When I was a teenager and even more obnoxious than I am now, if you can believe that, I was obsessed with the poor. Actually, that might be too generous. I was obsessed with what everyone else was doing to help the poor.
I was born with a violently strong sense of justice1 and raised without much money. Even though we didn’t have much when I was very little, I have distinct memories from childhood of giving to the poor and even volunteering as a family to feed the poor. So I suppose it’s no wonder that with the advent of a more significant allowance came a sense of obligation to help those in need. Which would have been a good thing had I not felt the need to beat people over the head with it.
I distinctly remember sitting in my car after youth group one night sobbing because the people–even the adults–didn’t understand that they had to help the poor. I had even broken it down for them, making it as simple as I could: “If you have two blenders, you should give one away. Nobody needs two blenders.” No, they said, yours might break, and then you’ll need the other one. “Then you can buy another one! Why would you hoard extra things on the off chance that you’ll need them in the future??” But they didn’t care. All I was trying to say was that that they ought to give some of their excess away. But they couldn’t hear it.
In college, I got more extreme. I wouldn’t pay more than $20 for anything but a plane ticket and I judged those who did.2 I didn’t chill out until my wise roommate pointed out to me, “Meg, someone has to minister to the country club.” Oh, I thought, well if it’s wealth for the sake of ministry, I guess that’s okay. But I still brought up the plight of the poor with regularity. After all, as St. Ambrose says, “The rich man who gives to the poor does not bestow alms but pays a debt.” Giving to the poor, he says, is not optional.
But despite my absolute conviction that all Christians have an obligation to serve the poor, I can’t remember the last time I was in a soup kitchen. Or a food pantry. Or a homeless shelter. Or really any place devoted to serving the poor.
I realized my first year of teaching that for all I was telling people to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, I wasn’t doing a lick of it myself. So I resolved to get more involved, do more, be more available to serve the poor.
You read that right: I decided during my first year of teaching that I wasn’t doing enough for Christ and his people. Somehow, I thought that 14 hours of ministry a day wasn’t enough. I decided that my weekends shouldn’t be spent recharging3 but doing more.
Praise the Lord, he stepped in and stopped me before I drove myself to a nervous breakdown. And I had to realize, in all humility, that I can’t do it all. I can’t sing in the choir and lector and be an EM–I have to choose.4 I couldn’t be a first-year teacher and spend my weekends at the soup kitchen. At a certain point, I had to recognize where my gifts lay and where God was calling me and let the rest go.
There will always be more good work to be done for the Kingdom, but you don’t have to do it all. What you have to do is the work that the Lord has put before you today. And the beauty of the Body of Christ is that when you put us all together, we do all the work that must be done. Some of us feed the poor directly, others by tithing. Some of us catechize directly, others through the witness of our lives. Some of us are missionaries, others pray for missionaries, take missionaries into their homes, comment on missionaries’ blogs.5
The gift of this messy, beautiful, holy, fallen Church we’re in is that we don’t all have to be elbows or noses or pinky toes.6 At this point in my life, the Lord has called me to evangelize day in and day out. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for slinging hash. But I can’t be holier than the Lord has called me to be–if he wants me on the front lines for faith and working the supply chain for works, I can do that. Insisting on being in the trenches for every cause that matters is just pride–and stupidity.
One of the great temptations when you start getting serious about following the Lord is comparison. You start looking at how people around you are serving Christ and you take your eyes off him. But God doesn’t want cookie-cutter Christians! He wants you to be you and to do the particular work he’s given you. And when we look at all the work we’re not doing or the prayers we’re not praying or the books we’re not reading, it’s easy either to get discouraged or burnt-out. If you’re anything like me, the result of comparing yourself to holy people–not prayerfully emulating Saints but analyzing their resumes–is sin.
There is great humility in saying, “I love the poor but God hasn’t called me to that ministry.” You’re acknowledging your limitations and avoiding the Messiah complex that I’m so prone to. If it’s honest, if it’s truly a result of prayer and prudence, if you’re giving of yourself through some other work or ministry or relationship, it’s a blessing to be able to say no.
My friends, the freedom of being saved by grace is that we don’t have to do everything. We have to do something, certainly (faith and works), but we don’t have to do anything but the work that the Lord has set before us. So stop letting the image of other people’s holiness stress you out. Just because she has 10 kids doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom because you’re struggling with 3. Just because he reads the Bible every day doesn’t mean that has to be your devotion. If you’ve got your hands full with prison ministry, you don’t have to volunteer with the youth group, too.
Now, if our Church weren’t serving the poor, we wouldn’t be the Church of Christ. And if the way you live isn’t informed by the plight of the poor, if you’re not conscious of fair wages and living simply and giving to the poor, then you’re ignoring the Gospel. But each of us is called to serve the poor–and the doubtful and the lonely and the imprisoned and the ill and the sinner–in our own particular way. Sometimes being at peace with that limitation is harder than any mission trip or morning at the shelter.
I’m still kind of obsessed with the poor–Jesus told us we had to be. But I’m not so judgmental any more, and I don’t feel so guilty that my work isn’t directly focused on the poor. Because holiness isn’t about doing everything. It’s about doing what you’re called to do.
So what about you? What are you called to do? And what other ministry do you have to sacrifice to do it?
While you’re wandering the internet wasting time, why don’t you head over to see Bonnie and vote on your favorite Catholic blogs for the Sheenazing Blogger Awards?7 See, I got nominated–twice! Coolest blogger8 and most inspiring, can you believe it? I’m kind of floored. But anyway, you can go vote for me (or somebody else) if you want to and then whoever wins gets to put a cool meme of Fulton Sheen on his or her blog. At least go scroll through the ballot and find some awesome new blogs to read. Because you didn’t have enough going on.
And make sure to check out Bonnie’s miracle baby while you’re there. Stillborn, with no pulse or respirations for 61 minutes, he came back to life and is a normal, healthy little boy today. Incredible!
- Particularly as it relates to how other people treat me, but that’s a matter for another post. [↩]
- Ironically, I was shelling out a gazillion dollars a year on my education…. [↩]
- Or, more likely, grading. [↩]
- Or have the choir chosen for me, as often happens. Once, I was passing through a town on Good Friday and stopped in at a church for the liturgy. I literally stashed my suitcase under a pew, I was so transient there. Within 5 minutes, I was standing at the front of the church in a choir robe. Another time, I went to a church I’d only been to once or twice before. I started Mass in the pew. By the offertory, I was cantoring. How do these things happen to a person??? [↩]
- Thanks for all the blog love, by the way. I pray for y’all daily! [↩]
- You caught the reference, right? 1 Corinthians 12? [↩]
- It’s Sheen–Fulton, not Charlie–plus amazing. Get it? It took me four or five times, too. Don’t be ashamed. [↩]
- These people have clearly never met me. [↩]