Saturday, March 30, 2013

How to Get Your Butt Off the Chair and Do Something Valuable

Tomorrow is Easter. I can't wait for the fun and rejoicing. So much fellowship and people happy and laughing--not that we don't do that throughout the year, but Easter reminds us why we laugh and sing. All those exciting worship songs each Sunday morning are about how God came as a human and made relationship with himself possible and open to everyone, and so we get to have life in God, transforming us, transforming the world (with us as partners in the work!), and making things run the wonderful way they are supposed to.

It's the transforming part that I'm excited about this Easter. I don't think I ever didn't connect the two: how Jesus is Lord and how we're sent to love people. Those facts involve each other: Jesus is Lord and he's proclaiming a new way for the world to work, and he's starting it now, and we're a part of that. I think I always knew that. But somehow my Easter celebrations never deliberately incorporated that into the day.

Our whole lives are really about getting up off our butts and doing something in the world. Unique skills that each of us have are put to work with our creativity, God's power, our whole heart, and his whole heart. Making a difference in the world by being friends, being friendly, loving hurting people, being odd with other odd people, fighting for people who are oppressed by something, working alongside coworkers and friends. If our whole lives are about that, then Easter, the pinnacle of the Christian calendar, should really be about that.

This year, God orchestrated it so that Easter is ending up being all about service and connection after all. Our church's "iCare" event (a day of community projects like hanging out with the elderly, doing yard work at local schools, and helping with at-risk kids) is being put on in just a couple weeks. And a group of our friends, who signed up to help out at a women's shelter next Saturday, was moved on accident* to this Saturday. It was a ton of fun sorting clothes and organizing (one of my strong suits, no pun intended), and even more fun to do so in the midst of Easter spirit, full of gratitude from Good Friday and excitement for Easter Sunday.

And the thing is, service is that simple. Someone had the gumption to sign up with a women's shelter for a few hours, and the courage to invite all her friends along. We show up, they tell us what to do, and we do it. It's not stuff we can't do--who can't move boxes, hang baby clothes, sort things by color, mop a floor, and serve food? And yet why does it take us so much courage and effort to get out of ourselves and go do it?

Service is good for us. It improves our health of mind. Serving others isn't just good because altruistic actions are good. It's good because it helps us get outside of ourselves. We were made to work together, help each other, love one another, and laugh together. We get beyond our petty needs and find that truly the best things in life aren't things, they're people--and not just the people who are close to us, but all people. As we act in ways that preserve and protect human life, it helps us to value it. We may desire to value human life, but if we don't act on that conviction, it withers and is replaced with a powerless sentiment that falsely reassures us that we're doing our part to help humanity when we aren't: we're just sitting on our butts.

Plus, it develops character, that good old excuse that Calvin's parents from the irreplaceable Calvin and Hobbs comic books always used to get him to do things he didn't want to. But it's true: having the courage to get out of your comfort zone (let's face it: sometimes wayyyy out of your comfort zone) and go play tunes at the local convalescent home builds good character, something highly undervalued in today's culture.

We tell ourselves we're not really that good and won't make a big difference, but that's a lie designed to get us out of doing what's difficult. It is valuable. To the people you run into, it's invaluable. And learning how to get up the courage to do the good thing is invaluable as a life skill. If you don't learn it now, when will you? It's not exactly something you can put off forever. That kind of skill grows--or else something grows in its place. Lackady? Apathy?

But what can you do? So often people just don't know what to do. And it's not for lack of options: there are too many to count. But psychology shows that having more options actually makes it harder for you to choose, and less likely that you'll be satisfied with your choice. Consequently we're always thinking, "I'm not doing enough; I could be doing that, or that, and I'm not. I'm not making a big enough difference with what I'm doing."

It's simply not true. I worked at a grocery store for a period of my life (a story for another time) and one of the best things of the day were when people came through my check-out line with smiles and cheerfulness to give me. Granted, I worked at Trader Joe's, so this was a lot easier to come by; everyone at Trader Joe's is happy, all the time, customer and employee. But those people who made an effort to talk to me, to answer my questions, to laugh--they made my day. My whole, entire day got better just because one person was nice to a stranger. Is that 'not much'?! What about when you remember that affecting one check-out employee's attitude for the better will infect countless others: the other people coming through the line that the employee now has more energy to give joy to; their family when they get home; any friends they run into. I never forgot, when I was behind the check-out counter, that giving a smile could mean making a customer's day better and, through them, giving more people joy.

