My father, who remains for me one of the best human beings I have ever been privileged to know, said to me one day when I was in early adolescence, “For a smart kid, you don’t have a practical bone in your body.”
Now to you dear reader this may sound harsh, but I will tell you that even at that time, as I heard those words, I recognized two truths there. First, that he was correct. And secondly, that Dad was stating it actually in a gentle way, one which recognized what one might term the ‘non-street smarts’ that I did possess, while it warned me – in helpful fashion – that my future ‘relations’ with practicality, with the ways of the world, with material realities, might not be the easiest. And that being so, it was better to know that, to admit it, to work with it.
Time has proven my wise and caring father prophetic. I might pull thousands of examples out of my memory. And the longer I live in – as Madonna sang of it decades ago this material world – the more obvious it becomes.
The past two occasions on which I have changed my particular place and work in the life of the church, serving as a priest in the Episcopal Church, I have knowingly taken a cut in pay. Together. those two pay cuts equal a lessening of some 60% annual of income. I did so in two stages, both times for reasons I tried to think through well. I wanted first to return to parish ministry from academic and administrative responsibilities. And later, I wanted to return from New York state to my native state of Massachusetts after a decade away.
Both decisions have had wonderful results in terms of the meeting of extraordinary people of faith and love. Both have offered new experiences and challenges that I have not had before. Each, I believe, has deepened and matured me as a person and as a disciple of Jesus.
Somehow, without setting out to do so, I had chosen what is sometimes termed the downward mobility of the Gospel life. And inasmuch as it is linked to the way of Christ, it is good.
But it is a goodness which comes into stressful conflict with the ways of the world. Jesus’ parables, many have noted, overturn the ways of the world and offer a glimpse and more into a kingdom and a way of living that it is the reversal of much of what we here on earth consider worth our striving.
And it gets very practical. These days I am considering how to live honestly, honorably and well, when I find that I have unwittingly (impractically, as Dad might put it) painted myself into a corner that demonstrates what it can feel like to live at the intersection of the expectations of the world and the hopes of the Gospel.
I will not rehearse it all here, as it would sound over-stated and invite me to a sense of embarrassment, where what I need instead is naked honesty. I find myself in the process of filing for bankruptcy, having had to reckon with a number of credit cards and loans I had taken for too long a time and season in living the life the culture might recommend, without attention to the consequences. There is nothing virtuous in that part of the story. Beyond that, I find myself owing the IRS some $8000; hearing from NY state two years later that I owe a further $600 in state taxes, and a bill coming from EZ-Pass for $500. However that system works, paying $100 toward it within the month I find myself with the new EZ-Pass bill owing $497 and change again, due to piling up late fees and the like. And the penalty is coming in July of my being unable, unless it is paid in full, to keep the car inspected and registered and on-the-road. The first Catholic bishops in New England reached those in need of their pastoral care by horseback. I may be needing to think up something in that heritage within a few weeks.
I need to take full responsibility for the decisions I have made in borrowing and spending that have been foolish and not only ill-advised, but unadvised. I do take that responsibility. And now, suspended between a desire to get it right and the inability to do so, I wonder about positive next steps.
I remember my Dad sitting at a card table alone once a month for hours, parsing out the dollars he had from his principal job as a custodian in the Lynn Public Schools, augmented from his night job several nights a week at Lynnway Liquors, and his other part-time and occasional jobs (would they be part of the gig economy now?), delivering for a florist shop in West Lynn, cutting an elderly woman’s lawn, and more. Much more. I remember his distress some months, working out what he could do for the bills he had. All of it – quite obviously – undertaken for the loving care of our Mom and all of us, their six children.
I take Dad now as a kind of patron saint in this moment in my living. Like him, aside from the monetary angst, there is so much good, so many recognized blessings, and more I am more than likely missing, in my life. I give thanks for each and every one of them. Most of them are represented by human faces – of both joy and sorrow, sickness and health – whom I have been privileged to know, and in some measure (poorly often) to serve over the years.
Dad, look on your impractical son. Inspire in me the desire to work this out and the insight to do so. My desire is to get free of the bonds I have allowed to wrap around me so that I might know the freedom that Christ wills for all of us.
One blazingly positive effect of all this has been a profound recognition of the billions of the earth whose relationship with the ‘things’ of the world – from food to housing to medicine – make me rightly look like the richest of the rich. They truly suffer and they witness that suffering in their children’s lives. When I get anxious, I am moved to pray for them and, I hope, to pray with them.
Dad, join us in that prayer. And thank you for your early warning that I might have taken more seriously – to my benefit. I hope it’s not too late to say, thank you.