Chapter 11: Paper Scraps and Worship
Kids are pretty terrible at keeping secrets. Maybe this is why they’re not typically hired to do intelligence work. For Christmas this past year, both Ellie and Francis made a gift for Courtney and I at their school. The gift each kid made was a battery-operated light made to look like a large candle (it’s like they knew exactly what I was hoping for), and they brought the candles home two weeks before Christmas.
The day they brought the candles home, even before taking their backpacks off, the secret was too much for Francis to hold in. He jumped off the bus (after it was stopped of course) and said, “Hey, dad, we made you a candle but you can’t know about it because it’s a secret. It’s for you, for Christmas, but it’s a secret.” I assured him that he could trust me with the information. Ellie was slightly more discreet, but within three hours she couldn’t resist showing me what she had made. In the two weeks that followed, I had approximately 10 conversations with the kids about how excited they were for us to see the secret candles that they had made for us. I was even asked to fix one of the secret candles on Christmas Eve because the battery had already run out from extensive use over the previous two weeks. Finally on Christmas morning Ellie and Francis put the candles under the tree, completely unwrapped, and asked Courtney and I if we knew what gifts we’d receive. The children were so excited to finally give us the candles, and I should’ve received an Oscar nomination for the convincing work I did in feigning surprise. My surprise was faked but the gratitude was completely genuine.
Ellie loves drawing and coloring, and it’s exciting to see her develop as an artist. Most days she’ll bring home 1-2 papers with her drawings, and usually she creates each piece with either Courtney or me in mind. From the color choices to the theme of the drawing, Ellie is very intentional with all the decisions that go into the art that she gives us. No matter how many pages of her artwork Ellie creates during and after school, she’s always clear about who each piece was intended for. She’s had this love of drawing since she was two years old, but it’s nice for us now that the things she draws are obvious and we don’t have to offer vague affirmations of, “You really did a great job coloring whatever that shape represents, and I can tell you put a lot of work into that yellow thing in the corner.”
Gifts from Francis require the use of one’s imagination. He walked up to me a few days ago and handed me 15 scraps of paper, some with blue writing on them but none of them in any commonly recognized shape. He proceeded to explain that the largest piece was an “underwater rocket ship” and that the remaining scraps were various related accessories. Naturally the rocket set was a gift for me, so now I’m trying to keep track of all these pieces so none of them are mistaken for trash. Hopefully my wife can tell the difference between a booster pack and torn paper destined for the recycling bin, even if they appear at first glance to be one and the same. Without fail, Francis always brings something home that he made for me at school. Years later he might admit that he just didn’t want to throw away the trash that he had collected in his backpack, but for now I’m believing that these gifts are coming from the bottom of his heart.
Isaac has recently started handing me my things that he finds in the house. One morning it was a shoe, the next day it was the wireless mouse for our laptop. His joy in giving me these things is evident in his beaming smile as he runs to me with whatever he’s grabbed. It’s especially sweet because he’s so young that his vocabulary’s very limited, so the interaction just involves him handing me the item and him saying “Daaaaaaddy.” Sometimes the gifts are even personalized, like handing my wife her phone or bringing one of my shoes to me. He’s so proud of himself for being able to give us these things and his face lights up as he walks over with gifts in hand.
After seeing the play A Christmas Carol, Ellie and Francis are now obsessed with reenacting the scenes for Courtney and me. They’ve been going strong for months now and show no signs of slowing down. Unfortunately for us, they only remember a handful of lines and the part of the plot they’ve latched onto is the haunting by Jacob Marley’s ghost. Every day Ellie and Francis sit us down in the living room so they can compete for the role of the dead accountant. My wife and I are so proud of our kids for aiming at realistic life goals. Who needs superheroes anyway? When Ellie’s playing Marley’s ghost, there’s a lot of singing as she relates every detail she remembers about the play. Francis’ performances are a lot shorter and just involve him marching around yelling, “I’m Jacob Marley, and I’ve been in prison my whole life.” Honestly the acting isn’t that great. Neither of them is believable in the role, they haven’t memorized many lines, and they always pick the worst possible time of day to perform (right before dinner). It’s the best. There’s nothing in the world that makes me laugh harder than Francis playing the role of Jacob Marley, and I could listen to Ellie’s musical commentary all day.
