This year of service is going to be hard,” they told me. I imagined that serving full-time would get exhausting, that learning to live out values of social justice would be challenging, or that all the changes that come with life after college would be tough to adjust to. No one ever told me, though, that my year would be challenging because of a simple chore like washing the dishes.
At the beginning of this service year, the program staff even joked about how keeping the dishes clean would be one of our biggest struggles as a household. I was convinced, though, that this could be solved if we just stayed proactive and cleaned the dishes as we used them. It’s easy, right? You just devote a few minutes of your day to wash your dishes and put them away when they are dry. Simple.
But as the weeks rolled by, I realized it was really not that easy.
At first, I wasn’t surprised. Sometimes my day would start with washing someone one else’s dirty dishes that I wanted to use for breakfast. I knew that, had everyone washed their dishes, I would have normally been able to just grab a clean bowl and spoon and start eating. I definitely felt a bit frustrated, but quickly reminded myself that this was part of living in community. I had to learn that some people clean their dishes at a different pace than others, and I had to accept that maybe not everyone was used to having to wash their own dishes everyday. Sometimes, I would just wash every dish in the sink and try to expect nothing in return. This tactic worked for about… two weeks. Then the bitterness started setting in.
Actually, everyone started feeling bitter. For several weeks in a row, “the dishes” became the hot topic of our weekly house meetings. Someone would start off like, “Ok, I want to bring up the dishes again. Can we make a new house rule? Everybody do their dang dishes!” Then I would pipe in, “Yeah, honestly there’s no reason to leave dirty dishes, right? Just do ‘em right away and we won’t have to deal with any of this frustration and confusion about who left dirty dishes.” Fixing the dirty dishes issue seemed like it should have been so simple and logical, but I quickly learned that you can’t change people’s habits just by telling them, “do your dang dishes.”
So for the most part, the dirty dishes continued. I often thought, “how can I help us all stay on track with our dishes? I kept trying to just wash everyone’s dishes. More bitterness. That didn’t work. So I tried washing ONLY my own. This still lead to bitterness as soon as I would see the sink full of plates, pots, and pans. I felt like this was never going to end.
Finally, it was time to seek advice. I talked to my co-workers. I talked to adults within the Episcopal Church. They had some suggestions, but it was apparent that establishing peace in the kitchen would be something that my house community would ultimately have to work out ourselves, and it would require a lot more work than just telling people to “do your dang dishes.”
The frustration persisted. I kept thinking, “What the heck is the solution to all of this?” I tried ignoring the issue. I tried fixing the problem by doing all the dishes myself. I tried coming up with creative ways to divide the duty of washing dishes. And then I realized that there was one thing I hadn’t tried: forgiveness. I hadn’t tried forgiveness.
Contrary to what people often grow up believing, forgiveness is so much more than just deciding to stop holding grudges. Forgiveness is a daily self-sacrifice, a constant dying to self that actively affirms the reason that Jesus died for us. Forgiveness means turning away from those voices that tell me that I deserve an apology, that I am “right”, that my transgressor deserves punishment. Forgiveness means turning away from wishing harm upon the other. Forgiveness is ultimately saying “YES” to a right relationship by letting go of everything that is holding me back from fully loving the person that committed the “wrong”.
Before I go on, I must briefly add what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not admitting that whatever was done to you is acceptable. Forgiveness is not a weak submission to the transgressor. It is not the tolerating of an evil act. Forgiveness is not a weak act–it is a brave one, even a revolutionary one. Hear me out.
In my situation, forgiveness meant that I didn’t have to carry the bitterness I felt every time I saw the dirty dishes. It meant that, whether I decided to clean everyone’s dishes or just let them clean their own dishes, I could live in peace knowing that it is not up to me to change my housemates’ habits. However, it is up to me to love my housemates. Yes, I can absolutely influence and challenge them to be more proactive about cleaning their dishes, but I don’t have to let their dirty dishes discourage me from fully loving them.
Like I said before, forgiveness is a discipline. This decision to forgive is something I must practice constantly. Whenever I walk into the kitchen, I must consciously decide that I will not let dirty dishes cause me distress or bitterness. Instead, I decide that dirty dishes are going to exist, and that Jesus’ forgiveness allows me to love beyond what my circumstances lead me to feel.
Whether or not we feel that the crime committed against us was forgivable, if we hope to live in the full reality of love that Jesus intends for us, we must choose forgiveness. Jesus never said that our sins were acceptable, but rather His life shows us that the transformative, loving relationship He desires with us transcends all limitations imposed by unforgiveness. I have chosen to accept the challenge of living in the reality of forgiveness. Instead of bitterly saying “do your dang dishes already,” I can turn inward and ask, “how will my actions reflect an attitude of grace and forgiveness?”.
So to all who are reading this blog, I will leave you with mission: How will you live in the reality of forgiveness today?
These are reflections from corps members and alumni of Jubilee's Urban Service Programs. They cover topics ranging from the sun, fun and friends in in Los Angeles to the uncensored experiences of serving vulnerable populations in our beautiful city. These are Voices of Service.