Friday, December 14, 2007

Backseat Driving in God's Limousine

I had a thought during my nightly Rosary the other night: I'm not letting God work any miracles for me.

I'm reminded of that little poem by Lauretta Burns that I'm sure we've all seen before.

Broken Dreams
by Lauretta Burns

As children bring their broken toys
With tears for us to mend,
I brought my broken dreams to God
Because He was my Friend

But instead of leaving Him
In peace to work alone,
I hung around and tried to help
With ways that were my own.

At last I snatched them back and cried, "How can You be so slow?"
"My child," He said, "what could I do?
You never let them go."

I thought, too, of St. Therese of the Little Flower. If you haven't read The Story of a Soul please find some time do so. I've never known its match for beauty, and the profound truths of her little way are beyond my ability to translate here. There were two main things I remembered from the book that struck me the other night. I thought first of how deeply and utterly she trusted God. At one point she wrote how elated she was when her father confessor told her she ought to take Communion every day. It had been a strong desire of hers to do so, but she didn't speak of it to anyone or ask to be given permission (I'm not sure why she needed permission; perhaps someone with a better historical understanding of her time or her convent can enlighten me.) She simply let that desire well in her heart and waited for God to grant it. How pure was that trust! To not even ask for something that surely would have been granted her easily, but instead to hope for it and allow God to reveal his glory...It's something I can hardly imagine, Type-A control-freak that I am.

The second thing that came to mind during my meditation was how St. Therese liked to consider herself the bride of Jesus. When a sister of hers married and spoke lovingly of all the little things she did to please her husband, St. Therese vowed that she would not let her sister do more for her earthly husband than she herself would do for God. She took the relationship literally, even amusing herself by writing out an invitation to the reception that celebrated her union with the son of God and the Queen of Heaven, to be held at a time unannounced -- Hold yourselves ready, for we do not know the hour of His coming!

I thought about how I let my husband clean the kitchen for me every night. Some of you might be smirking at that statement, but that's how controlling I am. Early in our marriage I used to look at the job he did -- crumbs on the floor, knives in the sink, tomato sauce on the counter, a precarious tower of hand-washed dishes piled high in the drying rack -- and compose conversations in my head where I taught him how to do it properly. Praise God, the Holy Spirit kept me from saying much at the time, because this kitchen cleaning thing happens to be the number one way Dan shows his love for me. He's not demonstrative, he's not verbal, he doesn't buy gifts and we're kind of busy for quality time together. His love language is acts of service and this is a service he performs every single day. Even when I make him one of my infamous eight pot dinners and he can't even see the sink to get started, he still does it.

If I insisted on doing it my way, I'd be missing out on this gift from my husband. There's a humility in accepting gifts, I've found. It's often not exactly what you'd get yourself, or what you wanted. Sometimes it's a total miss. Sometimes it's better than you could have dreamed of, or so unexpected that the joy of it takes your breath away. Whichever scenario it is, the truly loving giftee will take it, thank the giver with a grateful heart, and use the gift.

I have a coat I hate. My mom bought it for me and it's cherry red, not my style, with a huge, flat collar. I wear it every Christmas because I'm lucky enough to have a loving mother and a nice coat. Who cares if it's not my style?

If I'm trying at every opportunity to win Dan over to my way of thinking on this adoption thing, I'm not letting God do any work. I'm trying to do it myself. I'm not bringing it up, mind you, but whenever he sends me an article that bemoans the difficulty of large families or mentions a conversation with someone who's overwhelmed by their kids' schedule, I yammer on and on about how great I think large families are and how wonderful it would be to have another child and detail all the ways we could make things work if we had more.

Maybe God is looking for an opportunity to do something for me, here.

I should just let Him.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Foster Care

A friend who works with the juvenile justice system in Detroit sent me this link to a series of articles about a child who was not served by the foster care system in that area. It doesn't have a good end, so you might not want to read it if you are pregnant or particularly sensitive to such things.

Ricky's Story

Obviously, we've only begun to learn the whole story, as this is a 14 part series. A few things struck me as I was reading.

The mother in this family viewed having a child as her right. She wasn't in a good place mentally, nor did she have the kind of marriage that would create a loving home for a child. Plus, she had fertility problems but couldn't afford to have them looked into. All of this screams "Not right now" on the baby front, but she would not listen. She pushed for what she wanted to satisfy her craving, even though she wasn't ready.

Sometimes God places obstacles in our path for a reason. Our best response is to accept His answer and work on ourselves.

Catholic Charities recommended a change in this boy's situation, but the state agency didn't listen. The caseworker who met with Ricky assessed his mental state on a regular basis and saw that he was becoming more emotionally unstable and developing aggressive tendencies. She thought he would be best served if he was the only child in the foster home and if his parents were trained to give consistent, loving discipline. Yet the state continued to place more children in his home without demanding that the parents undergo any kind of parenting classes or counseling.

It's not surprising to me that Catholic Charities had the true interests of the child at heart, while the state was more concerned with placing as many children as possible. I've heard this from other sources, too, when I was looking into becoming a foster parent myself. It makes me increasingly convinced that we need MORE families to open their homes to these children. Yes, it's hard. Yes, it's risky. But the state agencies are so strapped for somewhere to put these kids that they ignore potential danger signs and place children in abusive homes because there's no where else to put them. Pray with me that more families will hear the call to look after these children and accept the challenges and rewards it will bring.

The parents in this situation used archaic and heavy-handed discipline methods. When Ricky wouldn't stay in bed, they tied him there. If the kids acted up, they were locked in their rooms or sent to bed hungry. These aren't methods of discipline as God intends. They do not honor the inherent dignity of the child as a person, nor do they allow the child to learn to make good decisions or exercise his own judgment. All they do is inflict fear and humiliation.

If we consider our children as possessions, we will treat them as such. Anytime they do not conform to our desires, we will punish them until they are trained to respond to us without question.

But if we see our children as blessings, as gifts from God to be nurtured and cared for, then we understand that they are their own selves in need of guidance and instruction, not punishment. As much as possible, we need to give our children choices, knowledge, and the tools to discipline themselves. Tying a child to the bed or locking them in their room relies on force to elicit compliance. Sometimes children need to do what they don't want to do. Of course. It would be irresponsible of us to allow our children to eat candy for lunch or watch TV all day. But the methods we use must allow for the exercise of their own free will, as well.

Pray with me for parents who are struggling with their vocation. For children who are in abusive homes or unstable situations. Pray with me that we might all turn our attention to those in need of love and support, and provide it to the best of our ability.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Needless Anxiety

Fr. Mel said the homily today at Mass. He speaks very softly and can't seem to lean forward enough to get to the microphone. And since our church is undergoing construction and we're having daily Mass in the gym right next to the actual demolishing of the old church, I can't be sure I really heard everything he said. I definitely missed the punchline of his joke at the end of Mass, which must have been funny because everyone laughed but I had to drop something off at the office right afterwards so I wasn't able to ask anyone what he'd said.

Little things like that can be so annoying if I let them. I thought about the joke all the way to the car and while filling up my gas tank across the street. What could he have said? It was short enough to only be a few words..."That's what he always was?" "That's what he says, too?" "That's what we tell ourselves?" Urgh.

I just have to refocus my mind and stop dwelling on frustrating and useless things. That's good advice for other aspects of my life, too. I've been feeling particularly resentful lately about the limitations life has placed on me. Instead of thinking positively and waiting on God with hope, I've been giving in to despair and wondering why I should bother. Some good friends with the courage to speak truth have pulled me back on the right path.

Instead of harboring anger because I don't have the freedom to move forward on the adoption, I can focus my energies on being the best mother I can be. There's plenty of room for improvement, I assure you. Instead of bemoaning my husband's faults, I can dwell on his abundant good qualities and focus my energies establishing a deeper connection with him.

Today's Gospel told one of my favorite Bible stories, where Jesus heals the centurion's servant. This hedonistic Roman recognized the true power of God when many devout Jews of the time did not. He came to Jesus and made his request with complete confidence, knowing that as his household obeyed his every word, so too would the sickness obey Jesus.

My faith can take its cues from this example. Come to God with confidence that your request will be granted, for everything on earth, and above the earth, and below the earth knows that He is Lord. What have I to fear, then? We are all in His hands.

I suppose I can ask Fr. Mel tomorrow for the punchline of the joke, if I'm still wondering about it!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Christmas Preparations

Happy and Blessed First Week of Advent to everyone! I love this time of year. I love lighting the candles on my Advent wreath and decorating the house, baking cookies (and eating them), singing Christmas carols, finding gifts for friends and family and the general smells, sights, sounds and sensations of the season.

