It was a pretty salad in the colors of Christmas: fresh, leafy greens and plump red raspberries. It was also a good salad, lightly dressed in poppy seed and sweet lemon. But, I shouldn’t have eaten it because it wasn’t mine.
The Christmas-season dinner at Pastor Steve’s house is his annual gift to us, the church staff. He likes to cook, and he’s good at it, and he and Janet work together to throw a nice party.
When he first came to serve our church nine years ago, there was a level of friction between the two of us. Honestly, I don’t know if he felt it, but I did. Early in his tenure, there were some comments and some incidents that made me wary in my interactions with him and I wondered if I would continue in the job.
To be fair, I’m probably not the easiest guy to manage. I run my office as my own little kingdom - an independent operator who takes the church as my in-house client. It’s an approach that honors the source of my paycheck - I’m willing to work really hard for the church because I love what I do and I believe in it. But I remain fairly independent in how I work and I refuse to cede control and that’s important because the church will own you if you let it - the way it requires daily presence, evening presence, weekend presence.
As the years have passed, I have figured out how to work with Pastor Steve. He sets a high bar and a personal example by being an extremely hard worker himself. And it took a while, but I’ve come to appreciate his leadership and how he has pushed our church forward. I also appreciate how he has looked out for my best interest and gone to bat for me on a number of occasions. Over time, trust has developed, we are allies on-staff, and even more importantly, I have come to actually like the guy.
We like many of the same things: mountains, deserts, riding bikes, being outside, our families, and food, so there’s lots of common ground. I admire his sense of aesthetics - we both have an artistic streak. And I’ve learned from the way he softly, but firmly, challenges us to live lives of compassion and err on the side of grace in our dealings with others.
This last is a lesson that he sometimes needs to work on, himself, but it’s one that I need to work on pretty much ALL of the time. Sympathy and empathy are gifts of his and it means he is often carrying the burdens of others, as well as those of our organization, and that becomes a heavy load so the occasional display of pique is understood. Love is what he preaches and I’ve become not just a nicer person, but a better person working under Pastor Steve.
The salad is actually the second course at the staff Christmas party. We gather around six o’clock for hot cider and appetizers and there’s enough of them that we probably don’t need to eat any more, but we’re Methodists and Iowans and eating is what we do.
The pace of the evening is casual and relaxed. We sit and stand in little groups on the chilly sun porch, or in front of the cozy fireplace, and talk about things other than work. As office Christmas parties go, this one is comfortable and low-key. There’s no drunkenness or photocopying of body parts, and usually, nobody has to apologize the next day.
Eventually, we’re called to find a place at one of the tables and Pastor Steve says a few words of appreciation for our work as a church staff and then he blesses the food and goes to the kitchen to orchestrate its serving. We take our seats and begin with the aforementioned salad.
A couple of years ago, on the day of this Christmas party, I arrived at the parsonage famished. It had been a busy day and I had skipped both breakfast and lunch. When I’m really into a project my focus is near-complete and I don’t stop for anything - not even meal times. Such had been my day. But now, here at the party, with my attention drawn away from my computer screen, the hunger caught up with me and it was epic. Moms in Africa were telling their kids to eat all their cassava paste because Chris was starving in America.
So the salads were placed before us and I ate mine expeditiously, lest I perish. And then I sat back and watched the others approach their plates. The sooner we all finished our salads, the sooner we’d get a big plate of pork and potatoes, but there was a marked lack of urgency among my colleagues at the table. Some of them hadn’t even picked up their forks, yet - they were socializing. The dawdling of the others was testing my patience. Their apathy toward the famine in their midst was insensitive and selfish and insulting and would someone please pass me a roll for Christ’s sake?
Dee was sitting across the table from me. When writing of others, I often change their names because I don’t ask permission to tell these stories, but Dee is her real name and I include it because she was an accessory to the crime - the instigator, in fact - and it should be a matter of public record.
She may have had good intentions when she pointed out that there was an empty place-setting at the end of the table. Silverware, napkin, water glass, and a full, un-touched salad. The place setting had everything except a diner - it appeared to be unclaimed. “It’s an extra” Dee said, “nobody is sitting there. Why don’t you eat it?”.
I politely refused. Hungry as I was, I knew a large plate of food was coming shortly if everyone else would just get on with the business of finishing the salad course. Yes, I wanted that extra salad because mine had been delicious and I was still starving, but it would be unseemly to make such an obvious pig of myself.
“Go ahead”, Dee said, “everyone else is sitting down. Nobody is sitting there.”
I still wasn’t convinced that all of the other guests were seated and that salad was, in fact, an extra. I looked around at the other tables and counted the guests. I ran through the staff roster in my head and looked for spouses. Who was not accounted for? I certainly didn’t want to eat the extra salad and then have Doug the organist or Becca the youth director come out of the restroom and say, “OK, where’s my place?”
But everyone seemed to be here. Dee finally reached over and picked up the extra salad and placed it on top of the empty plate in front of me. “Just eat it”, she said. Like Eve enticing Adam toward the apple, she knew it would only take a gentle coaxing to get me to do something I knew in my heart was wrong.
I picked up one raspberry and put it in my mouth and it was juicy and sweet and slightly tart in that raspberry way. “Go ahead”, she said.
With my fingers, I picked up one piece - just one piece - of crisp baby lettuce and it carried some of the poppy seed dressing and it crunched between my teeth and of course, I wanted more.
I scanned the tables again and everyone else had a place to sit and a salad to eat and so I picked up my fork and took a proper bite and now there was no turning back. The salad was mine and I ate it all and practically licked the plate.
A mark of a good servant, and a good boss, is that they attend to your needs in an unobtrusive way. They give you what you need when you need it, and then they withdraw into the background, giving you your space to work or eat. So it’s easy to overlook the servant … unfair, but easy.
Pastor Steve emerged from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel, pulled back the chair at that spare place setting and said something like, “we’ll bring out the pork in just a minute” as he sat down and looked at the empty place where his salad plate should have been.
It got kind of quiet at our table.
You could see him processing the situation, wondering, “did I leave a salad out in the kitchen?” and he started to get up again.
Well, shit. I suppose hiding under the tablecloth is not an option.
I confessed immediately. With two empty salad plates in front of me, there was nothing else I could do. I also did my best to drag Dee under the bus with me - I didn’t want to go through this humiliation alone.
He called me a name that you might be surprised to hear a pastor say and glared at me for a moment, and then went back to the kitchen.
I was embarrassed, to say the least. Pastor Steve was kind and generous enough to invite me into his home and feed me an elegant meal, and I responded by being a gluttonous hog and taking food out of his mouth. I feared that a new tension would now descend upon our relationship and undo the warmth that had taken a few years to develop.
By the end of the evening, we seemed to be getting along OK again. I held my breath and walked rather softly around the church for the next week or so, and my offense died a quiet death and was buried in the backs of our memories.
Pastor Steve is retiring in the next year and he and Janet will move from our church. I’ll miss them both and I’m sure our paths will continue to cross within our denominations’ community. I hope the salad incident is not how he remembers me as the years go on, but his grace and forgiveness are pieces of how I’ll remember him.