Home(less) for the Holidays


Christmas Eve seems like a good time for an update on the homeless guys who we’ve been trying to assist here at the parsonage.  I am pleased to say that things are starting to look up.

Homeless Guy #3 surprised us all when he entered a local residential program that focuses on leading a godly life, staying clean of alcohol and drugs, and contributing to support of its mission by performing carpentry, roofing and other types of home improvement work in the community in exchange for donations.  We had been feeding #3 whenever he showed up at our door, despite our awareness of his penchant for fighting off demons with the aid of substances that we’d rather not know about.  We’d see him sleeping on a friend’s porch or out in the open or occasionally sharing a tent with Homeless Guy #1.  Every time we’d give him a couple of sandwiches, a bag of chips and a bottle of water, #3 would tell us stories about how he planned to turn his life around by entering a residential program.  We didn’t believe him for a minute, as his ongoing pattern of behavior led us to believe that he was merely telling us what we wanted to hear.  Praise God for small miracles.  I only hope that he’ll be able to make a decent life for himself once he completes the program.

Homeless Guy #2 is homeless no more, or at least for now.  Befriended by our young nephew, who calls #2 “uncle,” they eventually became housemates.  They share a love for music, both of them being guitar pickers with golden voices.  #2 does odd jobs (painting, carpentry, yard work and the like) and receives Food Stamps (known as CalFresh in our neck of the woods), so is able to contribute to their household.  Other things, I prefer not to think about.  I am all too cognizant of the penchant the two of them share for the toke and the six pack.

As for Homeless Guy #1, he doesn’t come around to the parsonage since we had it out with him and let him know that he is no longer welcome here.  We still see him wandering around the area, walking on the side of the road, going in and out of the dollar store down the street.  He wears a monitoring ankle bracelet that was a condition of his release from jail.  We’ve had some cold nights recently (at least by California standards), and we’ve noticed extra layers covering his tent.  Off in the distance this morning, we heard him yelling and cussing and throwing a fit, as is his wont.  He must have gotten into it with his mom and sister.  It wasn’t long before the sheriffs showed up.  Later, we saw him walking down the road again.  I guess the cops gave him a pass as a Christmas present.

While substance abuse, mental illness and even personal lifestyle choice are frequently cited as the primary causes of homelessness (particularly among Republican congressmen), I challenge you to take the time to actually talk to a homeless person and learn his or her story.  It won’t take long before you realize that the primary cause of homelessness is poverty.  To state it in the bluntest terms possible:  It takes a certain amount of money to pay rent.  Either you have it or you don’t.  And if most of the little money you have goes toward food, medicine, clothes for your kids and maybe bus fare, you’re probably not going to have enough to pay for rent and utilities as well.  Many get by, at least for a time, by robbing Peter to pay Paul.  We have neighbors in our community who survive dark nights and empty refrigerators because they’re behind on the electric bill and it’s preferable to at least have a roof over your kids’ heads.  There are those who endure freezing nights without heat and scorching summers without air conditioning for the same reason.  Here in California, our summers frequently involve weeks on end of temperatures over 100°F.  Cooling centers open up in public buildings in an effort to minimize the heat-related deaths we experience among the elderly and the young every year.

There is a woman in our neighborhood who resides in heavily subsidized housing.  She pays only $11 per month in rent.  And yet, there have been a couple of times when we learned that she had run out of food.  Life on a fixed income is a special kind of hell.

Many of us live a hand-to-mouth existence, struggling along paycheck to paycheck.  One unanticipated expense, one illness or automotive breakdown, can send us straight over the edge, into the abyss of homelessness.  Writhing on the precipice like a mouse caught in a trap, we are susceptible to those who prey on the poor, such as the payday loan places, the rent-a-centers and the convenience stores that profit off of inflated prices and cater to those who lack a car to drive into town.

