Monday, January 19, 2015

The Voice of God

I am totally in love with this poem by Mary Karr.

The Voice of God

The Voice of God Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you
  could be cured with a hot bath,
says God from the bowels of the subway.
  but we want magic, to win
the lottery we never bought a ticket for.
  (Tenderly, the monks chant, embrace
the suffering.) The voice of God does not pander,
  offers no five year plan, no long-term
solution, nary an edict. It is small & fond & local.
  Don’t look for your initials in the geese
honking overhead or to see thru the glass even
  darkly. It says the most obvious crap—
put down that gun, you need a sandwich.

 From Commonweal

Friday, January 2, 2015

Prayers for the new year

It was my turn this week to write the World In Prayer prayers. With my deadline on January 1, of course I was thinking about the new year. I realized how odd it is that we give this one arbitrary day such significance as a time of new beginnings since every day gives us that same opportunity, so I decided to write prayers that could actually be used at any time. I didn't refer to any specific world events, but certainly for me there was a lot of subtext in what I chose to focus on. But I wanted to leave them open enough for people to include whatever is on their own hearts and minds.

I fussed around quite a bit with which order to put the intercessions. It's not perfect, but then, they never are.

At any rate, here you go. 

World News This Week in Prayer

Gracious God, our lives are new every morning. Each day we are given opportunities to love you and to love the people you send to us. As we begin a new year, we use this moment to rededicate ourselves to your service and our gifts and talents towards creating your kingdom in this world.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.

We rededicate ourselves to compassion: give us courage when we find ourselves encountering pain and suffering in others and in ourselves. Free us from judgment and self-righteousness and give us the gift of humility in all we do.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.

We rededicate ourselves to reconciliation: let us ask for forgiveness of those we have hurt; help us, in your mercy, to do the hard work of forgiving those who have hurt us. Where there is division between individuals, races, or tribes, may we be bearers of light and understanding.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.

We rededicate ourselves to hope: when we hear of wars that seem unending and see scars of conflict that run to the bone. In the face of natural disasters or calamities that we ourselves have made, inspire us with your hope to continue to seek your presence and your will.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.

We rededicate ourselves to justice: to fighting against unfair and unequal laws and treatment, and to exposing systems that benefit those who have much and penalize those who have little. Give wisdom to those in authority in this and every land, and give us courage to hold our leaders accountable for their actions.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.

We rededicate ourselves to peace: help us to respond to hatred with love, to anger with kindness. Fill us with your peace that we may share it wherever we go, that by our witness and our actions peace may fill the whole world.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, this day, this year, now and forever. All this we ask through the holy name of your son, Jesus Christ, who entered this world that the world may be saved. Through him we offer these prayers as we dedicate ourselves to you, today and always. Amen.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas in Vallejo

This story came to me through a neighborhood email list. I asked the teacher in the email if he'd let me share the story on my blog and he said "Of course. That's the idea: to keep it growing. Please delete my name, though." 

So here, name deleted, is a report from DAP's classroom in Vallejo.

Dear Neighbors, Our Winter Auction was a great success THANKS TO ALL OF YOU! The Vallejo Heights Neighborhood Association joined our Bay Terrace group in supporting the classroom's Winter Auction this year, allowing the students to get gifts for their family and friends that they otherwise would not be able to afford. And your response was truly moving.

It was such a big event that word spread through the school, kids hanging outside the classroom just to get a glimpse of the mountain of donations that had been accumulating for the last few weeks. In fact, it caused a bit of a commotion. At the end of the day, as we all prepared for a long vacation, some of my colleagues told me that I was a great teacher; and to those with whom I am close, I confided that I was just an average teacher of curricula, but a pretty good teacher of love (thanks to my mom). And as you read on, you'll see how the love you showed by donating so generously will continue to grow for a long time to come.

Prior to the very morning of the Auction, I assumed that claiming one of the five $20 Target gift cards, or one of four $15 Best Buy cards, or maybe the digital camera would be the single most popular item in this year's Auction. Along with some extra large stuffed animals - some of which even sang and danced - and a lot of new electronic items, I think they were leading the pack. But on the morning of the Auction, I received a lovingly-used bicycle. And when it rolled into class, I knew that practically every child in that moment really wanted that bright green, slick-looking bike.

And they did. Without a doubt. Each of them wanted it. For themselves. "Give it to me" was an omnipresent sentiment... Then, out of the back of the class, I heard a student call out, "Let's give it to Javier, so he can get to school." Javier - not his real name - is one of my students, whose single mother has a work schedule that interferes with transportation to and from school. In fact, just the day before, I had asked the kids to find out if they could help Javier with rides. He was being bullied when he walked back and forth from school to his home near Kaiser Hospital (a distance of about 3 miles!). Javier is a boy of above average intellect and has great potential, if he can just overcome the obstacles which he confronts and in which he played no part in creating.

