ISSUES OF FAITH: Giving it up for Christmas

IT’S THAT TIME of year again, when we start thinking of Christmas pudding, carols and all that good stuff. Of course, from the standpoint of the Christian year, we’ve just gotten going.

Last Sunday was the First Sunday of Advent, the very beginning of the church year, the first of four Sundays of Advent, when we await the coming Jesus and sometimes wail a bit, if not whine, about jumping the gun.

I am usually solidly with the “it’s a blue season” crowd and admit to a bit of a long suffering tone about just when Christmas decorations ought to go up.

But this year, maybe because the cold and the dark have come earlier than usual and might be more severe than usual Pacific Northwest winters, I got to thinking about giving a bit earlier than I might otherwise.

I don’t mean just the usual Christmas hustle and bustle with its frantic shopping schedule and baking and worry about who got what gifts last year, but instead of a wider issue, one forced on us by the current state of our federal disarray in the Legislature (caused by both houses and both parties simultaneously).

As Roll Call, a news source that focuses on Congressional coverage, pointed out, “Congress passed a continuing resolution funding government through early 2024. The Senate Nov. 15 voted 87-11 to pass a continuing resolution (H.R. 6363) funding the federal government through early 2024, avoiding a government shutdown when the current CR expires …”

While a bipartisan effort has staved off the wolves for the moment, and while folks will get their monthly Social Security checks, Medicare and Medicaid payments and government pay for federal government employees, said wolves are right behind all of us but the very rich.

Those who face additional challenges this year are no doubt worrying about falling behind and those wolves eating them. As well they should. The old belief that society should take care of all of its own is itself collapsing under current economic and political conditions. And while we have collectively held back the wolves through the New Year in this country, it’s time to think about those with fewer resources in these bleak times.

And so I want us to think through what was a belief widely held by those who gave money to those on the streets, myself then included: that it was the responsibility of the gift-giver to worry about how those funds were being used, that, if we weren’t careful, “they’ll just use it to buy drugs, they won’t use it to buy food and clothing” and that we should make sure that “they” should make good use of what too often was considered “our” hard-earned money.

Thus, we were told and told each other, to buy cash cards or fast food and never, ever give plain old cash. That is still good advice, if we always have those cards right to hand at all times.

There is, however, another side to it; as Gray Group International noted, “while it is important to provide financial support to those living in poverty, simply giving money to the poor is not a sustainable or comprehensive solution to the issue of poverty. In order to truly address and eliminate poverty, it is necessary to address the underlying causes and systems that contribute to poverty, such as lack of access to education, healthcare and job opportunities.”

True and inarguable. But that is a process that requires access in ways that folks on the street, these cold streets, may not have. If temperatures are going to drop below zero, and when human life and health itself are at risk, do we have the time or even the right to say “sorry, I’m not sure how you might use the hotel room if I pay for it”?

Last week, my husband and I were in Lafayette, La.— a lot warmer than here and so an attractive destination for those without adequate housing — and saw a woman with her child sitting in our hotel lobby for hours and hours. We offered to pay for a room, but another good soul took care of it before we made our offer. Well, that’s one night. To take care of more than one night, to solve the problem long term, is a long-term effort that requires systemic and systematic changes to the way we all live as a whole.

And it is also very easy to screw this up, especially when faced with a situation on the streets. I was walking on First Street in Port Angeles on a cold November day, far colder than it should have been. And a young man passing me by said, “Hey, aren’t you some kind of priest or something?”

I launched into my standard “no, I’m a deacon” speech and said “my ministry focuses on the poor and the sick and the marginalized.”

True enough, and he reasonably asked for some help. I didn’t think. Worse, I didn’t take the time to think. What I did was say “oh, I’m sorry, I don’t have cash on me right now.”

He was wearing a shirt, no jacket. And what I should have done, on the spot, was to ask him if he wanted my jacket, one lined with a fur-like substance and sporting a hood, or walked him down to Swain’s and bought him something to wear. (I did call some of my contacts in service agencies, but at that moment, immediate action was needed, not a phone full of numbers.)

But I failed him. God forgive me, I could at least have walked him to a nearby coffee shop and let him get warm and get some food.

And then I went home and read the lesson for the week, where Jesus says “whatever you did to the least of these you did to me,” and, worse, “whatever you did not do to the least of me, you did not do to me.”

God sometimes has to smack us alongside the head. Of course that was the reading for the week in which I failed another human being.

It’s hard to do, especially when we are worried that our precious funds may be misused. But if we properly understand addiction and lack of housing as what it is — an illness caused, in part, by lack of access to medical care and mental health treatment, but also economic difficulty — then maybe Christ’s call for basic human dignity to all allows the possibility that funds may not be used as we would wish.

We need to take that chance. And we absolutely need to work hard for the Kingdom to come in which there will be no tears.

________

Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Dr. Keith Dorwick is a deacon resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.

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