Despite the abominable rhetoric of Congress during the unemployment debates of the past year, there are relatively few who fall into unemployment and homelessness as a result of sloth and lethargy.  Most of us go down screaming all the way.  And once we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, it is next to impossible to climb back out.  You can’t find or keep a job if you don’t have a stable address and a place to bathe regularly.  Destroyed credit ratings and lack of first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit may lead to a protracted period of sleeping in a homeless shelter, under a bridge or over a heating grate.  Difficult economic times have always helped to draw families closer together; pooling of resources can make the difference between extended family members having a roof over their heads or becoming homeless.  Too many people, however, have no family who they can rely on when the going gets tough.  Here in America, we live in a culture that celebrates individualism and views the nuclear family as the sitcom ideal.  Anything less reeks of failure.  We all want to do our own thing, unencumbered by aunts or uncles or grandchildren occupying spare bedrooms and sleeping on couches and making messes and not cleaning them up.  If drugs or alcohol or mental illness brought on by a history of abuse is involved, the situation is often rendered impossible, leading to homelessness.

My boss and I have had some really good conversations while standing at the tall picture window situated at the end of our row of cubicles.  (Next week will be his last with our agency and I will miss him.)  Several of those have been about homelessness.  With our office located high above downtown Sacramento, he has been able to point out the spot where his homeless guy usually hangs out.  He tries to stop to talk with his homeless friend for at least a few minutes each day.  This is a man, my boss tells me, who has been sleeping outdoors for 22 years now.  Even so, he recently told my boss that he is hopeful that his time without a home will soon come to an end.  He just has a feeling, he related, that good things are just around the corner and that something will arise that will allow him to finally have a home after nearly a quarter of a century without one.

Indeed, hope is always the last thing to die.  For when even that is gone, when all hope has vanished, we truly have nothing left but the blackness of despair.  I like to think that hope figures somewhere in the lessons of Christmas.  For hope recognizes the possibility of a better tomorrow, whether it be through the fulfillment of ancient prophesy or through taking action in our local communities toward ensuring housing for all.

Hope is sending off a letter to Santa Claus at the North Pole with the conviction that, if I’m very, very good, he might come down the chimney with all the desires of my heart on Christmas Eve.  Hopeless is knowing that, no matter how good you try to be, you will never be deserving of anything but lumps of coal.  And so, on this Christmas Eve, I put it to you that entirely too many of us fall into this latter category.

Yesterday, we had our annual toy giveaway here at the church, courtesy of an area Spanish-speaking congregation.  While carols played through a sound system, hot dogs were cooked and passed out as parents and their children lined up to receive what may be their only Christmas gifts this year.  Each child who showed up received several age-appropriate toys, while food boxes were given out to the parents.  All of the gifts were donated by generous businesses and individuals.

We have the naysayers, sure.  When I point out that families began gathering at 7:30 am for the 11:00 giveaway, leaning against the church façade, bundled up against the cold, someone always points out that most of these families are not impoverished, that they’re just trying to get something for nothing.  That we are suckers whose generosity is being taken advantage of.  As I think about this, I am reminded of a saying that my mother used to throw at us when, as kids, we became unduly cynical:  “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”  I laugh now at how old-fashioned this sounds, but there is a truth to it.  There will always be sharpies out there, fraudsters who care about no one but themselves and who, to paraphrase Billy Joel, will take what they’re given as long as it’s free.  For me at least, this will never be a reason to throw in the towel.  The only control we have is over our own behavior.  We have no control over what anyone else does.  The fact that there is evil in the world is not a valid excuse for refusing to be the good in the world.  And as for those who characterize us as bleeding heart do-gooders, I can only say “why don’t you come join us?”

Of course, we are not the only bastions of generosity in our little town.  Far from it.  There’s the Salvation Army, for example.  The Sally had collected hundreds of toys to give away to local kids right before Christmas.  Unfortunately, they stored those toys in a vacant storefront next to a supermarket.  Some malefactors discovered this fact, broke in and cleaned them out on Sunday night.

But for several hundred kids in our community, Santa arrived a day early.  They provided the hope; generous donors provided its fulfillment.  If we are to banish homelessness for good, we must rely on a similar model:  The hopes of the have-nots fulfilled by the largesse of the generous.

So where do we start?  Whose responsibility is it to ensure that each of us has a home?  I submit to you that it is everyone’s responsibility.  In Yolo County, just down the road from here, the local government implemented a ten-year plan to end homelessness in the county.  They report that they are well on the way to achieving this goal.  Other localities insist that they haven’t the resources to devote to a project of such dimensions and must rely on the federal and state governments and the generosity of private donors.  Meanwhile, Congress cites finite resources and too many hands clambering for a handout.  The churches, they say, will have to take up the slack.

