An Excerpt From My Upcoming Book
Deanna once said that one of the greatest things you can give to another person is simply freedom. That kind of has an epic ring to it that conjures up both images of William Wilberforce and Harriet Tubman as well as the grandmother who takes in a wayward grandson recovering from addiction, the friend who helps another see his or her true value, or the hardworking single mom who works double overtime to lift her family up out of the streets. Freedom from poverty, oppression, depression, enslavement, addiction, sin, vices, pride, and all other things that hold us in some sort of captivity is worth pursuing with all the strength we can muster.
At the same time, there’s still that scene n The Shawshank Redemption, where Morgan Freeman’s character finally makes it out of jail and experiences a deep sense of emptiness that makes him long for his old prison. Freedom is definitely a significant and worthwhile pursuit, but alongside freedom, we must also have purpose. We aren’t just freed from something, we’re freed for something.
In front of all the food trucks, Menekse asks Mat and I if we have plans at all for the following day.
“No, I don’t think so…” I respond.
“Good,” she chimes. “I want to treat you guys out to gravy.”
Matt and I say nothing, but she turns and sees our expressions.
“Oh, you guys… Gravy is the name of a breakfast place around town. Sorry, that probably sounded kind of weird without context.”
“Oh, well if that’s the case, we’re down. I was imagining you bringing us nothing but a vat of gravy.”
Gravy, as its trendy, one-word name would suggest, is one of Portland’s many foodie destinations. I’m a big breakfast eater, and while everything from gourmet waffles and corned beef hash sound great, I have to give in and try the oatmeal pecan brûlée- mostly because I have never heard of or tasted an oatmeal brûlée before.
Kathleen, Justin, and Sonny end up coming along. When everyone’s food has been passed out, we begin reminiscing over our time at Liberty in North Korea, the refugee-supporting non-profit we were all connected to. About a year beforehand, we had committed to spending months on the road, traveling to schools and churches trying to drum up support to rescue people escaping the oppression in North Korea. We flash back, but also share about how our time with the organization had shaped the work that followed.
Listening to my friends share their stories makes me feel like I was seated at a table with the Justice League. It’s very easy to get pumped up by this conversation. There’s something very inspiring about encountering other people who live lives that go far beyond themselves. Lives dedicated to the act of serving others seem to create the best stories. It’s clear that there’s something very deep and significant behind the idea of service.
Martin Luther King Jr. once famously quipped that “life’s most persistent and urging question is ‘What are you doing for others?’” For the most part, I think he’s right. We we’re definitely created to live beyond ourselves. Lives strictly focused on making oneself comfortable are commonplace, uninteresting, and uninspiring. Those who leave behind incredible legacies are those who were committed to a bigger picture- to serving others. Unsurprisingly many of us who live lives that are entirely self-focused usually reach a point where that way of living is just not satisfying or fulfilling.
Martin Luther King went on to explain that “an individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” In short, we need to be connected to a bigger picture. It should be no surprise that we get an electric sort of rush when we feel connected to something greater- be it a sports fandom or a close knit family. The fullest expression of this, though, is when we are part of remaking the world into how it was supposed to be- the act of reconciliation. Not long ago, a friend of mine left a pretty stable job in New York City so that she could work more directly with refugees. Since then, she’s experienced far more peace and satisfaction, despite the shift from a fairly certain career to something a lot more on the edge. It was the sort of peace that indicated more than the fulfillment of a personal passion. It was a greater sense of completeness.
An example like that is a clear testament to our hard-wiring to be involved in something bigger than ourselves, working towards progress. Even though we often disagree on what actual progress looks like, many of us espouse an ideal of the world and in some small way work towards it. However, not every story of doing good is so clean cut. For every person who has gone around the world on a life-saving mission trip to rescue humanity, there is another who has returned home a bit disillusioned.
It was a bit like my friend Jeremy had asked me when I told him about my brief experience with a sex trafficking investigation. “It’s hard to keep working on something that feels that daunting, right? Like there’s no end?”
