“There’s someone her to see you,” one of my volunteers, said.
“Who?” I said, not looking up from my paperwork.
“A couple with two kids. They said they need to talk to you.”
Even though Christmas is just under two months away, the food pantry I run is already busy preparing for the holidays. In addition to the Thanksgiving food drive that’s already underway, I have to prepare for our annual toy drive and our adopt a family program – when my clients submit wish lists that are given code numbers and anonymously matched with donors. As soon as our school supply drive ends in August I start reviewing all the families, double check addresses, phone numbers and count how many children we need toys for. Then I send out mailers to the clients, recruit businesses to be drop off points for food and toy collections, set up the adopt a family website, get the artwork made up for print and internet ads, get the town’s civic groups, churches, scouting organizations, and schools on board, call the newspapers, arrange for volunteers to help me and spending countless hours trying to make it all work. It’s detail oriented, painstaking work that requires a lot of focus. In addition to all that, several of my clients were in crisis. The last thing I needed was an interruption. I had work to do.
Sighing, I put down my pen, stuck my head into the waiting room and bid the family entrée into my office. “How can I help you?” I said as the couple sat in the client chairs in front of my desk. Standing next to them, their two small children stared at me wide eyed.
“We sign up for food pantry,” the husband said in broken English.
“Are we too late for the toys? Christmas? ” the wife asked.
“No,” I said. “The deadline for applications is tomorrow.”
This happens every year. Just before the application window closes, two or three families sign up for our holiday programs at the last minute. They’re usually new to the area, hear about our offerings and are anxious to make sure their children benefit. But signing up a new client is another detail oriented task requiring time I can’t really spare. Pulling out an application, I handed it to the father.
“Here’s our application form. Go home, review it, get all the paperwork listed on the form, and bring it back to me tomorrow.”
“Oh,” the wife said, hauling a file folder out of cavernous purse. “Everything I have.”
I groaned inwardly. I’d have to sign these people up right then and there. Staring at the pile of holiday wish lists on my desk waiting to be reviewed, transcribed and coded, I wondered when I’d find the time to finish them. I really wanted these people to come back tomorrow. Then I looked at the couple’s young daughter, who was about two, and remembered something I’d heard a couple of days before.
Last Saturday evening, while my wife and daughter were at a kiddie party, I did something I hadn’t done in a long, long time. Getting in my car, I drove over to the Byzantine Catholic Church in the next town and slipped into a pew. Staring at the bejeweled screen in front of the altar covered with icons, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, the smell of incense conjuring up images of my long dead godfather celebrating the Divine Liturgy. I thought of when I used to go to services regularly; when I was young and idealistic – back when I thought any of this stuff made sense. Then the middle door of the iconostas swung open and the service began. “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and forever.”
As the priest chanted through the intercessions of the Litany of Peace, I smiled when he sang, “For those who travel by sea, air, and land, for the sick, the suffering, the captive, and for their safety and salvation, let us pray to the Lord.” When I was a child, I would imagine all the people flying high in the sky smiling down on me saying “Thanks kid.” Now with shrinking legroom, packed flights, usurious baggage fees and those miserable pack of pretzels they give you in coach, air travelers need all the divine intervention they can get. I wonder if God has elite status with the airlines. Probably not.
Eventually it came time for the Gospel. “Wisdom! Be attentive!” the priest chanted as he processed in holding the New Testament above his head. My godfather used to joke the priest was really saying, “Shut up! You might learn something important!” Then the priest sang the story of a father who’s little girl was dying and beseeched Jesus to come to his house and heal her. But, as Jesus made his way to the man’s home, he was crushed by the crowds who wanted a piece of him. A woman, who’d been suffering from bleeding for years, jostled her way through the crowd and touched Jesus’ cloak. “Who touched me?” he asked the crowd. But no one fessed up.
“Someone touched me,” Jesus said. “I know that power has gone out from me.” Then the woman who touched his cloak, realizing she’d be found out, fell trembling to her knees and told him that she was the one who touched him and, in a moment, had been miraculously healed. “Daughter,” Jesus said. “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace,” But then a neighbor came and told the father of the sick little girl that it was too late. She was dead. Hearing this, Jesus said to father, “Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.” And you know the rest of the story. Jesus went to the man’s house raised that little girl from the dead.
