The church was beautifully arrayed in fall colors. Our priest enjoys the seasons and loves to dress up the sanctuary and altar with seasonal flowers. Today there was more: a grocer's display of food products collected across the whole front of the church. It was grandiose and our priest was not shy about beating the breast of our generous church, boasting about how much had been collected for the local food pantry shelf. Normally, I would have added a bag of my own and reveled in the warm feeling of giving, but instead I recoiled.
I wasn't feeling like my usual self. My health was challenging at best and we are still waiting (nine months now) for my husband's new job to provide him the promised salary. His severance monies have run out and we are supplementing by dipping into some of our small retirement nest egg, though I really haven't been besieged with worry, like I once would have been in this situation. I have been pretty secure with all that is and isn't happening. Perhaps I am at last trusting God. He has done well in keeping a roof over our head and food in our bellies for enough years now that I wasn't doubt that it would all come together. The showy food display however was like a megaphone that was deafening to my heart and ears, and was a loud reminder of what I was working hard to forget. There are poor people and perhaps we will be one of them very soon!
Was I feeling that needy? We have plenty of food at home and in fact, having to put my feet up, I am finding myself too well fed for my recent activity level. A mere corn flake for breakfast would meet my dietary needs, for as inactive as I have been!
This grandiose food display reminded me of when I worked on the psych ward at Denver General Hospital in the days of my young adulthood. The Salvation Army workers had come onto the ward and were passing out little care bags to the patients on the ward during the Christmas season. Of course we had to remove the razors and after shave, to be sure our psych patients were kept safe. A young teenage patient, more mentally clear than others, flashed a big grin and holding up his little gift bag said it all, "Now I really feel poor!".
This food display made me feel the same. It reminded me that we are in financial decline. And doesn't charity begin at home? Where were the grocery bags to go with this over-abundance of food. My pride surged in the midst of all this and I thought..."we aren't the neediest in our church, for many are on fixed incomes and scrape hard to get by"!
I felt angry. I did not want to feel the needs that we have, nor communicate them to anyone. Was I feeling sorry for myself or perhaps feeling guilty for feeling poor when we have been so blessed and are just now beginning to feel the pinch! I found myself apologetically telling the priest as I walked out the door that I had been ill hence my absence from church, like a schoolgirl making an excuse for why I wasn't measuring up to my great potential, but my communication was muddled at best and I felt even worse for my attempt to let him know that we were hurting, but NOT for food!
I found myself writing to a friend and fellow parishioner, hoping that she would understand my feelings. She understood only that I felt bad and sent me back a note wishing me God's peace....but I had that before I went to church, didn't I? I had just written a blog about my family and how this crisis had made us stronger and tougher than ever. We are managing OK and loving each other through all the dilemmas that come with a lay off. We are even enjoying a heightened feeling of closeness, contentment and peace, because of the hardships.
What was I expecting and why was I so upset? I guess as much as I love beautiful, well dressed churches other recent images flashed in my brain. My sister belongs to a small church in Denver. Its minister works a full time job as a police officer and his make-shift church is filled with those that are returning from prison life. My sister is among them. When her apartment burnt down and her bed and belongings ruined, her minister and church were there. They collected monies to pay for motel fees until other arrangements could be made to house her and her family, already stressed from "starting their lives over again".
Being X-felons finding housing was no small deal, and one of the members of the church had a small house that they were selling. As it hadn't sold, despite being on the market for a while, they took it off the market and rented it to my sister, and charged her and her husband what they could afford to pay versus making top dollar on rent.
Small gifts of money and wares have also been given to her and others in their church to meet various needs. My sister recently sent pictures to me, proudly showing her baptism by submersion taking place in a hot tub on the back of a truck in the parking lot of their church. I am hoping that these baptisms are seasonal and not out in the snow! Her church is anything but elegant and beautiful or perhaps even adequate by my standards. My sister doesn't ask for help. She doesn't need to. Her church is there for her and for each member as each is known by the minister and the other members. It is a real community of believers that are there for each other in very real ways. Their investment isn't in their church building but in its community.
I realized that I am NOT without faith in God or lack His peace I understood what was missing. Our little family and home have become a tiny little church community, supporting each other as we face our losses, be it health or income. I am amazed at the strength we have found in each other...and that is what I felt missing that night at church. I wasn't feeling like an important part of this community, like I mattered. My absence was likely unnoticed. There was no phone call to see how I was doing physically or to ask how my husband was following the loss of his job just short of retirement.
When I had told a friend of mine about the support my sister received through her church she laughed and said, "that definitely wouldn't be our church that she belongs to!" (Though I know that our church at large has a collection for the poor that supports many outreach programs and generously so, so that I know that they are not without heart!)
I also remembered the story about a woman who always divided her portion of rations with another and when Mother Theresa was asked if they shouldn't just double this woman's portion, as she was dividing it with her friend, Mother thought carefully and replied, "No, for it is in this woman's sharing of her own portion with another that is blessing them both." Mother Teresa never lacked for wisdom.
