As I have grown in faith, metanoia affected not only my overtly spiritual life, i.e. those events and activities associated with the church, but also it permeated all of my life. One area involved how I began to deal with panhandlers and others in need. For years, I have had queasy feelings about giving money to panhandlers, except in those cases where I had the time, cash in hand, and opportunity to walk with them to a nearby fast-food joint or restaurant to buy them food. I disliked the thought of giving to people who did not really need the money or to people who were going to use it to make their condition worse, e.g., buying alcohol with it. Over time, I came to the conclusion that true giving is separated from dictating what a person does with the gift. So, that dilemma for me was resolved.
There arose another dilemma, though. I do not carry money with me very often because I have so often been mugged. I do not need to carry money because we are a plastic society, pretty much worldwide these days. So, whenever a panhandler or a person clearly in need crossed my path, I was rarely able to help. Then, I would ask God to give me another chance to help—and would blow it again because I would have only plastic with me and, as usual, it was nearly maxed out. Then, I would ask for another chance and blow that one and so on and so forth.
On one of those occasions when I was apologizing for missing yet another opportunity to help one of God's people in need into my head popped the concept that God can use plastic, too. And so I got God a credit card.
It was one of those card offers for a small credit line: $250. One can, with time, increase it as the bank and the customer build a relationship, but $250 seemed to be quite an appropriate limit. I reasoned that I would never end up putting that much on the card and that with that limit I could not possibly get in over my head. From then on, I reserved this particular card for God’s purposes. Whenever God put someone in need in my path, I would pay with God’s credit card.
People in Need
At first, the opportunities to use God’s credit card matched my expectations. A couple of examples come to mind:
(1) I met a man in the parking lot of our local grocery store. He was on his way from Ohio to southern California to move in with his daughter, his luck having run out in Ohio. He had run out of food money the day before and was hungry. He asked for a couple of dollars for a doughnut and coffee. He thought that would carry him through the remaining six hours of his trip. I told him I had no cash but did have a "special" credit card. If he would pick out what he wanted for lunch and for the road, I would pay for it. So, he did, very judiciously. At the same time, I picked up some strawberries for dessert for dinner for Donnie and me. They were on sale: buy one, get one free. (This kind of surprising sale, just at the right moment, happens so regularly now that I would be surprised if it did not happen.) So, I gave the free strawberries to the hungry man; obviously, the sale was intended for him. As for paying off the credit card bill, the amount was so minor that it was no problem at all; I was able to include it in our food budget for the month without crimping our style, simple as our style tends to be.The Limit Increases
(2) A couple of nights ago, about the time that the town was rolling up its sidewalks, I dashed to the grocery store to pick up some supper, our food supplies having become somewhat depleted while I was traveling. There, a young couple came up to me, the girl crying, saying that they were completely out of gas, no one would help them out, and that they were only two hours away from their destination. They looked younger than my kids, and it turns out that they were only 19, traveling across country for the first time to see some childhood friends. They begged for just one gallon of gas, enough to get to a town with more people where they might be able to get more help. I told them that I had no cash and explained about my special credit card. Asking them to follow me to our only gas station, I used the credit card to fill up their tank. They were very grateful and extremely relieved. The cost? $36. The next day, one of our church members saw me at daily Mass. This church member told me that she really needed some copies of my Blest Atheist book immediately. (I keep 8-10 books on hand at all times, just in case, and I get them at author's discount.) Once she had paid me for the books and I had ordered the replacements at author's discount, my "profit" was exactly $36, just enough to pay the credit card bill.
I have no doubt that God likes to use that credit card. Credit limit is no problem, but I was a bit worried when the bank automatically raised the limit to $4500. Yikes! What might God have in mind, I wondered? I have not been presented with situations requiring that high an infusion of cash, but I have had situations where the card funded hundreds of dollars, and in one case, $1300, all of which was paid off within a month. How that happens is one of those mysteries I may never figure out.
In one case, where someone needed a ticket for evangelical work in Texas, using my frequent flier miles, I was able to get him a first class roundtrip ticket for just $35, the cost being for the telephonic, last-minute transaction. I used God's credit card to pay for it. Then I settled down to work on bills since it was payday. As I worked through the budget, I found a $35 bill that I had planned to pay that day that I had already paid! I think it is fair to count those found dollars as payment for the $35 I owed on God's credit card.
In another case, I had charges of nearly $300 on the card and no particular income in sight. That was before lunch at a local restaurant with a visiting team of scholars from the University of California at Berkeley. The head of the team had wanted to get my input on a grant project about which I do have some unique expertise. Free lunch with great company at my favorite upscale restaurant constituted excellent payment for an afternoon of idea sharing, I thought. However, as the team was preparing to leave, the admin assistant asked me for my mailing address in order to send me my $500 honorarium!
"Go dancing tonight," the doctor told me at the end of my appointment. Yes, he wanted some more tests, but in general he agrees with me that I have been blessed with better health than my attention to taking care of myself deserves. So, I went dancing. Well, not literally dancing, but the effect was the same.
