Helping without Hurting

'Smokehouse' photo (c) 2000, Don O'Brien - license:

I just finished Miss Willie by Janice Holt Giles for book club.  It was a book I honestly wasn’t too excited about: a middle-aged woman goes to take on the challenge of being a a school teacher in the poverty of Appalachia.  I feel like I’ve read this book before (Christy, anyone?).  But I ended up getting immersed in Giles’s beautiful language and her portrayal of Miss Willie’s realistic inner life.  Miss Willie also comes to an epiphany at the end of the novel that coincides with another book I’ve been reading — When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself.

This book talks about the best ways to help others, mostly the idea of working with the poor, not foisting our “help” upon them.

Miss Willie comes to a similar conclusion and Giles writes this inner process in such a true way that I will quote it at length here:

“She had come to the ridge thinking:  These poor people!  They need help so badly.  They need me, Miss Willie Payne, so badly.  She had been horrified and shocked at conditions, and she had gone about preaching and lecturing. She had known the right way to do all things, and she had never hesitated to say so.  She had pitied these people and patronized them.  And what people of pride ever wanted pity or patronage!

But she had tried so earnestly to help them!  She had tried.  The wrong way, maybe.  But she had tried everything! Everything? Now her heart told her.  Everything…but love! She remembered crying out to Mary: “Where can you start? Where can you start?” You start with the people…and you start with love for the people! ‘The gift without the giver is bare’! And she had never given of herself! Her time, her energy, her knowledge. But not herself! She winced from that thought, but she faced it in all its bitter gall. She had never loved them!

Love was the way.  And lovelessness had been her greatest sin.  Out of a dim, long memory Miss Willie remembered a text of her father’s. ‘Take my yoke…and I will make it easy.’ The words came back to her now, and repeated themselves over and over. ‘Take my yoke.’ ‘Take my yoke.’ That most perfect One had lived ‘together’ with the people. What did He mean by his yoke? ‘Take my yoke…and I will make it easy.’ Could He have meant — was it possible His yoke had been living and working with people who never understood Him? Common, ordinary, ignorant people, who didn’t listen and who wouldn’t change? People who didn’t want anything better than they had? People who were dirty, diseased, and foul sometimes, and who were clean and noble and fine other times? People who loved and hated, fought and made peace, witnessed against their neighbors and then stood by them? Could He have meant living with them and loving them just as they were, unchanged and unchanging?

Like the eastern sun flooding the sky with light, Miss Willie understood in a flashing, transfiguring moment what it meant.  It meant to live together…under the yoke, together! Not one standing above, reaching down to pull the others up! Not one saying, ‘I must help these people’! It meant, instead, the banding and linking of people, one to another, in love and pity and yearning. It meant saying, ‘My people’; not, ‘These people.’ It meant getting under the yoke alongside of people, one with them, pulling the load with them.  Not standing aside telling them how to pull! It meant grieving with them, and sorrowing with them, and laboring with them, and laughing with them, and most of all, it meant loving with them. ‘Take my yoke’! He had been yoked with the people.  He had meant, then, live with them where they are.  Love them as they are. Take the yoke, and life it.  All lift together!”

She says it well: words I have thought myself, words I’ve been ashamed of, words of challenge, words of the true Kingdom of God.


Block Party

Part of my year of venturing is getting to know my neighbors. I had met our immediate next door neighbors (after I literally knocked on their door to say, “Hi! I’m your new neighbor!”) soon after we moved in. But I hadn’t met anyone else, and I wasn’t sure how to go about it other than to start knocking on doors again.

So, we decided to throw a party. Problem is — we decided this a year ago and still…no party. After going to a Mission Alive Fundraising Dinner, which is all about reaching your neighbor, I decided to just go for it and have the party that week. Careful planning be damned! I think the idea of the party (which I don’t really enjoy planning) had become so big in my mind that it became this overwhelming monster.

So we did minimal planning, minimal publicity (just flyers in mailboxes), and hoped for the best. We also invited members of our house church that live close by, and that gave me more peace of mind. If no one showed up, at least we could have a nice time with them.