I’m sure that eventually our kids will outgrow paper-based gifts, or in Isaac’s case, finding what was never lost and gifting me with items that already belonged to me. As much as I won’t miss having to account for the now hundreds of paper scraps that were crafted with me in mind, I will be sad when the kids get older and the gifts become more practical. I’m sure at least one of our kids will continue to improve artistically as they get older, but there’s something especially beautiful about our kids giving us art that’s not all that aesthetically impressive. It’s a strange generosity that Francis, our fast-moving son who never spends more than three minutes on an activity, would cut up hundreds of pieces of paper and scribble on each one with different markers. Even Isaac’s attempts at gift-giving move my heart as his face makes it clear that he is thrilled to be able to do something helpful. I can’t imagine receiving gifts from our kids more meaningful than the drawings, the scraps, and the left shoes I’ve been given. Guests to our house are clueless when they see pieces of paper and lonely shoes randomly dispersed, but I’ve got all these reminders of how loved I am everywhere I step.
When I was a kid, the only gifts I remember giving my parents were purchased at my elementary school’s annual Christmas gift bazaar. Looking back now, I wonder why they never had any normal or desirable gifts for sale. Presumably there were some parents involved in the organization of the sale, as I can’t imagine 9-year-olds brokering consignment deals with the type of vendors that would sell English Leather cologne and steel wool pads.
You’d think that the parents planning the event would’ve at least included gifts that were desirable or at least useful. Maybe they did have great gifts and I just remember the cologne. All I know is that every boy in my third grade class walked in with the intention of purchasing meaningful gifts for each of our families, but we all found the cheap cologne we really needed and walked out of that cafeteria smelling like old men. We also gave the cologne as gifts to our dads, and I still remember my excitement in giving the English Leather to mine. I was convinced that I had found the perfect gift for him, even though I’d never known him to wear cologne. I don’t remember his reaction, but the memory does provide some empathy when my kids hand me their daily gifts.
In 2001 I spent a semester studying here in Gaming, Austria, with Franciscan University of Steubenville. Though I didn’t play it well, I thought I would look cool if I brought a guitar to Europe. I mostly wanted stickers from everywhere I traveled to put on my guitar case. Until now, it never dawned on me that I probably could’ve saved myself from a lot of work if I had just left the guitar in Ohio, bought the stickers in Europe, and waited till I got back home to America to put them on the case. So I brought this guitar, with little ability to play and absolutely no ability to sing.
Soon after arriving in Gaming, one of the Franciscan priests who was working with the study abroad program introduced himself to me and told me that he wanted me to be in charge of music ministry for the masses all semester. I quickly explained that I neither played nor sang, despite the guitar I was holding. He must not have been listening; a week later I found myself leading a music group at mass. Fortunately we were up in the choir loft, so I could be nervous without being seen by everyone. I had no problem with being in front of people, but I only like being in front of people if it’s on my terms. I’m totally comfortable giving a talk to a large audience, but I knew I wasn’t a musician and this insecurity left me really anxious. I was the only instrumentalist, so I asked three or four friends if they’d sing with me to help drown out the sound of my guitar and, more importantly, my voice. For each song and mass part, I’d strum a short introduction and then give a vigorous head nod so the singers could come in and take over.
We were doing just fine until the memorial acclamation. This is the part of the mass in the middle of the consecration, right after the bread and wine have become the Body and Blood of Christ. Everyone is kneeling, the church is silent in prayer, and it’s now time for us to lead the congregation in singing, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” For anyone not familiar with the flow of the Catholic mass, this is really a solemn moment in the liturgy. The singers and I had rehearsed this part several times, so I played the three-chord intro and nodded my head for them to start singing. They just stared at me confused, so I tried playing the intro again.
This time I nodded even more dramatically, once again grateful that I was invisible to the congregation and safely perched in the choir loft. More blank stares followed and I was aware that the mass simply had to go on; neither the liturgy’s rubrics nor my guitar ability could withstand a third attempt at the introduction. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and I realized I would have to sing.
Unfortunately I realized two seconds too late and had already missed the first two words of the phrase before belting out, “DIED” at a volume level higher than necessary and spoke-sang the rest of the acclamation. People say that usually when you’re embarrassed, you’re focusing on something that nobody else even noticed. I hoped it was the case that no one in the congregation was even aware of my slip up. After putting the music away, I headed to lunch to meet up with my friends. Within seconds of my entrance, one girl just looked at me and yelled “DIED” from across the room. Apparently other people had heard my brush with death.