Now that I have lived at a church for a year, I am able to appreciate how this zeitgeist trickles down to the immediate needs of the community.  As a local church, there is seldom a time when we are not virtually broke.  We are a tiny church, and despite generous donations on Sundays and at other times, there is never enough available to do all the work we’d like to do here in the community, much less to make contributions to worthy causes elsewhere.  With the help of other churches, we are able to do things like hold an annual toy giveaway or run a weekly food distribution.

What it comes down to, of course, is that no man is an island.  We are all in this together, popular ideas about individualism notwithstanding.  We are our brother’s keepers, whether we choose to ignore this responsibility or respect it.  We have to do it together, though.  Yes, we need the support of Congress.  Yes, we need the contributions of the state and county governments, the tireless efforts of our elected representatives who create programs that provide the neediest among us with housing and food.  And, yes, we need the churches and the generosity of businesses and individuals who provide us with turkeys and canned goods and gift certificates.

None of us can do this alone, but together, and with the blessings of God, anything is possible.  We can bring hope to the hopeless and the homeless.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May your days be merry and bright.


Suspended, and Standing on Its Head

When we were kids, my parents would occasionally take us to play in a park that had a jungle gym.  My sisters, two and four years younger than myself, would love nothing better than to mount the monkey bars, traversing from one end to the other, hand over hand, swinging like orangutans all the way.  Fat and lazy, I had no interest in any activity remotely athletic, and would look about for somewhere to sit and watch.  My father would record the action on black and white film or with a Super 8 movie camera, occasionally swiveling around to zoom in on me, sitting at a picnic table and staring off into space.

At home, we had a standard issue suburban swing set in the back yard.  My favorite part was the glider, because the bench was wide and I didn’t have to perch as one must on the swings or teeter-totter.  Big plus:  It was nearly impossible to fall off the glider.

My sisters, by contrast, preferred flying as high as possible on the swings, preferably in a standing position, or grabbing the top bar to perform all manner of one-handed and two-handed flips and gyrations.  When not on the swing set, gymnastics was their thing.  They could do cartwheels and somersaults and walk on their hands, but our mother wouldn’t allow them to do the split, claiming it would damage their insides and give them trouble when it came time to have babies.

When my grandparents came to visit, Grandpa and I would sit on the back deck or descend the stairs into the yard, watching my sisters’ acrobatic antics all the while.  “Can you do that?” he’d ask me sarcastically upon observing some gravity-defying flip.  I’d glare at him with hatred.  If only I’d had enough guts to ask whether he could imitate my sisters.

Among my sisters’ most amazing feats, at least in my opinion, was the headstand.  They’d often ask me to hold their legs so that they could get into the proper position without tipping over.  Then I’d step back and they’d be able to hold the pose for longer than I thought humanly possible.

I was reminded of this recently while playing with my little grandniece, holding her legs up so she could stand on her head on the soft couch.  I guess I’ve always found something appealing about flipping upside down, standing on one’s head to view the world from a different perspective.

One thing I’d like to invert and stand on its head is the Suspended Coffee movement that has gained some press in recent years.  The idea is to help the poor by performing a particular random act of kindness, namely paying for an extra coffee so that someone who cannot afford one can later come into the coffee shop and get a drink for free.  It’s supposed to be a feel-good kind of thing, not unlike paying for the order of the car behind you at the Starbucks drive-through.  Even though this costs businesses nothing (the “free” coffee being given out has already been paid for), most coffee shops won’t have anything to do with suspended coffees.  Certainly the big chains, such as Starbucks Coffee and Peet’s Coffee and Tea refuse to get involved.  I’ve read that coffee shops complain that it is takes too much time and effort to keep track of how many coffees have been paid for in advance.  Even in the shops where suspended coffees are available, I can’t help wondering whether a homeless person dying for a cuppa joe must settle for plain black, or whether he can actually glom onto a caramel macchiato.

Today I looked up the nearest location at which I might purchase a suspended coffee for someone in need.  The place is 116 miles away.  Despite the fact that some businesses around the world have latched on to the suspended coffee movement, the fact is that in most places it simply is not available.

