Mite makes right

There’s a reason treasure is more popular than pennies.

But woe to me if I keep on being snarky to someone who is trying hard to make amends, trying hard to be a better person. I wouldn’t smack a coin out of the hand of a widow who’s being as generous as she can be, and I shouldn’t despise a message like the one I got. I should, in fact, follow his example.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by Erica Zabowski via Flickr (Creative Commons)

When you give a man money, you don’t own a share in his soul

Several years ago, my family went through a rotten patch, and we couldn’t scrape up enough money to pay our basic bills. A friend of the family got wind of our troubles and fired off a generous check. She did the same the next month, and then next as well, always with a little note saying she hoped it could help make a dent in our expenses.

One month, we miraculously found ourselves above water. One of the most miserable parts of poverty is having to deny your kids. It almost hurts worse when they learn so quickly not to ask for even the smallest treat. So when the mail came and there was yet another check from our friend for expenses from, the first thing I thought was, “Oh, I can buy the kids a swing!”

But I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I asked her permission to spend her money on a swing. She was flabbergasted. She begged me to spend it however I saw fit, because it was a gift. It wasn’t her money; it was mine.

This is how you live the gospel. This is how you don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When she gave me the money, she didn’t give herself permission to manage my life. She wasn’t buying a share in my life or my soul or my day. She understood this better than I did.

Having been the poor, I don’t want to romanticize the poor, to paint them as some kind of holy, spotless victims who can do no wrong simply because they are poor. The poor are just people, just like the rich. Sometimes they are greedy; sometimes they are stupid; sometimes they are ungrateful; sometimes they are dishonest, just like the rich.

Sometimes poor people do dumb or dishonest things with money, even the money you gave them. (Rich people can hide or get past their dumb or dishonest actions more easily than the poor; that’s the main difference.)

I’ve been on that side of this difficult transaction, too. I’ve been the one to give money to a needy person, only to discover that he wasn’t as needy as he claimed, or he spent the money foolishly, or he spent it in a way that I thought showed an ungrateful attitude, or a million other flaws in the way he received my gift. Maybe I denied myself so that he could eat, and then he turned around and got himself a treat, and acted like it was no big deal.

That sucks. It feels horrible. No one wants to be played for a sucker. No one wants their good will offering converted into something evil or gross; and no one wants their sacrifice treated like dirt.

In situations like this: sure.  If the person you gave money to lied, don’t give him any more money. If you think the money is making his life worse, don’t give him any more money. If interacting with this person is an occasion of sin for you, maybe take a break. Find someone else who needs your gift. God knows there are always more needy people.

But this is very basic: Once you have given the money, it is no longer yours. That’s what it means to give. If you give but still want to hang on, then you haven’t really given; you’ve just tried to buy a share in another human being. Charity doesn’t come with a rubber band that you can twitch any time you feel like it, making the other fellow dance to your ideals. That’s not giving. That’s investing, and we’re not supposed to treat other people like investment property.

Scripture is full of imprecations not only to give to the poor, but to be gracious about it, or at very least to shut up about it.

Do we want any chance at all of getting into the kingdom of God? Then we have to recognize that we, all of us, are the poor — poor beyond measure — and that Christ gave recklessly to us. He gave without any hope of being paid back, without any hope that we’d use His gift well, without any hope that we’d be anywhere near sufficiently grateful. He gave up Heaven to become a man, and then gave up his body and became a dead man. That’s what He did for us. He doesn’t threaten to withdraw salvation every time we act ungrateful (which we do every day) or squander his gifts (which we do every day) or fail to shape up (which we do every day). Instead, He gives more and more.

Look at your weekly bulletin. Is there Mass? Are there baptisms? Is there confession? You’re receiving charity. Are you living up to it? I’m not. I’m a horrible investment. I’m a black hole. Christ knows this, and still He gives.

That’s what he does. And we’re going to be jerks to each other about money?