Though I showed up in Austria with no plans of doing anything musical in front of people, God had other plans. It wasn’t like I had these secret talents I was keeping hidden; I knew that I wasn’t good and that’s why I never planned to do anything with music. What began with a painfully humbling experience later became an important part of my life and my youth ministry. Eventually I got less bad at singing and playing, and I was given incredible opportunities to travel and lead music for several retreats and events from that point forward. It’s been clear to me that this talent wasn’t at all the fruit of my efforts or some natural ability; I knew it was simply a gift from God the Father and a way that He was inviting me to participate in what He was doing in the world.
In the Gospel of John we find the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people. Jesus first asked his disciples if they had any ideas of how they could feed such a huge crowd. Phillip responds that the cost alone for such a feat made it unimaginable. Then we’re told that a boy came forward with a few loaves of bread and some fish. Next thing you know, Jesus is thanking His Father and the disciples are running around collecting leftovers after everyone had eaten as much as they wanted. I find it interesting that Jesus isn’t helped by any of the professionals; His supplier that day was just some kid who happened to have extra food.
Scripture is full of stories of God continuing to invite unqualified people to play a role in His story. He picked Moses with a speech impediment to speak truth to the pharaoh, He picked David to be king even though his only previous work experience was taking care of sheep, and Jesus bypassed a handful of full-time fisherman that day to receive the generous gift of two fish that this little boy had to offer.
I’m not at all comparing my short-lived music career to the Davidic Kingdom or to the Exodus, though an argument could be made that my initial musical attempts were reminiscent of plagues. When we give anything to God with a generous heart, He receives it with joy and blesses it. I believe the Father delights especially in our awkward gifts and our sputtering attempts to please Him. There’s something beautiful in the humility of children giving their all in something they’re not particularly talented at. As we get older and our pride becomes attached to our proficiencies and our comfort zones, it’s much easier to give from places of surplus in our lives.
As the Church dives into the New Evangelization and seeks to re-engage the baptized and reach those outside the Church, I think it’s a real danger that we would overemphasize our role and underestimate the centrality of the Holy Spirit’s work. God forbid we turn the Gospel into a talent show where we line up the best looking and best sounding Catholics to wow people from a stage. At best, we’d convince the world that we have good speakers.
It seems that God loves to work powerfully through people that clearly don’t have much to offer from a worldly perspective. No one hearing Peter preach at Pentecost left thinking that he should start a career as a motivational speaker, yet the Spirit of God was in his words and thousands converted that day. The Father wants to involve all of us in bringing glory to His name; the only question is if we will allow Him to do so. The underequipped and the unqualified become the best candidates, because when good things happen through them, it’s clear to everyone that the power must be coming from God.
My kids point me daily to the reality that God the Father rejoices in everything we offer Him from our hearts. Whether we’re giving Him some good work we’re proud of, or simply handing over our failures and our shortcomings, the Father delights in our gifts. If I am able to see the love Francis puts into every piece of paper he cuts for me, how much more must the Father know and see every single effort I put into loving Him, no matter how successful or impressive. Our worship is beautiful to God because He sees the love behind our distracted prayer and our heartfelt attempts to be patient with each other. Just as the messy and aesthetically lacking art from my kids is more beautiful to me than the professionally done paintings hanging on our walls, I’m convinced that God the Father delights in our awkward and messy attempts to please Him. He doesn’t just put up with our lack of coordination; He delights in the beauty that only a parent could recognize.
In the mass before the bread and wine are consecrated, one of the prayers addressed to God the Father includes the phrase, “You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank You is itself Your gift.” As our loving Father, God patiently teaches us how to pray to Him. We’re more helpless than my son, Isaac; we can’t even begin to pray without the Holy Spirit teaching us how. And this isn’t annoying or frustrating to God; He loves us in the midst of our inabilities and our neediness. Like Isaac handing me shoes that were already mine, our generosity to the Lord is simply a response to what He’s already given us. In every liturgy, we mysteriously participate in the once-and-for-all offering of Jesus to the Father for the salvation of the world (CCC 1366). The best gift we can possibly give our heavenly Father is His perfect Son; even our worship requires divine assistance throughout. The humble bread and simple wine brought to the altar at every mass should remind us of how lopsided our exchanges are with God. We give Him so little, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Father gives us back our gifts transformed into Jesus. Surrendering to God always leads to gaining more; are we willing to entrust Him with everything He’s already given us?