We try to be as Catholic as we can during the season. We don't put up the tree till Gaudette Sunday, and we refrain from Christmas carols till Christmas itself (though I make an exception for the kids: we sing one Christmas song every night as part of our nighttime routine.) St. Nicholas comes with a small present for the kids on December 6th, and Christmas itself is dedicated to Christ and family. I'm pondering ways to truly embrace the spirit of the season, though. I want to prepare for Christmas with sacrifice and prayer much like Lent prepares us for Easter.

I've contemplated a Buy Nothing Christmas, but I'm not sold on the idea for a couple reasons. First of all, I think the urge to celebrate by giving gifts is a nice idea. If it's being taken to extremes by marketing agencies and shopping malls, well, they're free to try and convince me to buy more if they want to. It doesn't mean I have to buy nothing in response. The main problem, though, is that it requires EVERYONE you know to buy into it. Otherwise, you receive an abundance of love but don't communicate your goodwill in a language your friends and family understand.

I do, however, like the idea of homemade gifts, simplifying the holiday, and cutting through the propaganda to unearth the true spirit of the season: Christ's love.

So I've made a pledge: I will not buy a single Christmas decoration this year. I've already stopped buying Christmas lights, though I did pick up some used coils at a garage sale last June. I'm also going to try and say a prayer for the persecuted Christians in China whenever we pass any decorated trees/homes/lightpoles/signs, etc. Lights are everywhere, so the prayer has to be short! "Lord, please strengthen and bless those who suffer for You." We have four whole boxes of decorations in the storeroom already, so I really shouldn't need any more this year. I know I'll want some, though. We've moved to a new house and I'm already at a loss for what to put on my front doors, since we now own two instead of one. Still, I'm going to try and resist. Even if I find things on sale! This includes fresh evergreen wreaths, of which I'm particularly fond. Maybe I'll hunt through my decor and see if I can find a pine scented candle tucked away somewhere, or maybe I'll see what I can cobble together from the overgrown juniper bushes in the backyard.

I've been lax lately about my prayer life. I need to return to saying the Rosary every day, to start. I've also found this wonderful site with a guide to Advent prayers for each day of the season, something which I hope can help me focus my thoughts and energies on the magnificent gift God sent us in His son.

As always, though, I'm seeking ways to remember the poor in my every day life. This season, I'm particularly conscious of those who don't know our Lord loves them, or who reject him for whatever reason. I'm mindful, too, of those who live under the oppression of a hostile government and aren't free to share their wonder and joy at Jesus' birth. And I think of those unfortunate families who are so caught up in the stress and materialism of the season that they mostly just feel pressure to keep up with the Joneses. For all these, and for the poor souls in Purgatory who are waiting to be reunited with Christ, I will dedicate my daily Rosary.

Best wishes to everyone at the start of this marvelous season! How blessed we are to have this opportunity for reflection and anticipation!

Advent Prayer

Come, long-expected
Jesus. Excite in me a wonder at the wisdom and power of Your Father and ours. Receive my prayer as part of my service of the Lord who enlists me in God's own work for justice.

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a hunger for peace: peace in the world, peace in my home, peace in myself.

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a joy responsive to the Father's joy. I seek His will so I can serve with gladness, singing and love.

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me the joy and love and peace it is right to bring to the manger of my Lord. Raise in me, too, sober reverence for the God who acted there, hearty gratitude for the life begun there, and spirited resolution to serve the Father and Son.

I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, whose advent I hail. Amen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I had a rare hour-long conversation with a friend of mine from high school the other day. She had a baby girl a few weeks after I had my youngest daughter, so we talk often and share what our kids are doing as we walk this beautiful path of motherhood together.

During our most recent conversation, we were discussing cloth diapering (which we both do) and how much easier it is than we thought it would be. Both of us have had numerous encounters with people who see that we are cloth diapering and hasten to exclaim, "God bless you! I could never do that. I just don't have the time/patience/skill."

I always answer, "Sure you could! It's not hard at all, just a couple more loads of laundry every week." My friend and I were discussing why our automatic reaction to these comments is to assure the other person that cloth diapering isn't that much harder than disposables. Really! It's not inconvenient at all!

Why is convenience the ONLY question here? What about the cost savings, the benefits to the environment or the fact that they're free of chemicals? None of this seems to matter when it comes time to choose between throwing a used diaper in a pail to be later rinsed and washed versus tossing it in the garbage and never thinking about it again.

Are we really so bound to the idea of convenience?

The short answer is YES. Witness the rise in elective c-sections and scheduled inductions. It's too hard on some mothers and doctors, apparently, to wait for labor to start naturally. Never mind the 2-fold risk of maternal mortality when the c-section isn't medically necessary. Never mind the harm to the baby, the extra cost to the insurance companies, or the fact that it's major abdominal surgery. Convenience trumps everything else.

Look around you next time you're at the grocery store. The number of products that market convenience are staggering. Tired of wringing out that mop? No need to worry! Just buy a box of disposable mop heads and throw them away as soon as you're done. No time to vacuum up that pet hair or open a window and air out the room? Here's a bottle of chemicals you can spray around to make your house smell nice. Never mind that both these products pollute the environment through their manufacture, use and disposal. Never mind that they're expensive and unnecessary. If they make your life easier, that's all that matters, right?

Studies have linked the rise in obesity among children to our diet of high-fat, fried, and/or processed foods. (Though plenty of other sites contest those findings.) Still, every health expert agrees that we need more whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and less sugar and fat in our diets. The best way to do this is to cook from scratch: you govern exactly what goes into your meal and assure your family of optimum nutrition. Yet the invariable answer from today's busy family is that "We don't have time." Many supermarkets have come up with solutions for us, from pre-cut broccoli florets to pre-marinated chicken breasts. At an increased cost, of course. There's labor and packaging involved that aren't factors when you buy a whole chicken or a stalk of broccoli.

I have to ask what we're doing that we don't have time to chop up a couple stalks of broccoli. There are families, I'm sure, where two incomes mean the difference between food on the table and empty plates, but for most of us, it comes down to choices. What are we choosing that necessitates this unhealthy reliance on convenience?

It's not that there's anything wrong with modern conveniences by themselves. I'm certainly not advocating we all get rid of our washing machines and start pounding our clothes against rocks. But convenience is a luxury that we ought to balance against the cost it entails. Be assured, there's always a cost.

In truth, I'm actually upset about the way our society's obsession with "fast and easy" has spilled over into other areas. My husband came home from a recent trip with a story about a friend he'd met who had warned him repeatedly and most earnestly to "Stop at two." Children, that is. Seems this poor fellow has three kids and they're not worth the herculean effort it takes to raise them.

I'm sure he thought he was doing my husband a service by warning him away from the life of misery that he's apparently been consigned to, but I'm indignant at the message it sends: If it takes effort, it's not worth it. Isn't this a temptation that pulls at us every day? Isn't it easier to drive to the post office instead of walking five blocks? Isn't it easier to buy a Halloween costume from Target than be creative and cobble one together from what you have at home? Isn't it easier to throw your plastic bags away than return them to the store for recycling?

Well, maybe "easy" shouldn't be the penultimate goal all the time. Maybe we ought to be thinking about what's right instead of what's easy. Because, frankly, cloth diapering is right. Recycling is right. Simplifying is right. Sacrificing is right.

Sometimes things aren't easy. My husband has a comeback for this: "Suck it up." I prefer "Offer it up" but hey, whatever floats your boat. Just because it's hard doesn't mean it isn't worth it.

Picture credit: The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe by Joseph Martin Kronheim

Saturday, November 17, 2007

And your point is?

I often struggle with doubt. I think we all do, or at least, I hope I'm not the only one who sometimes lies awake thinking "Do I possibly just have everything completely wrong?" Part of it's a lack of self-confidence, a leftover sense from my childhood that I know nothing and should just follow the instructions given to me by others.

The biggest part, though, is that I love and respect my husband so much, yet he has completely different views. That has to affect me. I can't just disregard those with opposite opinions as either uninformed, or uncaring, or uninterested. I have to face the fact that my intelligent, worldly, educated, thoughtful husband has just come to an entirely different conclusion about the existence of God and our purpose in life.

