When I walk into the conference, I am alone. I tried to get a friend to join me, but couldn’t; so I drive all around town looking for parking, and walk solo into a room I’ve never entered before. I register, and move into the chatty crowd.
Someone turns toward me and her face lights up. Well, Shari Zook! she says. I am happy to hug her again. I haven’t seen her for months, but she is a favorite former caseworker, and friend.
I take my seat beside a stranger and introduce myself and then sit in silence, waiting. From behind me, a warm hug wraps around my shoulders, comfort, presence. More agency workers: dear friends, full of care and grace.
The speaker at this training survived horrific abuses and lived to advocate for women and children in trauma. She has never heard of me, and never will. Yet my work lines up with hers, and it matters.
I am alone. But I am not alone.
Another conference, a month later. My husband and I sign up together. There is a bewildering building, an array of choices, an enormous crowd. Do I belong here? The people who have never heard of me and the people who have are equally daunting. What will they think of me? The expectation in the air could be cut into slices and served up alongside the catered lunch. Next to the smoked cheddar, we offer perfectly intentional living, very nice, very smooth.
Here is a roomful of people who have lived their dreams, birthed nonprofit companies, climbed the ladders, met the goals, won the titles behind their names. What am I doing with my life? Does my work matter?
An old friend posts a challenge on Facebook. Describe your profession badly. It’ll be fun.
I want to say Hmm. Because you said “profession,” I will make a distinction between work I get reimbursed for and work I do not. So, I get paid a pittance to mother other people’s children for like a year, to wipe their tears and clean up their body fluids and rock them close and hear them say the name of Jesus for the first time and then – to give them back.
We’ve been in this so long, I tell my husband, getting tearier than I wish. And we – I stop.
I think I’m going to react to what you say next, he says.
So I say it, the unspoken. And we have nothing to show for it. What are we doing? It’s so small. Does it matter?
He walks me to the fridge and we stand before the pictures we’ve hung there, the five foster children we loved long term and the dozen others who slipped through fast. Look at them, he says. This is worth something. No foster mom has to wonder if her life is changing the world.
You’ve been there too, I know it, the after place when the heart you poured into a project, a life, a mission, drained out and you lost big time. Of course others gained by it, which is a comfort… at least you think they gained… of course they must have, because not for a moment can you allow yourself to entertain the idea that it might have all been one gigantic mistake. Certainly if you had known it would burn like fire, you would have held a small part of yourself back, stepped away from the hellish abyss.
That was Before. You’d love to go back to Before. You might even have photographs of it, and the smiling serenity of perfect love has turned to ash in your soul, because this is After.
Does it matter?
Your best efforts are the smallest ripples in the world. Have you changed anything real? Can you?
And why is it the foster parents who get the praise and the good rap? When you’re over here mothering the two or three small ones born to you, or the seven, or eight – and people roll their eyes and grin and say, You know what causes that, don’t you? You’re just living one day to the next, changing the next diaper, vacuuming up the paper scraps and Play-Doh shreds again, cleaning crayons out of teeth and off of walls, getting frozen chicken out to thaw. You had big dreams for life, and you’ve had to shelve some of them. People say this IS the big thing but it doesn’t always feel like it. Does it matter?
And why do mothers get all the praise? You’re a school teacher over here… Talk about loving kids who aren’t your own! This is the job you wanted, and you’re grateful. But the noise and learning challenges never go away, and you must appear every morning, in sickness and in health, with all the heartfelt commitment and none of the companionship late at night, when it’s dark outside and cold. Then your apartment is silent. Your pupils are beginning to be the children of your former pupils. You’ve done this a long time, and you’re tired. What am I accomplishing? Did I miss what I was meant to do?
And teachers are semi-lauded too, mentioned in sermons, given special weeks of appreciation. Why is that? You’re just over here pushing papers around an office, sending emails about overdue bills, ordering more materials for the boss. You’re over-trained and over-qualified, but it’s the job that came to your hand and you’re thankful for it. But it’s lonely. And it doesn’t look good at church – What did you do for the kingdom today? He ran the kids’ club ministry, she volunteered in a red light district giving hope to prostitutes, and they started an outreach in Chili. I placed fifteen phone calls, took seven orders, and clocked out at the end of the day.
WHAT DOES IT MATTER?
Also, just in case you think I’m working my way down the totem pole here, I – pastor’s wife and foster mom and mother of many – confess to sincere and deep-seated jealousy of the paper pusher because she is quietly earning her own living. My work is not valued even at minimum wage, and sometimes I ache for the dignity of being self-sustaining for the first time in my life. (Ingratitude sandwich, anyone?)
You know what though? No matter what we do, we will always know someone who does it better, or bigger, or braver. Comparing doesn’t help, of course, we know that; what a bummer we can’t stop doing it.
The point of all this talking is that Somebody looks at my work – Somebody looks at your work – and says it is enough.
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (I Cor 15:58, NIV)
Give yourselves fully. The focus of the Scripture is not on the work at all – what it is, where it is, how much it pays. The focus is on two people. You… and the Lord, who said to keep doing it because it’s not in vain. He said you know it’s not in vain.
Look deeply into what He’s called you to. You know, don’t you?
You know that in Christ, every after is also a before, and an until, and a wait and see what I bring out of this one. He’s here. And so are His people, doing what He’s asked them to do in their own solitary places.
What is alone?
He said that in Him, we will never find out.
If a deserted “after” place is where you find yourself, listen to this. Pure beauty.