So how did it go? It was great! 7 neighbors showed up for hot chocolate and conversation.  Several of our neighbors mentioned how excited they were to get our invitation.  I think this world is desperate for community, and most people don’t have a natural way of creating that.  Our neighborhood block party was so successful that we have decided to do some kind of get-together every month, to really have a chance to build community.

Lent Experiment 2013

'Lent Logo 2008' photo (c) 2008, jezobeljones - license:

So this year I’ve decided to do something kind of typical, something a lot of other people will be giving up: Facebook (except for posting my blog).

There are several reasons why I’m giving it up:

  1. I use it to compare myself to others WAY too often
  2. I end up trying to feel connected to others in this rather disconnected way, by constantly checking status updates throughout the day when I end up alone in my house caring for my small child.
  3. I stalk Facebook when I should be stalking God.  I have a Common Prayer app on my phone that alerts me when to pray the offices of the day.  Lately, when the buzzer sounds, I don’t pray.  I look at Facebook.  I know.  Pretty bad.

In the past, I’ve given up things that were much more difficult for me, much more central to my life, like TV and reading.  I’ve only been at it for two days, but not checking Facebook hasn’t been that big a deal.  It was just a bad habit I was developing, and getting in the way of a more important habit I want to cultivate:  talking with real people in my neighborhood in real time.

I figure that the time I spent trying to feel connected on Facebook is time I can use to go walking in my neighborhood, venturing out, nurturing new relationships.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

I came, I saw, I zumbad (or whatever the past tense of zumba is)

'Strong B.A.N.D.S. ZUMBA' photo (c) 2003, JBLM  MWR - license:

I am not an athletic person.  Never have been.  When I think of exercise, I think of middle school gym class, being the last to finish my mile.  I think of gymnastics classes, not advancing to the next level because I couldn’t do just one pull-up.  When I think of coordination, I think of the one and only musical I was in, needing to learn a time step, and only figuring it out after the show was over.  Mostly I think of embarrassment, eyes on the girl who can’t run or dance or move in any sort of coordinated fashion.

So when I decided to go to a zumba class at my local Y, I was a little anxious.  My usual mode of exercise is walking around my neighborhood cause it’s hard to screw that up and it’s a solitary endeavor.  Zumba is dancing and learning steps and in front of a lot of other people.  

But I go anyway.  I tell the people at the front desk that this is my first time taking a class.  They show me the room and also mention that the instructor only speaks spanish.  Great.  Not only will I need to interpret her movements, but there will be a language barrier as well.

I arrive a little early, and one woman asks me if this is my first time.  I must look pretty awkward, not knowing what to do with my hands.  She tells me to just keep moving and I’ll do fine.

After everyone arrives, I notice that almost all of these women look like me: fuller around the middle, fitting uncomfortably in their workout clothes.  This puts me at ease.

Then the music starts and we’re off.  I have placed myself in a position in the middle, with a good view of the instructor, so I can what she’s doing.  At first, I do have trouble following her.  She doesn’t speak (so the language barrier I thought would be a problem isn’t).  She just moves effortlessly, looking natural and sexy and all the things I’m not.  I spend a lot of time frantically correcting my steps. In fact, this is what I spend most of the first 30 minutes focusing on.  And of course, there is a mirror, so I can see how utterly hopeless my dancing looks.

But at some point, I quit caring.  I may not have the steps right, but I’m actually having fun, and I’m moving.  And towards the end, I’m catching on and my steps start to resemble actual dance.  I look around and see all the shapes and colors of women around me.  Some dance like pros and others look more awkward than I do.  But no one gives judgmental looks.  No one is snickering in the corner.  At some point I realize that this is not my middle school nightmare.  Everyone is shaking her booty and having a fantastic time.  And so am I.

New Year – New Word (2013 Edition)

"The Blur" venturing out
“The Blur” venturing out

Well blog, it’s been awhile.

It’s getting a bit late to write about the past year in review and thoughts for the one upcoming, but my new year really started with the birth of my son on January 10th, so I figure I’m still within the limits of reminiscing and forecasting.

