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Giving until it really hurts


Some people won't admit this, but church would be a lot more fun if it weren't for the stress of deciding how much to put in the collection basket.

On the one hand, you don't want to seem . . . cheap.

On the other hand, unless you're rolling in money, you can't throw what you'd like to throw in the basket. Because then you won't be able to pay your bills, and pretty soon somebody down at the utility company will throw a switch and your house will be without electricity.

I'll tell you what the worst thing is, though. The worst thing is to be sitting next to some closet millionaire when they take up the collection. Boy, millionaires can make you look bad. They really can.

I was in church a few months ago and they were taking up the collection when suddenly the guy to my left tossed in a hundred dollar bill.

And he didn't toss it in there discreetly, either. It wasn't folded in half so you might mistake it for a $10 or a $20 or a $50. No, the guy made a big show out of opening his wallet and taking out the hundred.

And when he threw it in the basket, the bill was all spread out and nice and new. It was so crisp it even made this little crinkling sound.

Boy, I'll tell you. The church is always teaching: Love thy neighbor. But I couldn't stand this guy already, and I didn't even know him.

(Which is why I've always maintained there should be separate churches for millionaires. I know God loves us all equally, but these people can really get on your nerves.

(I bet they even get on God's nerves. He's just too polite to do anything about it.)

So anyway, Mr. Big Bucks throws in this crisp new hundred dollar bill and now the collection basket is speeding my way like a Formula I car.

And all I have on me is 50 cents.

Believe me, if I'd had more money, I would have coughed it up. All of it. Because nobody wants to be shown up in church, even by a millionaire.

But all I had was some change because I had rushed out of the house without grabbing any money.

So I threw in the 50 cents and then sort of slouched down in my seat, trying to disappear into the woodwork.

The usher acted like it was no big deal, me throwing in a lousy 50 cents after Mr. Big Bucks tossed in a hundred.

But you could tell he was thinking: "What a loser."

Which is sort of what I was thinking myself. I mean, 50 cents! You could be 6 years old with a sidewalk lemonade stand and throw in more than that.

Let me tell you something about these ushers, though. They pretend they don't notice what you put in the collection basket, but I can assure you that's an act.

See, as an usher, you're taught not to register any emotion whatsoever, no matter what people put in the basket. (You learn all this at Usher School, by the way. It's all very hush-hush.)

Even when people throw in slugs, Canadian coins, Monopoly money -- which they do, all the time -- you're taught to remain impassive.

Which is a good thing, I guess. Because you wouldn't want to throw in $5 and have some big usher with hairy knuckles lean over and grab you by the collar and say: "Listen, pal. How 'bout making it $10 this week?"

After the collection's over, though, these ushers all get together in the back of the church and talk about what everybody put in the basket.

Oh, it's brutal. The conversation goes something like this:

"See the stiff in the brown sweater?"

"Guy with the big nose?"

"Yeah. He put in 75 cents."

"Mr. Big Spender! Can he spare it?"

Which puts even more pressure on you as the time for the collection nears.

Sometimes the sermon will take my mind off how much to put in the basket.

My favorite sermons are the quick, upbeat ones where the priest says: "Look, you're all doing a great job. And you're all going to heaven. Thanks for coming and please drive home safely."

Then I can go back to sinning with a clear conscience. Believe me, there is nothing worse than sinning and thinking: "This is the one that's gonna land me in the Eternal Flames."

Which is what I think when I don't put a lot in the collection basket.

Oh, I know that's silly. I'm sure God isn't up there thinking: "Geez, that Cowherd's a little tight this week. Might have to shoot a few lightning bolts his way, shake him up a little."

At least I hope He's not thinking that.

Because the truth is . . . well, I just had a few unforeseen expenses, that's all.

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