Donnie and I decided to grab a Subway sandwich and take it back home to San Ignatio (which has no fast food joints). We had some new movies from Netflix that had arrived in the mail and decided that after a hard week we deserved a relaxing evening at home. But first, we were to be given a chance to take care of one of God's children.
When we arrived at Subway, we encountered a girl in her early twenties who asked us for a dollar. Well, being a mother, I have to know some things from kids in their twenties.
"What do you need it for?" I asked.
"Food," she replied.
Ah, in that case, I had a better solution than a dollar bill. I handed her one of my $10 McDonald cards that I carry around for panhandlers asking for a meal when I do not have time to accompany them somewhere where we can use God’s credit card. She could buy a couple meals with that. She thanked me and seemed sincere about it.
As Donnie and I stood in line, we had second thoughts. McDonald's was on the other side of town, and here we were at a place selling food. For heaven's sake, we could buy her a meal on the spot and not make her trek somewhere else. Then she would have the McDonald’s card for a meal the next day.
So, I went back outside to talk to the young lady. She had started to walk off, ostensibly to go to McDonald's. "Excuse me," I called after her. "What's your name?"
She approached me. "Mary," she answered. Now there's a name that makes you think twice!
"Well, Mary, would you let us buy you a meal?" I asked.
She agreed with a wide smile, and in we went. We talked about the kinds of sandwiches we wanted while waiting in line, and she seemed a little awkward. That made sense, I thought. She did not know us. However, the real reason soon came to light.
"I don't know how to ask this," she started, then continued. "I feel guilty about accepting a meal for myself and then going home to my hungry family. I was trying to collect money to buy food for them all. Could I get something for them, too?"
"Of course. How many of them are there?" I asked.
"Six," she responded. "Two children, my mother, my sister, and my brother-in-law, besides me."
"Okay," I told her. "We can manage that." Of course, we could manage that. I had God's credit card with me.
Mary excused herself briefly to use the bathroom. The lady in front of us in line had overheard everything and suggested that we save money by getting three footlongs that were cut in half. That way it would only be $15 and would still be enough for six people. I considered it briefly and decided to leave that decision to God. It was, after all, God’s credit card.
Mary came back just in time to order. She immediately asked for four footlongs and two children's meals. As she darted back and forth between the person handling the bread and meat and the person handling the toppings, I remembered so many times doing the same thing with our kids. Sometimes, I had ordered as many as ten, depending upon who was home at the time. It was always quite an experience for the sandwich makers when my family came to dinner or I stopped by to bring them home. I got involved in the information passing to the sandwich makers, helping Mary. What joy! What fun! It was just like the old days, and for a brief few minutes, through Mary, it was like being back with my kids in younger years and reminded me of what Meister Eckhart said in Sermon Six: “People ought to give joy to the angels and the saints . . . Every saint has such great delight and such unspeakable joy from every good work . . . no tongue can tell, no heart can think how great is the joy they have from this.” Watching Mary, I began to understand just a little Meister Eckhart’s words.
Finally done, we packed up all the sandwiches, chips, drinks, and headed out the door. "How far do you have to walk?" I asked Mary, eyeing her multiple bags.
"Oh, I live nearby," she said. "Near the dollar store."
"That's more than a mile away!" I protested. "We will drive you."
So, we drove her there, talking along the way about her family, current situation, boyfriend—and the, yikes, fact that she might be pregnant.
"Okay," Donnie, now the dad again, brought up. "How are you going to feed the baby?"
"Well, if I am pregnant, my boyfriend has agreed to pay for the baby and get married. He has a job."
That seems like a backward way to do things, but I guess modern days are different from the days in which we grew up. Nonetheless, both Donnie and I slipped right back into the parent role, discussing the implications of these kinds of things. She accepted our words even though we were not her parents. Somehow, it just all seemed natural.
All too soon, we arrived and let her out. She started to walk away, then set down her bags and came back to me as I was about to get back into the car after helping her with the bags. She reached out and gave me a big hug and smile. "Thanks," she said. And that was it. Indeed, I had followed the doctor's orders. I went dancing—but not in the literal sense.
God’s Bank Account
I love having God’s credit card. It has given me many opportunities to help people that I could not otherwise have done! In addition to the examples above and the people who stray onto my path from time to time, we have used the credit card in our prayer group as a way of providing larger amounts of help to individuals who come to our attention than any one of us individually would be able to do. Always, the card gets paid off within the month. I get some unexpected royalties; another member receives an unexpected monetary gift from a relative; a third earns extra money on a one-time job that comes along. We don’t hesitate to use the card because we know it will get paid off.
Recently, we have started talking about several of us together opening a bank account for God. That way, if people get some unexpected funds that they want to use for credit card payment, they can put it into the bank upfront where it can earn interest until we need to make a purchase with the card, at which time the funds will be ready to pay off the card. Of course, if it is not enough, we can still trust God to find the funds to keep the card paid. Now, I wonder how the teller will react when we tell her whose account we want to open.
Excerpted from A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God (forthcoming), copyright 2011.