July 26, 2008

The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Is that social or political?” He said, “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.”

(desmond tutu)

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As the praise band finished our songs that began the church service on Sunday, we walked with our guitars out into the lobby to put them away so we could come back into the sanctuary with the gospel choir. But we discovered a small difficulty: Erica had left her guitar case at the front of the church. As we instructed one of the church youth who sang with us to get the case, she hesitated, saying, “Church is going on…you can’t just walk up there during the service…”

The youth group leader looked skeptical and replied, “The church is a living and breathing thing. It’s not a play. You’re allowed to move and be alive.”

I couldn’t help but note the significance of that statement.

Our regard of church has become too concerned with flawless presentation, and so we all cringe in agony when the sound system makes obnoxiously loud feedback in the middle of the sermon—not just because it hurts our ears, but because it interrupts the successful smoothness of the church service. I’ve noticed that many contemporary churches have created a fine line between entertainment and worship.

But church is the people.

Since people are far from flawless and do things like let a baby near the sound controls or leave their guitar case in the front of the sanctuary, the movements and mishaps of church embody us and reflect our imperfections.

I used to get completely frustrated by tone deaf voices that stood near me in the choir stands. But, strange as it sounds, after singing in my more perfect-sounding gospel choir in college, I found that when I returned to sing at my home church, the bad notes of voices that clashed with mine were comforting and seemed more alive. Life is nothing smooth or flawless. It’s when we attempt to gloss over our mistakes and present ourselves as perfect that we become even greater hypocrites and liars.

If we spend too much of our energy on Sunday mornings concentrated on getting things just right, we can easily create a nice and entertaining service that is too far removed from our imperfect lives.

This weekend I went on a camping trip with our church’s youth group full of city kids, most of whom had never ventured into the woods to sleep before. It made for an entertaining evening filled with instruction on tent construction and etiquette and their sounds of awe at the realization that wood really does burn to make fire. The next day, I escaped the hot sun to spend some time lounging in the shade. Since I was living closer to the land than usual, I thought this would be an appropriate time to read my library book of Wendell Berry essays, Citizenship Papers (Berry is a farmer/writer/cultural critic who has a lot of wise ideas about good ways to live).

As I looked up from my reading to see a young boy from the youth group drop an entire tomato into the dirt and proceed to toss it in the trash bag because it was “dirty,” I thought about the fact that this very tomato was born in the dirt. The large disconnect that exists between the food we eat and the dirt it came from contributes to the “profound failure of imagination” that Wendell Berry describes in his essay “In Distrust of Movements“:

“We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history (human or natural) beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper; or the landscapes, the streams, and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimming pools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations. And that is, in fact, the conventional economic assumption. . .

Money does not bring forth food.”

I know that my imagination has often failed in this way without even realizing it.

This past spring I helped out at a wonderful organization called Joshua Farm in Harrisburg, PA. When Kirsten, the woman who runs it, informed us that part of her mission for the urban farm was to educate kids living in the city that the food they eat comes from the ground and not the grocery store shelf, I chuckled. Everyone knows that food doesn’t come from the grocery store… but maybe subconsciously we don’t. Our general concern is that we have the money needed to acquire our food, and we don’t concern ourselves nearly as much with the health of the land and the weather conditions that are the real reasons we have food. As I worked at Joshua Farm each week, I discovered that I was the urban child that this farm was educating.

Jesus for President (my most quoted book of the summer) poses the question,

“How can we fully love the Creator when we’ve grown so far from the creation?”

I’ve spent much of my summer marveling at the first garden I’ve ever had. My dad and I work on it together, and our neighbors generously let us grow it in their yard. I can’t believe how different the experience is to collect my food from the ground that I’ve watched and cared for all summer.

