Presented as a Lay Witness by Christina Padilla, October 20, 2019
Believe it or not, Charlie and I don’t actually spend all of our time talking about God. But sometimes we do, often when I am wrestling with spiritual doubts or frustrations. The last time we had a God talk, Charlie suggested I might have material for a lay witness. Which is why I’m up here now, about to tell you how chocolate has helped me be a better Christian.
I have long struggled with what it means to live my Christian faith in my everyday life. I’ve always been partial to the grand and dramatic, so when I was younger, I imagined that I would join the Peace Corps, or become a conscientious objector and get arrested, or live in a commune sharing everything with other people. I found the idea of living a monastic life of prayer and service as a nun quite appealing, if you ignored the whole not-getting-married part. I wanted to make sacrifices for my faith!
A lot has changed since then, and those lofty dreams seem unrealistic in my current circumstances, but that desire to give my whole life to my beliefs is still there, and it frequently haunts me. I tithe to the church and give to causes I’m passionate about. I come to church regularly and have a pretty firm sense of God’s presence in my life. I volunteer my time when I can. I’m nice to people…mostly. I want to be helpful and inclusive and anti-racist. But I still feel an absence, an inadequacy, particularly when I look around at the suffering and injustice that just keeps happening every day. It’s particularly acute when I see people outside the store or on the corner or in the middle of the street asking for money. There is a sense of impotence even as I drop a few dollars into their outstretched hands, or choose not to, knowing it’s not really going to change their lives or help pull them out of poverty.
Now I know I can’t eradicate poverty and injustice all by myself, and I won’t see it end in my lifetime. Even Jesus said, “The poor are always with you,” but I still wonder, am I doing enough? Should I volunteer even more of my time, give everything I have to the poor? Should I let a couple of lions chew on me to show my commitment to my faith? How much sacrifice is required to really be a Christian? Why do I feel this nagging sense that I’m getting it wrong?
I’m the kind of person who appreciates clear, simple communication. If something seems vague or complicated, I will interrogate it until I can boil it down to its core or break it down into its most basic parts. In my struggle to figure out how to live my most Christian life, I decided to apply this same thought process, beginning with the word itself. The word “Christian” means “follower of Christ.” In the gospels, Jesus is constantly urging people to follow him. At the time, this was a literal invitation to physically go where he went, but also to live how he lived, which is how we can still follow him today, by following his example. And what we see when we look at his example, again and again, is that Jesus engaged everyone who crossed his path. He debated the Pharisees, ate supper with tax collectors, visited the sick, touched the untouchable, wept for the dead, taught and fed the crowds, washed the feet of his friends, played with the children. If someone came to him, they would be received, seen and heard and touched. He consistently defied protocol and ignored established social norms in order to connect with others. Jesus embodied what’s written on our sign out front, that love is an action. Love is constantly reaching out to others, to be in relationship. And I realized that this was what I had been missing in my quest to make just the right sacrifice. It’s not supposed to be about just giving away my stuff, my time or talent, it’s about giving away my self, in love. It’s not about finding the right cause, the right person, or the right moment. If I am going to call myself a Christian, I need to love the people God puts in front of me right now. Here’s where the chocolate comes in.
As far as I am concerned, chocolate is one of the chief reasons for living. Since the first time I wrapped a piece of lime green yarn around a Snickers and left it in the fridge for my dad to find on his birthday, giving chocolate has been an expression of love. No gift in our house is complete without it, and I keep an ongoing stash in my desk drawer for a little evening indulgence while I finish paperwork. The last time I went to Walgreen’s to stock up, I encountered a man sitting outside asking for money and was beset with my usual sense of despair and impotence. As I perused the candy aisle brooding about it, it occurred to me that I have a lot more chocolate than the average person, and I show love by giving it away. So, on my way out, I asked the man if he wanted a candy bar. He said, “Oh, yes please!” so I dug one out of my bag and we shared a smile, a few friendly words, and our mutual delight in chocolate. I tried this again when I encountered someone outside the grocery store asking for money, and again was greeted with a surprised smile and a moment of connection.
Now I know that a few dollars and a candy bar is about the least I can give to another person, and it’s not going to do a thing to end poverty or lift up the oppressed. Going around handing out chocolate does not a Christian make. It’s not really going to change anyone’s life.
Except that it did. It changed my life, because it changed how I gave, it changed my spirit around the exchange. Instead of giving out of a sense of sacrifice or obligation, I was sharing something I really love with another person as an expression of my love for him, a way to connect, from one child of God to another. Instead of feeling powerless and downtrodden, I felt joy. For that moment, I felt the pure joy of following Jesus’ example to reach out and love the person God put in front of me.
And I believe that’s what it looks like to really be a Christian. Obviously it doesn’t always look like sharing chocolate; maybe it looks like blessing instead of cursing that guy who cuts us off in traffic. Sometimes it will involve giving time or money, or even making sacrifices. We won’t always get it right, and it won’t always be easy to remember to act now. But as long as we can remember to keep striving to act out of love and joy, to give our whole selves to the moment of connection, then it will be the Christian thing to do.