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11.21.2020

knowing and doing

In a tradition that has marked the pace of my writing in this space, I am recalling a season that now feels many many months ago because I learned so much that is still important.  I hope that returning to it means it is now more fully processed and clearer because of the time it has taken me to put it on the page.  Then again, time has felt like a wonky and unreliable narrator this year, so perhaps this is appropriate after all.

Early this summer, I read a book by Steven Garber, entitled Visions of Vocation.  I picked it up because I feel as though I am in that most critical position, hanging onto the last several weeks of my college career, looking at the next couple of years with equal parts excitement and trepidation.  Some part of me thinks that I should be more established by now in a path, with a plan that stretches beyond my purview.  And yet, perhaps that is not my place.  Perhaps my vantage point is limited to the next step in front of me for a reason, for the holy lesson of patience and slowness that is often so uncomfortable.

Speaking of holy lessons, what I learned about vocation was not was I was expecting to learn.  Garber's premise seems to be that vocation is not so much a career, a role, or a specific ministry, but a guiding passion, or rather a guiding grief that God places in your life or on your heart.  He writes about what it is like to observe the world and know it in such a way that what you know motivates what you do.  This is different for every person—what you know and what you do with what you know is personal and spiritual and wildly practical.  

My instinct is to observe and learn.  This summer, as waves of racial tension surged and the ugly undercurrent of racism broke through complacency, I learned.  I read.  Books and articles and opinions and perspectives and all of it.  That is easy for me.  When I do not understand and when I am faced with something messy and confusing, my first move is to study it.  As if the experiences of generations of people can be understood by objective research.  The premise of Garber's book—the theme of knowing and doing—is that you cannot stop with the knowing.  Jesus didn't.  The observing, the learning, the knowing, is only as useful as what results from it.  We shall be known by our fruit, not by how well we understand the workings of trees.  

This theme has worked itself out in other parts of my life this year.  At some point early this summer, fresh off the semester, conviction came and sat on my chest.  I was sitting still and doing nothing and clenching my hands trying to hang onto plans and hopes and dreams for a year that was clearly different than what I had expected.  I am good at seeing what I am missing; I am not so good at seeing what is right before me.  I started volunteering with a local ministry that serves refugees and seeks to foster cross-cultural relationships and discipleship.  This opportunity led me to a neighborhood about twenty minutes away from where I live.  Every Friday afternoon I show up along with a group of volunteers that only God could have assembled, and we spend time with sometimes dozens of Burmese Muslim children from the ages of three to fourteen or fifteen.  We blow bubbles and draw with sidewalk chalk, kick soccer balls, color, play games, and generally try to contain chaos.  We have learned names, met the families of the community, and we have learned how to pray for our neighbors.  We have seen how God takes little and multiplies it.  In a way, we're not surprised.  He has a history of doing that.  These afternoons are not grand and successful attempts to fix brokenness, we have no inflated suppositions about our ability to reconcile or heal or make right.  There is an acute sense that we simply show up and God does all the heavy lifting.  

Not only have I been overwhelmed over and over by how God draws people together for the purpose of his good work, but my eyes have been opened to needs and stories that I knew nothing about eight months ago.  In a bible study I am leading for middle school girls, we have been discussing the ways we reflect God's identity in our capacity to care for people.  The more I have spent time with these kids in this neighborhood and as I get my hands dirty week after week, what I have come to know about their stories has planted deep roots in my heart.  Now that I know, the doing is more and more a natural consequence.  I will never not know about this neighborhood, about the kids who have been forced to move houses again and again because they are broken into.  I will never not know their names and their faces and the constant juxtaposition of dark and light, joy and hardship that hangs in the air they breathe, that we all breathe.  This is knowing and doing.  

None of this comes naturally.  I am reluctant to get my hands messy.  I hesitate to put down roots and linger because I understand what it requires of me.  In my heart there is constant war between my selfish desire to resist attachment to anything and the holy urge not to leave until I have given all I can.  I suppose it is something I will be learning forever, going around and around with God until he's softened me into approaching all things with my hands open, giving and giving and giving out of his own abundance and love rather than my own lack.

Perhaps that is what I will leave this year with.  My prayer, the theme I set for these twelve months so many days ago, innocently in January, never knowing what would come, was that God would give me open hands.  Open hands for whatever he would set before me or take away.  My hands are less tightly clenched now, I am pretty sure of it.  But I think I have learned more than anything else that the capacity for accepting and the capacity for giving are not mine at all, but God's, and it is only by the goodness of the Spirit that I can do either.  They may look like my hands still, but any ability they have is straight from God.  If this year has taught us anything, and we may never know how much, it has taught us how utterly feeble and helpless we are on our own.  It is our great joy to find that he is enough.

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