He's asked me before how we can possibly be sure God is out there. My answer, "You just have to believe," is pretty much a non-answer to anyone who isn't already a believer. I've jumped through some pretty outlandish hoops to come up with some justification for him but I've always gone away empty-handed. An old adage comforts me: "For those who believe, no proof is necessary; for those who do not, no proof is sufficient." I've come to accept that I, personally, will not be bringing my husband to Christ by the persuasive power of my intellect or my ability to debate theological issues. I wouldn't really want that anyway. If he did enter the Church based on my arguments, I'd be worried for the rest of our lives that he'd encounter someone even MORE persuasive and follow their lead.

No. I want my husband to believe, and for that, Christ has to reveal Himself.

Yet I'm left with these lingering doubts and challenging questions for which I have no answer. What is the point of religion, if it doesn't DO anything? True, there have been miracles, but we're never guaranteed one. So we can pray and maybe our prayers get answered and maybe they don't. Thus the atheist says, "Why pray?" If the only benefit to prayer is a personal one, then it seems to be a pretty selfish exercise. And wouldn't your time be better spent either preparing for problems, learning concrete skills to deal with them, or proactively changing the world for the better? What really brought down the Soviet Union? The millions of rosaries Mary asked us to pray? Or an increase in communications technology which empowered the Soviet people to take charge of their government?

What about helping the poor? I've always cringed inwardly whenever I see a movie or read a book about the missionaries in foreign lands who get asked, "Why are you here, so far from home, doing this for us?" and then answer, "Jesus commands us to."

*headdesk* That's hardly the way to show God's love to the world. Dawkins has rightly criticized the Christians of this world for citing fear of hell as their motivation for doing good. Surely people are not so incredibly self-absorbed that the only way to get them to be nice is to threaten them with an eternity of pain? And if that's true, what does that say about our belief that we're created in God's image?

Most fundamentally, though, the criticism I have no answer for is the one that cuts the deepest. It has been people of faith, in the name of God, who have committed some of the worst atrocities and acts of hate against their fellow man. The faithful person can accurately cry, "But they have perverted God's message, not fulfilled it!" And even Hitchens acknowledges that atheists have done evil acts too, but the core question is this: if believing in God does not make someone a good person, then what use is religion?

My favorite priest gave an outstanding homily a few weeks ago and cited some disturbing statistics. Only 20% of Catholics tithe. And the average percentage of income given to the church is 1%. Obviously, these numbers don't translate literally. If only 20% of people are tithing, they're giving more than 1% of THEIR incomes, but you get the picture. Our mother Church gets 1%, the US government probably gets 30%, and the remaining 69% goes toward making ourselves as comfortable as possible.

Why is this? Why would the largest, most organized religion in the world have such selfish followers? I know personally a half dozen people who are truly good Catholics. They help the poor, they attend daily Mass, they follow the precepts of the Church, they are humble, generous, loving, peaceful, good people.

Is this God working in them? Or is this just how they are? Because for every person I name, there's someone else who goes to Mass and calls themselves Catholic who lives as selfishly and carelessly as any non-believer.

If there's no difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, what exactly does following Christ achieve?

When these doubts threaten to overwhelm me, I turn them over to God. Because I know in my heart He is real. He made us, He loves us, He sent His son to save us. For me, the point is to love Him back. Period. But I also think that being a Christian HAS to change you. It has to make you rethink your natural impulses and reevaluate your worldview. No society in this world is set up to care for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. The free market system and natural selection emphasize strength, intelligence, aggressiveness and foresight. None of this meshes with Jesus and the gentle, generous, simple, humble, trusting way He preached. We Christians should be visible as outsiders wherever we go, and not just for wearing crosses. We should be focusing on exactly the things society disdains, pursuing those avenues society considers worthless, protecting the people society would rather do without.

We should be transformed in Christ. Our faith should be a light that shines so brightly in our lives that no one can ask what good religion does this world. It should be abundantly obvious.

If it isn't, we're missing the whole point.

Picture credit. (Props to my husband for expanding my musical repertoire. Our son loves this album almost as much as the soundtrack to Aladdin.)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Earthly Justice

I spent some time at a nearby cemetery today. As part of All Souls week, we Catholics can gain plenary indulgences for the souls in Purgatory if we do a few simple things. While there I saw a gravemarker with dates from 2004 to 2006. "How sad," I thought. "A little child." Then I looked below it and saw a similar stone with dates from 2002 to 2006. November 10, 2006, to be precise, and I realized this poor family had lost both their children on the same day.

Actually, they lost even more than that. A drunk driver ran up on a curb and killed these two children and their mother. Their father survived with injuries. From what I could determine, the driver was sentenced to 48 years in prison, eligible for parole after 33. The blogosphere seems to consider this a travesty of justice, but I wonder...what is justice in this case? What is justice in any case?

As the wife of a lawyer (and a woman who aspires to law herself) I've always been a firm believer in justice and our system of law. No, it's not perfect. Nothing on this earth really is. But I've always felt it's an essential part of a free society. If there is no retribution for a wrong committed, then there is no point in declaring something wrong in the first place.

But it brings home to me how empty and meaningless earthly justice can be. For the truly horrendous crimes and for those who deeply, deeply suffer, there's nothing that we as humans can do that even approaches making things right. The problem with justice, as I see it, is that it's a reaction to a wrong. It's a response. And by its very nature, it can only offer a part of what has been lost because it's never possible to erase the past.

Sometimes I find myself frustrated and discouraged by this idea: that there's nothing we can do to make things right for people who have suffered. Particularly in the worst cases, as with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the genocide in Rwanda, or the violence of suicide bombers, I'm left wondering what anyone can do. 48 years in prison won't bring back the Binghams. It probably won't prevent this sort of tragedy from happening to anyone else, either. There's plenty of drunk drivers out there, and all our laws and punishments for DUIs haven't made it any safer to cross the street in Denver. So what to do?

The answer lies in our focus, and it is one of the reasons why I am a person of fervent faith. If we focus on this life as the only form of our existence, then every ounce of our strength has to go into protecting people while preventing and punishing acts of injustice. And when our efforts fail (as they must) we are left with the sense that nothing has been accomplished.

But if we focus on eternal life, the entire point of our existence changes. It's not incumbent upon us to bring peace to every corner of the world or eradicate all suffering. Suffering is part of life, as a recent post on Et Tu, Jen so eloquently showed. We have not failed if suffering remains. We have succeeded if we brought comfort to the afflicted, if we dedicated ourselves to reaching out and touching as many people as we can with the love of Christ, if we in any small way freed another soul from the darkness of its burden and brought healing to the injured.

I understand that many atheists see this as a cop-out and an excuse to do nothing about preventing tragedy. It's one of Hitchens' major complaints about Mother Theresa, that instead of working to heal and help the people who came to her in Calcutta, she merely held their hands and gave them her loving presence while they suffered and died. I can understand his outrage; after all, if life is the whole point, then it's a crime to withold any and all extraordinary measures to prolong it. The money Mother Theresa received should, in Hitchens' mind, have gone towards alleviating poverty, medical care, food for the hungry, social change, etc etc etc.

But this misses the point of Mother Theresa's ministry, which was to bring love and comfort and hope to the dying. Not hope of earthly life, but of salvation and eternal life. I think Mother Theresa saw the truth in a way most of us cannot. All the money in the world will not eradicate poverty (certainly not in India where the societal hierarchy prevents the sort of intraclass movement that our country is built upon.) Rather than expend her energies trying to make this earthly life better for those who were suffering, she dedicated herself to bringing a small glimpse of Heaven into their hearts.

I absolutely believe that we ought to work tirelessly and passionately to bring change in the world. That's the point of this blog, to help me do whatever I can for the poor. Fundamentalist regimes that trod on the personhood of their citizens are an affront to the dignity of human life. Greedy dictators who sap their countries of natural resources and leave their people to starve are as thoroughly evil as people can be. Acts of hate and violence against minorities and people of differing viewpoints are anathema to the inclusive love God has for all His children. I support the organization of a free society in which each person is respected from the moment of conception, and is given the right and opportunity to choose their own path.

But Jesus has said, "The poor you will always have with you." In His wisdom He has told us the future and revealed a fundamental truth of life: there will always be suffering. And, too, there will always be men who choose to do evil. That is the price of free will.

So when we are faced with tragedy, with crime, with injustice, what is our response? As Christians, it must be love. The desire for vengeance has no part in the message of Christ. Nor does the misguided attempt to punish the transgressor for his act. Earthly justice may serve to deter future drunks from getting behind the wheel, or decrease the chance of his committing the same crime again, but it doesn't bring much comfort or healing to the victims themselves.

