Times are tough, right? Sorry, I don’t know how to say anything that doesn’t sound inadequate so I’ll leave that question there. I have a story that really helped me float through a day that started chin deep in the toughness of the times. Spoilers: nothing changes in the times, those of the world or the ongoing narrative of my life, but it seemed like God had a mind to inflate me that day. It all had to do with an abundance of milk that just kept making me laugh. Here’s the story:
The other morning while praying with Circle of Hope’s prayer team on a zoom call I was sitting in front of my house watching a young goose waddle along with its left winging hanging by its side. My heart went out to the gangly goose, black head feathers only just faintly beginning to plume, life expectancy flopping down with the injured wing. I was so moved by the sorry sight that I asked those gathered on the zoom call to pray for this goose. It seemed silly but since the Lord sees every sparrow I am sure this goose is in his care as well. I like to follow those little spurts of compassion no matter where they are splashing. But in my prayer, I was also seeing myself in the all-but-a-goner goose.
I was feeling broken-winged, and I thought that Circle of Hope was looking a little broken-winged, too. I am charged, with the other pastors, to lead our church to discern together about our common direction next year, and that morning, it seemed to me that it wasn’t going that well. I was fielding disagreement, dissatisfaction with the process, and my own mild despair that I wasn’t up for the task. It is really hard to make a group decision at any time, but especially during a pandemic when our only face time is on a screen. I was feeling separated. Our cultural conversation is co-opted by simplistic ideological purity tests which constantly tempt us. I was feeling divided. My heart was sore from some personal stuff that was weighing on me. I was feeling heavy. So I prayed.
And this is how God responded:
A few weeks before, I had signed up to receive vegetables, milk, cheese and meat for 50 families through a connection with the Kingdom Builder’s Anabaptist Network and Mennonite Central Committee Philadelphia Program Coordaintor, ChiChi Oguekwe. ChiChi is my friend and I try to do whatever she says. I had a good idea for distributing the food through the South Jersey Mutual Aid Compassion Team that folks from my Circle fo Hope congregation had recently started in response to the pandemic, but I did not have a good idea about much else… apparently.
Problem #1 – I showed up to 50 boxes of vegetables and 50 boxes of milk, four gallons in each box (Thank God the cheese and meat was not delivered!). The stack of food was ridiculously too big to fit in my Toyota Prius. I told ChiChi with not a little embarrassment that I could not take all the food and to give some of my allotment to another church that had room to haul it. I bet my friend Juan a dollar that I could fit 75% of the boxes in my hatchback. I would have lost that bet I found out but not before ChiChi solved the problem and cancelled the bet. She produced a new friend named Alex who had come with a minivan that was going unused and he was willing to drive a load of boxes to Pennsauken. God bless Alex! God is good! I laughed out loud as I cruised over the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.
Problem #2 – I arrived to 3800 Marlton Pike still praising God that Alex was there to help. (Side note: On the way back I listened to the newly discovered podcast of a hero of mine, Miroslav Volf — the day was really turning around). When we arrived, a whole squad from the South Jersey Mutual Aid Compassion Team was at the building packing delivery boxes for that evening, people I had never met before included! I had no idea they would be there. They helped unload the boxes from our Prius and minivan and helped to fully assess the immensity of Problem #2. What were we going to do with all this milk? I really just hadn’t thought about all of the implications of accepting this donation. I was expecting 50 gallons total and we got 200 gallons! We have one fridge at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken which was at the moment full of apples (from a previous moment of laughable abundance which could probably be its own tale of buoyancy).
Lauren Smith, the leader of the team snapped into action. Calling another leader in the church who had his own mini-mutuality network in Gloucester City to which he could distribute some of the milk that would not fit in the fridge, even after we had emptied out the apples and very creatively stacked and shoved the fridge full of gallon jugs. Lauren, strapped her two young children into her Rav 4 and we loaded up her trunk with spoils of milk that would not (not on our watch) go spoiled, but would nourish a family or forty. God bless Lauren and her team! God is good! I laughed out loud as I stacked full boxes of milk five high and shoved them against the fridge to make sure that the insulating seal wasn’t broken by the bulging milk within. Lauren stood by approvingly. Ha!
Problem #3 – We still had a lot of un-refrigerated milk. We earmarked as many 4 gallon boxes for folks in our mutual aid network who were slated to receive food deliveries that day. We figured the milk would be fine for a couple more hours, but that was only 18 families. It was 72 gallons of milk but that was not enough!
Here’s some more fun: It also happened to be election day, and don’t take our Anabaptist card, but we host the election at 3800 Marlton Pike. The firemen from whom we bought the building always used to do it and I thought it would be a good way to be known in our neighborhood. One of the election poll workers, Dolores, got looped into this problem (It was a super slow voting day since everyone got a mail-in ballot in NJ). She called up her church’s food pantry team leader who definitely wanted some milk. He came an hour or so later with a truck and took 40 gallons with him. God bless Congregación de Yahweh in East Camden. God is good! I laughed at the line-up of need and need, and the new friend, Pastor José Martinez of this Messianic Jewish congregation around the corner.
Problem #4 – We still had about 20 gallons of un-refrigerated milk and I had to leave. This whole debacle had been scheduled for a couple of hours of my day and it was already running at 100% more time than it got budgeted. I told Delores, and her sidekick, Deb, to offer a gallon of milk to everyone who came to vote for the rest of the day. “I’m counting on you for this, okay?” I said with another laugh as I slung my bag over my shoulder and retreated. When I came back five hours of later, all the un-refrigerated milk was gone! God bless Delores and Deb! God is good! I laughed as I gave an air high-five to Dolores from across the room.
And all of this buoyant laughter was essentially precipitated by my broken wings. Either by distraction, or incapacity, or lack of foresight, or any number of deficiencies to which I could assign my name, I had created a problem that ate up more of my day than I had planned. It was my fault. But God brought me through it with so much more joy than seemed possible as I pitied that broken bird in the morning and worried about how painfully apt my prayerful metaphor really was. I still have a lot to learn about team building, and delegation, and appropriate planning, and any number of gracefully describe “growth edges” to which I could assign my name. I still don’t know all the answers to my problems, and I am even more aware of how much I get it wrong sometimes. But God made me lighter that day. And God is enough. And God makes me laugh. And God is good! May you receive the flotation flowing your way today, or tomorrow, or whenever it comes (but it is coming!).