The truth is that the problems our world faces are too big for one person to tackle on our own. At some point, everyone who tries will experience the idealism burning off and the feeling of running on empty. It will feel like an attempt to drown a sea with only a teaspoon. It would be great if doing good was always the life-giving act that it promises to be, but, it can also easily become life draining.
I’m not willing to give up on the idea that service is a key component of a meaningful journey, though. Not that easily. My friend Andy works for a foundation that offers grants to people engaged in service projects all around the world, and it’s his job to ensure that the foundation’s money is going to the right places.
One time, when Andy had just accepted the job offer, he started sharing a little bit of his insight.
“So much of your ability to take on these tasks is really all about motivation,” he paused.
Andy not only worked in giving grants to charitable organizations, but in earlier years, he had helped launched one.
“I see a lot of people take on missions or projects as if their status as a good person depends on it. It’s almost like obligation.”
“A penance,” I added.
“Yeah, exactly. And whenever I see that, I know it won’t last.”
“I think I’ve been guilty of that a few times.”
“Haven’t we all, though? I think that might be one of the more dangerous ways to approach service. Because with the bumps in the road we’re bound to run into, we won’t see them just as obstacles. They’ll be threats to our identity. That’s when it really gets overwhelming.”
I nodded, knowing my own tendency to take on a faux superhero mentality all too well.
“I think the thing is that we often try to earn our identity through what we do, instead of letting our identity form what we do,” Andy elaborated.
“That sounds pretty deep.”
“Hah, well I guess. But think about it, our idea of what makes us be good people is so backwards sometimes.”
“Yeah. Okay, think about community service. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear that phrase?”
“I guess I think of what kinds of neighborly activities will look good on my next job application.”
“Exactly, we’ve taken something so significant- service, and we’ve made it into a brownie points game.”
“Hmm… yeah, that does seem like it cheapens the whole thing.”
“Right. You know what the phrase community service reminds me of?”
“A punishment. Like a sentence for mild to moderate crimes.”
“Picking up the side of a freeway.”
“Yeah. And when you put it that way, it’s still all about earning or re-earning your status.
When our idea of service is that of restitution, that kind of distorts our whole view. It no longer becomes a piece of what we were made for. It’s just some side dish.”
“What do you think your motivation was when you started getting into this sort of work?”
“Mine?” asked Andy. “Oh, it wasn’t a good one. I was angry.”
“Yeah. I was a very conscious person, growing up. I guess every documentary or article I saw about all the injustices in the world just made me angry about all of it.”
“That’s what got you started, huh?”
“Yeah. Anger’s a powerful motivator. It just dies out really fast.”
“What keeps you going now?”
“I mean, cheesy and generic as it sounds, it’s Love. Being committed to the big picture. My faith. I think doing this sort of stuff shouldn’t be an obligation. I know we share the same spiritual beliefs, so I know we both believe that God already accepts us, and needs us to do nothing more to earn his approval. Whatever good we do from this point on should just be a celebration of his approval.”
“Don’t you think that we might be less motivated if it was simply an act of thanks? I know how I am with thank you cards.”
“Well, I don’t want to judge, but maybe you see thank you cards as an obligation the way most people see service. Gratitude– genuine gratitude… it’s never silent, and it’s never stationary. It always springs forward, looking to pass along the goodness.”
Genuine gratitude is a funny thing. When you get that feeling that your cup runs over, you want nothing more but for others to experience that as well.
The Love Dungeon was an incredible blessing in my life, and it allowed me to see for the first time how amazing it was to have a house to share with great company, and how that could be used to bless others. The year before that I had spent my living situation sleeping on people’s couches. I felt blessed, but more blessed with friendships than with property. Now that I had an address I wanted to make sure I was responsible with this gif, being generous with it and welcoming.
In many ways, the Love Dungeon became sort of an H.Q. for our surrounding community. It was the meeting grounds for leadership meetings when I helped run an organization designed to welcome international students. It was the meeting spot for Chase to hold meetings for his mission trip group to Australia and the screening room where Bryce would freely invite others over for superhero movie nights. It even served as the backdrop for a web series Ariel and I started, Ariel and Philippe.