So if we give — and we must, if we can at all! — remember we’re not making an investment. We’re not teaching a lesson. We’re not purchasing a share in someone’s life. We’re imitating Christ. Christ will make our gift into something great, if we will let go of it. 

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Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Why you should care about gluten-free Communion—even if you eat wheat

After watching many secular media outlets butcher these very ready facts about gluten in the Eucharist, though, and after seeing educated Catholics retreat huffily into their corners, I began to wonder if I have a dog in this fight, after all. Maybe we all do. Because maybe this is not the first time we’ve seen some version of this fight.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

The Ascension (and the follow-up)

I’ve heard from the bereaved that death anniversaries can be brutal. Everyone else is the world has long since moved on, but the grief is rekindled. A kind word and the promise of a prayer can make a huge difference in how painful that day feels.

It’s a profoundly Catholic impulse, the follow-up; and, like every virtue, it was modelled by Christ.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

To enthusiastic fans of Donald Trump

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Two people were facing the congregation at Mass last Sunday: The priest, of course, and an interpreter, who was signing for the deaf people in the pews.

Scratch that, there were three people facing the congregation. The third was a profoundly disabled man, his body twisted permanently into a pretzel, his skull misshapen, his features preternaturally mobile. He didn’t seem able to face the altar, but spend most of the hour bobbing and grinning and leering at the rest of us, while his caregiver patiently redirected him over and over again, calming him when he got agitated, soothing him when he got loud.

Why is it so hard to meet the gaze of folks like this? If ever there was a low-risk social interaction, it’s making eye contact with someone who can’t talk at all, much less expect something witty or suitable in response. “Just smile at him,” I tell myself. “Just be friendly and sincere, and then move along.” Still, I avoid eye contact. It’s obviously not about him. It’s about me.

That hour nagged at me.  Two faces, the translator and the disabled man demanded our attention, their eyes shining, their hands busy with gestures that meant nothing to me. If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts. If today you see a face and it keeps grinning and winking and nodding at you, at least you could ask the Holy Spirit what’s up. Here’s what I think it is.

The sign language translator was there because there are some folks in the congregation with a disability. They cannot hear, so they need extra help to have God’s word conveyed to them.

I am disabled, too, spiritually. I need a translator. There is something in my heart that fears and rejects mentally and even physically disabled people, and I’d rather they just turn around and leave me alone with my smart, attractive children and friends. I’m a pro-lifer, so I am ashamed to respond this way to any of God’s children. It is a common but severe defect. I want to be open, but I am not, and I can only fake it about half the time. Most of the time, I just avoid, avoid, avoid, avoid. I’m not alone or unusual in this, but that doesn’t make it all right.

I don’t mean to reduce another human being to a symbol. This man was attending Mass, and certainly wasn’t there just for my benefit or edification. He has a name, and he obviously has at least one person who loves and cares for him. But he was also, for me, a translator, someone turning to face me to convey a message that I wasn’t able to hear on my own without his help. Sometimes you don’t realize you are deaf until a translator turns up.

So there is more. It made me ask myself: Who am I having the hardest time facing right now? Who do I not want to look in the face? Who am I reluctant to treat as fully human?

Easy to answer in January of 2017: Enthusiastic Trump supporters. Over and over again, despite my resolve, I lose my temper with them, I get nasty, I get personal. I am just so angry at what they have chosen for me and my family and my beloved country. There they stand, shamelessly twisted in their worldview, not even hiding their faces, just leering and gesticulating. Turn around! Shut up! Get away from me! I want to yell (and sometimes do).

I’m not proud of behaving this way. I call myself a pro-lifer. This is a severe defect, that I allow myself to respond to other human beings with open, personal contempt and derision. It’s especially egregious because I often write about our obligation to show love to each other.

I don’t know what to tell you. I’m working on it. Yes, this post is the best I can do right now. Those of you who happily voted for Trump and continue to champion him, I think you are wrong, wrong, wrong, and I will not apologize for calling it twisted and awry to admire and champion a wicked man. Whatever your motivation, you have done something objectively terrible to our country.