Still another memory came to me of a comment that was made in a scripture class that I took. We had studied the early church and what it was like and we then discussed what a church should be. Our teacher commented that "if church isn't really relevant as a social institution it will die". All of these thoughts then came together in a crystalizing moment of clarity and vision for me.
This generous gathering of food was missing the most important part--the part of actually being present person to person with the person in need. The part of offering a relationship WITH the person receiving the gift. Perhaps we think it kind not to speak of someone's needs, but aren't they people just like us, or maybe are among us, or might even BE us? What about doing the difficult and relating to those that they are giving to, feeling their losses and sharing their pain for indeed, "but for the grace of God, go I". And then I remembered a Christmas card sent to us by one of our friends, a monk in hermitage. It was one that he had made himself on a copy machine. It pictured a pictured a sweet young Jesus child and a lamb and read, "May the peace of Christ disturb us"!
I have strong beliefs that faith isn't a just a text book lesson. It must be lived and this means rolling up one's sleeves and getting involved. To be converted means to change our perception of what it means to really care for others, I am far from perfect, but.I am not just talking the talk. I took in my mother, though we weren't the best of friends at the time. We did the difficult and learned that we couldn't expect her to change. It was us that needed to alter our ways and attitudes and clear our calendars. Caring is not a spectator sport or being a critical judge of what isn't done right. We had to give even when it wasn't convenient or comfortable and sometimes it felt anything BUT good. The gift, however, was all ours. We learned to love in a way that was very deep and real and meaningful.
My friend also emailed back to me that perhaps I needed to tell the priest of my needs and NOT expect him to be "intuitive". But I think that Agape love is the business of the church and being sensitive to needs of others is what church is really about. People know that I am not well, and they also know that my husband was laid off in a bad economy where jobs aren't available to even the cream of the crop, which at 62, one is not.
It isn't that I am standing with my hand out and expecting gifts.I am NOT the neediest or sickest in my church, but I am a vital member just as everyone else is, healthy or sick and my needs and gifts are an integral part of me and to love me is to show concern and care in a total way, many times just a kind word is enough to encourage another. Sadly my church doesn't make me feel loved or cared about and that is something to indeed note.
This was an epiphany to me. It doesn't make me less of a believer. God still lives, but He needs to live in a visible way in churches if the church is to remain a credible and meaningful institution in society. Like the country that I love, I also love church. It still symbolizes to me the ideal of love and kindness, and its fix is in me (and us). It isn't in church collections or even activities but rather it is in its very personal connections made with others in the world that are needing to see its light shine forth. It is not in a politically correct aloofness but in a real and genuine caring relationship.
I am not sure how this revelation will change me. I have taken on various active roles, within my church, and have been angry before when I was identified as a permanent giver versus one that is a giver and a taker, for that is the human condition and I feel strongly that we cannot be only givers. It should be recognized that within each of us there are both needs and gifts, times for giving and times for receiving, and it isn't a bank account where only those who have made a recent deposit that is transcribed in a ledger, can receive. Many give anonymously or silently, as after all we are all taught that is the more correct way to give, versus making show of what we are doing, and giving for the wrong reasons.
I don't have an easy solution but "being authentically Christian" or for those who avoid religion altogether, "being an authentic kind and loving human being" must be first and foremost. And that is not what I saw and felt. I am writing about this but will not stop here. I will pray and continue to ponder about this schism and focus on what needs to be done about it.
I will further examine my attitude. I do not blame the priest. He is but one person, and he is stretched to the point of delivering what he can to as many as he can and he is like the rest of us...human with needs of his own as well. I am sure he can't help but feel overwhelmed at the needs of those in his parish and feel too, his human limitation as he works to create a church and community that is teaching, supporting and loving? This dilution of service cannot be the face of the church, or it will cease to be relevant to be sure and perhaps his demonstrativeness regarding collecting food and giving to others was to make this point?
Our country has issues, as do the homes across America and it is infecting our churches as well. The solution doesn't begin with another but within myself. Only then will it change my home and my church or the place I work, and the community in which I live. I think that depersonalized bigness is part of the problem and it is only in personal smallness we humbly relate and connect with others, and only then will it affect the society at large.Giving cannot be mandated either as it must come from the converted heart. Mother Teresa talked of loving and caring about one person at a time and how her loving spread to so many, like it was contagious!
These are just some of my thoughts about being at odds with the world. My isolation has indeed affected me, and some might think my thoughts "negative". Perhaps it is in confinement that visions come. I profess no visionary aptitude, and so I will wait and see if the "cloud" passes. I hope at least part of it will remain for I think that this is how effective lessons come to us to make us better human beings. There is much need for love in our homes, churches, community and country and if each of us better see and know those in our community and reach out in love in whatever capacity we are able, how caring this world would be.