It’s making my imagination fail a little less.

sick of greed

July 13, 2008

I recently watched Michael Moore’s Sicko, his documentary based on the American health care system. I have learned to watch his films with a skeptical regard for his presentation of certain facts, but I have to say that he makes a highly entertaining, humorous, and thought-provoking documentary. Although Moore presents the universal health care systems in Canada, England, France, and Cuba as hospital paradises without acknowledging that they aren’t picture-perfect, his movie is valuable because it questions the way our society is run and explores alternatives practiced in other countries that would be an improvement for us.

As I watched the depiction of various problems that American people have encountered when dealing with health insurance, I couldn’t help but cringe at the realization that all of them stemmed from greed for wealth. Since when did the digits that follow a dollar sign take on more significance than compassion for another human being?

I have heard of one alternative to regular heath insurance: Christian Healthcare Ministries. It’s a non-profit organization that was created based on the idea that when one person is in need, people of the church can pool their resources to help that person out. It’s health insurance minus the multi-millionaire middle-man. Given that I only just graduated from college and have yet to worry about my own health insurance, I have limited knowledge about health insurance altogether. But I do know that there has to be a better way than making health care available to people in proportion to how much money they have and forgetting to consider their equal value as people.

I had to get to the library today to return my non-renewable overdue book—otherwise another 5 cents would be added to my library bill that has steadily grown toward the $10 limit ever since I paid it the last two times. The question was how I would get there.

As I contemplated riding my bike on the 2-mile trip, all my inclinations decided to argue against this idea. My dad raises my bike seat every year to “keep up with my growth,” but since I stopped growing years ago, my bike seat height has surpassed me by a good four inches. While I could maintain balance last year with my freakishly strong tip-toes, I discover that this year’s seat growth has made it impossible to ride without instantly falling over. Additionally, a giant hill stands between me and the library, the bike’s brakes squeak, the gears only almost work, the thermometer on the bedroom wall reads 92 degrees, my library card is conveniently connected to my key chain right next to the car key, and the family car that gets decent gas millage sits unused in the driveway, patiently beckoning me to take the easy road.

I knew the right thing to do, so I got out the ratchet set to lower the bike seat to a workable position, chugged a nalgene of ice water, and began pedaling past the family car and the giant hill to get to the library.

As I was riding, I remembered adjusting back to American culture from studying abroad in Uganda last summer, and my favorite recommendations for remaining sane and living simply were to use the seemingly limitless access to entertainment goods that the library provides and to ride my bike. Now that I’m more comfortable in this country (although still experiencing steady sensations of discomfort, as I always intend to), it has become too easy to jump into the car to drive walkable or bike-rideable distances. And it has become almost as easy to convince myself that I need a new bike so I can commit myself to riding it more consistently. Today’s Frazz comic indicated just this tendency.

But for the time being, I’ve convinced myself to be grateful for the screeching brakes and constantly clicking gears of my dependable old bike that alert the entire neighborhood when I arrive. My goal is to fight the tendency for betterness & increased seeming perfection and realize the living beauty that dwells in the imperfections. It brushes my face like the hot breeze of riding the loud bike I got for my 14th birthday up the big hill on a scorching hot day to get to the library.

As we reach the end of George W.’s presidency, I realize that there’s one thing about the past 8 years that I’m really going to miss: David Letterman’s “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches.” I just can’t help but enjoy watching Bush’s latest blunder whenever I watch The Late Show:

My favorite might be his comments about Iran… “I mean Iraq.” I watch this in contrast to the “Yes We Can” video based on one of Obama’s speeches. Will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas did an impressive job making Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech into a song with the help of a handful of celebrities :

The words of Obama’s speech are so poetic and inspiring (especially when sung by John Legend and the girl who played Ashley on the Fresh Prince of Belair), and the song is so well done, that it has all kinds of people singing it—like this acapella group that label themselves Barackapella.

I can’t help but include the link to a spoof of the Obama “Yes We Can” video that someone made about John McCain. It cites the humorous line: McCain 2008: Like hope, but different.

Obama voices a sense that many of us have that things have repeatedly gone too wrong in the past, but we have the choice to do things differently. I think there is surge of eagerness for making drastic changes to the way we live and the way we regard the world within my generation. The difficulty arises here when we put too much hope in our government to change the world, and we forget to recognize that the most important change for each of us must spring out of the way that we daily lead our own lives.

