“Tell Shay to smile more,” I heard on the other side of the door. “She doesn’t smile enough.”
I pulled my hands up to my mouth and stared off into the distant blue horizon, over the rolling hills of the Great Plains, the patches of sage brush and purple flowers, beyond the dusty dirt road and the wooden cross where I go to pray.
“How long has she been doing this?” I heard him ask my friend. “The street work, I mean… “
My friend cleared his throat thoughtfully. “This is her third year.”
“That is rough work,” he continued. “It’s hard on a person. Four years is the limit for council work” he related my work to his own in an effort to empathize, “before people get burned out. And after 7 years…” I didn’t catch the rest of the sentence.
I squinted against the sunlight and realized Shane was watching me, his head low and his eyebrows furrowed. I dropped my head to my forearm and felt a lump rising in my throat.
I had fallen in love with these hills… with the silence of the nighttime and the clarity of billions of stars illuminating the sky… with the Milky Way stretched across a black canopy… I had fallen in love with each and every sunset. The dazzling colors, shifting and changing and coming alive each evening… the lightning storms and the shift in temperature that seem to manifest a raincloud out of a clear blue sky after a particularly intense afternoon sun. I had fallen in love with these things, even the ants that crawl through the sage while I sit to read and pray on the gravel plateau of the furthest hill along the road toward the small town. I was convinced I could find my peace here. I can write, I can sing, and God can light the flame of joy back in my heart and I can come to life again.
I haven’t been as present in the moment as usual, because the idea of a book is finally starting to come together in my head and I have been glued to blank pages for days, typing away, editing pictures, reviewing old journal entries. I’ve been wandering off into the hills, once with the boys but often alone, to pray and talk to God about what happens next. It feels as though I am only half awake… maybe too intuitive and too desperate…
We had traveled all the way here from the twin cities in Minnesota. We were invited here more than six months ago and accepted, committing to something in a way I promised myself I would never do. After the tribulation that came with making this journey, the money it took to get here, and the goodbye’s that I had to say along the way, I’ve promised myself again that I won’t be making commitments like this. In fact, next time, I will simply say no… it’s easier to call back and say yes a week before the event than it is to try to plan my entire life around a single day in the far-off-future. We don’t have the privilege of making plans in a world and life where nothing is ours…
I was still entrenched in this confusing mix of emotions when I overheard this conversation on accident. I could hear him continue the conversation with my friend, relating it to his own experiences.
“Burn out can lead to alcoholism, drug addiction, and even suicide. I have a friend who had to go to therapy… Shay doesn’t smile. She’s obviously troubled.”
Shane chuckled a little and leaned in to whisper to me, “Do you need therapy?”
I’m sure it confused him when my eyes filled with tears that steadily splashed on the concrete step between my two feet.
“Why are you crying?”
I blinked a few times and leaned back, hoping to erase the watery blur in my vision. I didn’t know what to say, for the thousandth time in the last few days, so I stood up and started walking past the truck, past the camper, and up the nearest hill.
We had stood up here the other night to watch the lightning storm, but today I just needed to cry. It’s so strange to realize that this man had seen something troubling me that even my husband and my best friend could not admit. He had gotten to the root of my tears, the reason that I had been so frustrated with everyone around me lately.
Yesterday I picked an argument in the car on the return trip from a nearby little town, because I had seen my friend reject a man who asked him for a dollar. I was already being heavily convicted of my own decision not to give a man one of my bracelets and my necklace when he asked me for it. I had already given him a bracelet, my husband had given him two bracelets, and I’d had enough of his intoxicated begging. When he asked me for another one, I said no.
“Look at this bracelet,” I had said pointing to one on his wrist. “My husband gave you that. And this one. And I gave you that one. What about the others? How about you give me a bracelet?” I had told him. “Come on, give me one!” I had used the same tone that he used with me. His drunken gaze fell on the necklace hanging on my collarbone. “What about that heart?” he said pointing. “Can I have that?”
I pointed again at his wrist. “Come on dude, let’s trade. Can I have that bracelet?” I said touching his wrist. “Or how ‘bout that one? Or that?” I said adamantly, demanding him for a trade in the same manner that he demanded a gift.