It can be a smile; a brief chat with the person next to you in line or on the bus; common courtesy with the person you pass, even and especially the homeless. Even when you don't have something to give the man with the sign, don't ignore him: wave and smile. A smile and "sorry, not today" is far better than being ignored. If you're walking by, try giving them a high-five; homeless people don't get a lot of physical interaction with people, and it's lonely. (And if you're OCD about germs, then just carry sanitizer in your pocket. You won't die.)

Or get up the courage to call the local convalescent home. I keep harping on this one because it's become one of my favorite things to do. I started originally with a biblestudy, but now I go on my own off and on. At first we did crafts with them, and then we discovered through observation that there were certain weekly "events" where we could catch people as they gathered: ice cream hour, teatime. Old people move slowly, so it's easy to walk up and say hi without them running away. And they love it. We would just sit and chat with them. It's way easier than you think. My favorite conversation starters: introducing myself, asking them about the weather (which is an intro into asking them where they've lived, and getting to hear their crazy life stories), or asking them what they're favorite tea is (if it's teatime). They're human; and even more, they're lonely. Those are the easiest people to talk to.

Or what about kids? If you're a mom, have your friends' kids over so they can have the afternoon to themselves. Better yet, organize a play group that switches houses every other week so every mom gets a chance to put her feet up. Or go out and play with the kids on your street. Or join one of the many groups that go to low income housing complexes and play and tutor the kids. Start a cheap or free tutoring business. Help a child you know. We all know someone. They may seem hard to understand or get to know if they're reaching teenage years, but that's just a facade. Get to know them. Ask them what they think about life. Interact, dialogue, talk. Go to their soccer game and cheer them on, or take them to get ice cream some time. The adults who invested in me and made time to support me or spend time with me are part of who I became. With a child, you rarely see the results but you make the biggest impact. It often just takes one person who cares to change a child's life from bad directions to good.

The homeless are fun and easy to hang out with. Another biblestudy of mine tried to get involved in one of those feeding-the-homeless programs, but it turned out they didn't need much help; so instead most of us went during the lunch time and hung out with them. I much preferred that to preparing food. Like the elderly, they're people who are lonely and have a story they don't often get to tell. It's easy to start conversation and easy to build up a rapport as "friends," but it's not a friendship where anything is demanded. So many people are afraid of that, but you shouldn't be. And anyway, they are people in need. If you like conspiracy theories, hang out with the homeless; if you like history, hang out with the elderly; if you like being crazy, hang out with a child. They're all some of the most fascinating people out there. You're missing out if you don't.**

You don't have to be an initiator or administrator; groups are out there who are set up for you to do this--just contact them. You don't have to be important or interesting or good company or even good at conversation. You don't have to be cool. You don't have to be hippie. You don't have to have resources to share. You just have to be open. Relating to people is one of the biggest gifts you can give.

But maybe you're more like my husband, who loves relating but also works really well with his hands (he's an engineer for a reason). There are people out there who need yard work done, things built, walls repainted, trees uprooted. There may not be an organization in your area that does this, but it's easy enough to do. Do you have any older neighbors or friends, single moms, friends who work a lot, a church or office network you're hooked into? It doesn't even have to be someone incapacitated. Ask them if you can come clean out their garage, their windows, or their gutters.

Again, it comes down to being friendly and open; if you make friends with your neighbors and coworkers, you'll be more likely to be in the way of helping them when they need it. It just takes being attentive to the needs when you hear of them and responding. Are you afraid people will think you're weird? So what. It's the good kind of weird. We need more people willing to be weird. The truth is, when we see someone step up like that, we are impressed and jealous of their courage, and we want to be like them. Being a role model just means stepping up when you're afraid to. And it gets easier every time.

