June 5, 2024
Burning out was not part of my plan. Maybe it was God’s.
I type into the blank box:
I suspected it would come to this eventually. Whatever comes, it’s time to get off this ride, this carefully circumscribed life in general. _|
Charity’s sing-song greeting wafts over the cubicle wall from her desk at the front as someone enters the double doors. If you think I’d be very familiar with this morning ritual since I came to this large office—the Donor Services department—over 5 years ago, you’d be right. I glance back and see her smiling at a passing worker from behind her low counter festooned for July with red and blue garlands and oversized ants carrying fruit from a little picnic basket. The apple reads “Love.” The orange, “Joy.” The banana, “Peace.”
Charity disappears again behind the menagerie.
> The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience for exploiting opportunities in the donor database, and artificial kindness, which equals goodness for the ministry.
This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
If you can manage that, you’re a better believer than I._|
The cursor blinks on the screen. In roughly twenty-five minutes, the bustling office behind me will be a fading memory. And after all the injustice and subtle exploitation, I can’t quite remember why I stayed so long.
Honestly, they’re lucky walking out is all I’m planning.
“Knock, kno-ock.” There’s a light tap on my cubicle wall and a nasally male voice sings behind me. I spin around in my chair. My boss’s big face looms over me. His white-sleeved arms form parentheses around the exclamation point of his purple tie. “Marnin’, mon amigo.” He wears his signature grimace the one designed to will frowny faces into angelic smiles. “Mi lame-o Bob. And I’m just checking in to make sure you remember next Thursday’s donor presentation.”
I blink. Twice.
He leans toward me. “You share-o your story-o?”
I swallow. The fake Spanish again. “Oh. Yes.” I point at him like a lunatic, scooting backward in my chair. It bumps the desk and my Jesus action figure clatters off the shelf. “Yes, I am.” The effort to appear enthusiastic pains me, but I can’t risk anything less or he’ll want to bring it up later for corporate prayer in morning devotions.
“Listen, come by my office after. I have a few more dates to run past you.”
I think fast. “I’ve got to run these stats. But I can work out a time with Charity.”
“Okay, padre.” He doesn’t say he looks forward to steamrolling all my objections and spiritualizing my eventual assent as a sign of proper submission. “I covet your thoughts on that. ASAP.”
I shove my hands beneath my legs and shrug. “You bet.”
His clenched jaw pulls back into another neck roll.
As a passive confronter, Bob is chronically peppy. His enthusiasm is a weapon. He glances back at Charity who immediately looks down.
Charity is the quieter, painfully shy version of Bob. She’s never had a negative thought in her life. And though she’d never admit it, she’s intensely territorial, opinionated, and insecure about her inexperience, which makes her try extra hard to be sweet as candy. The tight bun on her head and the thin wrinkle of her mouth which rarely moves, make her seem part of the generation of most our coworkers, though she’s probably even younger than I am. Her big eyes look small behind thick librarian glasses.
And yes, I’ve fantasized about undoing that bun a time or two.
Bob is still talking. “Can’t wait for Cleveland to hear about God’s work in you, brother.” I start to protest but he doesn’t stop. “How he saved you and claimed you as his own. They’re really excited for the story behind the story, as it were.”
I swallow it and let my eyes roll. It doesn’t matter. But if I needed an extra push to leave, this is it. For years now I’ve shared how God miraculously spared me and my older sister in a car accident that took my parents and nine-year-old sister Tallie, spinning it into happiness, grace and evidence of unconditional love. In their theology, God would take my family in order for me to share about his great purposes to grow the EOI donor base. I slowly turn toward him in my chair. “I won’t be sharing this time, Bob.”
“What?” His eyes widen, then he smiles and takes a step closer. “We’ve committed to the event. You don’t have to share all the details of the… um…” He waves a meaty hand. “You know, the accident.” Somehow his discomfort makes me feel better. “But, it’s so vital, how God turned that around for you with your conversion to faith.”
I shift in the chair and focus on his bulging neck. I take a deep breath, count….
“I just don’t feel God leading me to share.” It’s the truth, though it’s also a ploy. No one here wants to go against the Spirit’s guidance. The whole truth though is that the founder of EOI, Dr. Gordon, was a friend of my dad’s and after the accident, he asked me to come on board to share my story. The analysis job with Bob was a secondary role. “The truth is I’ve never felt God leading me to share it at all. And in a few minutes, I’m leaving and I don’t need an exit interview. I don’t need the paycheck. I’m just tired of the agenda.”