That's our job.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Stewardship Sunday

Today was Stewardship of Treasure Commitment Sunday at my parish. That's a long and fancy way of saying that they pass out the envelopes and ask everyone to write down a weekly or yearly pledge. Fr. Andrew gave an excellent homily addressed to the "5 groups of people in this congregation." The first group was those who have never given and have no intention of giving to the parish. And I had to sit there and listen to the message, knowing that I was part of that group. I wanted to stand up and yell, "I'd give, but my husband won't let me!"

It's so frustrating. I know God is aware of our family situation right now and I know that He wants me NOT to give. Truly, it's not that I care that the office clerk is going to tally up my envelopes for the year and shake her head and think, "Another family who gave nothing." What makes me so annoyed is that the church NEEDS my gift and I'm unable to do anything about it. Our parish is redoing the sanctuary starting tomorrow (there's a special Mass tonight and procession to move the Eucharist into its new spot in the school gym) and I can't be a part of it. They still need 7 million dollars to finish the reconstruction, but I can't give. Our community has hungry and needy that the parish cares for, but I can't participate. (Yes, I can donate spare goods -- which I have -- but the primary need is monetary. I worked for a nonprofit and frankly, unless you're Goodwill those material donations are more of a hindrance than a help. People like new things, many children's toys and equipment get recalled or are no longer usable, and the donations don't always exactly match the needs of the community. Money is really the best way to help.)

I don't want to be in the first group! I want to be in the last group, the group that tithes 10% every year and has only to readjust their pledge to accurately reflect any new income.

I had a strange conversation with my husband the other day. I'd found this site from one of the adoption blogs I'm following and had mentioned it with some excitement. "We wouldn't have to wait as long to find the money; we could start the adoption process next year!" My husband looked pained. "Isn't it need based? Because there's no way we'd qualify. We have too many assets."

"What do you mean, wouldn't qualify? Aren't we like, thousands of dollars in debt?"

"In my head we are." I must have looked poleaxed because he explained, "I sold stock to cover the debt. You know that."

This is the sort of thing that always made me nuts about economics and business when I had to take them in high school. I don't care what state the money exists in. I don't care if it's in a savings account, or it's stock, or it's cash under the mattress. There's only two kinds of money: assets and credit. We use our assets to make payments and our credit to purchase things that would take too long to save up for (a car, a house, etc.) Good financial stewardship means maintaining sufficient assets to make all required monthly credit payments and cover the expenses of living, while setting money aside for emergency savings, retirement, and significant future expenses (college, down payments on a house, etc.) Everything else is window dressing as far as I'm concerned.

If our assets were sufficient to cover our debt, it means we have no debt. We DO, of course, have house payments, car payments, insurance payments, school fees and a host of other expenses, but that's not the problem. My husband isn't saying that we can't give to charity or adopt a child until we own our own home. I misunderstood from his email that timing was an issue in this matter. Based on what I know now, I don't think it is. The stock has been sold already. We're not racking up interest payments on the debt anymore. So why can't we do a 1/2 and 1/2 sort of thing? How about we live frugally, pinching money wherever possible, then whatever we save, 1/2 goes into an account to offset the amount of the recent debt, and the rest gets put toward charity or adoption?

I don't know whether to bring this up to him. I'm really doing a VERY POOR job of humbling myself and waiting for God's time on this issue, but I'm just having such trouble justifying the delay. People need our help NOW and we can't even set a firm timetable for when we would be in a position to give. It's all this arbitrary, subjective point where we've put "enough" into a savings account. "They recommend you have an emergency fund equal to three months worth of expenses," says my husband. "How much would that be?" I asked.

The answer? Twice the current amount of our "debt."

I almost fell through the floor. How does the situation keep changing and our debt keep getting bigger and the wait keep getting longer?

"Well what about adoption?" I said. "Is that something we'd sell stock to cover, or would we save up for that?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "I guess we could sell stock."

I didn't ask the follow up question to that, which was, So, if we sell stock for an adoption, does our "debt" then increase by $30K? Is that ANOTHER threshold we have to meet before we can give money to charity?

Pray for me, please. It's all I can do right now to not shake the man. I'm succeeding in having these conversations with him rationally and calmly. I'm truly seeking to understand his point of view and accept his decisions.

But I'm really having a hard time.

Picture credit.

Friday, October 26, 2007

There but for the grace of God...

We tried to go see the Titanic exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science last weekend. It didn't quite work out. I checked online and they had plenty of spaces left for several shows in the afternoon, but by the time we got there it was all sold out.

No biggie. We saw the dinosaurs and browsed the planetarium (they had some cool stuff, including a very Total Recall recreation of the surface of Mars and a table with moving rings that simulated orbits) saw the mummies (my favorite) and marveled at the dioramas in the Wildlife Exhibits.

One of the wildlife rooms was also the waiting area for the next Titanic exhibition, and they had devoted a wall to the impact the Titanic (and other ships of that sort) had on the Denver area. Between the mines, the railroads and the open west, thousands of immigrants had reason to buy passage across the Atlantic and come here to make a new life for themselves. The museum had a picture of a family (or two) standing in front of a couple tents pitched in the snow on a mountain slope, hard-faced men and plain-faced women dressed in dark, drab clothes. One woman had a baby in her arms wrapped up in a blanket and a younger child at her feet.

I found the photo online and this explanation by historian Eric Margolis:

In an interview with Emma Zanetell, an eighty-nine-year-old woman who lived at Forbes, I learned a different meaning from this photograph. "That's my tent," she exclaimed, "I'm there sick in bed." The story emerged that, a day or two before the picture was made, she had given birth to twins who died. Her husband and relatives had gone to Trinidad to bury the babies, leaving the tent colony undefended. While they were gone, the militia tore down the tents and burned them. Two soldiers came into Emma's tent; one told her to get up so they could set fire to her tent. Too sick to move, she overheard the other soldier threaten to kill his companion if he harmed her.

I stared at that picture for a good five minutes, wondering to myself how -- HOW -- these people made life work in that kind of situation. I moved to Denver in May and it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Everything was in boxes. I knew no one. I had to look up grocery stores on the internet and map my way around. I got lost every time I tried to go anywhere. My son was a miserable, emotional mess, missing his friends and needing my attention every second. I had a house wrecked with packing paper and cardboard, nothing in its right place and no respite from caring for my two kids (new to me, as I'd always lived near family.)

Compared to the settlers in 1890, my move was a breeze.

The poster went on to talk about the labor strikes and the ease with which mine bosses found scabs to work for minimum pay in hazardous conditions. The US sent soldiers to clear out strikers on several occasions, and sometimes wives and children got caught in the crossfire.

It makes me marvel at the strength and resilience of the human condition. These people left their homeland for opportunity, spent all they had crossing the ocean and then begged or borrowed their way out west only to be used like slaves and discarded like cattle.

I can imagine my reaction in that situation. Bitter, violent complaining at all hours of the day. Whining, fussing, pouting, sulking. Lying in bed while the kids cry and climb all over me. Cursing God. Crying.

Not them. No time for that. They were too buy fighting to stay alive, improve their working conditions, educate their children and ensure that everyone in America had access to real freedoms and opportunities. They scrimped and suffered and soldiered on. And they won. They built our country.

It brings home to me, yet again, the spoiled, self-centered nature of my existence. I can hardly even imagine how I'd survive that sort of life, though I pray that with God's grace and the motivation of necessity, I could do it. I'd probably still do a lot of complaining, though. I really don't like the cold.

I wonder if would be courageous in fighting for my husband's right to an 8-hour day, or if I'd keep my head down because work meant food and we didn't dare risk what little we had. What if fighting meant his life, or my life, or the lives of our children? Would I be generous with our meager possessions? If a friend's husband died in the mines, would I invite her into my home and share everything I had, or would I think to myself: I just don't have enough right now. I can't help her.

My blessings are not just monetary or material. Nor have the freedoms we enjoy in this country always been a part of our society. Even now, much of the manual labor done in America is done by people with no rights, little pay, no medical care and no job security.

Would I be courageous if, instead of this free, prosperous country, I lived in Afghanistan? There are women there whose lives are so miserable that they'd rather set themselves on fire. Or in Indonesia, where Christians are persecuted and political prisoners routinely disappear? Or Pakistan, or Liberia, or anywhere else that women are only considered more valuable than sheep because sheep can't bear sons to carry on the family name? Or if, instead of shopping at Wal-Mart and watching my children play with Disney toys, we lived in China where they were actually making them in unsafe conditions?

