Pray and work

(Christian Courier column, October, 2013)

I recently spent ten days at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton. Not as a patient, mind you; just as a supportive sister. It was a lot of time in waiting rooms. I overheard conversations ranging from the ludicrous (a heated exchange between housekeeping staff as to whether Rogers or Fido is the better service provider, punctuated with unprintable expressions of conviction), to the heartbreaking (a man on his Bluetooth emphasizing sternly that the doctor had better get over here and show some interest in his mother whom he’d found in a near catatonic state) to the hallowed (a sensitive medic comforting a dying patient’s daughter with profound empathy).

St JoesHung on the outside walls of St. Joe’s are supersized photos of its celebrity medical professionals. Dr. Bobby Shayegan, who performed my brother-in-law’s intricate five-hour surgery, grinned at us with likable boyish charm each morning as we headed down the mountain to the hospital. Ubiquitous posters inside the building invited us to “say thanks to your miracle workers here at St. Joe’s!”

But it wasn’t the “miracle workers” who most intrigued me. It was the custodial staff and service workers. I wondered about how and why they ended up here. They probably didn’t grow up aspiring to clean bathrooms, fill orders of “medium decaf, two sweeteners, three milk” or glance cursorily at my salad,  intone “$6.80, please,” and hand me my change while already tabulating the contents of the lunch tray of the customer behind me.

Commencement speakers like to accentuate the positive: “Follow your dreams; don’t settle for less than doing what you love.” Surveying my own family and friends, few of us are working at our dream careers. Most of us are happy to have a job that pays the bills. “Generation next,” the millennials, will have an even tougher time. Financial Post analyst Ray Williams posits: “Career paths are being reshaped – some say permanently – in part because of the massive movement toward temporary employment. These changes will be felt most by young people, who face the prospect of a lifetime of temporary or part time work, an uncertain career path, and an lower standard of living with little or no payoff for their post-secondary education” (“How temporary work will reshape our careers and our economy,” June 12, 2013).

The work given us

I respect those who simply do their best at whatever job they have regardless of how or why they got there. I watched a custodian clean the main lobby at St. Joe’s. He had rakish hair, sprinkled with grey. He sported a brassy gold necklace along with his khaki pants and shirt. In a suit, he could have passed for a professor. After the chairs had been removed, he cordoned off the area and polished the floor with a mini-Zamboni. Balancing on a ladder, he painstakingly vacuumed each ceiling tile above him, his mouth dropping open in concentration. (I refrained from warning him that this is a good way to inadvertently swallow a dead fly or choke on a cobweb). He wiped the sprinklers with a flourish. He didn’t dawdle. He didn’t rush.

I was reminded of “The Struggle for an Education,” a story from the old NUCS (National Union of Christian Schools) Pilot Series that I loved sharing with my students. Booker T. Washington, former slave and prominent African-American educator, relates the hardships and bigotry he endured as he travelled across the country on foot to apply at Hampton Agricultural Institute. The head teacher, a “Yankee” woman, was plainly reluctant to register him. He waited anxiously as others were waved on ahead. Finally, she instructed him to sweep the recitation room. He didn’t flinch or protest. He swept, dusted and cleaned the room with alacrity. Three times. Upon inspecting the room thoroughly and not finding one particle of dust, the headmistress declared, “I guess you will do to enter this institution.”

How you do your work puts your character on display. American poet Wallace Stevens, also an insurance agent, said, “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job.” He composed his poems on his way to and from work.

The Book of Common Prayer (1662) offers a petition that remains relevant today:

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life
shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with
thy people where they work; make those who carry on
the industries and commerce of this land responsive to thy
will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just
return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who
liveth and reigneth with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Not on my way to Egypt yet

(Christian Courier column, Sept. 2013)

IMG_2513My husband Mark has diabetes, controlled thus far by diet and exercise. My brother Rick injects himself with insulin several times a day. So when asked to canvass my street on behalf of the Canadian Diabetes Association, I said, “Sure.”

It’s a sobering thing to ask your neighbours for money. Every front door opens to a story.

One of my neighbours is a Mary Kay consultant who drives a pink SUV. She calls me (and everybody) “pumpkin” and “honey.” An American, she’s never forgotten that my sister and I sent her flowers after 9/11, so she’s fond of me despite the fact that I rarely buy makeup. A few years ago her husband left her for one of her friends. She’s had to re-mortgage her house and start her life over. When I mentioned that Mark was diabetic, not only did I get a generous donation, but I came home with three books about gluten-free diets and alternative health remedies.

My 80-year-old neighbour had seven bags of raked-up leaves at the end of her driveway. She cuts her own grass and walks every day. Her vigour is astounding. Although we’ve chatted many times outside, I’d never been inside her home. It was immaculate. Of course she wanted to donate, she said. She told me about her 57-year-old daughter who suffers from loss of vision due to detached retinas in both eyes. She can’t drive anymore and had to quit her job. Now she’s dependent on her husband for almost everything and is taking classes to learn how to function with limited eyesight. My heart is breaking as my neighbour tells me this.

The neighbour two doors down goes to the Baptist church. Now retired, he used to own the only grocery store in town.  Some time ago he was diagnosed with a rare skin cancer on his face and had to undergo extensive surgeries and treatments. He’s lost a lot of weight but he was jovial as he met me at the door and gave a donation. When I asked him what he’s been up to, he told me he had gone fishing that day. He’d had an awesome day relaxing and thanking the Lord for his recovery.

One of my neighbours is a widow who goes to my church. She hobbled over to the front door to let me in. She was experiencing severe back pain, not something new. She told me she was getting a shot in her spine the next day. She gave me a donation and brought me up to date on her family. Her son has severe diabetes and needs a new hip. We talked briefly about the recent loss of her husband. She told me to drop by anytime; she would love to have me visit.

Jesus commands me to love my neighbours. I don’t know how to do that, exactly. There aren’t enough hours in my day to listen to all the stories on my street. There isn’t enough room in my heart to carry all the neighbourhood joys and sadnesses. Add in my family, my church, my Facebook friends and global neighbours on my TV screen, a suffocating press of needy humanity, and I become undone. Lord, how am I to pray for all who need prayers, to mourn with all who mourn, to rejoice with all who rejoice?

I’m drawn to the hope that neighbourliness counts as love, that I can be an imitator of Christ by sending flowers, canvassing for a charity or buying geraniums from the little girls next door who are fundraising for their school. I take comfort in the advice that novelist Henry James gave to his nephew: “There are three things that are important in human life. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.” Somehow kind seems do-able, a downsized love that’s manageable.

In Christianity Today (June 2013), Carolyn Arends relays the advice that singer Rich Mullins used to give his fans: “God’s will is that you love him with all your heart and soul and mind, and also that you love your neighbour as yourself. Get busy with that, and then, if God wants you to do something unusual, he’ll take care of it. Say, for example, he wants you to go to Egypt. If that’s the case, he’ll provide 11 jealous brothers, and they’ll sell you into slavery.”

So I guess I’ll just stay here on Thames Street trying to be kind unless God chooses to send me to Egypt.

(With thanks to my neighbours who kindly gave me permission to write about them.)

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