Last year was amazing and hard. I figured out how to take care of my sweet little boy pretty early on, but I didn’t know how to deal with the depression and anxiety that unexpectedly followed alongside him. My word for last year was “stillness,” but there is nothing still about anxiety. I wanted to pay attention to those little moments I won’t ever get back again: Henry falling asleep in my arms, his first step, and my favorite, throwing all the books out of his bookshelf to pick just the right one for me to read it him. I did cherish those moments, but I didn’t do so with an attitude of stillness, of letting the Spirit focus me, resting me.  I fretted about sleep, about future children, about not doing enough, about doing too much.

Stillness didn’t work out so well for me in the end, and perhaps it was because I was focused on me and mine and not the world at large.  This year I want the Spirit to focus me in a new direction: outward.  My word for the new year is VENTURE.  I want to venture out in the new, the dangerous, the unexpected.

I chose VENTURE because of the risk associated with it, a risk I always need to be aware of  while I am trying the hard and the new.  I need to remember that I will fall, but like my son learning to walk, cry a bit and steady myself once more to go forward.  I will happily toddle on.  And I do think this year will be more of a toddle, which works out well since I’m raising a toddler.  We can toddle on together to explore this world.

I want this spirit of VENTURE to go with me in everything I do, but most especially the following:

  1. Write a blog post at least once a week.  Part of the reason I haven’t written in so long is allowing a spirit of apathy surround me.  No one cares.  I don’t care.  That kind of thing.  I want to venture into revealing myself and writing for the good of others.
  2. Learn the names of all the neighbors on my block.  I am a shy, introverted person who can be an extrovert, but I really have to work at it.  I want to be friends with our neighbors and that means getting out of the comfort zone of my house and venturing over to other people’s porches, getting weird looks, and introducing myself.
  3. Write a story just for me.  I haven’t written fiction in a long time.  Mostly because of time but also because of fear.  I want to venture out here and not write a story for publication or for others, but one that I would like to read.
  4. Stop comparing myself to others, and venture out to be just me.  Since becoming a mother, I am so guilty of comparing myself to other mothers on Facebook and Pinterest and those I actually know in real life, and I always end up feeling like slacker mother of the year.  I don’t craft or cook gourmet meals and I tend to read books while my child plays, but I can do a mean hokey pokey and funny voices when required.
  5. Do a craft with Henry.  I know I said I don’t do crafts, but I think part of it is because I’m scared to try.  I’ve never been particularly good with glueing cotton balls on popsicle sticks, but for the sake of my child, I want to try something new…at least just once.
  6. Conquer my fear of the kitchen.  Yes, this is a weird fear, but I want to change that.  I don’t cook right now because I have an amazing husband who loves to cook.  But I also don’t cook because I’m afraid and that’s not a very good reason not to do something. I think I’m afraid of cooking because I’m afraid to make a mistake, not to mention the open flame and sharp knives.  Part of venturing out is making mistakes, and I hope I make a bunch (you have no idea how hard that last sentence was for me to write).
  7. Spend time each day just thinking about another person.  This may seem like a small thing, but I’m a big believer that being intentional in your thoughts leads to intentional actions.  I figure if I think, and maybe if I pray about another person, that I will think of ways to be better friends with that person, to encourage them, to love them.  Thinking is just the first step.
  8. Exercise…with other people.  I have always been a solitary exerciser (when I do it at all).  I’m the queen of exercise home videos, but I think, like anything else, exercise works best in community.  So I am rejoining the Y, taking a class, and allowing myself to look like a clumsy fool in front of other people.
  9. Get more involved in my community.  Ted and I have already made steps to do this by joining a house church in our neighborhood.  We are also looking for a place to volunteer our time as a family.  The scary part is that it may not be something that is a “ministry” or “organized.”  But many times the Kingdom of God is found in unexpected, improbable, and inconvenient places.

I’m sure there are more ways that I will discover to venture out this year, but this is just the start.  I’m excited and I’m scared, but this year I won’t let the fear hold me back.