Costco trip while my neighbors live in food deserts. Jesus is doing some hard work in my heart on this issue and a desire to break out of my quiet Christian bubble to start doing some dirty work. Thanks for your example and inspiration.

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    1. I spoke at a banquet last night and talked about the bubble. We are all under one! I thought I got out from under mine, but I just ended up with a new one. Girl, I'm excited for you! And for me! Pop the bubbles, God! We're nervous, but we're also highly intrigued! :)

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  8. Your writing amazes me..sucks me in to your world and brings back memories of mine. God is using you in a mighty way...Keep your eyes focused on Him..Proverbs 3:6
    ((Hugs))

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    1. Beth, thank you! What a gift, this comment. XO

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  9. This made me cry, and I don't cry often. I won't go into detail, but God used this to push me good and hard toward a calling I've been avoiding for over a year. Thank you for being His voice in this moment.

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  10. this story is our story, too. we have these kids up the hill by a block, there are 8 of them and each have a different daddy. they run down to here every day for apples and basketball. the windows on their house are covered with black trash bags, their mama makes them ask us for things - mostly batteries for her TV remote. once when we were gone, they broke into our house and stole our sons birthday money. i sat those kids down, made them look in my face, and i told them that if they ever felt like they needed ANYthing, then ask me. then we started giving them a weekly allowance so they could go to the corner store and buy pints of ice cream and Taki's to their hearts content. i don't have much more to give these days than apples and $5 a week and the most genuine hugs i can muster, but with any luck they'll walk away under the weight of knowing they're loved.

    you are my sister. <3

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  11. Hi Shannan, my husband and I are on a journey and I can't help but think of you. He is a high school teacher for a Christian inner-city school (yes, you read right). Recently we have heard the call to move closer to the school and start an after-school program. I feel like we have been called to the mission field! I'm not at all anxious about leaving my home I love or moving to the "wrong side of the tracks". I wake in the morning with excitement, wondering what its going to look like.
    I've recently jotted down a reading list from one of your older posts. Our library is ordering them in for me. Thank you for sharing your journey on here so I can feel connected to others on a similar path. Maybe one day we can meet and share our hearts with each other
    Sharon

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    1. Oh Sharon, I just adore this! You will never be the same. That's what I hope and pray for myself and my family - that every day brings change, that every day I'm a little different a tiny bit more grown than the day before. Keep us posted!

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  12. I've only been reading your blog for a month or two, and already the Lord has used your words and life to encourage and challenge me. Thank you for struggling to share what the Lord is giving you.
    Cheers from Canada!

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    1. Olivia! Cheers!!
      Thanks for these kind words. They brightened my morning.
      We're honored to have you part of our community!

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  13. This is my favorite post. Love.

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  14. Thank you for opening our eyes in a kind and gentle way. Thank you for being honest and genuine. I struggle with wanting to be the hands and feet of Jesus, but yet trying to find the balance of understanding that I'm not anyone's Savior-Jesus is. I fall short in His wisdom,discernment and grace. Fortunately He does not.

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  15. "We all have something someone else needs.
    We all need something someone else has.
    It will require all of our courage and all of our humility and we will still muddy up the canvas, now and then.

    But we'll move toward each other because we want to, wielding our brushes lightly. We'll bleed together and make something new.

    With any luck, we'll all walk away under the weight of knowing we're loved."

    this this this. i adore you.

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  16. Shannan, this has been in my reader for a few days and I've been saving it on purpose. I knew by the title that it deserved my whole heart as I read, not a half effort divided by three other things demanding my attention. I'm also in the midst of reading Jen Hatmaker's Interrupted and between the two of you, you're wrecking my heart for Jesus in a way that has been bubbling just below the surface for a couple of years. And, I thank you for it.

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