Then there was one day when I realized I wasn’t just blessed with a good house, but an incredible community and set of friends who kept it constantly populated. As I started to see my whole community as a blessing, I decided that I wanted to treat all of these close friendships as an extravagant gif. I was just a grateful recipient, and I wanted to take care and invest in these friendships. I wanted them to have their proper attention. I wanted to make waffles.
That year, I decided to purchase a waffle maker, and it turned out to be a wise investment. I would regularly make a new pitcher of batter in the fridge so that I would always have some handy. I even started to get more experimental with how I would prepare my waffles… my perfect recipe called for some red velvet flavor to be added to the waffle mix. To top off the red velvet waffles, I would melt down some cream cheese frosting into a glaze.
I decided to hold a day where I invited over groups of my closest friends, just to celebrate their company and serve them waffles. It just felt like a natural expression of appreciation. Chris would often tell me that someone who has a lot of well nurtured friendships has the truest wealth there is.
In the week leading up to the waffle extravaganza, I hand wrote each of the friends I invited a letter, reaffirming our friendships and expressing the value I found in the time we were able to spend together. As I wrote my first batch of letters, I realized that I had many more people I thought should be acknowledged as well. This led to several more batches of letters being written and a large purchase of waffle mix.
On the Saturday I decided to open up our kitchen, I invited people to come over within a four hour span. I spent much of those four hours flipping waffles but feeling very much blessed throughout the process. It was a strange but fulfilling circle, feeling blessed made me want to serve, and serving made me feel blessed.
I noticed how being grateful and expressing that gratitude and served as an antidote towards any insecurities I had in believing that I was a person who was truly Loved. The best thing I’ve found one can do when stuck in a spiritual funk, an identity crisis, or a guilt-laden rut is to focus on the blessings already present. I started to realize that although I was made for relationships, the ways in which I hurt others meant I’m wasn’t entitled to them. My relationships were simply gifts.
To this day, I haven’t found a better motivator or a more effective catalyst towards service and fulfilling our desire to help others than sincere gratitude. Because of this, second chances are a motivating force. A life lived in celebration of a second chance is a life that is constantly opening doors for other people to walk through, constantly in the business of helping others find healing, a life constantly in seeing positive changes in others lives and finding joy in the process. The grateful servant realizes that all the good work he or she is able to do is just a reaction, and a festive one at that.
When Deanna had forgiven me as a friend, I began to celebrate our friendship in new, but rather simple ways. We spent more quality time with each other and talked about the future. That celebration opened the pathway for us to eventually start dating. While I was forgiven, I wasn’t hit so much with a sensation of needing to re-earn my esteem in her eyes. Instead it was a need to celebrate how much she valued me by showing her care and affection.
There is nothing more affirming than a second chance, sincere and genuine forgiveness, and unconditional acceptance. Receiving one is definitely worth celebrating in full. When you see yourself as blessed, it’s much easier to bless others, free of inhibition.
When you receive a second chance, your vision starts to change. Suddenly, you begin to see the world as a beautiful place, full of brokenness, in desperate need of a second chance. You see stories of redemption in the lives of those who have learned to be whole again, and you have hope for those who are still living in the chains of guilt, poverty, fear, entitlement, or oppression.To grow in grace means that you start to see the world through the lens of a second chance, every person in need of one, every person asked to give one.
“So, what else do you guys need to do while you’re in town?” asks Sonny.
“Well, I could pretty much use an entire day to do Powell’s again,” I mention.
“Definitely… and Voodoo Doughnuts is right by.”
“Oh yeah, missed that the last time I was up here too.”
“Oh, what about the Saturday Market? Aw, we probably won’t have time to get to it today? What time does it close?”
“Two, I think.”
“Yeah, we won’t make it.”
“Well, the Saturday Market is actually open on both Saturday and Sunday.”
“Oh, well, if that’s the case…” I already what we would be doing the next day.