He sniffs, but says nothing. All the political things this ministry has pushed in the name of God…much as they talk about love, they don’t really seem to understand what it means. I suppose I was looking for some real compassion and a comforting place to heal. But selling a rules-based religion with some bigoted policies on the side isn’t enough for me anymore.
Bob searches the floor and starts to say something, but I interrupt.
“Sorry. I’m just done using my dead family to prop up people’s faith.”
“Um, okay. We can talk about it later.” Has he not heard me? I’m leaving. His hot-dog hands find his hips again and he steps back. “Don’t worry about it, huh?” He runs a hand down his tie. “You get me that donor report for the Branson event and we’ll talk in bit.” He wiggles his fingers in a typing motion.
“Charity already has it,” I say.
He scratches one of his chins. “Awesome…hey, we got an electric piano here today. You should open our devos.”
I make a face. Apparently, he wasn’t listening. “Sorry. Tendonitis.” I mimic his typing motion.
“Mmm.” He frowns, studies my hands. If he says one word about hiding our lights under bushels…
“Well,” he sighs, “let’s be sure to bring that up at prayer time.”
Sweet mother of Zeus, Bob. I am not going to miss you.
He licks his lips. “Hey, speaking of time.” He rises on the balls of his tiny feet to scan his domain over my wall. “It’s time for devos, troops!”
He strides across the common area over to Charity’s space. The ants with their fruit tremble but stay upright.
I turn back to my keyboard and adjust the frame on my desk, watching him walk away in the reflection. It’s a picture taken over 10 years ago—me, Dr. Gordon, my dad and Slope. That jerk Slope’s been outta here, what – six months now? I wipe the dust from the bottom rim. Why the heck did I stay so long?
> Management isn’t to blame.
Weird that I will never type another blog from this computer.
Neither are the rest of them.
I’m forfeiting any severance or chance to lodge my complaint by not giving them notice. Doesn’t matter.
They just believe the vision and that they know God’s will. They don’t deserve scorn for being afraid any more than I deserve to suffer through sharing about my parents’ death again._|
I look around my cubicle. The gray workspace I’ve been caged in for almost six years, the fabric-covered walls of ennui. I take off my too-tight shoes and savor the relief.
A reflection of someone in the monitor makes me jump and I spin back around.
“You’re not thinking about skipping devotions again,” Charity says.
“Gee-hova Jireh. How long you been standing there?”
She looks embarrassed. “Sorry.”
I tap her arm. “Listen, you ever think about leaving?” She glances behind her. “I mean, you’ve at least considered it.”
Her concerned look tells me I should have left well enough alone. She pushes up her glasses. “Are you leaving?” She bites her lip.
I can’t handle her pitiful face. Why did I even come back today? “You want to come? I’ve been digging a tunnel behind the snack machine in the break room floor for months.”
She tilts her head away like she’s going to cry and I have the urge to hug her. I’ve stayed here way too long. She’s not unattractive. Just ordinary. Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked her.
“You’re really leaving?”
“You know I can’t stand it.” Maybe I didn’t want to hurt her. “I’ve served my time in the Lord’s army.”
“But you have a great job….” She breaks off, staring at the floor.
“And you’d love it,” I say. “I’ll be happy to put in a good word for you.” I know she’s envied my donor analyst job. Probably, she envies everyone’s job that doesn’t involve being Bob’s personal grunt.
“Why have you stayed?” I ask. Her eyebrows scrunch as confusion spreads across her face and I want to take her by the shoulders. Shake her. Or kiss her. Something, as long as it bursts this bubble around her. “I know it’s hard to explain. But I’m tired of using my story, my family. I just want to let them go.”
Her frown relaxes. She’s decided something. “They’ll be disappointed. It brings in a lot of donations. But they’ll understand. You don’t have to quit.”
I sigh. “You’re tired of being so careful, always representing the ministry. How long can you keep going with all the rules and limits? What if you didn’t have to do it anymore?”
She turns away, stares at the floor, at her hands.
“What do you really want?” I ask.
She blinks at me.
Behind her, coworkers roll their chairs from their cubes into the common area. Everyone smiles but avoids eye contact.
She sighs. “I don’t know what God is asking you to do. But you’ve given people hope. Your story is being used by God.”
