Monday, July 10, 2006

July, 2006: Liam is Catholic

Liam, our seven-year-old, is all about being Catholic. Having recently received his First Communion, he is coming off a school year where discussion of the sacraments and Catholicism were front and center most of the time.
            Interestingly, Liam often uses “Catholic” the way many people use the word “Christian,” as a way to describe a person acting in a compassionate way. The first time I noticed it was a couple of weeks ago, when he and I were walking to his little league game. About a half block from the field, we encountered a little girl who was crying because she couldn’t find her mom. I asked the girl a few questions and then helped her locate her mother, who had just run to the car to grab her sunglasses. When we were out of earshot of the little girl, Liam turned to me.
            “Wow, Mom, that was really Catholic of you,” he said. “That girl stopped crying when she saw her mom. You helped her to stop crying.”
            I thanked Liam, and wondered if I should address the fact that what I did really wasn’t specifically Catholic, or even Christian. It was just the right thing to do — the thing that almost any adult, regardless of their faith, or lack of faith, would do in a similar circumstance.
            But I didn’t say anything. While helping the girl wasn’t specifically a Catholic action, it was in its own small way, in keeping with Catholic values. I decided I had plenty of opportunity to correct Liam for the many other things he says that really are wrong (most to his little sister or older brother) and I should to let this one go.
            But in the next few weeks, I noticed “Catholic: The Adjective” cropping up quite a bit in Liam’s day-to-day speech.
            “Jamie, thanks for sharing your chips with me. That’s very Catholic of you.”
            “That cartoon has people fighting. It doesn’t seem very Catholic.”
            “Mrs. Doerr smiles all the time. She is really Catholic.”
            Every time I hear Liam saying something like this, it’s jarring. On one hand, I feel that Liam is exactly right. TV shows with violence aren’t in keeping with Catholic values, but sharing and smiling are. If Liam could grow up associating being a Catholic with how people should be acting in their day-to-day life, Catholicism will have done its job. Without understanding what he’s saying, Liam is right to assert that to be Catholic should be synonymous with being very good. Being a good Catholic so much bigger than just noting the rules that make Catholicism different than other Christian religions. Too often, when I hear someone described as “very Catholic” or “a good Catholic” it relates to only one thing— the many children in the family. If we truly look at the teachings of the Catholic church, however — teachings on poverty and social justice along with Humane Vitae — we find that being “very Catholic” can look a lot of different ways, but all of them will somehow involve reaching out to others.
            The thing I don’t want for Liam, though, is for him to grow up thinking that Catholics have cornered the market on the truth. While right now, due to his Catholic school and Catholic extended family, he has very limited experience with non-Catholics, we are working on broadening his horizons. I went to a funeral of a friend’s grandmother a few days ago, and left the order of worship on the table.
            “Christ Episcopal Church,” he read, sounding out Episcopal syllable by syllable. He paused. “Do people who are Episcopal believe in God?”
            I laughed, thinking of the service, where the only thing different than the Catholic Mass seemed to be that we knelt to receive Communion. It was a good opportunity to teach Liam about the many Christian faiths. This led to a discussion about the many Orthodox Jews in our neighborhood and how, while they do not believe Jesus is the messiah, they and we share the same belief in God.
            That night, when I was tucking Liam in bed, we said prayers together. He had a long list — the school secretary who has cancer, his great uncles, his previous foster sister, and Bill, who was finishing his eighth grade report cards that night. After Liam finished and I kissed him goodnight, he smiled at me in the darkness.
            “I love being Catholic,” he said. “Everything about it is right. Not that the other religions are wrong. But I love being Catholic.”
            I closed the door, feeling that Liam put into words my own belief about Catholicism. There’s a piece of the truth here. And saying there is truth here does not diminish the truth that can be found in other religions. But this is what I have. And like, Liam, this is what I love. 


Saturday, July 8, 2006

July, 2006 Am I blessed?

I love each of my children so much that the thought of losing any one of them can bring on a physical reaction.  Last night, a story of a little boy dying in a car accident made the news, and my mind, just for a moment, allowed that child to become my child.  Just for a moment, it was Jacob who died in that car accident.  The thought was so terrible that my breathing started coming in gulps, and I began to gag. I tried to pull away from the words and images, but my mind paid no heed. It went to that “what if” place that, on most days, I am able to avoid visiting. As I tried to screech my thoughts to a halt, my brain played out the scene, and I was dragged along, a reluctant viewer.
            Our children have had a very healthy time of it so far. In my eleven years of parenting, I’ve picked up prescription medicine for one of the kids a total of just three times. They’ve missed maybe ten days of school, combined, since our oldest, Jacob, started pre-school, eight years ago. We’ve had two broken bones so far, and three stitches. I don’t know if it’s because they’re coordinated or aren’t big risk-takers, but I doubt that we’ve gone through more than a couple boxes of Band-Aids in the past decade, not counting the ones Jamie wears just because she likes the way they look on her fingers. We are blessed with health, I would say, if the word “blessed” didn’t stick in my throat.
            I don’t know why my children are so healthy. While I can feel blessed, I’m hesitant to say we’re blessed, because it seems to imply that a parent with a seriously ill child isn’t so blessed. If God is giving my children their health, what does that say about all the other children who have chronic diseases or get injured — or killed — in accidents?
            God created a physical world for us, with physical limitations. Bones can break, organs can fail, cancer cells can divide. Hearts can stop. And while miracles do happen, it seems that more often, the course of an illness or injury is subject to the laws of nature and the limitations of medical science.
            My own faith hovers in that middle ground between nature’s roll of the dice and “everything happens for a reason.” The reason so many children are starving, after all, has nothing to do with God’s will for them and everything to do with an unequal distribution of wealth in the world.
            Perhaps good health itself is not the blessing. Perhaps the blessing of good health is that it affords us the time and energy to reach out to others.
            A good friend has a daughter with Type 1 diabetes. My friend has to spend hours each week managing her daughter’s care. She often gets up in the middle of the night to check her daughter’s sugar levels. She gives her daughter insulin injections at least four times a day. She is constantly aware of exactly when her daughter needs to eat and exercise, so her sugar levels don’t spike too high or dip too low.
            None of my children are diabetic, and because of this, I have many hours each week “free” that my friend does not have. It is not enough simply be thankful for my healthy kids and move on. It’s not enough to label them blessed.
If, as Jesus told the parents of the blind man, their son’s blindness was not God’s punishment for his sins or their sins, but rather a way to display the work of God in his life, so too, must parents of healthy children realize their children’s health is a way to display the work of God. With less to worry about in our own families, we are called to take that saved time and energy to concern ourselves with those who need us.
Statistics show that the lower an income a family has, the bigger percentage of that income they typically give to charity. So while the very wealthy often give the biggest donations in terms of actual amounts of money, it is the middle class and the poor who give the larger slice of their own family dollars.
I have seen the same to often be true in terms of families struggling with an illness. My friend with the diabetic daughter, for example, will be the first to make a casserole or pot of soup for a household with a new baby or a sick family member.
It is often the doing without — whether it’s money or health — that helps us look with empathy toward others also doing without.
So maybe it is when our own road is easiest— when it’s difficult to imagine the hardships that some families must go through— that we most need prayer. During these smooth-sailing times, maybe we need to go to God, not to simply give thanks for our blessings, but to ask, “What now? What would you like me to do?”

The answer we receive will be the real blessing.