Considering that the coffee is paid for first and poured later, the reticence of coffee shops irks me more than a little.  After all, we’re not asking them to donate anything.  Not that asking them to donate to the poor would be out of line, when one realizes the obscene profits that the coffee chains earn each year.

I say let’s stand the suspended coffee movement on its head, much as my sisters loved to do as kids.  Let the coffee be given out to those in need, and let a mark be made on a chalkboard or in a ledger for those who wish to contribute to pay for it later.  After all, there are a few establishments where those with little money can have a snack or a meal and pay what they are able.  Panera Bread has done this successfully in some locations, giving the lie to the notion that huge corporations must necessarily value profit over community.  Those who can afford to pay more than the cost of their meal do so, which offsets the cost of the food of customers who can pay little or nothing.  Some economists insist that this model cannot work in the long run, while others shy away from the pay-what-you-can idea as “socialism.”

Slogans for the pay-what-you-can movement include “take what you need, leave your fair share” and “so all may eat.”  The idea that food should be a right, not a privilege, is an old one.  That this is viable within a profit-making businesses, courtesy of generous customers, is what is new.

And yet food service businesses balk and scoff.  Why give out a free coffee and hope that someone else will pay for it at an unspecified later time when such time may never arrive?  This attitude indicates a lack of faith in our fellow man.

National chains (and small local establishments, too) justify their actions by claiming that they engage in charitable giving annually and that it’s their choice to stay away from the pay-what-you-can “gimmick.”

But what do you expect?  When coffee shops refuse to join the suspended coffee movement in which products are paid for in advance, I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect them to stand on their heads and give out food that may or may not be paid for by others.

The bottom line is that it’s just so much easier to simply say “no” to those in need.


The Day After Christmas


My niece and nephew picked out a lovely tree.

It’s definitely Christmas.

I know this because my mother-in-law has already baked a peach cobbler and a fruitcake today and also made up food boxes to provide Christmas dinner to two local families who are desperately poor, one with three children and the other with seven.

Pastor Mom had already purchased turkeys and made up food boxes for two other needy families.  But then this morning, the needs of two more families who are unfamiliar to us came to our attention.  My wife and mother-in-law took off on a moment’s notice for an unplanned Wal-Mart run.  We need a couple more turkeys and ten pound bags of potatoes.  Must get more oatmeal packets and cookies.

One of them reportedly had nothing in the house for the kids to eat.  We know that their Christmas dinner will come early and that they will have to work on finding additional food for the big day on Wednesday.

And I thought I had problems.

Funny how Christmas has a way of putting things into perspective.

I think it’s wonderful how Christmas is known as “the season of giving.”  We all wish to be wise like the three kings of Orient and offer the finest things we have to those in the humblest of circumstances.

Okay, some of us forget.  In the hustle and bustle of the days leading up to Santa’s arrival, we may focus on getting the perfect gifts for our loved ones wrapped and under the tree, or on beginning preparations for the perfect holiday meal.  I suggest that we ought to pause in our exertions long enough to think of those who have nothing.  Those who don’t have to worry about what’s under the tree because they have no tree and wouldn’t have money for gifts even if they did.  Those who, in another time, may have had the pleasure of bedding down with the animals, or say, enjoying yet another packet of Top Ramen for dinner.

I know.  It’s easy to become jaded.  We are subject to too many requests for handouts.  They come to the door, wheedle for contributions at work, ring annoying bells in front of Target.  We don’t have enough to even make the kind of Christmas we really wish we could for our own families, and now every time we turn around we have to deal with people trying to make us feel guilty enough to fork over what little we have.

We’re already under enough stress as it is, and we wish the beggars would just stop already.  Don’t they know we’re doing what we can?

Oh, and don’t even get started on the scruffy characters who stand with tattered signs at the end of the freeway off-ramps where they have a captive audience waiting for the light to turn green.  Half of them have bicycles or dogs or even jackets, for heaven’s sake, so you know they’re fakers who aren’t really homeless.  They hang out in the same spots all year, lying in wait outside the fast food restaurants, but then comes the holidays and they write Merry Christmas Please Help on their signs.  What do they think we are, idiots?  We know blatant guilt-tripping when see it.  They’re not interested in food anyway.  All they want is a 40 and a blunt.  Don’t waste your money on that heap of trash.  Look straight ahead and keep driving.  Society’s detritus spread out before us like some kind of freak show when all we’re trying to do is earn a living and get to school in time to pick up the kids.