Reading finished, the priest began his sermon, a beautifully simple reflection about interruptions. He talked about how, in our daily lives, we get stressed out when people or events block us from doing what we want to do. When people make demands on our seemingly precious time – when they bother us with their problems. “We want to do everything on our schedule,” he said. “We hate being interrupted. Look at how none of us answers the phone any more, letting it go to voicemail so we can decide whether to answer them or not. Look at how we get upset if someone cuts us off in traffic or interrupts our leisure time. It stresses us out! Even when we do charitable work, we want it to be on our time, when we feel like doing it. But life just doesn’t work that way,.” Thinking about all my holiday tasks, I shook my head ruefully.
“Can you imagine what was going through the father of that dying girl’s mind?” the priest said. “Her time was running out and the crowds were preventing Jesus from getting to her. How crazy that must have made him!” As a father of a little girl myself, I know I’d have gone nuts. “Jesus however,” the priest continued, “Was always being interrupted. But he didn’t see interruptions as a bother. He saw them as an opportunity. That’s why he stopped and talked to the woman who touched him. He didn’t brush her off or chastise her. He took the time to make a connection with her and still found time to raise that father’s child from the dead. That’s because the Lord knew there’s always time for what is important. We must follow the Lord’s example and see interruptions not as a burden, but as an opportunity to learn something new. He call us to connect to people where they’re at in the here and now – to take life as it comes, not as we want it to be. If we do so, we’ll hear the wisdom life is always trying to teach us.”
Looking at the little girl in my office, that priest’s words rang in my ears. Taking a deep breath, I reminded myself this family was only asking me to do what I’m getting paid for. As we talked, I learned this this family had fled to America from a very difficult part of the world. They had left behind their culture, language, family and friends to give their children a better life in the New World. I imagined my wife and I sitting in those client chairs as my five year old daughter stared wide eyed at a stranger asking questions. I wondered how I’d handle uprooting my life in such a drastic way – having to ask for help to feed and clothe my child and get her Christmas presents. It isn’t easy, especially for men, to ask for such help. I thought about my comparative life of ease. I thought about my house, my full fridge and all the toys in my daughter’s room. That’s when I realized that supplicant dad was a better father than me.
Application finished, I showed the family around the food pantry and they shopped, filling a cart with food. When they were done, I grabbed a basket of stuffed animals I keep around for these situations and told the children to pick one. They were tentative at first but, under their mother’s gentle prodding, they started picking through the basket. The little girl took the smallest toy we had. ‘You can have that if you want,” I said. “But I think this teddy bear has your name on it.” As the girl and boy hugged their new toys happily, I knew this was the best thing I’d accomplished all week. Like the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak, it’s entirely possible these children would remember this small moment for the rest of their lives. That, after the ugliness of their former homeland, getting those toys might, consciously or unconsciously, instill in them a sense that people could still be kind, that the world was still a good place. And if I had shooed this family away because I was anxious about getting my paperwork done, that opportunity would’ve been lost
After the family left, I played my favorite recording of The Divine Liturgy of St, John Chrysostom on my computer and listened as its haunting and beautiful words filled my office, When the priest sang, “That we may be delivered from all affliction, wrath and need,” I remembered that, in a very small way, my job is to be the deliverer of such Providence. Swept up in my own selfishness, ego and desire to control things, I forget that sometimes. How many of those “interruptions” that’ve driven me crazy over the years were actually opportunities for connection that I’d squandered? How many times – not only in my job – but in my marriage, family, friendships, and human interactions great and small did I fail people?
We think our time is precious, even to the point of equating it with money. But thinking of time in terms of profit and loss only lead to frustration, making us parsimonious with our attentions and hardening our hearts to those opportunities for wisdom always swirling around us. Ignoring people to save time doesn’t make us rich, only poorer. So, the lesson of Jesus and that dying man’s child might be this – try not to get frustrated with interruptions because time does not belong to you. It is not a commodity we can control or hoard. As a wise man once said, “Time is the moving image of eternity.” We’re just along for the ride. So shut up and listen to people. You might learn something. Besides, you’ll eventually get to where you’re going anyway.
You have all the time in the world.