I’ll miss chuckling at the terribly misspoken words of George W. I have concluded he would make a friendly and funny grandpa even though he made a pretty bad president. I always have to shy away from nationalism and putting too much hope in the capabilities of this empire when led by any person, but I can’t help but hope to repair this world.

Today in church I got into a conversation with a church member about the downfalls of sweatshops. She questioned what was so bad about child labor in sweatshops, so I shared this story with her that I recently read in Jesus for President (here is a great article with the same story). Shane Claiborne writes,

Several years ago, I attended a protest against sweatshops where the organizers had not invited the typical rally speakers — lawyers, activists, advocates. Instead, they brought kids from the sweatshops. A child from Indonesia pointed to his face. “I got this scar when my master lashed me for not working hard enough. When it bled, he did not want me to stop working or to ruin the cloth, so he took a lighter and burned it shut. I got this scar making stuff for you.”

As I shared this story with my friend, she questioned, “Well what can we DO about it?!”

That’s the million-dollar question. It’s a heavy prospect to realize that the clothes we wear cause people real pain and that the money we spend on them finances unethical treatment of fellow human beings. The Center for a New American Dream has some good resources about practical ways we can alter the way we live, encouraging us to “consume responsibly to protect the environment, enhance quality of life, and promote social justice.”

Here are some of my suggestions for doing what we can in our daily lives to aid the problem:

1. Pay the extra money for fair trade products.

2. The way to afford fair trade products? BUY LESS!

3. Make your own clothes (and anything else that can be made out of fabric). Be resourceful about it: use old clothes/sheets/curtains/fabric to create something new and useful.

4. Visit thrift stores and garage sales…not to buy tons of cheap crap that you won’t use, but to enjoy searching for things that you NEED and CAN use.

5. TRADE items with friends. It’s fun.

6. SHARE what you have with your roommates, family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, church members, etc.

I love clothes. But over a year ago I realized that I always bought new clothes before they ever got worn out. So I made a commitment to not buy any new clothes for a year. It was rough at first.

I don’t know when it happened, but as the year went on, my coveting of new clothes seemed to disappear. As I sewed holes in jeans, skirts, and shirts, I began to learn what contentment felt like. I’ve passed the year of my commitment to not buying new clothes, but I have no desire to buy any anytime soon.

As a college graduation gift, my aunt generously gave me a gift certificate to Revive, a wonderful fair trade clothing store located in Cleveland Hts. On my first trip there, I was so overwhelmed with the ability to buy whatever I wanted that I ended up being unable to choose anything. I’m slightly closer to understanding what it means to have ENOUGH. Only slightly though. I have a lot of work ahead of me.

This morning as I drove to work, I heard the voices on the radio discussing an idea from Smith Magazine called the six-word memoir. It’s pretty self explanatory: tell your life in six words. The American haiku. We condense everything else important into as little amount of time as possible, so why not squeeze our life story into six words, right? But there is something to be said for putting restrictions onto how a story is told. The forced careful contemplation of poetry creates something incomparable to daily ramblings. The words become teachers themselves.

I read through some of the six-word memoirs posted on their website (it doesn’t take too long). Some are a little bogus since they are only six words because the creators slash some articles and verbs from a sentence. Others, however, struck me with how much they say. Here are some of the highlights:

Suddenly life was suprisingly, imperfectly beautiful.

Regretted tomorrow’s inaction before it passed.

Started off kosher. Then, discovered bacon.

My rise to fame went unnoticed.

Obvious tip of iceberg. Titanic repercussions

Degree in English. I sell furniture.

Living in the perpetual “almost there.”

“It’s twins,” he said. Oh Crap.

As this is reminiscent of the haiku, another website of interest is Heartbreak Haiku, where the creators encourage people to condense their heartbreaks into 17 syllables and post them rather than bother their friends by endlessly whining about them—or I suppose you could do both.