But the way I respond to you is my problem, not your problem. I have a defect, and I know it. Thank you for looking me in the face and helping me be more aware of my defect. Thank you for being the translator who alerts me to just how deaf I am. Please pray for me, and I will pray for you. And then maybe we can all just turn around and face the altar, like we’re supposed to.

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Image: Detail of Self-Portrait as a Deaf Man by Sir Joshua Reynolds (Creative Commons)

 

And in His hand, the golden ball

I’m not sure if you want to cry, or what; but if you do, you might consider reading Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God. (If you don’t own the book, you can hear and see it read aloud in this video.)

Quick summary: In Renaissance Italy, a ragged street boy falls in with a travelling show troupe, and as he grows, he becomes an expert juggler. Eventually he strikes out on his own, and becomes a celebrated performer all over the country. He has a complicated routine, but always ends with a rainbow of balls and then “The Sun in the Heavens,” a single golden ball that he tosses impossibly high.

He enjoys his fame; but then times get hard, the clown gets old, and no one cares about his act anymore. He even drops “The Sun in the Heavens,” and the crowd jeers. Now a ragged beggar, he stumbles back to his old hometown, where he takes refuge in a dark church and falls asleep. He wakes up in the middle of the night to blazing lights and music, as a procession of villagers and religious present Christmas gifts before a statue of Mary and a somber Child Jesus.

When they are all gone, he gazes as the statue; and, remembering that he once made children smile, he suits up and goes into his old juggling routine one last time. He works his way through all his tricks, and finishes with the rainbow of colored balls. Finally he adds “The Sun in the Heavens.” He juggles it higher than ever before and cries out, “For you, sweet child, for you!”

And then his old heart gives out and he falls dead to the ground. A sacristan finds him and calls a priest, who blesses the old man’s body.

But the sacristan backs away in fear: The child Jesus is smiling, and in His hand, He holds the golden ball.

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Among other things, it’s a story of when things are almost too late — when we almost miss Christmas, because of all the hustling and costume changes and juggling and fuss.

If you can, remember that phrase: “For you, sweet child!” — and toss Him one golden ball.

Apologize to someone if you were rude.
Put your phone down and read a book to your kid.
Let an insult pass without comment or retaliation.
If a street person asks for one dollar, give him ten.
Stop and pray for someone, or give a word of encouragement, before you go on with your juggling routine.

For you, sweet Child! He will catch that ball, and smile.

Pretend you’re Starbucks.

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So far, I have met zero Christians who are mad at Starbucks. My Facebook feed has, however, been overrun by Christians who don’t care what Starbucks puts on its cups, and are embarrassed by the few noisy meat heads who say they feel persecuted by having to drink their $11 lattes out of a red cup rather than a red cup with a light red reindeer on it.

Which leads me to believe that this is one of those Big Fat Nothing stories, and the more noise we make about denouncing it, the closer to Something the story becomes. Cameramen at ballgames turn away when there’s a streaker on the field, so let’s do the same, eh?

I do wonder, though, what you would do if you were Starbucks, and you really did, for whatever reason, want to make “the holiday season” (Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/What Have You) more pleasant or meaningful for the world. Let’s say you have tons of money and nothing but good intentions. What gesture would you make, big or small? Could be something commercial, or something for your customers, something for your employees, something secret, something global, or whatever. What would you do?

Best answers will be read on the air this evening at 5 Eastern, as I chat with Mark Shea on his show Connecting the Dots. You can listen to the show live on Breadbox Media here. I’m Mark’s co-host every Monday, and you can hear podcasts of previous shows with me and Marks four other co-hosts (one each weekday) here.

Hunger and Help: Are Community Fridges the Answer?

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The community fridge not only feeds the hungry, but helps cut down on waste. In the United States, recent data suggests that as much as “133 billion pounds of food … [or] 31 percent of the total food supply” is wasted in a typical year, rather than going to feed someone —  a waste which Pope Francis said is “like stealing from the table of the poor and the hungry.”

