by Father Mark Goldasich
One of the songs I remember singing in high school seminary would probably give liturgists dyspepsia today. But I liked the peppy, fun tune, “God Loves a Cheerful Giver.”
Its refrain went like this: “God loves a cheerful giver/ give it all you’ve got./ He loves to hear you laughing/ when you’re in an awkward spot./ When the odds add up against you,/ it’s time to stop and sing,/ ‘Praise God,’ to praise him is a joyous thing.”
Certainly high on the list of cheerful givers is Miss Ellie, a woman introduced to the world by Lutheran pastor Heidi Neumark in her book, “Breathing Space.” When she was a college student, Neumark worked for a year in a volunteer program on Johns Island, off the Carolina coast. The residents there were sons and daughters of plantation slaves.
Miss Ellie, one of those residents, lived down a small dirt road in a one-room, wooden home. She and Neumark would often sit in old rocking chairs on the front porch, drinking tall glasses of sweet tea, while Miss Ellie regaled her with stories. Miss Ellie, who was somewhere between 90 and 100, had a friend named Netta, whom she’d known since they were small.
To get to Netta’s house, Miss Ellie had to walk for miles through fields of tall sweet grass that was also home to numerous poisonous snakes. Even though Netta’s home wasn’t that far from Miss Ellie’s place, a stream cut across the fields, forcing you to walk quite a distance to get to the place where it narrowed enough to pass.
I’ll let Neumark pick up the story:
“Poor Miss Ellie, I thought, old and arthritic, having to walk all that way, pushing through the thick summer heat, not to mention avoiding the snakes.
I hit upon the perfect plan. I arranged with some men to help build a simple plank bridge across the stream near Miss Ellie’s house. I scouted out the ideal place — not too wide, but too deep to cross. Our bridge was built in a day. I was so excited that I could hardly wait to see Miss Ellie’s reaction. I went to her house and practically dragged her with me.
‘Look!’ I shouted, ‘a shortcut for you to visit Netta!’ Miss Ellie did not look grateful. Instead, she shook her head and looked at me with pity.
‘Child,’ she said, ‘I don’t need a shortcut.’ Then she told about all the friends she kept up with on her way to visit Netta: Mr. Jenkins, with whom she always swapped gossip; Miss Hunter, who so looked forward to the quilt scraps she’d bring by; the raisin wine she’d taste at one place in exchange for her biscuits; and the chance to look in on the “old folks” who were sick.
‘Child,’ Miss Ellie said, ‘you can’t take shortcuts if you want friends in this world. Shortcuts don’t mix with love.’” (Found in “1001 Illustrations That Connect,” by Craig Brian Larson and Phyllis Ten Elshof, general editors.)
Miss Ellie certainly speaks with the wisdom of years. How often, though, we do take shortcuts with the people that we love, giving gobs of time instead to what truly doesn’t last and ultimately isn’t fulfilling.
A new school year should be a time of learning for everyone. Aren’t we all students of life? Don’t we strive and want to become holier people? Lessons won’t be learned by magic, however; we have to commit ourselves to our coursework. And that takes discipline.
Labor Day weekend, the unofficial end of summer, is a good time to get back “into the groove.” Start by enrolling in the class called “Shortcuts don’t mix with love.”
The first lesson is to take stock of where you are now in your lives and how you spend your days. Next, you’re instructed to look deeply into your heart to see what important people you never seem to have time for. Finally, your homework is to discipline yourself to give up those shortcuts that you’ve mixed in with love over the years.
Old Miss Ellie is a wonderful, inspiring teacher of how best to spend the time of our lives. Following her example, let’s become cheerful givers, giving all we’ve got, of our time, attention, energy and love — not only to family and friends, but also especially to those who are lonely and forgotten. Let’s not take short- cuts when it comes to love . . . or our days may be cut short of all that truly makes life worth living.