I grew up in two states. Until I was twelve we lived in Northern California where I attended the same school all the way through sixth grade. The summer before seventh grade my family moved to Wisconsin and lived there until I completed high school. After that, I ran really fast back to California.
As much as I loved living in California with her ocean and her produce and her stable weather, Wisconsin wins when it comes to fall. Each autumn I still look around for some kind of resemblance, some hill ablaze in color, some tree-lined street carpeted in red leaves that skip up behind rolling tires. I sniff the air for the smell of burning leaves because we all had a backyard barrel just for this purpose. I wish for a Devil's Lake State Park or a Kettle Moraine scenic drive. Grandma used to press pretty fall leaves from our yard and mail them to me when I was in college in Orange County sitting through class, stripping off my sweatshirt, trying to convince myself that the marine-layer-until-2:00 could pass for "autumn weather."
When we lived in Wisconsin, we would rake leaves every Halloween. In our area, each town would schedule trick-or-treating for a certain day and time, not all on the 31st and not all at night. We'd be out in the yard raking through the daylight and kids in costumes would come up the drive asking for candy. I was in middle school, too old to go asking for myself. We'd point to the basket on the porch and keep on with our work. We'd rake the whole three-quarter acre lot and pile them up for Grandpa. He'd man the burn barrel, set some aside for compost, and the leaves would be gone by sundown.
One November Saturday, since living here in Denver, we took you boys to rake leaves at a woman’s home here in town. Something inside, or some voice in culture or some Bible verse must have informed me that this is how we grow boys in character and compassion. It's supposed to be a magic bullet toward hitting the mark of human development. We can’t have you stuck in Erickson’s stage 4 forever.
Sam is a fantastic helper. He has always been attached at the hip to anyone who looks productive. He often asks to help, but sometimes he just assumes it's okay with you for him to pull up a stool, grab his own hammer and wait for you to move your finger. Recently, Dad was explaining Sam’s deep sense of industry to a friend and said, “That kid has the gift of service.” When I heard those words a rush of awareness came over me; yes, he does. I saw God’s hands guiding Samuel’s, ordaining him to his destiny of working with others skillfully and cheerfully. Indeed, this isn't just a hold-over from an earlier developmental stage; it is how he is designed. Sam is a D on the DISC test and his love language is “quality time." Inviting him to stuff leaves into the bag that you’re holding actually gives him pleasure and wholeness. Raking leaves with Sam is a home-run.
Benjamin is skilled in responsibility and creativity. He's also a people pleaser. If he doesn’t like a parental decree he rarely acts contrary to it – at least verbally. He can be passive aggressive but he’s learning the value of peace and most of the time gets work done quickly so he’s completely free to create. The key to Benjamin is to present his work to him first thing so he can knock it out because once he moves into the free-form hours he’ll have a hard time tearing away from the drawing and Legos and archery targets to enter into work again. Afternoon schoolwork was always a belly flop into a tragic pool. Therefore, leaf-raking first-thing-in-the-morning is a straight-up, no-frills, clear expectation. As long as we don’t keep discovering more trees Ben's good to the end.
You are structured and yet simultaneously chaotic. Your thinking style is "Abstract Random" -- capital A, capital R. The best days happen when two things are in play: you have a positive emotional attachment to what you're doing, and your expectations match with ours. Your worst days are when we tell you what's coming, but we give you few details, which means you have little clarity. This is where, with nothing foreseeable to depend on, you boil over in the ambiguity of it all.
When raking leaves, you'll succeed if you can know several things: how long the job will take, how to do it most efficiently, when enough is enough, and what level of discomfort you should expect to feel. You tell us with boorish passion your complaints and we just try to keep you from going off the tracks until the goal is met. Your saving trait, is that you're a performer in the presence of others. When other people are around you'll abide by the social expectations and do so with charm. It’s this component of your personality that saved our leaf raking experience at that lovely woman's house.
We take you guys to do these kinds of things, in spite of how you'll likely object because we feel it’s part of what it looks like to live “sent” lives. We take some of our own comfort and give it to others. We voluntarily displace ourselves and enter into the thick of life. It makes a better world when you shift attention from yourself to someone else. When we're mature enough to do it, we often find some amazing people.
The woman we raked leaves for that day genially leaned on her open screen door and told us her story. She went to college, worked for several years and then came home again to that very house to take care of her parents until they died. She was a woman of sacrificial love, who wouldn't let society bear the burden of caring for the elderly; she and her sister did it themselves. She never married, never had children. Her fluffy little dog ran merrily through our leaf piles, the only companion she'd had for years.
She had the spirit of a woman who’d seen hardship and let it change her rather than embitter her. As a tribute to her, it was a small thing for my kids and I to take 45 minutes on a drizzly day to say, “thank you” for living a story that matters. As we swept her leaves away I encouraged you, fingers cold, sweatshirts zipped high, to push through, that there’d be another side to our labor, the side that can laugh at things to come.
The product of volunteering together isn’t always evident right away. We want you to learn what it feels like to at least inaugurate someone's healing or happiness or freedom. Like throwing a grace-blanket over a fire and rolling it around to snuff it out, it's just the first step. Healing and satisfaction can come when the smoke settles.
When we come along with a sandwich for the hungry, a bed for the homeless, a kind word for the distressed we go a long way toward seeing God move like Isaiah 58 says, to guide and satisfy and make our bones strong. In that moment we attribute worth to someone who may have forgotten what value even feels like. We move them up next to us and acknowledge that we really are all the same, broken and wanting and lost. Oh, how nice to be found and seen and cared for. How nice it feels when the fire stops burning.
I see you with the potential to be this kind of fire fighter. Every time you serve others you internalize how easy it is to give and how lavish the Father truly is with us. But I don't think you quite see this for yourself yet. When we stacked the last leaf bag for that sweet woman's trash pick-up I was receptive to her and I could tell there was peace welling up inside. For that moment, we seared closed something that was left unraveling. But I think you missed it. Your hands were too cold to notice anything else. Sam was petting her dog one more time. Ben was loading the van with the rakes. But I heard her say, “Thank you,” and I knew the depth of her words. We repaired the breech. We restored the streets.
Imagine what you could do with a heart turned toward other people. Imagine what it would be like to help someone finish their hard work before the sundown of the day or the sundown of their life. Imagine living a life of service that makes visible what has already been accomplished in Christ. You can do it. We're here to help.