Monday, February 9, 2009


My daughter and I volunteer at a local soup kitchen. I say local but we drive 50 miles round trip. This for approximately three hours of chopping, measuring and preparing food for whoever shows up to eat that day. I sought this opportunity so my daughter could learn to serve her fellow man expecting nothing in return. As it turns out, I need to exercise this spiritual muscle more than anyone.

Finding an opportunity to serve with a child is difficult. It took some time to find any avenue where she would be welcome. Even in the soup kitchen she needs a lot of supervision because, quite frankly, the people who show up are not of the trustworthy sort. She cannot leave the kitchen or go to the bathroom by herself. I worried over the experience--was it appropriate, would she get anything out of it (important), would she be welcomed by the other volunteers, etc. Basically, how would this make us feel? Sadly, I spent much less time thinking about the people who might come and be blessed by our time in the kitchen.

Our first day she spent the morning making an enormous apple cake she would not get to see baked or even eaten. With quiet concentration she peeled mountains of apples, measured cup after cup of flour, and spooned up more cinnamon than I have ever seen in one bowl. She was diligent but quiet. When we needed to use the bathroom we walked past street people curled up on pews, the stench of unwashed bodies mixing with stale cigarette smoke and booze. She still said nothing. On the way to the car I tried drawing her out. How had she felt about her first experience serving the poor, homeless, and down trodden?

"Some of those people could get a job. Then they wouldn't need free food."
The observations of a ten-year-old are refreshingly honest and simple. However, this was not the warm fuzzy dialogue I hoped to have with her.

"Yes, well, that's true. Some of those people have made poor choices and that's why they need food. But, some of them have fallen on hard times and really need help. We're just there to serve. It's God's job to handle the details." Oh that I would take my own advice more often!
On the way home I felt as deflated as an old balloon. Turns out, I wanted something in return for my time--a feeling of well-being, connection, to know I'd done the right thing, for Haley to feel good, something. A worthwhile life lesson for my daughter would be nice. Especially when she is ultra successful later on and traces it back to the tutelage of her mother and time spent in a soup kitchen.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how selfishness grows in the deepest part of my being. I don't need to consciously think about being selfish, it comes naturally. It often exists even when I am trying to do something "nice." In the end will this action make me feel good as a person, bolster my self esteem, give me purpose, make me likable, heal an inner wound? In essence, its about me Baby. These are the things I think about that I am not proud to admit. The times I have honestly, wholeheartedly done something for another human being with no thought of myself, my agenda or if that person "deserves" it are precious few.

Later I went to the barn to get Eli out of the pasture. I am diligently working with him--mostly on the ground--to build trust and a solid relationship. I have a definite agenda--all for good reasons-- but Eli is a true introvert. He often resists my overtures because he is a horse continually on the ready for the other "shoe" to drop. I may be nice to him (actually, I'm crazy for this horse!) but deep down he suspects I am expecting something out of him, something he might not be comfortable with or ready to give. He watches my every move with a quiet, intelligent eye and reads my motives so accurately its scary. He knows that our time together comes with a price tag.

Mentally I ticked off exercises I wanted to accomplish. I was hoping it would be a good day--I'd see improvement in his responses, some indication I was making a breakthrough. I wanted to feel good about myself and my horsemanship. As I brushed him I thought of the soup kitchen. Maybe my approach with this animal was all wrong. Maybe I needed to employ a little soup kitchen horsemanship to get through to him. Let our time together be without any strings attached of any sort. He didn't need to respond, make me feel good or give anything in return. This time would be truly about him, not my feelings, plan, or agenda.

I spent a long time brushing Eli. He hung his head in pleasure, drowsy in the sun. He may be only a horse but I focused on making him feel loved and secure for the little time we had together. I asked nothing of him but talked quietly while I scrubbed the rubber curry comb in circles on his muddy chestnut coat--"You're such a fine/good/beautiful boy."

We accomplished nothing that day. Instead of training exercises, I let Eli graze on the lawn for 20 minutes after brushing him. When I put him back in the pasture he lingered by my side, confused but relaxed and happy.

We are still volunteering at the soup kitchen. My daughter has not met any of the homeless, poor or simply financially irresponsible that come for meals. She is getting friendly with the other helpers though and loves the chance to cook. They asked her to bake that apple cake again. We heard it was popular.

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