Sunday, May 18, 2008

Domestic Benevolence...

"Two middle-aged ladies were sitting at the table behind me that day, the only other customers of the meal. They had come, they said, because when the Americans liberated Paris, a young American lieutenant had slept in their house. He had brought coffee, soap, food, butter when all Paris hungered at the mention of them. When he moved off with his company they asked him what they could do to repay him. He said there was nothing they could do for him, but if, someday, they ever got the chance to visit Omaha beach and the cemetery that was going to be built there, would they put some flowers on the graves of a few friends he had left behind. They said they would, and so, seven years later, they took a bus from Paris to put flowers on American graves, not because they remembered history and the Liberation, but because they remembered coffee, food, and human kindness."

~Theodore H. White, as quoted in The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour

I'm strongly drawn to passages like this. They stay in my head, and I think about them often. In this story, I'm struck that a young man cared enough to bless a couple of ladies, not with things that were necessary for survival, but with things that were meaningful in an everyday way. I'm sure that the Liberation was thrilling beyond my ability to comprehend, but these once-ordinary domestic things mattered very much, too, as shown in this story. Life was moving toward normal again for Parisians after WWII, and they must have really missed the little things that made their former days enjoyable. And one young man (many actually) cared enough and went outside of himself enough to realize what these people really needed and to give it to them. It was a small, but potent, bit of domestic benevolence.

And it was not an organization, but an individual, who brought these women a little bit of joy and touched their lives. Sometimes we think that we're just one person, and what kind of difference can we make. But we are one person touching one person, and that simple, small influence matters. Goethe said that if every man swept in front of his own house, the whole world would be clean. And if we will all touch the lives of those God puts in front of us, the whole world will be a better place.

To do this requires an everyday, simple, but thoughtful, kind of hospitality or domesticity. This should always begin in our own homes, with our own families and move outward from there. It's bending down to look our children in the eye, to really listen to them, smile at them, hug them. It might mean taking our husbands a sandwich or a cup of coffee when they're hard at work. It means providing an orderly enough, well-enough run, happy enough, good enough home for our families. And it's the kind of everyday hospitality that welcomes visitors into that same home, not to entertain or impress them, but because we care. It's the kind of simple hospitality that smiles and gives a wave to a neighbor passing by on the road (and maybe takes time to chat for a few minutes). It's the kind of everyday caring that meets a friend for coffee. That pours a glass of water for someone who is thirsty. That is simply there when being there is all that's needed (like when my mom sat quietly in the corner of my sister's hospital room, hour after hour, while my sister recovered from cancer surgery). It's the kind of thoughtfulness that surprises with small gifts (maybe a few flowers from the garden in a jar, or maybe some fresh homemade jam, or a loaf of homemade bread, or maybe a small book the person might enjoy) as a good friend of mine has a way of doing. It's feeding the neighbor's animals or watering their garden when they are away. Or taking a meal to the ill, the weary, the grieving, or happy, but busy, new parents. It's the sort of thoughtfulness that shares food from the garden (but never zucchini!)with a friend or neighbor. :-) That welcomes the little neighbor girl (again!) when all we want is time to ourselves and a chance to think our own thoughts. It's the sort of kind, gentle heart that notices when someone needs encouragement. That listens. That prays. That cares.

There are endless simple, everyday opportunities to care about and share our lives with others, and there can be great joy and fulfilmment in doing this. The important thing, first, is to pay attention to whether or not we are slowed down enough to even notice the opportunities God places right in front of us and then to make sure we have enough margin in our lives to respond. (And beyond that, do we care enough to act?) When we give someone something that is truly needed, even when it seems small and insignificant, whether for body or for spirit, we are living in the spirit of what Jesus meant when he said that giving a cup of water to the thirsty or clothes to the naked or food to the hungry is like doing it for Him. Food, clothes, water-- all domestic, everyday needs. God has blessed many women with the tremendous opportunity to live a domestic life, and it is good to remember that even the smallest acts of everyday domestic kindness can profoundly-- even eternally-- affect the lives of others.