Over spring break a few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to accompany one of Saint Louis University’s outreach trips as the faculty facilitator. The group, ten students and myself, traveled to the small town of Kermit, West Virginia. The town, not much more than a short stretch of road with a single stoplight, is nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, right on the border with Kentucky. The students and I spent the week amidst the stunning scenery, rich accents, and complicated history of the coal country there.
During the week the students split into two different groups. One group toured the back roads of the area and put on a production of Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat for some of the local children. The other group, which included yours truly, spent days in the descriptively named town of Lovely, Kentucky. Just weeks before we’d arrived, the town had been hit by the first recorded tornado touchdown in the county’s history, and we volunteered our services at a small Baptist church that had been heroically coordinating relief and recovery efforts in the area. At night our two groups gathered together to reflect on the events of the day. We’d pray together and share stories, and while experiences, as is their nature, widely varied, it was clear that all were moved by the things that they saw and did.
We did, however, reserve one afternoon for our group of touring actors to join my group in helping with tornado relief. After a week of hearing from their companions about the needs of the disaster-struck town of Lovely, and listening to the moving conversations we’d had with the people there, our Seussian Tony nominees were excited to join us.
Inevitably, it rained.
As soon as the skies opened up tarps went over houses that had lost their roofs, power tools were packed away into their heavy gray-plastic crates, and the helping hands that had been so busy in the sunshine gathered back at the church. University student or town resident, we sat, sipped coffee, and watched the rain tumble down.
As a facilitator who’s seen some of these trips and has heard stories from many more, the rain worried me a bit. Of course, all of us could see the work that needed to be done in the town, but in the much narrower context of the trip, I was concerned about the students. At the end of a long week of hard work and sleeping on floors, they were quite naturally tired and starting to think of home, and I was concerned that the rain would lead to disappointment, boredom, and frustration.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. With a generosity that bowled me over, the students seized the opportunity provided by the rain to sit and talk with the church members who were gathered there. They ate the delicious home lunch provided by the small army of church volunteers. They talked, listened, and laughed, forming the sorts of relationships I suspect will compose their most enduring memories all the while. The formula was simple: they were open and they were generous. They allowed themselves to be excited about the good thing in front of them, rather be distracted by missing out on the good thing they had anticipated when they got up that morning.
One of the most dangerous attitudes I sometimes bring to my own spiritual life is expectation, a rigid insistence that my prayer feel a certain way or that I will see God’s face in just the way I expect to see it. But I notice that I do much better when I capture the attitude of these students. Instead of being disappointed that my imagined good never came to pass, I simply rejoice in the good that is.