I picture the last donor banquet where I spoke, everyone staring at the poor young man whose family was taken in a common car accident. I look over to the rectangular fish tank at the far wall. The big suckerfish is up against the glass. One night I dreamed I was that suckerfish eating up all the sludge, but no matter what I did I couldn’t make a dent and the green stuff just kept growing back.
“You’re right. My story is being used. I just don’t believe it’s been God doing the using.”
“Come on in, everyone,” Bob calls just behind us. He sweeping the air like he’s trying to pull everyone into his mouth. “That’s it. Get in here real tight, folks.”
I lean toward Charity. “I’ve spent twenty-five years ‘coming on in,’” I whisper. “It’s time I got out.”
She holds my gaze a moment and I think she’s actually considering leaving with me. Then she pushes from my desk and straightens her dress. “Remember orientation? You told me our greatest passion is just our greatest fear reversed?”
“I did?” I don’t remember. I’d spent most of that long day six years ago thinking how this might help me finally escape the nightmares. It hadn’t worked.
“I’ll never forget,” she says and she flashes a genuine smile. “My passion is the Bible. You need to find yours, Zeke. God go with you. And don’t ever look back.” She looks at me sadly for a moment and then turns to join the circle.
For just a moment, I think, I could stay. For her. I click publish on the blog post and shut the computer down. Bob’s voice ricochets against the walls. “Our theme this week is Paul’s passage on running the race of faith with vigor!”
It isn’t the Bible I have a problem with. It’s the way they use it like a hammer, like a club to beat everyone to Just. Believe. Harder. I grab the framed picture, my shoes, and the battleship and stand to take one last look of my cube.
My cell phone pings. A message flashes up. Unknown number.
“When you do leave, give me a call. I think we can help each other.”
It’s a local number, which means it’s likely from someone who works here. In a rare moment of foresight, I throw open the bottom drawer, grab the company directory and stuff it under my arm.
I emerge into the crowded common area keeping my head down, and walking through the circle of chairs with my box of personals to the doors. Why I had to do this in such a combative way, I’m not sure. Guess I wanted to remove any chance of them smoothing it over after I was gone.
“Zeke, what’s going on?” Bob asks.
I look at Charity. “Not too late,” I say, tilting my head toward the exit.
She scowls up at me, clutching the sides of her chair.
“We’re in the middle of devotions, here.” Bob’s voice is low, controlled but barely. I’m breaking the unspoken rules. No one interrupts devos.
“No worries,” I say, smiling at Charity. “I think we’ve all heard it before.” Her face softens and I could swear I see a hint of amusement, which she quickly covers by looking down.
“Sorry, I just think everyone’s race is different.” I gesture to the big windows looking out on the parking lot. “And I’ve got to go find mine.”
He scowls at me. “It’s a metaphor, son. Grab a seat.”
I scan the silent faces around the circle. Bob and his Bible. I’m completely in the moment. My mind has finally caught up with what my heart has known so long. “There’s more to life than forced belief.”
I walk to the double doors. No one says a thing. No one even moves. And maybe that’s why I chose to do it this way. And maybe this is why I’m leaving.
I hit the doors to enter the main hallway that will lead me out to the lobby. I take a mental picture of the stairs ascending on my right, the kickplates gleaming like teeth under the skylight. So clean and smooth. A couple young women glance at me, then down, a perfect display of the unspoken professional attitude.
I remove my badge and entry card, slap them down on the security guard’s counter. He looks up from his magazine and I step through the automatic doors. The day is bright. The clouds part. I pass the concrete planter and I shove my torturous work shoes into a bush.
I can see the circle of people inside. Charity looks at me through the big windows. Her expression is priceless. I shift the box under my arm and wave.
The pavement is hot through my socks. But it feels heavenly.
I stayed to honor my parents—I stayed to remember them. But now they’re truly gone. And this isn’t about them anymore. This is about my own faith. It’s about what’s worth all the effort to persevere without being attached to a multi-million-dollar politicized ministry and all its influence.
Maybe it’s about seeing just how much faith I have left.
At the edge of the parking lot, I step onto the curb. The empty street stretches out below a sloping pristine lawn and evenly spaced bushes. I’ll never get the time I spent here back. I set down the box and swipe off my clip-on tie, ripping my shirt. I reach back to throw it as a passenger jet thunders overhead, its shadow moving toward me across the lawn, the pavement, then blacks out the sun for just an instant. The sound grows and I turn to watch it head east. I stuff the tie in my pocket, pick up the box again and step down into the warm grass.
I don’t look back.