Every Thanksgiving my grandma gives us an assignment. This is for my entire extended family - aunts, uncles, cousins – everyone. I can’t remember how long ago we started this, but it has been years now. The assignment is to complete a random act of kindness - serving someone else - sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with the obvious goal being that this kind of heart for service would stick around all year long and not just when it's assigned. Service has always been a big part of my grandparents' lives and they passed that on to us – the value of being thankful for what we’re given and giving to others in return - and that comes from their deep love for Jesus. The pastor at our church said in a recent sermon, “When you leave your house in the morning, do you go through your day as a consumer or a servant?” My grandparents are for sure on the servant end of that spectrum, and more and more, I want to bend my own heart that way. What’s my attitude toward others? Do I assume they’re there for me and my comfort and my preferences or do I look at them and find ways to serve them and treat them with kindness, putting them before myself?
Aaron is reading this book by Judah Smith and the other night he read a paragraph from the book that stood out to him about the mantra Judah repeats to his kids. Their family mission is, “We are Smiths. We are kind and encouraging and look for lonely people.” I love that. I want to be a Smith. Do you think they'll adopt me? I want to teach my nieces and nephews and (maybe) someday (hopefully) my children that very thing. But, maybe I could first teach myself to do that more often. Am I looking for the lonely? Or am I too busy being a consumer?
Over the years I’ve done a few different things for my act of service. At Christmas we always share what we did and it's fun to hear the creative ways my family found to serve those around them. This can be anything from shoveling the neighbor's driveway to donating to a charity. It can be paying for the person in front of you in the drive thru, because whose day isn't made when their Starbucks turns out to be $free.99, you know? It can be volunteering at a community organization or dropping off an afternoon snack for the firefighters at the fire station. Sometimes our acts of kindness are just that – one off chances to make someone’s day. Other times they're more than that.
I moved into my current apartment complex when my sister got married and we had to move out of our shared space. It was early July and you couldn’t help but notice all of the patriotic decorations surrounding the patio, tree, and window of the first floor apartment near my new building's front door. There were red, white and blue plastic flowers, several small flags, garland on the plants, tinsel, the whole deal. I wondered who lived there, but it took awhile to finally see her - apartment living is weird that way where you rarely see people coming or going. Well, my festive neighbor turned out to be an elderly woman with short white hair who reminded me of everyone’s grandma. On a typical day, she put out old corncobs for the squirrels to eat and had a massive garden’s worth of plants lining her little patio. She had plaster deer statues standing guard near her front door who sometimes wore sunglasses. With all the work she put into her patio space, I thought someone might live with her and help her, but it was always just her tending to that little home, wearing a visor and socks with sandals. And it never failed that every holiday there was a new set of decorations. On Halloween there was this hanging skeleton made to look like it was in a small prison. What I didn’t know was that it was motion-sensored and when you walked by, the skeleton rattled its cell door and yelled, “Help! Please! Let me out of here!” We're all aware now that my apartment is next to a cemetery, so let's talk about how badly that scared me coming home one night. Throw me in the next open grave, you guys. I was dead.
Well, one day near Christmas of that very first year, my little neighbor came out dressed as an elf. Green and red from head to toe, elf ears attached to a headband, pointed elf shoes, and makeup to give her extra rosy cheeks. She was replacing the corncob for the squirrels when I saw her. Single and living alone myself, I’m serious when I tell you that the thought in my head was, "This is it. I'm looking my destiny square in the face."
You know those times in your life where something comes to mind, some words of wisdom you heard somewhere, and you literally pull it from the archives of your brain somehow, dust them off and think, “This. This is what that means in real life.” The gem of wisdom I pulled from my brain catalog that day was something a high school teacher used to tell us when I was a student in his class - something he was still telling students when I worked with him as his student teacher: “It’s easy to ridicule something or someone you don’t understand.” He teaches a brilliant class called Literature of the Holocaust and I think most students leave with these little nuggets of truth along with a fresh understanding of what it means to care about others and step outside of what you know. And in the moment when I looked at my little neighbor dressed as Santa's number one, I realized I could write my neighbor off and continue to think she was just the nutty neighbor lady, or I could try to get to know her, hear her story, and find a way to serve her.
Since it was already time for our random act of kindness, I decided to make my little neighbor a batch of chocolate chip scones and I wrote her a note that said something like, “I live upstairs and each time I come out, I notice all your decorations. I just wanted you to know that it looks really nice. Merry Christmas!” I put them in a bag and hooked it around her door handle one morning before I left for work, thinking that even if nothing came of it, even if I still never met her, at least she knew someone cared about all of her hard work. But, a few days later, when I got home from work, there was a bag hanging from my own door handle. Inside was a little container of homemade soup and a note: “Thanks for the treat. Come by sometime for coffee. -Rosie”
Rosie was 82 years old when I met her and had been living alone in her apartment for nearly 16 years since her husband passed away. She was spunky and kind and always, always had a story to tell: “My son’s going off to Paris with his wife. I told him to have a lot of sex because that’s what you do on vacation – especially in Paris. That’s what my husband and I did. You will too.” Thanks, Rosie! One day when I got home, her sister was over to see her and they were going to play Pitch with some friends. We talked for a minute and from then on Rosie’s sister dubbed me Long Legs, always calling out, “Oh, there she is, ol’ Long Legs!” when I came up the sidewalk. In the summer I'd find Rosie wearing a bandeau top, tanning herself like a 16 year old on vacation. “Gotta get my vitamin D!” she’d tell me. Rosie and I even had the same birthday week. She brought me cake and I brought her cookies and we celebrated together.
Dropping those scones on her porch was the beginning of four years of conversations and food exchanges and notes taped to doors. Four years of sweet friendship. Rosie moved out of the apartment one day. I left for work and her stuff was all there, but I got home later and it was empty except for her little deer statues. I found out she moved into assisted living. I knew that would happen eventually but it still made me cry. You can’t live alone at 86 years old – or at least you shouldn’t have to. It’s hard enough at 31.
One of the last notes I got from Rosie was after she got back from a trip to Florida. I didn’t know she was away so I left her some treats and a note that said I missed seeing her. She left me a note when she got back, “Thanks for the cookies. It’s nice to be missed.” It is nice to be missed. It’s nice to be missed and it’s nice to be known and I think everyone feels that way, whether you’re 85 or 5, but we can't really know people if we're too concerned with ourselves. I’m so glad I got the chance to know Rosie because she enriched my life in ways she may never know, all because I stopped to look for one second past my own nose.
In light of all the heartache in our country regarding those who don’t feel accepted or treated equally, maybe this is how we begin - with our neighbors, with our friends, with those in our classes at school or at work. Love them well. Know them, serve them, care for them, notice when they're gone. In the last couple of weeks our pastor has been talking about shalom, which is Hebrew for peace, and how our mission each day is just to create little pockets of shalom in our homes, our schools, our communities. I think it all goes back to being a servant rather than a consumer. Are you creating shalom? Are you looking for lonely people and bringing peace to their lives? Focus your time and energy and effort on bringing light and life to each situation, seeking first to make someone else's life a little easier and in turn making the world a little brighter.
The other day I ran into Rosie in the parking lot of a grocery store and we talked for a minute. She's still kicking - hilarious as ever - and you guys, SHE HAS A BOYFRIEND. Dear Lord, please let me be as cool as Rosie someday. What a gal.