Usually," said my new friend with a grin, "I make it a point not to touch other people's shoes. Ever." I had to smile, for there we were, up to our elbows in battered moving boxes full of sandals and stilettos, digging in search of a size eight shoe for one girl's prom, followed by toddler sneakers for a black-eyed darling of a little boy. It was a brilliant Sunday afternoon and we were standing in the wind blown parking lot of our church. We had both volunteered to help sort and distribute at a church-wide drive for donations of basic household goods and clothing.
I had come that day in a very jet-lagged state, quite happy to help out, but expecting to be flat on the floor exhausted at the end of it. You go into situations like these, church or charity, soup kitchen or after school volunteer hours and you think, I am going to be a giver. It's a bit of a duty. Jesus tells me to. I have much, I'll give to those who have less. What you don't expect is the filling up you get in return. It's Tuesday now, but my heart is still filled with a summer sun-like glow of the love I found waiting to fill me on my service Sunday. I thought I'd be emptied, I came back full, and the river flow of it is with me yet.
First, friendship trickled into my heart. The fun and ease with which people work together on a thing like this is a marvel. Are you lonely? Go volunteer. There is no ice to be broken when you're sorting used boxers five minutes in, and conversations can roam the wide earth in the six hours it takes to sort everything. Then came the lovely people I was supposed to "help." I got to guide a little elderly couple around, helping them find the things they most particularly wanted or needed. They spoke only a bit of English, and I, almost no Spanish, but the woman, in her sun hat and dark glasses, took my arm with a confiding pat and we dug together through piles of sheets and blankets, and looked for a frame for the picture her grandson had drawn. At the end, when I said "audios," both of them grinning at my goodwill attempt at Spanish, the old man came to hug me and say "you a very sweet girl."
I walked away dazed because I felt that I hadn't done a thing, hadn't given one bit, instead, had been loved and complimented and patted very sweetly on the arm and was a good bit richer myself. The feeling grew as the day drew down to a golden, windy close and I said goodbye to the people near, to the girls I'd folded clothes with, the staff, and the burly, good-humored men from the city rescue mission who hugged me and said " thanks, hon." I said, truly, it was my pleasure. And it was. It was my delight, it was life unexpectedly filling my heart.
I realized as I drove home that night, that Jesus knew what he was doing when he told us to go out and serve in his name. All the things he asks us to do as his followers - serve, love, open our homes, heal, work, give - are floodgates of life not just out of us, but back into us as well. They are another channel of his love to us. It's a crazy secret; we have this notion that we will be used up, tired out by ministry, that giving is subtraction. In fact, its multiplication. The act of service or love is the opening of a dam in our hearts. On its way out to others, God's love enriches us first, fills us up so that we end our day of service richer than before. And the richer we become, the more we yearn to give. The more we delight to reach out, to offer up our filled up hearts in the service of others.
It would have been so easy not to show up that Sunday. My plane was late the day before, I had laundry and emails and the excuse of no sleep. In our busy, isolated culture, we could stay detached, give a check in lieu of face-to-face help, or just bustle around and never get involved in local, personal ministry of all. The whirlwind of life can make the thought of serving seem one with exhaustion. Surely, we think, working all afternoon sorting clothes, or volunteering for this or that, will just make me more tired than before. But I guarantee you that a receipt in the mail can never give love back to you as it came to me in the pat of an old woman, the grin of her husband. I guarantee you that you will find unexpected life and joy and friendship coming back to you through the very work you thought would exhaust you. Nothing is void or empty in God's kingdom, nothing is lost. You can't give anything away without getting better in return. It's the infinitely expanding love of the kingdom, and when you serve, you become part of it.
I am now lobster red with an infamous sunburn, but I'm happy. So happy you can see it in my eyes. It was a tiny thing, my little afternoon of service, but oh how it filled up my heart. I thought I'd be emptier when I left. Wind and shoes and sunburns of and all, I was fuller at end than I could have imagined.