Truly, we’re doing the best we can.  But people just don’t get it.  Talk about living in an acquisitive America with Christmas marred by commercialism.  Everyone wants more, more, more, even the filthy drunks and transients.

As for those truly in need, aren’t there programs out there to help them?  Where are the food banks and the churches?  Let them do their jobs.  Most of the beggars are addicts or mentally ill or the product of their own bad decisions, so they are beyond help anyway.  There’s really nothing we can do for them, so don’t waste your time and money.

Yes, the charitable organizations are running at full tilt.  The bi-county food bank is having a big giveaway tomorrow.  There will also be a free meal on the church lawn on Saturday (along with toys for all local kids who show up).  We’ll make sure that the members of our little community in need have a decent Christmas on Wednesday.

But it’s not Wednesday that concerns me.

It’s Thursday.

The day after Christmas.


The Minimum Wage Debacle


When the clock ticks past midnight on New Year’s Eve and the calendar flips over to 2014, the minimum wage here in California will increase by a dollar from eight dollars per hour to nine dollars per hour.

You can’t get very far on $8 or $9 an hour, but this is what a lot of us have to contend with, year in and year out, with no relief in sight.  This is what the smiling server at the counter or the drive-through window of your favorite fast food place earns.

At one time, some of us justified this paltry compensation on the grounds that fast food provided part-time jobs for high school students, not only providing them with spending money, but also inducting them into the workforce, providing opportunities for advancement and indoctrinating them into the Protestant work ethic.  National fast food chains even received special exemptions from the federal minimum wage, allowing them to pay “subminimum” rates as a reward for providing jobs for large numbers of the hard-core unemployed.

It’s a nice theory, and maybe it held purchase, up to a point, thirty or forty years ago.  But today, that server who you can barely understand through the crackly drive-through speaker and who you gripe at for messing up your order is probably not saving up to buy a prom dress or to finance a Saturday night date.  More likely, she is a single mother with a couple of kids at home, scraping by with an emaciated paycheck that places her family below the poverty line.

Many fast food workers have to resort to public assistance to keep themselves and their families afloat.  Some fast food employers make a point of encouraging employees to take advantage of whatever aid may be available from local charitable organizations and federal or state assistance programs.  Why not?  Let’s get someone else to help them out so that we don’t have to pay them more and we don’t have to reduce our profit margins.

Please think twice before shooting dirty looks at the person in line in front of you at the supermarket who is paying with an EBT card.  You may be thinking that this lazy person is living off the dole and sucking the taxes right out of your pocket.  Chances are, however, that this person is employed and contributing to the American economy, just like you are.  Only he or she is trying to support a family on minimum wage or less and probably needs to make a trip to the local food bank when the paycheck is spent and the EBT balance reads 25 cents at the end of the month.

This is also the person who doesn’t work a regular schedule, eight hours a day, like you do.  Your neighbor’s work schedule changes all the time, based on shifting patterns of customer volume and the whims of a young assistant manager.  If business slows down unexpectedly, this employee will probably be sent home, further reducing the week’s wages.  To help make up for this unreliable stream of income, he or she may be working two or three jobs just to pay the rent, keep the heat and lights on, and put food on the table.  The kids may be receiving free breakfast and lunch at school, thanks to federal programs, but they still have to be fed dinner and on the weekends and during school vacations.  It’s a struggle to plan and prepare healthful meals when you’re always working and have to kiss goodbye a large part of what you earn to pay for child care.  The temptation to buy cheap crap full of sugar and sodium is ever-present.  Stick it in the microwave and, voilà, dinner.  Because you’re just so tired.  And it never ends, Lord, it never ends.

So it should come as no surprise that fast food workers around the country skipped work shifts to stage protests today, calling for a minimum wage of $15 per hour.  The fast food industry thinks such demands are ridiculous, citing a significant increase in the prices of their products that would result from such a measure.

Of course, this argument is very convenient for the fast food industry.  Careful what you ask for, people, because your favorite Big Mac or Whopper will end up costing you ten dollars.  Your beloved Dollar Menu will now be the $4 Menu.