And then there's the basic one: giving. I'm a big fan of this one too. In my case, it's usually giving of stuff I have, since at this point in life I'm too young to have any money to give. A part of living a minimalist lifestyle means that I go through my stuff every few months and give away all the clothes I haven't worn in a year and any other random things I've found lying around that I don't use. I figure when they're gone, there's room for the things that really matter. Sometimes it's one small grocery bag, sometimes it fills my trunk; but I pack it all up and give it to the thrift store. Don't tell me you don't have extra stuff in your house you never use. We all do. Always. Oh well. We can do something about that.

But then there's money, too, and that's something to give. Maybe not handing it out on the streets, per se--but even there, it's great to have something to hand out to people in need you meet. When I see homeless people outside our grocery store, I like to buy them power bars (the yummy kind) and a gatorade. It doesn't cost much.

But maybe you have more to give, and that's awesome. I think that Christian circles, at least, tend to downplay the good of giving financial gifts. There are a lot of great organizations and nonprofits out there that need support in order to do the good work they do. I see nothing wrong with empowering them through gifts even if you don't have the time to get involved yourself. Maybe your job keeps you from having free time and energy to give, but that's okay: you're at your job so you can bring joy to your coworkers. Don't look down on yourself because "all you can do" is give. It's vital and important.

And as far as being creative...oh, you can be so creative. There are lots of organizations where you can give a gift in someone's name--a great gift for holidays or a birthday. (I would LOVE "receiving" that as a gift! Who wouldn't? People have too much crap anyway.) And if you don't know who to give to, I'd say do it like disney and follow your heart. What do you care about? For me, it's sex trafficking. I also like to give towards efforts that work towards helping impoverished people become self-sustaining in environmentally friendly ways (you've probably heard me talk about Heifer International; Kiva is another great one***). What do you love? Put your money there. The economic vote is a strong one.

And then there are more things to do, little things. The economic vote includes where you don't put your money. Don't buy from companies with bad practices--environmentally or humanely. Choose to educate yourself. With smartphones at the ready, this is more and more easily done because you can do it right there in the store. I've found it's almost impossible to buy clothes or electronics without supporting slavery; but I do my best to reduce my footprint instead. Recycle your paper and plastic. If recycling is not in your town, petition. Once again, the internet makes petitioning so easy and painless; it practically takes no time at all. Try to buy local foods. Even more than buying organic, this is the way to go in order to help the environment.

Ultimately, our whole life should look like this. But that sounds so big and hard when you put it like that, and it's not truly that difficult. The changes are small and subtle. Perhaps making time to help out at a shelter involves some rearranging the calendar; but recycling involves little more than putting a bin out next to the trash. Buying local starts by just trying to avoid the foods labelled "from Mexico" or "from France" when you can and shelling out the extra fifty cents for tomato sauce to get the more natural kind. Making someone's day and sharing some joy just involves being friendly, making eye contact, and smiling.

So why does all this feel so hard? Because even though we were made for good hard work, for serving others, and for personal connection, there's that cold, hard part of us that is too lazy or too enmired in our own comfort. There is a part of us that doesn't care. It's hidden inside fear and insecurity and lots of excuses. It doesn't take as much energy as we think to overcome it. To have courage is always worth it. We need to remember that every little thing we do can make a positive difference. Be empowered.

It's Easter, and what are we doing about it? Anyone else have 'kingdom plans' for Easter?


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* There are no accidents with God.
** I once met an elderly man who had built his own house from the ground up with his wife. They were in their 50s, sold their old home, bought some land, lived in a tent, and built a house. Not only is it a really cool story, it gave me hope that my dream of building my own house one day, which sounds crazy, is actually realistic.
*** Kiva works off a similar model as the original microlender, Grameen Bank. They have standards and requirements for people who take their microloans, which include stipulations about education and nutrition for children, savings, and sustainable business practices. In fact, it is for these standards that I support Heifer, Kiva, and others. Where Heifer gives animals and training, and thus has more direct impact on environmental health, Kiva and other microlenders give very small loans--like $15--through a neighborhood accountability program that has a 99% payback rate. Most microlenders focus on women, which both helps the plight of women around the world, and also helps everything else. Studies have proven that educating women lowers population growth, ensures more education for children, and reduces incidence of disease; and banking with women instead of men ensures sustainable family finances, wiser investment choices, more money going towards children's health and education, and families more often and more quickly rising out of poverty. These people have done their research, and they're making a difference.