A few minutes later I watched my husband take off his cowboy hat and his sunglasses and give them to an old friend of ours that we had met last year. My gut wrenched. Shane had been wearing that cowboy hat for over a year… and I couldn’t even give up one of the rubber bracelets that I didn’t even really like.
I was so convicted of my selfishness, that I became hyper critical of my friend when he rejected a man begging for a dollar. The man had admitted that he wanted it for beer, and my friend told him no. “You need to help yourself, and that isn’t going to help you,” he said as he shook his head.
I glued my lips shut at the time, but a few minutes later a question seemed like it would sweat out of my skin if I didn’t ask it… “What do you think of the verse where Jesus said ‘Give to all who ask of you, and do not reject the man that wishes to borrow from you?” I asked my friend from the back seat.
“Well… I take it literally.” He answered. There was an awkward pause and I was convicted of my accusatory tone… I spoke up and made it personal. “Because a man asked me for a bracelet today and I told him no…”
“Well, to an extent.” He continued, to my dismay. “I mean, you have to let the Holy Spirit lead you in each circumstance, and you’ll be convicted if you haven’t done the right thing. Sometimes people want to just take and take and take, and there’s a point there where you’re feeding something evil.”
A thousand thoughts burst into my head at once. How can we judge a man’s heart? How do we know if it’s for ill intent? “But even if they take everything, I follow a martyr, so I’m supposed to let them have it. Nothing happens apart from the will of the Father, so maybe I’m not supposed to have anything then…” I stated.
Rob chimed in. “But they asked Jesus for a miracle, and he told them no.”
“What does that have to do with it?” I asked, legitimately confused by the reference.
Shane replied, “Because they asked him for something and he didn’t give it to them.”
My friend continued from the front seat. “He could see their heart, and he knew their intentions were evil…”
Actually in that example, Jesus pointed out that his very life was a sign, and that this ‘wicked generation’ could not even see his life for what it was… he was disappointed and left them to solve the puzzle on their own. But instead of tackling that topic I chose an easier argument.
“I’m not Jesus,” I answered. I really meant that I’m not God, and I can’t see into the heart of a man.
“Yes but that’s why we follow the Holy Spirit,” my friend answered.
They continued to argue their point but my eyes drifted out over the rolling hills on the other side of the window. Jesus God and Holy Spirit will not argue with each other, I wanted to say. They will not tell me two different things. Jesus said “Give to all who ask of you.” Period. He even said if people steal from me I’m supposed to give them more than they take. Even though the thief was being “evil”! Doesn’t sound like fun, but my heart knows it’s Right.
If a man drinks away his poverty, I’m supposed to alleviate his poverty, not condemn him for drinking. The man who had asked my friend for the dollar had admitted that he wanted to buy his friend a beer, and was told “I’m not going to help him kill himself.” His reply: “But he wants to kill himself. He wants to die.”
The King’s mother in Proverbs 31 explained that we shouldn’t judge people for drinking; we should alleviate their poverty so that they won’t rely on the addiction to comfort their suffering. Alcohol is for the poor, not for royalty. And yet God’s children have condemned the poor, even as they sip their glasses of wine in the comfort of their homes. What would it take for that man to want Life?
I knew I was being too critical. Everyone is on a journey, and yet I was suffering in this understanding in the back seat all the way back to our little refuge down the dirt road.
As I stood crying at the top of the hill after overhearing my friend’s conversation, I looked over my shoulder to see Zuzu climbing the hill after me. What a comfort I find in my dog. Within seconds, I could see Shane’s hat as he appeared over the sage brush. When he sat down next to me in the dusty gray dirt, I told him the truth.
“He’s right, you know. He’s exactly right. I am burning out. It explains so much. The crazy thing is that it isn’t the” street people”, it’s everyone else. I’m burned out on the world. There is nowhere left to go where people do not need something from me, and I have nothing left to give them.”
As soon as the words escaped my lips, I heard an argument come from the depths of my soul. “Yes you do. You have Me. And I AM enough.”
“Tell Shay to smile more,” I heard on the other side of the door. “She doesn’t smile enough.”