I don’t have to tell my smart and insightful readers that the fast food industry is full of shit.  They care not what their prices are as long as the public continues buying and their profits continue to increase.  Their only concern is that some consumers may be priced out of the market and reduce the frequency with which they take the kids to visit Ronald at the Playplace.

The fast food industry also cites the likely paradoxical effect of job cuts should protesters get what they want.  Now there’s an interesting argument.  Are they saying that they are currently overstaffed but can afford to keep more employees than necessary on the payroll due to the low wages paid?  Why does this sound as if they are lying?  No employer is going to carry surplus employees when cutting out the fat could result into the additional profits going into their pockets.  I realize this is a highly simplistic explanation of a complex economic phenomenon, but there you have it.

I suppose I should stop picking on the fast food industry in general, and on its poster child, McDonald’s, in particular.  There are plenty of other industries around that subject employees to the same minimum wage indignities.  Fellow blogger and Californian Michael from Sophoxymoria tells a blunt and brutal tale of what it’s like to work in the Central Valley feed mills.  He’d like to find more lucrative work but realizes that this is easier said than done.  “I’ve been debating what to do,” he writes.  “I saw my paycheck and they bumped me back down to 8 bucks an hour, yes that is minimum wage, if they could pay me less I’m sure they gladly would.”  Michael goes on to gripe (and sometimes laugh) about uncaring supervisors, the disposability of temporary employees, and employers that look the other way rather than address rampant on-the-clock drug use and sexual harassment.  (And he is a connoisseur of the taco trucks in Turlock, Modesto, Keyes and Denair.)

Some of the news reports are indicating that participants in today’s protests were able to skip out on their shifts at fast food restaurants because protest organizers paid them $50 for the day, about what they would have earned at their jobs.  Beyond the minimum wage issue, protesters are asking for the industry to unionize.  So it is no surprise that some employers are blaming the hullabaloo on outside organizations who have their own agendas.  This conveniently allows low-wage employers to dismiss their own roles in creating the problems that resulted in the protests in the first place.

Here in California, we have it better than in many parts of the country.  True, six states have higher minimum wages than California’s, but at least we’re doing better than the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 per hour for the past 4½ years.  Five states in the deep south have no state minimum wage at all, and four states have minimum wages lower than $7.25 per hour (employers there must still follow federal minimum wage requirements).

What about other countries?  Everyone knows that the United States is the richest country in the world and that the freedoms we enjoy have immigrants from the four corners of the earth banging down our doors to get in.  Yet our federal minimum wage is lower than that of many industrialized nations, including Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Australia.

Come 2016, California’s low-wage workers will get yet another dollar per hour in their paychecks when the state minimum wage reaches $10 per hour.  Unless, of course, activists are successful in their efforts to convince Congress to double the federal minimum wage before then.

In the meantime, Michael and thousands of his fellow low-wage workers will continue to barely survive on their meager earnings, taxing already underfunded government antipoverty programs and further squeezing churches and charitable organizations doing their utmost to prevent hunger and homelessness.

Happy holidays.


A Question of Ethics


I don’t consciously think about ethics on a regular basis, but lately it seems to be a recurring theme in my life.  Which is a problem, because I feel like a total dummy when it comes to questions of ethics.

It started the other night when my niece was over here doing her psychology homework.  She was telling me that there are different levels of ethical development.  To illustrate, she shared the example of the man who cannot afford to purchase the drug needed to save his wife’s life.  The ethical issue is whether he should steal the expensive medication.

The four of us present were split as to whether to engage in this act of thievery.  My niece indicated that she has been learning that, in this example, abiding by the law (saving one’s self and dooming another) represents a lower level of personal ethical development than placing one’s self at risk (of criminal consequences) in order to save someone else.

This reminded me of a lesson we learned back in the first year of law school.  In criminal law class, we were taught the difference between the old Latin terms mala prohibita and mala in se.  The former is an act that is wrong simply because the law says it is, while the latter is an act that would be wrong even if there were no law prohibiting it.  Murder, for example, is mala in se; we know it is wrong even without a law to specifically tell us so.  By contrast, one could argue that speeding is mala prohibita; not only is driving 60 miles per hour not of itself immoral, but it isn’t even illegal if the speed limit is seventy.

