Thursday, September 13, 2012

Lessons from a Ham Scrooge

I will be forever grateful for the hospitality I experienced at the Ronald McDonald House both of the times Ella was hospitalized.  I’m not sure how my family and I would have survived all those long weeks and months out of town if we hadn’t had the luxury and comfort of a room there.  Hotels aren’t cheap, that’s for sure, and eating fast food day in and day out takes a toll on both the waistline and the wallet.  So I was and still am so thankful for the blessing and convenience of the RMH.  Not only did I have a roof over my head that was less than 0.5mi from the hospital, but I also had the almost regular assurance of a meal at the end of so many physically and emotionally draining days with my sick baby.

If you’ve never had to stay at the RMH, then perhaps you aren’t familiar with where the dinners come from or how that part of the RMH operation works.  It takes a lot of coordination and effort by the RMH staff and a great deal of dedication and commitment from countless local volunteers – sororities and fraternities, school groups and teams, Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, church groups, families, etc. – to put meals on the table almost every day of the year.  The quality and variety of meals varied from group to group, but one thing was constant: the meals were provided by countless people who genuinely cared about the folks staying at the RMH and who did their best to ease the burdens felt by the families who were so far from their homes.  I had never had that many tacos, bowls of pasta, or shredded chicken and rice meals before in my life, but those meals were delicious, satisfying both body and soul, in no small part because of the compassion and heart of the chefs who labored to make them.

Just as the Ronald McDonald House is an organization that provides a much needed charitable service to families in need, so, too, are the groups who serve the meals.  Though many dinners run together in my memory, there are a few that stand out, for reasons both good and so-so.  The Latin meal that was so ridiculously delectable that I chose a second helping over dessert; the Thanksgiving Day meal with ALL the traditional, mouth-watering fixings; the pizza – oh, the glorious, tasty, divinely inspired pizza – that was made each month by a man who was overwhelmed with gratitude to God for being spared from cancer; the chicken nugget, peas, and tater tot meal that could only have been made by a group of college students on a budget; and the pre-Christmas meal that was made by a local church group.  I wish that last meal could stand out in my memory for a more pleasant reason, but the real reason I remember it so well is for how small I felt while eating it and for how unworthy and low I felt when I walked away from it.

My friend K, a fellow heart mom, and I walked to the RMH most evenings to eat dinner together.  We never really lingered over dinner.  Our mission each evening was to eat our food fairly quickly and get back to our kiddos, though we always stayed long enough to say thanks to whoever provided the meal.  The evening in question was no different.  Because it was already December, we walked to the House in the dark and chill.  When we arrived, we were greeted by the unmistakable aroma of a ham dinner with all the sides you could want with it.  Such yummy smells!  It appeared to be a feast truly fit for a king…if that king could get past the ham scrooge.

When food is set out for dinner, it isn’t necessarily served to you.  Of course there would be a serving utensil available for your use, but an actual person may not be serving it onto your plate.  This evening, the members of the church group had chosen to actually serve the food to the RMH diners.  Since K and I arrived at the house a little before serving time, we were first in line for dinner.  I hadn’t realized I would be served, so I reached for the serving fork.  An older woman came over to take it from me to begin service.  With plate in hand, I stood there as she dished out the ham slice.  Yes, slice.  Not plural.  The large ham was cut in half lengthwise and was then sliced into pieces.  She gave me one slice of ham, which really amounted to half of one slice of ham, the end piece at that.  I was a bit dumbfounded and asked if I could have another slice.  She grudgingly gave me the other half of my end piece and then told me I could come back for seconds after everyone else had eaten.

By that time, most of the other RMH residents were lined up, so I moved on to choose my side dishes and then sit down to eat.  But to say that I was annoyed and perturbed would be an understatement.  I did not go to dinner that evening looking to gorge myself on food.  I did not go there looking to get in line first so I’d be better able to cheat everyone else out of a full meal.  I just wanted to eat something filling so that I could get back to my baby girl.

I finished my meal, chewing and swallowing as best I could though my throat felt tight from the angry tears I was holding in.  Petty as it may seem in hindsight, I chose NOT to go back for seconds.  The ham scrooge may have had control over the serving utensil that day, but I was not going to give her the satisfaction of serving me another half slice of ham.  I was not going to beg for my dinner, no matter how hungry I was.  I was not going to humiliate myself by letting her have the upper hand or the upper serving fork.  Instead, while my friend finished her meal, I chose to wait in the RMH lobby.

So why spend seven paragraphs building up to what seems like a small, insignificant anecdote wherein Bridget cries about a slice of ham that wasn’t even owed her but was in fact given to her free of charge?  Why write about one bum dinner out of many, many tasty and enjoyable dinners?  Why?
Because of 1 Corinthians 13.

And because of the honesty of this piece.

And because of the truth of these lyrics.

If you feed the hungry but do so without love, without compassion, without generosity, then it is not charity.  If you give drink to the thirsty but do so grudgingly and without love and understanding, then you serve no one but yourself.  If you claim to be doing the work of God but do so without love, then where is God in that?  Corporal works of mercy are nothing if they are done without love.  Charitable works are nothing more than self-congratulatory back patting if they are done without love, if they are done to make you feel good about how charitable you’re being, if they are done solely so you can check them off your to-do list.

I had read Simcha Fisher’s blog post last August while at the hospital with Ella, and while I sat in the RMH lobby waiting for my friend after dinner that December night, I thought about how very small charity can make a person feel and how charity given poorly can rob a person of her dignity and self-worth.  Ms. Fisher and I were in different situations – she receiving groceries for her hungry family and I receiving a meal while away from home with my critically ill baby – but we were both made more uncomfortable by and that much more aware of our unfortunate situations by people who meant well but who had a helluva way of showing it.

It was an eye opening experience for me to be on the receiving end of charity, and it opened my eyes to my own attitude toward charitable giving.  It opened my eyes to my own past actions and inactions, and it opened my heart.  It forced me to examine if my charity had truly been charitable, if it had truly been worthy to be included among the works of God here on earth.  It forced me to ask myself some uncomfortable questions.  Had I ever withheld my love while holding out a helping hand?  Had I ever half-*ssed my way through a work of mercy just to check it off a to-do list?  Had I ever given second-best just to be able to say that I’d given?  Had I ever been the ham scrooge to someone else’s dinner plate?

Even this many months later, I still ask myself those questions because I understand that I’m not only responsible for my actions and choices but also for the example I set for my kids.  Charity, or the lack thereof, is learned at home.  If all they ever see me do is write a check but they never see me lend a hand, how am I showing them what it means to be the hands of God here on earth?  If all they see me do is give away my well-used, well-worn hand-me-downs but they never see me serve the downtrodden, then how am I showing them what it means to be the feet of God?  And if all they ever hear is talk and all they see is indifference, if the only thing I expose them to is the very little I’m willing to do and the very little I’m willing to love, then how am I showing them what it means to be the heart of God?

The bigger person would be grateful to God for the ham scrooges of the world.  She would be grateful for the ways God can use even the smallest and most miserable experiences to teach her about His love and mercy.  The bigger person would resolve to do all things with love so that no one ever feels small, low and unworthy because of her.  I am not the bigger person…yet.  I’ve got miles to go before I’ll feel worthy to be His hands and feet for others, but by God’s good grace and His patience with me - the slowest learner ever born - I will get there.  By God, I’ll get there.

St. Ella, pray for us!

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