“We bought a sheep for grandma!” my wife Linda told our daughter Laurel.

Of course she told her. We wanted little, preschool  Laurel in the charitable-gift-giving loop.

Grandma and grandpa had requested that we not buy them any individual presents for Christmas, but that we buy a sheep for someone in Africa or somewhere and give it in their name. The process wasn’t quite clear to Laurel. It wasn’t really for us either.

So Laurel looked up at her mom and asked, “Could we keep it at our house for a few days before we send it to grandma and grandpa?”

It begs the question, “How hands on is our charity?”

Sometimes not very, particularly when it’s just a check in the mail to an organization that handles the sheep.  But, like Laurel, many of us want it and like it hands on. We want our charity soft, wooly, “baaing,” huggable and kissable.

On Sunday Will and Judd were at church. I hugged them both, their scruffy, unwashed beards against my cheek. It was sheep,  up close — their stale alcohol breath, dirty clothes and vacant eyes right there, very near and personal. I prayed for each one, leaning in towards them, putting one of my hands on the back of their heads.

After praying for Judd, I looked into his glazed eyes and said, “I am asking you to make the choice, to stop drinking, because it is killing you.”

He looked me steadily in the eyes and said nothing. His brain wasn’t working, or was, just a little, but processing extremely slowly.

He knows I love him.

This is better for me than the check in the mail, even thought the check in the mail is good and sent sheep, good.

I’m wondering, how hands on is my love for my own flesh and blood. How near am I willing to get, because it’s interesting, getting close to the sheep.

The closer I get, the weaker I feel. When you get right next to mental illness, to addiction and to extreme social dysfunction, its makes you feel small and inadequate. Often, you aren’t sure of how to bring lasting, meaningful solutions.

But despite that, it’s so right and good and meaningful to be there, smack up against the stale,  broken, dying essence of of charity. I’m learning things there. I can’t make choices for other people.  I won’t be successful in helping if I try to do too much for them. They have to choose, they have to want change, they have to fight, hard, for their own lives.

But, I and we can do something. We can open up opportunities, we can present clear choices, we can resource possibilities and we  can pray for the sheep  and we can love them and stand with them even when they choose to not choose to change anything.

And some of us can even bring some sheep  home, if we want, for a bit, and give a wooly hug.

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