Returning to my niece’s class problem, the ethical issue could potentially hinge on whether theft is considered mala in se or mala prohibita.  One could argue that taking something that does not belong to you has always been wrong, even before the Biblical commandment “thou shalt not covet” codified it into law.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, even such a basic law falls away when violating it is necessary in order to save a life.  Faced with such extreme circumstances, the proscription against theft gets demoted from mala in se to merely mala prohibita.  The reasoning behind this is that laws are not designed to be arbitrary; they are promulgated for the betterment of society, i.e., toward the formation of a social contract (as described in the theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) that allows a diverse population to live together in peace and harmony.  The law ceases to be valid when
the very reason it came into being (lawyers call this “legislative intent”) no longer applies.  Arguably, honoring the prohibition against theft even when doing so results in death runs contrary to the reason that the prohibition exists at all. “Bright line” rules are helpful in the socialization of children (“I won’t take it, it’s not mine”), but seeing the world through a black-and-white lens is rarely helpful to adults faced with making ethical decisions in an increasingly complex world.

As if my niece were preparing me for what’s coming, I have been faced with ethical issues twice this week.  Thankfully, in neither situation was I called upon to make a life or death decision.  Or was I?

No one can truly know the far-ranging effects of his or her actions.


A woman, probably in her forties, rang the bell at the door of the parsonage while my wife and I were in the kitchen.  Our visitor asked if we had any food we could share with her.  We explained that we are a very small church that lacks the resources to maintain a food pantry or distribute food.  However, my wife told the woman, we’d be happy to look in our pantry and see what we can spare.

We opened a folded grocery bag and began filling it with items from our cupboards and refrigerator.  Pasta, rice, canned fruit, a bunch of baking potatoes, an apple, an orange and some crackers filled the bag to the top.  The woman thanked us, saying “this should get me through til Saturday.”

I asked my wife whether she thought the woman was homeless.  She said no, which made me wonder whether she had a family to feed.  Were there two or three little hungry children waiting patiently somewhere?  If so, have her utilities been turned off?  Will she be able to cook the rice and the pasta and the potatoes?  The woman was on foot, so she probably lives here in town.  Did she walk a long way to get here?  Probably not, as there are many churches within a mile or two of here.

Or, on the other hand, was the woman dropped off by someone in a car?  Was she headed a few blocks away with her bag full of food to meet the driver somewhere out of sight of the parsonage?  For that matter, did she really need the food at all?  Was she a freeloader, going around to all local churches to see what she could get for nothing so that she could sell it for money to buy alcohol and drugs?

Years ago, my wife and I decided that it is impossible to know such things and that it is therefore unproductive to stress over them.  Our duty is to discern needs and to fill them, to stand in the gap.  “And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it:  But I found none.”  Ezekiel 22:30 (KJV)

If the recipient of our love offering misuses that gift, he or she will be held accountable for that misdeed.  In other words, we have no control over what anyone else does.  Our responsibility is to do the right thing and leave the rest to God.  For who knows, even if the recipient of our gift proves unworthy, perhaps our act will set a good example for someone else who will follow in our footsteps?

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to figure out the right thing to do, particularly when one is called upon to make an instant decision.  What if the person asking for your assistance needs more than a bag full of food?  What if the person needs hundreds of dollars that you can ill afford to give?  And what if the person in need is a member of your own family and your heart bleeds for his or her suffering?


I was raised on the adage that “charity begins at home.”  Nevertheless, I am as prone to help a stranger as to help a friend or family member.  In some respects, I may be even more inclined to help the stranger, who may be friendless and have few other sources of assistance.

But I stopped in my tracks this week when my wife informed me that my nephew’s water is about to be turned off because he hasn’t money to pay the bill.  He would need more than $300 to turn his water back on.  As if that weren’t enough, his electricity is likely to be turned off soon for nonpayment as well.

Should my wife and I raid our savings to provide our nephew with the hundreds of dollars he needs to keep the lights and water on?  I was laid off a month ago, and neither of us is currently working.  What I get on unemployment is only a fraction of what I earned at my job.  Our savings will not last all that long.  At my age, who knows when I will find another job, if ever?

Uh-oh.  So now it’s all about me, huh?  Isn’t it unethical to place my own needs before those of another?  If nothing else, it sure is selfish of me.

