lenten journal: joy and jesus


    I don’t really understand surly.

    I get depression because I live with it, but surly – the toxic kind — is a different matter. The two servers who worked tonight, mother and daughter, make a good case for toxic surliness as a psychiatric diagnosis, again, in the same way I needed to see my depression as more than just being overwhelmingly sad. I say all of that not to judge them, but to try and learn something about how to work with them and how to understand them better.

    One of the ministries of our church is working with ex-inmates as they try to assimilate back into society. A team of our church members meets with our “partner,” as he is called, once a month to listen, to encourage, and to hold his feet to the fire, as well. As a part of that effort, Ginger went to a training session tonight (that has a name I can’t remember right now) that had to do with understanding how we understand things – cognitive something or other. The woman who led the training used a dropped wallet as an example, going around the room and asking people what they would do if they saw someone drop their wallet. The different answers raised various ethical questions and revealed differing points of view. The leader went on to say in her experience with prisoners that they almost all saw the wallet as at least “finders, keepers,” if not a gift. We can rarely assume we share a common understanding of any situation or issue, which means, among other things, that we have to listen harder to each other.

    What I know about the two women I work with, beyond our little restaurant is one important thing: the husband/father in the family died last April. Beyond that, I know they’ve worked at Duke for a good while and the restaurant where we work has pretty much been their domain. I also know I’m the new guy.

    Tonight was one of those nights when I saw clearly that we don’t look at life the same way, fundamentally. The first therapist I ever saw told me, “There are two things in life you can change: how you feel and how you act and speak. You can’t change anything else.” His words have always proven true. Applied here, they mean my task is less about figuring them out and more about deciding what I am going to say and do and what I am going to choose to feel about it all.

    Man, it would be a hell of a lot easier to just fix them.

    My friend Joy Jordan-Lake has a new book called Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous: Ten Alarming Words of Faith, which is well worth the read, I’m proud to say, even though I’m only through about word five. As I’ve been thinking about the two women at work, I went back to something I read in the first chapter, “Resurrection”:

    It turns out that the only people who can speak of resurrection with authenticity are the ones who’ve had a good whiff of the inside of a tomb. Resurrection is not a word you can tease and hold hands with for fun unless you’re informed of the risks. Because to talk about resurrection like a personal friend is to talk first about your close acquaintance with death. (3)

    When I can be human enough to get over being annoyed and frustrated by their surliness, I see two people who know death far too well and are, like Jesus, acquainted with grief. You don’t learn to put up shields like that unless you were getting beaten a lot. In the process of learning to protect yourself, you learn to lash out as well and get in some good licks before the tide turns against you. I can’t change any of what was done to them or how they’ve learned to survive. I can change my being annoyed or frustrated as a result.

    This following Jesus to the Cross thing is easier when it’s about special worship services and giving up something rather than having the road run right through the middle of my job. Joy, again:

    “Holiness,” said Walter Rauschenbusch, “is goodness on fire.” This captures well the holiness – and danger – of Jesus, his power to attract and disturb, and even to destroy, before re-creation or redemption can occur. . . . Holiness, real holiness, the kind Jesus presents, is not about chains and checklists but hunger. And longing. Finding ourselves desperate for meaning, for purpose, for something bigger and richer and beyond the tawdry this-world that we let define us. Wishing to wipe down the slates of our pasts, clean up our acts, start over again. To live this time for something higher and wider and deeper. More wild. More dangerous. More destructive and creative. More holy. (44, 46)

    When I think about being creative in the kitchen, I think about making something tasty out of what I can find there. This week, I’m serving a chipotle-mango glazed salmon over coconut-raisin rice with a pineapple-mango salsa, all because I found mangoes and pineapples and shredded coconut in the walk-in, a small can of chipotle peppers hiding on the spice shelf, and we over ordered on the golden raisins. A dish like that and it’s pretty easy to feel proud of myself.

    But a night like tonight and some words from Joy and Jesus – remind me of the true creative and redemptive work I’m being called to do that has less to do with salmon and more to do with surly. When I was in seminary, entertaining delusions of doctoral work, I took a class where we read the Bible in French. The one thing I remember is the translation of “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” when we took the French word for word: “Blessed are those who make peace around them.”

    Funny I should remember that now.

    I don’t know what the days ahead will hold. I don’t expect to be sitting around in the dining room singing “Kum Ba Ya” anytime soon. I don’t expect them to change.

    I’m trusting that I will, with God’s help.



    1. Surly was the face of my own depression. One of the reasons I finally thought that maybe it was, as you put it, more than just being overwhelmingly sad, was the constant anger I felt toward those people I loved the most. It didn’t take long for my therapist to recommend medication – it was more than just a few months of just feelin’ surly (how come no one ever wrote a song about that? You know, “Come on, get SURLY!”)

      It could be that the surly servers are closer to a change than you think, and your own actions might be the catalyst that gets change going for them. Or not; your therapist was right about the control thing, after all.

    2. Thanks for the giggle Milton. (“Kum ba ya”). In my opinion there are two ways to look at life, as a glass half empty or a glass half full. I chose to live mine as half full. I live with someone who see his life as a glass half empty. Surly! I see all things bad that happen as blessings in disguise. What good does it do to dwell on the negative? It certainly doesn’t make it any better! The power of positive thinking…it really works. Tell your co-workers to read “The Secret”. ; ) Molly

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