It makes me very, very aware of how lucky I am. But in all honesty, it also scares me. Because the dichotomy between the torment and misery that exists in this world and my joy-filled life is as great as the chasm between heaven and hell. And I wonder...if God has said "To those whom more is given, more will be expected" (Luke 12: 48) what does He expect of me in light of all my blessings?

Picture credit

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Red Robin's Siren Song

I cheated on Friday. We went out to Red Robin for lunch. No reason. In fact, many reasons NOT to go: I had food at home, my husband had brought a lunch to his office, and my kid was recovering from a stomach bug. But it was fun to have lunch together on the spur of the moment, and it was a nice family outing.

But as soon as I saw the picture of the Whiskey BBQ Burger, I was a goner. I tried to talk myself into a nice salad, a garden burger, and a cup of soup, but no go. I really really really wanted that burger.

And you know what? There was no one to stop me. No one to say, "But Tienne, you've committed yourself to eating only vegetarian meals when you eat out." Or, "Isn't it bad enough that you're eating out when you have food at home? Are you really going to compound it by ordering a meal that harms the earth, exploits farm workers and exacerbates the global food crisis?" My conscience did say all these things, but I squashed it and looked at the picture again. Everyone around me was eating their burgers. My son was getting a cheeseburger. My husband was getting a turkey burger with avocado and goat cheese. My daughter was sleeping, so she's exempt, but the point is, I was alone and surrounded by temptation.

So I fell. And man, was it a tasty burger. I'm beating myself up about it, now, of course. I know better. It's not like I just forgot about my pledge to forgo meat when dining out. It's not like I was at a party where they only served hot dogs and brats. It's not like someone took me out to a steakhouse to celebrate their promotion and there weren't any vegetarian options on the menu. I deliberately tossed aside my values and embraced the pleasure of the moment, for no other reason than that I wanted to.

Everyone sins, of course. This website chronicles my journey because that's what I'm on. I don't have mastery over this by any stretch of the imagination. What saddens me most, though, is how easy it was to ignore my convictions. There's no accountability in my efforts to take the poor with me. Except for this website, which is faceless and (let's be honest here) only as transparent I as choose it to be, no one would know if I lived perfectly according to the philosophies I espouse or if I turned my back on every single one of them.

Well, God would know. And I believe my pricking conscience is His way of letting me know that he knows, and that I ought to know better. But in the moment of temptation itself, I can too easily ignore His voice.

It drives home to me the importance of community and fellowship. I learned in college how easy it is to sink to the lowest common denominator, and how proud and happy those denominators are when you join them. Pursuing virtue leaves you mostly alone, mocked at best and often accused of being judgmental, closed minded, or intolerant, of forcing your beliefs on others or considering yourself superior.

It's just SO EASY to give in to consumerism and indulgence. From TV commercials to billboards to advertisements in newspapers and magazines, our entire society is aimed at getting us to buy something we don't need. There's always a sale on somewhere, always a special discount if you buy more (Get one in each color! Stock up and save! Buy in bulk for maximum value!), always a drink special to go with that appetizer that looks so appetizing. And did you save room for dessert? When we do gather the willpower to resist the thousands of suggestions around us, too often our companions look at us askance, or make us feel as though we're making a statement about them and their decisions.

My parents came to visit a couple weekends ago. While they were here, my mother insisted on taking me to the grocery store because she wasn't happy with the state of my fridge. I'd just been shopping and had plenty of food, but I didn't have a few things she considered staples, like raspberries, yogurt, and bottled water. When I reminded her that we were trying to live simply, she got hostile. "Who are you trying to beat, Tienne? People starving in wooden huts? Because you'll never match them, no matter how austere you make your life."

It was hard to get her to understand that this isn't a competition. The point of taking the poor with me is not to live in abject poverty, starving myself and my family because there are people in the world who don't have basic needs. The point is to turn a hard eye on my spending and ask myself, "Do I really need this?"

One of the main challenges is that my eye is so skewed. To me, it feels like a huge sacrifice to go out to eat and NOT get the whiskey BBQ burger with onion crisps and cheddar cheese. Never mind that an entire menu of delicious options has just been presented to me, any one of which would amply satisfy my hunger and serve as an indulgence. Then to increase the challenge, those closest to me (like my mother) often hinder rather than help my efforts. As hard as it is to ignore the siren song of advertising, it is even harder to ignore the well-meaning but misguided pressure of friends and family.

How do we respond when a friend writes or calls to talk excitedly about the new flat screen TV they've just bought? Or when our newly engaged relative waggles her ring-finger proudly? Or the woman sitting next to us in church has a pair of the most beautiful open-toed pumps we've ever seen? When those around us are focusing on the fad of the moment, it's all the more difficult to keep our eyes and our interest on what truly matters.

Now Christmas approaches, the beautiful holy-day when we commemorate God's greatest gift to us: Himself, made flesh to dwell among us. But likely the only place we'll hear anything about that is at Mass. The rest of the time our senses will be bombarded with the dreaded countdown -- Only 17 shopping days left till Christmas! -- along with more incarnations of Santa than any sane person can stand. Katerina Ivanovna has a great post on this at Civilization of Love that contains some excellent suggestions for simplifying the season.

In the meantime, I'm working on a system to strengthen my resolve and enable me to turn away from temptation when it presents itself. I find it easier to give extra than to sacrifice something I want, so I need to counter these petty indulgences by giving something up. In return for eating that burger at Red Robin on Friday, I ordered nothing but a drink when we went to the bar to watch the Michigan game on Saturday. That was hard, let me tell you. Especially when my husband got his lunch and offered me a bite (which he never does under normal circumstances! I think he felt bad for me.) And because my mom spent so much on us while she was here, I'm trying to cut my weekly grocery budget to $50 for the next month.

It's supposed to have a bit of a punitive effect. Hopefully, next time I'm tempted I'll think about what I'll have to give up if I indulge myself, and will have the courage and conviction to order the soup and salad instead.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Monday's Gospel

Reflections on Scripture:

There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read it?" He said in reply, 'You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." He replied to him, "You have answered correctly; do this and you will live."

But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, 'Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.' Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?" He answered, "The one who treated him with mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
Luke, 10 25-37
I was struck, first of all, by the order of God's commandment. Love God first, with all your soul, being, mind and strength. Then love your neighbor as yourself. As a child, I struggled with understanding why God would ask first that we love Him, when there are so many people in need in the world. Surely, as many agnostics and atheists claim, the service of others is the highest form of giving, the most noble exercise of our human faculties. And the parable of the Good Samaritan seems to underscore this. Isn't the point that if I'm on my way to church and happen across an accident, I should skip Mass and tend to the victims of the crash? Or if I have limited funds, aren't they better spent feeding the homeless than contributing to the fund my opulent Catholic cathedral has set up to clean and maintain its mosaics?

Well, yes. And no.

Now that I have children of my own, I understand a bit more the love God has for us, and His desire that we form a relationship with Him. I think about how I would feel if my son grew up, became a priest and went to Kenya, but we were estranged. He would be doing exactly what I want, living according to the values I'm trying to instill in him, and serving the world in the way I most desire. Yet how can it make me happy for him to do all this and shut me entirely out of his life? I would be proud of him, of course, and very, very happy if he found fulfillment in his vocation. But it would be an empty sort of feeling because I couldn't share in it with him.

God must feel the same way when we put anything else before our relationship with him. Yes, we are called to both love God and serve one another, but first and foremost we must love God. We have to be sure that the rituals and requirements of our faith don't prevent us from doing God's will. That's the point of the parable, where the Levite and priest allowed the strict regulations governing ritual washing to keep them from tending to the man in need. But that doesn't mean we're meant to disregard our obligation to put God first. So yes, if I'm on my way to Mass and see an accident, I should stop and help. And then I should give up my lunch, or my football game, so I can attend a later Mass. If my cathedral, which is the house of God, is in need of repair, then I should forgo buying a new coffee table to help repair it. Then I will have money both for God's house and for the homeless.

The second part of Jesus' commandment resonates with me the most powerfully: love your neighbor as yourself. Every time I think about that, I'm amazed again by the level of love God's asking of us. Not just be nice to people, or refrain from hurting them, but LOVE them. Love them in the same way you love yourself.

I love myself pretty darn much, gotta tell you. I buy myself things for no other reason than just to make me happy. I'm concerned with my health, I surround myself with friends and comfort and beauty. I make sure to give myself as much sleep as I need (though my kids sometimes thwart this effort.) I take myself on vacations to the mountains and drink wine at every opportunity. I foster my relationship with God often throughout the day. This is how much I'm supposed to love others. I'm supposed to be as consumed with their health, comfort, salvation and happiness as I am with my own. That's a really, really big love God asks of us.

