The generosity of the church was complemented by the generosity of the community.  School personnel made sure my children had supplies.  And in a twist I never thought would be part of my life experience, instead of taking stars off the Christmas tree to buy gifts for a family in need, our family became part of the stars. 

Please understand that I'm not telling this story for pity.  I'm telling this story because it represents a triumph - the sort of small triumph that occurs in communities across the country every day.  The triumph when in the midst of whatever suffering we have, the hearts of friends, neighbors - and even strangers - are moved to do what they can to meet the need in a completely spontaneous, autonomous, and authentic way.

Even though our trials are not over yet, I'm grateful for this chapter of my life.  In fact this year has given me more to be grateful for than the 20 years of prosperity our family enjoyed - the years when we could afford to give, never thinking we would someday need to receive.

The confluence of the personal and the political in the past year has given me an understanding of why the government cannot - and should not claim to be able to - replace the role God has given us as Christians, where we are defined not by the worship we share on Sunday or the Bible we read each day, but our awareness of and caring for others.  And it has affirmed for me that charity is a personal responsibility, not one any politician could or should use to shame us into adopting a pet program funded through force.

The fact is that Jesus calls us to a life of compassion and charity in a real and concrete way.  Our faith is rich in this kind of imagery:  Mary breaking her alabaster jar to anoint Jesus with special ointment.  Jesus kneeling to wash his disciples' dirty feet.

I know how Peter must have felt at that moment - unworthy, humble, confused, but loved beyond measure.  I know that the Christmas Eve surprise of a special dinner and bathrobes for our whole family was a lot different than taking a government check out of an envelope.

Charity is inherently individual - poignantly personal and real.  Acts of charity transform those who give and those who receive.  As someone who has given much when times were good and received much when times were tough, I can tell you it is much more real - and life-changing - to receive from the Body of Christ than to receive from the government. In the hands of our Heavenly Father, I can see how - as always - he has used all things for good in our family's situation this year, building within our church and community more  interdependence, our awareness and compassion.

The problem with government programs is they inspire entitlement and resentment and a sense that there is never enough. Ultimately greed rather than gratitude. 

And for the givers?  Making dinner for a needy family involves more personal sacrifice yet yields more reward than turning over your hard-earned money/approval/trust to an already Byzantine, inefficient, unfriendly government bureaucracy, only to blindly trust that somehow they will filter your charity back down to your neighbor next door.

So what to make of a president wielding scripture as a tool, chiding us to be our brother's keeper by supporting his health care plan? 

The Bible has shown us that anyone can use scripture - from Jesus to the disciples to the Pharisees to the Accuser. 

While scripture may lend itself for political use, we need to listen for God's voice.  Was Jesus speaking to political systems or to us as individuals?  Has God ever asked us to build a bigger government? Does he really want us to pass our own personal responsibility to the poor, the hungry, the disabled, the lonely over to an impersonal monolithic bureaucracy with all the waste that implies?

Or should we take our president's words to heart on a personal level and do even more to help those closer to home so that at least a few - and perhaps a multitude - will turn their hearts to God rather than the government?  

September 10, 2009

Barbara Curtis is author of 9 books, including Mommy, Teach Me! and Mommy, Teach Me to Read!  She is also mother of 12, including several pursuing careers in music and theater.