The Wilderness

Psalm 78:19 They railed against God and said, “Can God set a table in the wilderness?”

Saturday was beautiful. After months of unending rain the sun was finally shining. I rushed to the church to heat up the leftovers of my Syrian stew and rice. Enchiladas would be waiting in the courtyard, and two pots of stew. I knew there would be sandwiches and fruit. Mother Kathleen was bringing hummus wraps. Alison had given me four boxes of granola bars and trail mix. I had four gallons of water (some flavored with mint and cucumber, some with strawberry or strawberry and mint) waiting for me in the fridge. Brittney dropped off string cheese and boiled eggs. Jerri had left me a bag of tuna fish sandwiches, and there were beautiful boiled eggs from Jackie’s own chickens. Since the close of the Love Overwhelming shelter we’d been serving around 25-30 most Saturdays. Our cup runneth over. There would be plenty for all, with leftovers besides. What would we do with all this food!

Rushed, panicked, late. I arrived to see my partners already set up, waiting for me. My vision was glimmering diamond shapes of sun and green under the dappled shade of the courtyard parking lot with color breaking through at intervals where the people stood. A lot of people. My mind couldn’t see the faces but I knew there were a lot of people.

I couldn’t organize my thoughts. What to grab. What did I bring. What goes where. I got out of the car and saw my first face. A dear friend, a kind man who is always ready to help. When he saw me, his face glimmered along with the shivering of the leaves, eyes lit in the warmth of friendship. I ran to him right away. I wrapped my arms around his long, lean middle and pressed my head into his chest. “I’m so glad to see you.” I let out my breath for the first time that day. Anchored. I knew where I was.

One worry was lifted. Now, I had a friend to help me get the heavy things to the table. As I moved into position another face came into view. Jynx. She is a dear friend who had wanted to get involved with this ministry but struggled with many limitations of health. I encouraged her to come. “It is about more than food,” I told her. “It is about relationships. Caring. Connecting. Building community. Come be with us. Come build community.” And there she was. Sitting on her walker chair while her mother, Joyce, dished up dazzlingly colorful little cups of fresh Asian salad. Click. Another connection. Another door in me fell open and I moved to my spot at the table.

I looked down at the food. I couldn’t really see it. My energy was so high that it made no sense to me. A field of color. I grabbed a plate but I didn’t know what to do. My new friend, Kayce, appeared at my side. I looked into her pots before I looked into her eyes. Beautiful beef stew. I disappeared into those two pots, portals into the comfort of the family kitchen. She had brought it here to this table and we were about to share it. I looked into her eyes. Another click, and with her help, we started filling plates.

There were so many people. I felt like I had to move so fast. Too fast. I wasn’t getting time with my friends. But there were so many people and everyone was so hungry. Plate the food. But look up. Slow down just enough to look up and look into people’s eyes. A long row of eyes.

Click. Or more like a rhythmic, ascending clatter. The sound a falling row of dominos as all the connections snapped into place. I knew many of the names that went with those eyes. Some were eyes the names for which I was still learning. Some eyes were completely new. I said the names I knew, greeted each one. For those I was learning, I asked again. A steady flow of faces, bright with golden sun was set in their colors like flowers against the shimmering green of the leaves. In each meeting of eyes the light grew brighter.

There were several friends right in a row whose name I had to ask again. Behind them was a man I didn’t know. Small, tanned dark brown, his eyes were bright and eager, reaching for me. He had heard me ask the names of those who went before him. He didn’t wait to be asked. “My name is Mike!” he volunteered with great enthusiasm. Another door fell open. Everything froze as I saw him. His hunger. Deep, beyond the belly. Down to the place that craves companionship. Community. Connection. I stopped. I held up the line. I walked around the table and opened my arms. “Mike. I’m so glad you are here. It is so good to meet you. Thank you for coming.”

He came into me willingly and I held him. I pressed him to my chest and closed my eyes. I threw open doors, multitudes, echoing flutters of the fluttering leaves, and let my love flow freely out. “It’s so good to meet you,” I told him again. I felt myself breathe. Over the shoulder of my new friend the golden green light of the parking lot was infused with this love. I breathed it in. More open doors.

A hand appeared at my side. My sweet friend, David, of C-HOPE placed a small white glass soap dish next to me on the table. “That guy over there wanted you to have this,” he gestured. “The guy in the blue cap.” I looked up. I knew that man. I knew him before we started serving these meals. I had spoken to him many times. He would never tell me his name. “I’m Tempest! I’m Illusion!” magical answers from a magical mind. Sometimes, when I saw him, he was energized and happy. Sometimes, energized and angry. Sometimes, too depressed to speak. Today, he was happy. And he had brought me a gift. My heart swelled to the point of nearly breaking as I looked at that gift, glowing soft white in the golden flutter. It was a treasure. A connection, a kindness from a relationship nurtured over time.