Finally, I'm always humbled by the fact that even though the scholar knew the law extremely well (so well as to encapsulate it in one perfect, brief, commandment) he had no idea what the law was really about. Jesus told him all he had to do was to act in accordance with his beliefs "Go and do this and you will live." and immediately he "seeks to justify himself." In other words, to find a loophole or exemption that wouldn't require him to actually change his lifestyle or interactions.

I identify so strongly with him. Aren't I sitting here, asking God for guidance, and then making excuses whenever He prompts me?

God is always calling us to better ourselves, to sacrifice more, pray more, serve more. What are the excuses we're making? I've been meaning for weeks now to make a trip to my local nursing home and see if they need volunteers. And what's been running through my mind? I don't know where a nursing home is (as though I couldn't look in the book and find one.) I don't want to take my 4-year old until he learns how to behave better (as though I couldn't go when he's at Montessori.) I don't want my daughter to catch an illness (as though the elderly have more germs than the kids in the cry room at Mass!) Isn't there always an excuse not to do something? Isn't there always a way we can justify our inaction or our sins?

Nike doesn't have a bad answer to this: Just do it.

3 Things My Parents Did Right

Jen at Et Tu? has posted a blogging challenge that has been inspiring me this past week: to post three things my parents did right in raising me. I had trouble getting started, until I thought about the ways in which they've helped me onto my current path. Suddenly the answers I should write became clear.

1. They taught me to be grateful for fresh, healthy food.
My mom grew up on a farm and my father grew up poor, so between the two of them they have always appreciated wholesome food. We had two different vegetables with every meal and were taught from the start to be thankful for the food on our plates. My mom never bought us junk food. Never. I remember whining in the store for Lucky Charms and going home with Raisin Bran. Dessert was more often than not some bread with honey or a piece of fruit. Now that I'm dedicated to living simply, I find that I have a good background for preparing my family simple, healthy meals from scratch. My recipes for ricotta, mayonnaise, yogurt and applesauce come right from my mother, as does everything I know about gardening. Obviously, I still want wine and salami and creme brulee, but I am nonetheless satisfied with a nutritious, humble meal.

2. They denied me things I wanted but provided everything I needed.
My parents only became wealthy once I graduated high school and my father's business began turning a real profit. While I was growing up, we lived in a modest three-bedroom townhouse near the train tracks in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Chicago area. My parents had chosen it for the schools (education is perhaps THE most important thing to my dad) and I recall how it seemed that every kid in my third grade class had a cornsilk Cabbage Patch kid while I was stuck with Suzy, the yarn-haired Cabbage Patch doll I'd received at Christmas the year before. I simply had to learn to appreciate what I had and stop yearning for new things all the time. It was an important lesson for me to learn at a young age, and I thank them wholeheartedly for instilling it in me.

3. They moved our family to Indonesia.
When my father's pharmaceutical company sent him to Indonesia in 1982, my mother, sister and I went with him. Those two and a half years were instrumental in developing my love for the poor and opening my eyes to the dichotomy between my blessings and their needs. In Indonesia we were part of the expatriate community, so my playmates were mostly British. My sister and I went to an international school, taught in English by white teachers and Indonesian teachers aides. Our mansion had a gated entrance and a pool, a chauffeur, night watchman, maid and cook, all of whom were all Indonesian. And across the street from us was a slum, where people lived in plastic shacks. The entire experience was eye-opening for me: living in a foreign country where I didn't speak the language taught me to respect the difficulties faced by immigrants, seeing the depths of poverty contrasted with comfort and luxury taught me how lucky I am and how little separates us from the fate of the poor, and experiencing the unique aspects of Indonesian culture gave me an appreciation for the many different nations that make up our world. The experience has never left me.

There are, of course, many many other things my parents did right. Even at my most cynical I could probably list a dozen or more. These, though, are the ones I appreciate the most.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Ambition and Kairos

I had an interesting conversation with my mom a few days ago. I sent her this link from Et Tu, Jen?'s Weekly Favorites and while discussing it we broached the subject of feminine ambition.

Though I hadn't really thought too much about it, I immediately said that I wasn't ambitious. I did well in school because I was expected to and because I liked being in the honors classes with my friends. It didn't hurt that I liked to read, so at least English, History, French and Religion were interesting and fairly easy for me. Still, I didn't work as hard as I could have (especially in college) and I performed up to the standards other people set for me rather than aiming for greatness in myself. Once I graduated, I cared only that my job be in the nonprofit sector where I could do some good; I had little interest in climbing the corporate ladder and even within the organizations where I worked, I never sought to gain management or leadership positions.

"I mean really, the only thing I've ever cared about is serving God. "

Immediately my mom replied, "Well, that's more than most people aim for."

I shrugged. "I don't know. Isn't it just the minimum expected of us as Christians?" And we moved on to other things.

But I've thought about the conversation more since then and come to realize that I am highly ambitious. Deeply, thoroughly, loftily ambitious. Serving God is an ambition, perhaps one of the most difficult and exhausting goals that exist in this world. And it's something I've always aspired to, even when I've fallen pathetically short. Which I have. Often.

If my primary ambition then is to serve God, and if I am serving Him in humility and obedience, then why do I allow myself to feel small because I'm not out there doing something for the world? Am I sure that what I want is really what God wants from me?

For years now I've felt that I failed God, that I gave up on my dreams of serving the poor in Africa because of weakness and selfishness. I wanted to get married. And so that's what I did. Had I possessed ambition or strength of will, I would have trusted God and followed Him instead of grabbing at the best man I could find and working on him until he proposed (after I'd booked the hall and Church, btw.)

It's true that I didn't follow my plan to live in Africa and work with the poor. That doesn't mean I'm not serving God. It doesn't mean I've given up on my dreams. The manner in which I serve God may be different than I had originally planned, but I am no less His.

Nor have my ambitions been compromised. I still want nothing less than to dedicate my entire self to Him. Wherever He wants me to go, I'll go. Whatever He wants me to do, I'll do. Even when I don't want to do it. Even when the very thought of it makes me cry.

My husband sent me a beautiful, bittersweet email the other day. He had to sell some stock to cover our debt, and discovered it's twice the amount we'd feared it was. He proposed setting up a separate account into which we could dump any money we saved by spending less on groceries, giving up eating out, canceling our cable, etc., etc. until we'd paid off the debt. At that point, he pledged, he'd be much more open to giving to charity.

Part of me rejoiced. A plan! Wonderful! A committment to really saving money! Tremendous! A promise to be charitable! Praise God!

Then I did some calculations. Years. That's what we're talking here. YEARS of limiting our grocery bills, living without new clothes or furniture, scrimping as much as possible in hopes of paying down this debt. The scrimping I can handle. We've always lived simply. But years to go before I can give anything to help the hungry? I was thinking a year at the most, just to get us back on our feet from the move and give my husband some time to reflect on the many blessings we have to share with others. When I decided to stop pressuring my husband to give to charity and instead focus all my efforts on paying down our debt, I certainly wasn't thinking years...

What annoys me so much is that we haven't accumulated this debt with any sort of excessive living. This is the result of adhering to our values. Had my husband taken a job with a big defense firm in Chicago when he graduated law school, he would have made four times the salary he got at the small, consumer rights firm at which he did take a position. Even his salary now is half what it would be if he practiced corporate law instead of consumer law. Part of me is wondering what God's up to. We're in this debt because we were trying to do the right thing, and because of this debt we can't give any money to charity and we can't adopt a child from Kazakhstan and we can't afford wine which God quite CLEARLY wants us to consume great quantities of. (Wedding Feast at Cana anyone? Last Supper? Drinking wine is practically a commandment!)

It took me a while to calm my soul and see that I'm trying to over-control things again. There are things I desperately want to do, like adopt a child and send money to Africa. I want to do these things NOW. But God is saying no. I don't know why. I don't know if it's temporary, or if it's something I'm never meant to have and never meant to do. Only God knows that.

My response now must be to wait on Kairos -- His time. If God wills that I go to Africa someday (and I pray He does) then it will happen when HE wants it to, in the appointed time that He decides. If it is God's will that we expand our family through adoption, then that, too, will happen when the time is right. If it is God's will that we give generously to those in need, then I must wait for the opportunity He will provide.