So what to do?  Failure to proffer the requisite funds clearly would not be mala prohibita, but could it be mala in se?  Are we ethically responsible for “standing in the gap” regardless of personal consequences?  There are no easy answers.  What do you think?

(Update:  My nephew’s landlord prevailed upon the utility company and the water has been turned back on.  Praise God.)

NaBloPoMo November 2013

The Last Day of the Year


In the coming year we will sit on the porch
and watch the flocks of migrating birds
Children on vacation
will be merrily running between the house and the fields
Oh, how wonderful life will be in the coming year!

                                   — Approximate translation of the Hebrew folk song Od Tireh

Today is the last day of the Hebrew month of Elul and hence the last day of the Jewish year.  And just as on December 31, the close of one year and the start of another leaves me in a reflective and introspective state of mind.

Most of us approach the new year with a sense of hope and anticipation.  We like to think of the new year as a clean slate, a fresh opportunity to do better, reach higher, love stronger.  But I recently became aware that, just as many approach the Christmas holidays with a sense of dread and even depression, not everyone enjoys Rosh Hashannah.  For some of us, the apples and the honey, the singing and the shofar and the big holiday se’udot (dinners) just don’t cut it.

One reason for this, I believe, is that if taken seriously, the High Holy Days can be an emotional roller coaster.  Rather than engaging in the riotous merrymaking and drinking of 12/31, on Rosh Hashannah we very somberly admit to our shortcomings, try to figure out where we went wrong and commit ourselves to making changes that will help to make us into the people we really want to be.

Admittedly, this is not exactly fun!  If we are honest, for example, about how we have wasted our time and money, or about some of the awful things we have said and done to those we supposedly love, it can be difficult to look in the mirror.  Everyone wants to think the best of themselves; none of us wants to admit that we’ve done wrong.  Wouldn’t we have a lot better time if we were to play dance music, drink champagne, scream and shout and kiss at midnight?  What is wrong with this type of behavior is that it is geared to help us forget our troubles, not to do something about them.  Inevitably, morning comes and we’ve gained nothing but a hangover.

But why beat ourselves up?  We are not evil people who deliberately set out to do wrong.  Sure, we mess up from time to time.  We’re human.  Can’t we just accept that we’re not perfect?

The answer is that God accepts that we are not perfect.  But since we are made in His image, He also recognizes that we could be much closer to perfection than we are today.  So you’ve made mistakes?  Yes, the Lord forgives, but not so that we can forget about it and then make the same dumb mistakes again.  He forgives so that we can move on, remember where we went wrong before, and do better the next time.  God accepts that we are works in progress, but He does expect us to actually make some progress.  Saying “oh well, I did the best I could” is not acceptable.

So, yes, soul searching is not exactly a source of kicks and giggles. What we are called upon to remember is that God knows all and sees all; nothing can be hidden from Him.  We may as well admit the error of our ways, as they are already known by He who determines our fate.  And indeed, the reason that our holiday season is known as yomim naro’im, The Days of Awe, is that in the Jewish tradition, “on Rosh Hashannah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”  In between these two holidays are ten days of prayer and repentance.  The “eraser” is still in play; the Lord has pity on us when we are honest about our misdeeds and genuinely commit to turning our lives around.  In the liturgy, we pray that “repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.”  God believes in second (and 128th) chances.  But if we are hard-hearted, aver that we have not done wrong and refuse to change our ways, then we have only ourselves to blame when the fate decreed for us in the new year is grim indeed.

The end of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy that we read at this season riffs heavily on the theme of choices and free will.  God has given us the ability to choose whether to do right or to do wrong.  Whichever path we take, we must accept the consequences.  For we are also choosing whether to bring the blessing or the curse into our lives.  If we close our eyes to the suffering around us, ignore the needy and the lonely in our communities, make excuses for not giving liberally of our time and our money, then we have willingly given up the blessing and have no one to blame but ourselves when our prosperity and security comes crashing down around our ears.

I do understand why the gravity of our holiest of seasons makes some people depressed and causes others to dislike Rosh Hashannah.  Yet if we vow to correct our mistakes and to improve on what we’ve done right, we have nothing to fear.  It is then that we can, as in the Hebrew folksong quoted at the start of this post, bring peace, contentment and happiness into our lives all year long.

Hag sameakh and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet and fulfilling year.