But food safety laws prevent communities in the U.S. from setting up community refrigerators like the one in Spain.. A couple of UC Davis students ran afoul of these laws when their community refrigerator was shut down after a few months of food-sharing last year. 

Read the rest at the Register.

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Am I my brother’s enabler?

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Don’t worry, I’m not going to write about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner; not really. (The best take I’ve read on that topic is here.)

I do want to talk about a question circling, like a fly around an overripe peach, the topic of Jenner, transsexuals, sex, gender, gender dysphoria, and gender reassignment surgery: the question of whether we ought to call someone “she” just because that someone wants to be called “she,” even if we think that someone is really a he.  It’s the question of how we should respond to someone whom we think is horribly mistaken.

How can we remain loyal to the truth, and to sanity, if we play along with a sick (and dangerously popular) fantasy? It’s not doing the person, or the world in general, any favors to pretend that up is down, so why should we pretend that he is she, just to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?

Well, you could make a good case that it’s just simple courtesy to refer to someone by their chosen name (and accompanying pronoun). How can we extend Christian love to someone while using a name that’s been rejected as foreign and hurtful? How can we have a conversation with someone if we offend them with our opening words?

On the other hand, you could also make a good case that of course it’s acceptable to say “he” of a man who has been surgically, chemically, and cosmetically altered to resemble a woman. Jeering and mockery are out, but many people simply can’t bring themselves to say “she” when that’s no woman. We can remain courteous, and refrain from any obnoxious grandstanding, and still refuse to be dragooned into using the vocabulary that E! Magazine insists we use.

Because I don’t know any trans people, it doesn’t matter much to me. I just say “Jenner” when referring to the trans person in the news, and I could go with either “he” or “she” and still sleep at night.

But here’s where I get hung up. From the camp that insists,”HIS name is BRUCE andHEEEE is a MAN,” I keep hearing that calling Jenner “Caitlyn” is enabling – that saying “she” is making it easier for a wounded, misguided, suffering, probably mentally ill person to persist in a self-immolating delusion. I hear that, by saying “she,” we’re complicit in a sin and a crime, and that we’re actually obligated to refrain from playing along with something so wrong.

“Enabling.” Well, there is such a thing, of course. Enabling is when you offer a shot of whiskey to someone who’s struggling to stop drinking, because hey, it’s his choice. Enabling is when you bail your no-good, DUI, vandal, rapist son out of jail because it might frighten him to spend a night in the tank with actual criminals. Enabling is when you lie to your buddy’s wife to cover up for his infidelity. Enabling is cleaning up the mess, sheltering a sinner from the consequences of his behavior, making it easy for someone to avoid facing the truth of what his life has become.

But it’s not “enabling” to treat someone with respect. It’s not “enabling” to treat someone as an equal. It’s not “enabling” to say, “Nah, I guess I don’t need to swat you down.”  It’s not our place to treat everyone we meet as if they are in some way our patient, our spiritual underling, our disappointing ward.

And yet, lately, everyone with a keyboard and the ability to skim Wikipedia deems himself enough of a expert to dish out therapeutic protocols to everyone who crosses his path. It wouldn’t be good for you, with your complicated spiritual and psychological struggle you’ve been dealing with for decades, and which I have learned about just now via Reddit, to hear me use the pronoun “she.” I’ve never met you and never will, I don’t know anyone like you, and I know nothing about your condition, but I wouldn’t want to enable you, via the precious 450 pixels I could dish out to make up the pronoun “she.”

Uh huh.

Fulton Sheen once gave twenty bucks to a beggar on the street. His companion was annoyed, and asked, “How do you know he won’t spend that money on booze? How do you know he really needs it?” Sheen’s response: “I can’t take that chance.”

He wasn’t that man’s therapist. He wasn’t his substance abuse counselor, his confessor, his parole officer, his accountant, or his father. He was simply a stranger on the street, coming into brief contact with someone with an outstretched hand. There are worse things we can do then to enable the Holy Spirit to pass, with simple kindness, between us and a stranger.

 

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