I've been angry that the things I'm reaching for remain so firmly out of my reach. I try a ladder and it's knocked away from me. I ask for help and am met with indifference. But all my stretching won't get me somewhere God doesn't want me to be. When things don't come together despite my best attempts, I need to stop, back away, and turn to God.

I'm listening, Lord. Show me what You want me to do.

Picture credit.

Friday, September 21, 2007

My All for You, My God

In some ways, this money saving experiment is bringing me closer to my husband. When we first got married, we'd do everything together, including grocery shopping. Come Saturday, there we'd be at our local Safeway, me with the cart and him with the calculator.

Yes, you read that right. My penny-pincher brought a calculator with him every shopping trip so we could tally up our purchases and know before we got to the checkout line exactly how much we'd be spending.

I didn't get it. Not at all. My mother never did that. Even when my parents had two mortgages, a struggling business and a daughter in private high school, my mom still went to the most expensive grocery store and put whatever she wanted in her cart: papayas, red leaf lettuce, wild-caught salmon, imported Genoan salami. In fact, the grocery store she shopped at was so snooty they carried the bags out to your car for you.

When I was in college, I realized how naive I was in the ideas of price comparing or choosing an item that's on sale. My roommate and I took a trip to Meijers, where she happily put a generic brand of shampoo in her cart. "I love it when they have these," she smiled. I looked at her in utter confusion and she explained, "They take the formula of the name brand stuff and bottle it themselves to save you money."

I remember looking at her cart, then at the shelf, and reaching for the Pantene. She got annoyed with me. "Tienne, it's the SAME thing." I shook my head. "I don't want to risk it. I'll pay more for the real stuff."

So you can imagine that walking around the store with my calculator-toting husband was an alien experience for me. He taught me how to read the labels on the shelf. That "price per unit" thing? Wow! You can really tell which item is the cheapest. I'd never even looked at it before. If I needed canned tomatoes, I went and bought the Del Monte brand. Contadina might have been cheaper, but who cared?

My husband. And now that I've made the committment to keep our weekly food bill under $100, I care, too. It's been so much harder than I thought it would. Turns out that $106 bill I was getting didn't include running out for bananas, jam and milk midweek, or eating out at CiCi's Pizza with the kids, or deciding I wanted a bottle of wine for our dinner guests. I now carry a calculator with me to the grocery store and I am fastidious about recording every item that goes into my cart.

Some things I've discovered (which will no doubt be obvious to anyone who's ever been on a budget): Name brand stuff is ridiculously overpriced. I try to buy the store brand every time. I'm not letting go of my preference for organic, though. Luckily, my store has lots of organic items, including among their own line. I think I'd be able to buy alcohol if I didn't buy organic. The difference is amazing. Organic cheddar is $6.99. The Kraft brand is $2.39. Vegetables are the same way, often twice as much for the organic as for the conventional. But I know too much about our agricultural industry to be swayed by the price. When it's available, I always pick organic. I just have to save money elsewhere.

Meat is more expensive than beans.
This is a big no-brainer, of course, but it really hammers home to me how much money we save by eating mostly vegetarian. This week I bought a family pack of 8 chicken thighs (cheaper than the breasts) for $7.41. That'll give us two meat-meals. An equivalent poundage of lentils would cost me $3.38, and let me tell you, 3 lbs of lentils would last for 8, maybe 9 meals. There's no way I could do this if we ate meat at every meal, as when we were first married.

Substitutions are your friend. I haven't had the money to buy chili powder for weeks now. I don't know when it's ever going to happen; a jar costs $6 and there's very little wiggle room in my weekly budget. So whenever a recipe calls for chili powder, I substitute a roasted, canned chipotle pepper. A can of chipotles in adobo sauce costs $.59 at the Albertsons and contains around 9 chipotles. One is more than enough to add flavor and spice to any Mexican dish I'm cooking, and they last forever in the freezer. Cheese is another expense where I've discovered ways to cut back. Ricotta is $7, but an equivalent amount of low fat cottage cheese is only $2.69. I'm sticking it into a veggie lasagna anyway, so it doesn't matter.

Make it at home whenever you can. The list of things I no longer buy at the store is growing each week, mainly because I don't have money to spend on prepared food and thus must prepare it myself. I make my own yogurt, mayonnaise, salsa, chocolate sauce, peanut butter, applesauce and breadcrumbs (you knew there was a use for the ends of bread loaves, right?) Really, I should make my own bread, but I have issues with yeast. For whatever reason, I can't seem to buy any that's still active, whether I try the refrigerated glass jar or the little packets.

Anyway, it's hard, but I'm learning a lot and doing well so far.

I'm not doing as well with my attitude. Simply put, I resent this. I want to buy wine. Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling. Sonoma Valley Chardonnay. Bella Rossi Chianti. I miss my wine. I want to buy goat cheese and fresh herbs and sun dried tomatoes packed in flavored olive oil. I miss the fun sides I used to put out with all my meals. If I made a lasagna, I'd have garlic bread and salad, too, and the salad would have two different kinds of lettuce and roasted pine nuts and golden raisins tossed in with it. Now we just have the lasagna.

I miss going through my cookbooks and being inspired by a picture and saying, "Oooh. I want to try that," then going to the store and getting everything it calls for. I miss having chips and dip to snack on during the week. I miss having whipped cream and pecans on hand to jazz up my desserts.

Nothing has changed between now and three weeks ago except that now these sufferings are designed to pay down our debt. Am I really so petty? When I choose a sacrifice, I do it with joy, but when it's imposed upon me I am resentful, complaining, sulky and depressed. Perhaps more than anything, God wants me to learn how to do joyfully what He wants. Perhaps this is so hard for me not because I'm giving up alcohol, but because I'm giving up control.

Well, sacrifice is not meant to be easy. What is it to say "Okay, God, my husband's out of town this weekend and I've got both these kids to myself, so tonight I'm going out for pizza. I'm going to eat this pizza for you, God, to glorify and praise you." If only God wanted us to eat pizza for Him! Darnit. I could do that easily.

Real sacrifice, true sacrifice, ought to be painful. If it's not difficult, we're not doing it right.

So I can take heart at least that I'm on the right path now. Because this is difficult. And painful. The reward in it isn't so much happiness and fulfillment as much as it's the satisfaction of knowing that I am obedient to God's will. It doesn't feel good, but I know it is good.

Still, I'm annoyed every time I have to deny myself something I want.

Less self. More God. That's what I need.

Picture credit.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

I want to thank everyone for their insightful and supportive comments, especially for the recommendations to read up on St. Frances of Rome (could there be a more perfect patron saint for my situation!) and to wait for God's time in finding a solution to my problem.

For a while now I've been praying that God will guide me, and He has. Through Scripture, through the words of the priest at daily Mass, through conversations with people, the insights on my friends' blogs and the inspiration of the Saints, He's spoken to me.

My son's Godparents, both good Catholics and close friends of mine, gave me The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of the Little Flower, which I've been reading off and on. (It's one of the books by my nursing chair, so it entirely depends how cooperative my youngest decides to be as to whether or not I get to read any of it each day.) So many things have struck me in her story, but foremost above all is the simple, faithful, all-encompassing love she had for God, even as a very young child. She wanted nothing so much as to love Him and serve Him. Loving Him and serving Him brought her joy.

That's how I feel about the poor. I have an inherent love for them within me that's been there since I was a child. I don't try to help the poor because I believe that it's good and right to do so (though it is,) or because God instructs us to care for those in need (though He does.) I do it because my love for the poor rises up and shakes me into action. I recognize this now as a gift. God wants me to serve the poor, of that I'm certain. He would not have put this drive in me for no purpose.

But the key is that I serve Him in the way HE wants, not the way I want. Some of you have touched on this in your comments to me, and I've really taken them to heart. I think it's telling that my gut reaction to Jen's idea of fundraising was "God no, NO! Anything but that." and to Anna's suggestion to step back was "But then my husband WINS."

This isn't the reaction of someone who's seeking to serve God and follow His will. It's the reaction of a hyper-controlling, uptight, Type-A personality. My way obviously isn't working right now, so I need to find a new way. God's way.

I read once that the Mongols (or perhaps the Huns?) were so successful in battle because they were taught to fight like water, finding cracks in the defense and working their way through bit by bit until they overcame. This image has been churning around in my head the past week or so. I feel like my desire to help the poor is the current of a river -- it's flowing intensely within me right now, urging me on. And I keep running up against the dam of my marriage. It's making me frustrated and swelling my resentment of my husband. The force of my drive to help is causing me harm.

