‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
to turn, turn will be our delight,
‘til by turning, turning we come round right.
Simple Gifts, Joseph Brackett
From high school through grad school, I washed dishes, cleared tables, sat diners, waited tables, catered, and tended bar. I worked in hospital cafeterias, fine dining establishments, and a couple of Mexican food restaurants. With such a background (and because no one else knew or would admit to knowing how to tend bar), it was inevitable that I’d work in the seminary’s catering service. I oversaw hundreds of special dinners, and mixed more drinks than any other student in the seminary’s history. It was a lot of fun, the pay was decent, and the commute was a walk across campus. That’s why I found it puzzling that many of the other students found such work distasteful. Why was setting tables and refilling coffee cups, laying plates of food before professors and administrators somehow beneath the station of a graduate student?
I never felt that way about serving food and drink. Arriving before a function to set up, serving guests throughout the meal, then breaking down the room when it was over was elevating the biological necessity of eating into an aesthetically pleasing social experience. I made sure the socially awkward didn’t stand alone, making introductions among guests and bowing out once the conversation got going. Getting everyone seated in the right place and making sure the food arrived warm and beautifully plated was an exercise in good timing. It was forthright and literal service to others: simple work, done well, filling a basic need. Where’s the shame in that?
Was it because I was paid for my service, or because it was hands-on work in a place that set great store in the cerebral and intangible? I’m still not sure. I do wonder if part of the issue was the implied servant status that accompanied food service work. If that was the real issue, the irony is really hard to miss:
Jesus bent down to wash the feet of his disciples and he bowed his head to God in prayer. If such are the actions of God-With-Us, how can there be shame in any simple act of service?
[For more on Joseph Brackett and Simple Gifts, click Simple (Gifts) Thanksgiving above.]