We were beginning to see the bottom of our pots but the line was still coming. This was no ordinary Saturday. It didn’t seem we would have enough. David would occasionally report his count. “That’s forty.”, “Forty-eight.”, “Fifty.” We were out of beef stew. Out of enchiladas. Out of Asian salad. Almost all of it was gone. I dished up the last plates of my rice and stew and fretted heavily. There wasn’t going to be enough.

At last, the last person came through our line. Three plates were left on the table. A few came back for seconds and those three plates were gone. Done. I looked around the dappled parking lot at the crowd as they sat eating and talking in the grass. Now I could finally take some time to sit down with my friends.

Across the lot, I saw a woman I had known for a long while but whose name I did not know. She was never calm enough to ask her name. She showed up screaming, booming from down the street, assaulting the air with her rage. As she stood in line for food, she raged. Even as she ate, she raged. Stiff legged, screaming and pointing, she would assail the atmosphere of any space she entered, inconsolable and unable to connect. That day, miraculously, she was calm. Peaceful. She looked contented and quite beautiful. I took advantage of this rare opportunity and approached her. “I’m so glad you’re here!” I put my arms around her. She hugged me back, deeply. “You know, Friend, I’ve never had a chance to ask you your name.” I felt worried as I said it. How rude. As long as I had known her I should have known her name. My offense might bring on rage. Instead, she responded with open pleasantness, “It’s Mary.” Mary. Somehow it came as a surprise. I thought her name would be something else. But it was Mary. Click.

“You do know about Wednesdays?” I asked her. I had been telling everyone about the Wednesday meal and pointing out the somewhat challenging-to-find location behind us. “No!” she responded. When I pointed to the church and explained our new Wednesday arrangement she seemed surprised. “What do you mean?” she said, wide eyed. “Inside?? How did you pull that off??”

I stood for a second in the miracle of this conversation, and looked into her eyes. Energy spun around me like a whirlwind, blowing upward and tickling the leaves. Around us in the courtyard parking lot the golden air quivered with electricity and light. The air crackled with the power of the Holy Spirit. My mouth opened and I heard myself say, “The Spirit! Don’t you feel it? It’s alive all around us!” I wrapped my arms around her, again. Sweet Mary. Still enough to embrace. A wild woman had stepped out of the jungle and come to this table set by God. “We all have a light,” I told her. “When we join them they shine even brighter. That’s how we do it, with the power of the Spirit.”

Just like we had come together, a table set by God in the wilderness, a table that transformed the emptiness of that parking lot into our palace in the kingdom, we hastily broke apart. Friends were left scattered on the grass, talking quietly. My heart pulled me to them. I didn’t want to leave them behind. Suddenly, my friend with the blue cap appeared. Tempest. Illusion. He said to me, with passionate surprise, “Do you know what a blue footed booby is?? It’s a BIRD! It’s not even a booby! Oh, sure, you hear that word booby and you get all excited, but don’t! It’s a BIRD!” he went on, his impromptu comedy bringing laughs from any who heard him. I laughed until my stomach hurt. My friend had given me another gift.

Back at St. Stephen’s, Shawn and I unloaded our pots. I felt like I was running, still rushing, pushed forward with the power of the day. We stopped for a minute and caught each other’s eyes. Click. I breathed again. We reached for one another and clasped hands. We sat down. In the kitchen of St. Stephen’s we shared our day, our ministry, and the deep love we feel for one another and for our homeless friends.

“There was one late comer,” she told me. “We had fifty-two, all together. That last man came up and all the food was gone. I felt so awful. We had nothing to give him. Joshua heard me tell him we were all out of food. He had gotten one of those last plates of seconds. He rushed back to where he had left it, a untouched plate, and gave it to the late man. So everyone was fed, right now to the last. Today, every time I thought we were out of something I would turn around and there would be another bag of fruit or another bag of sandwiches. It was like a miracle. It’s like Jesus was there.”

We both walked out of the church on fire with the Spirit. As we drove away from one another the power of our connection only grew. Fed at God’s table, our light grows. Our lights joined together shine even brighter. Each of us that day walked away with a brighter light. We go out into the world to shine it, a lamppost, a beacon, a sign. A light is growing in the wilderness. Come, grow it with us.

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