And God is gently trying to redirect this river, opening up channels to provide relief and continue the flow of water to where it's needed. Am I really going to keep butting up against the dam when other avenues exist?

I've talked again with my husband about our money situation. We had the exact same circular argument we always have, just with different words. For him, it all comes down to our debt. For me, it all comes down to our choices. We can't work together unless we're on the same page, and he's made it quite clear that he can't change to meet me.

So I must take on his focus as my own.

I can commit myself to doing everything in my power to pay down our debt. I can forgo all things for myself, including pizza (woe!) and gifts. I can do my best to save money wherever and whenever I can, including on our grocery bills and clothes for the kids. After all, I'm doing all that stuff anyway. But instead of fighting my husband to send the money we "save" to the poor, I can turn it over to him for our debt.

In some ways, this is all semantics because I don't really have a choice as to what I do. I have to save money. I can't give money to the poor. So it seems almost self-delusional to now claim that I'm doing these things for God. But a true Christian spirit is to take the things God gives us and turn them back over to Him, to accept with love and grace the burdens He places on us and to carry them cheerfully for Him. I cannot change my situation, so I will instead change my attitude. What a beautiful gift for God -- my heart and will instead of my money!

The hardest part, and I still don't know how I'm going to handle this, is what I do when my husband makes a decision I completely disagree with. These don't come very often, thankfully. I'm blessed that my husband is even more frugal than I am and would never just go out and buy $20,000 of home entertainment equipment on a whim (yes, I do know someone who has done this.) But I can't force this commitment on him. If he wants to spend five hundred dollars traveling to our alma mater for a football game, my sacrifice is to say nothing to him about it and go on quietly working to save money on my own.

I feel this is where I'm really going to have problems. I'm not very good at letting things go. Or with trusting God. Or with patiently waiting. And the underlying marital disconnect is still there. I just need to find a way that it doesn't affect me as much. I think making this sacrifice will help. I'm doing it partly for my husband -- this debt is obviously very important to him. I'm doing it partly for the poor, in the hopes that once the debt is gone we can move towards a lifestyle that incorporates giving generously to charity. But I'm mostly doing it for God, in obedience to the path He's setting out for me.

It's here that I'm so inspired by the example of St. Frances of Rome. What she wanted most in life was to be a nun, yet she spent all but 4 years of her life carrying out the domestic tasks required of a noblewoman's wife. Through it all she found ways to serve God, often doing things she hated, like attending a party with her mother in law. Like it or not, this is my path. I can choose to go where God directs me, or stagnate and grow angry forcing my own way. I choose God's path.

I have a new mantra, in addition to the one I say to help me be a better mother ("Mary, my model, be with me and guide me.") It is "My all for you, my God." I hope the frequent repetition of it helps remind me that everything I'm doing is for Him and worthy of being done with joy.

Picture Credit

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

An Embarassment of Riches

It's hard to say where I am...well, where we are in terms of unity in our marriage. I'm struggling to discern God's design for me. On the one hand, I feel so strongly called to take care of the poor, but on the other, I've already made a commitment to take care of my marriage. I can't help one at the expense of the other.

Last week I ran an experiment. My husband and I had both watched the 60 Minutes documentary on Darfur, and we discovered that we fundamentally disagreed as to whether there was money in our budget for a donation. Rather than argue about whether we could afford it, I asked him what we could sacrifice. After some thought, he replied that he didn't want to make any sacrifices right now.

"You're kidding, right?"

"I know my limitations," he replied.

I was at a loss. We've had this discussion so many times and never get anywhere with it. So I simply said, "I'll find the money." And we went to bed. As I lay there praying and thinking, wondering how I could find an extra $100 without having the family sacrifice anything, it occurred to me that I spend $106 every week on groceries. (I don't really know how that number comes about; it just happens to be the total every time the cashier rings me up.)

I wondered...could I go a whole week without grocery shopping? What did we have? There was ground beef in the freezer, a cornish hen from when I bought three and only two would fit in the crock pot at a time, some homemade chicken soup I'd frozen months ago, a head of broccoli, some green beans, 1/2 an eggplant, a red pepper or two, a bag of carrots, a couple onions, 6 eggs and plenty of rice, beans, condiments, pasta and spices. Would it last a week?

I realized right away I'd have to buy something. Every morning my husband has a bowl of cereal with banana, and every afternoon he has an apple with peanut butter. I'd have to buy milk, apples and peanut butter or he would definitely feel that he was sacrificing. And the point was to do something for Darfur without affecting my family. Ideally, I would come to him after a week and say, "I didn't grocery shop this week. We did okay, didn't we? How about we give the money we saved to Darfur?"

I don't know whether to characterize it as hard or not. It was different. Almost immediately, I started to run out of things. Chili powder. Butter. Flour. Onions. Sugar. Eggs. Tomatoes. We'd invited guests for dinner on Friday night, so I had to entertain in the middle of this whole experiment. Overall, it was a success -- we ate a balanced, healthy, satisfying meal every night and I provided my husband with lunch to take to work every day. We were never hungry. It wasn't until Monday when he ran out of cereal that I brought him in on the whole idea, and he agreed to eat oatmeal for three days until I next went to the store.

I did things I'd never done before, like grate up a broccoli stalk and add it to chicken broth for our lunch. Normally I just throw the stalks out. Instead of cheese and crackers for a midafternoon snack, I popped some corn kernels. I substituted for lots of things I didn't have and tried new recipes when my usual ones wouldn't work. The thing that struck me the most was how much of my time I spent worrying about food, and how diligent I was at conserving it. I sat down at the start of the week and took stock of everything we had to plan out the menu. It didn't allow for any deviation. Monday's meal was crock pot beef bourguignon with a handful of green beans and the remaining 1/2 bag of egg noodles. So I couldn't touch any of that until Monday, even though Sunday's dinner could have used it.

And in so many ways, God provided. I'd planned to attend a prayer rally at my church on Saturday night. They advertised a "light supper" in between the 5:30 Mass and the speaker, so I planned it into our week. No cooking Saturday night. We'd just make do with whatever they served. Hot dogs? Pasta salad? Cheese and fruit? I hoped it'd be enough to satisfy our family and count as a meal. To my astonished delight, the Indonesian community at our parish prepared a feast for us. We had skewered chicken with peanut satay sauce, beef and vegetable crepes, rice with sweet soy sauce, salad, meatball soup, and cupcakes for desert. Not just enough food...bountiful, delicious, remarkable food. I was so grateful to God I nearly cried.

We only made it through the week, of course, because we had so much food already in the house. I think more than anything, it turned out to be a statement about how blessed we are. Even when my fridge is empty, my cupboards are still full. If we had to, we could have gone on longer, but at that point we would definitely have been compromising the nutritional content of our dinners.

Yet the success of the week wasn't the whole point of the experiment. Overarching the entire thing was my hope that it would set up another dialogue with my husband about giving to charity and where that fits into our lives. On that front, the week was less than successful.

When we talked about it, my husband agreed we could give $100 to Darfur. I'm grateful for that, and encouraged by it. But I don't know where we go from here. It's not like any time I want to give to charity I can just stop grocery shopping for a week. Besides the fact that it requires considerable reserves (and the intervention of my parish's Indonesian community) my husband doesn't consider it "saved money." To him, there is no difference between spending $50 on a skirt and spending $40 on a skirt then giving $10 to charity. We're out $50. I can't argue with his math, obviously, because that's fact. But to me, if our budget allows $50 for clothing, then buying something on sale should allow us to spend the extra on something else. Charity, for instance.

Without taking paragraphs and paragraphs to detail our fruitless, circular discussions, I'll just say that my husband feels the only things we should be spending money on right now are necessary items. However, he and I disagree on what constitutes a necessary item. In the interest of unity, and for the sake of my marriage, I want to resolve this in a way that makes both of us happy. I know we are a partnership, and therefore I can't force him to do something he doesn't want to do, but is it right for him to prevent me from the exercise of my faith?

Because that's what this is. God calls all of us to care for the poor. Stewardship is as much a requirement of my faith as Mass attendance and adherence to the doctrines of the Church. I don't know what the middle ground may be, but I know in my heart that it's not right for me to simply give up. I'm praying about this, asking God to help me discern what is pride and what is truth, for Mary and St. Elizabeth of Hungary to intercede for me, for Christ (who showed unflagging love and consideration for the poor while he was on Earth) to show me His way, and for the Holy Spirit to guide my words. I trust that God will find a way and give me the strength to follow it.