Despite the palpable lust for that bright green bike that charged the room, another voice chimed in, "Yeah! Let's give it to Javier!" Of course, I could have, but I told them that I couldn't just give it away, since it was donated to an auction in which they were supposed to buy items with money earned for good behavior. The kids knew that Javier didn't have a lot off class money, because so frequently he was absent or late. But I also told them that if Javier made a bid and no one bid any higher, he'd automatically get the bike. Since Javier was late as usual, he had heard none of this.

The auction continued after Javier's arrival with a few more items - a bath robe, scented candles, a baby blanket and bib - and I made sure to wait until he understood how it worked before I brought out the bike. Typically, the kids just yell out, "Five dollars!" "Ten dollars!" (and even "$100" for the largest gifts), with the loudest voice driving the bids. You know, an open auction. Competitive. But with thirty-three 11-year-olds. When I rolled the bike across the floor, I asked, "And what is my bid for this almost-new bright green bike," and I paused before adding, "Javier?" Surprised at being singled-out when no one else had been before, he fumbled with his meager stash of cash before making his bid, which he knew was too low to win. "Fifty dollars."

Now I was on the line, personally. Not to make this about me, it's not. It's about my precious kids... what I'm trying to teach them between integers and earthquakes and Ancient India... and it's about all of you who made such kind donations. But to continue, I wondered whether they would show me that they had learned the lesson I teach and reteach and teach again: "From Egocentrism to Altruism." I know it sounds too advanced for sixth graders; but with a little help, they come to understand it. And in this moment, I would understand whether or not I had been successful. If everyone was quiet, they were putting Javier's needs before their own desires. But if someone spoke, I would know that I had not yet reached them all.

And someone did speak. As those first vibrations of sound moved through the air, I thought that I had failed. But when they reached my ears in their fullness, I knew the students had learned how to be altruistic. "Don't say anything!" came the hushed admonition from the crowd, along with an ample chorus of "Shhh!"s, until there wasn't a sound in the room. Complete silence. "Well, Javier, it looks like you've got yourself a new bike, young man," I told him, more pleased than I've felt in a very long time. The other students cheered and surrounded him, before escorting him to his new bike and intentionally making a big deal of how awesome it was. I shed a couple of tears in class that day and Javier arrived bright and early and on time for school the very next day.

Call me crazy, but that's a holiday miracle in my book (and if you know much about 11-year-olds, probably in yours, too). And as you all can imagine, the love didn't stop growing there. One item after another was scooped up, wrapped, and taken away, until well over 100 gifts had been purchased with money earned for actively demonstrating responsibility, good citizenship and altruism. Some gifts were delivered right away, causing a few tears and a lot of hugs - I've been told - while others were stashed away to be a proud surprise.

But rather than me recounting their gratitude in my words, here are some of their own - a little cleaned-up - from thank you notes addressed,

Dear Neighbors, 

You guys are like the world's BEST neighbors! It's heart-warming that you are so sweet and caring and awesome. 

 The gifts I got made me feel like this is the best Christmas ever! 

 This is the first Christmas that I [was able to] give my mom a present... Thank you! 

 If you guys [hadn't] donated, I wouldn't have anything to give out this Christmas. I hope you have a great Winter Holiday! 

 I love that you give to people you don't know. I'm very thankful for that. 

 I feel great because I know there are still generous people in Vallejo. 

 I appreciate the fact that people I have never met before would offer so much to our class. 

 And the love just keeps growing, moving among us, being paid forward even as you read this, perhaps:

 [In addition to gifts for my family,] I got a gold-wrapped chocolate box. I gave it to a very poor family that I see a lot in the park. It made them tear up. 

 I didn't get myself anything because I want my family to be happy. That will make me happy this Christmas. 

 I think this is the sweetest and kindest thing anyone can do. Thank you very much for everything you have done. I hope we can return the favor! 

 Well, they did for me. How about you? THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Prayer by Langston Hughes

I ask you this:
Which way to go?
I ask you this:
Which sin to bear?
Which crown to put
upon my hair?
I do not know,
Lord God,
I do not know. 
                    -Langston Hughes

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

I just finished reading Stuff, which was recommended at a presentation I recently went to on hoarding, led by one of the staff members of the Institute on Aging (an excellent resource itself). Stuff was well worth a read, as it paints a portrait of the issue of hoarding that creates at least some understanding but more importantly a deep compassion for those who hoard.

I was surprised by many of the things the authors discovered in their research on hoarders and hoarding, the primary one being that hoarders are, almost without fail, perfectionists. They hoard not because they are slobs, but because they can't bear to think about what would happen if they got it wrong and threw the wrong thing away. It illustrates the psychic (and sometimes almost physical) pain hoarders feel when trying to get in control of their hoarding, and the comfort they feel in what most people see as truly unlivable conditions.

Stuff primarily presents its information through illustrative narratives of the lives of individuals, looking at hoarding through a variety of lenses. At the very end it offers further resources for people looking for help. The authors, Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, have a workbook for treating hoarding behavior that sounds very useful for those seeking personal help to change.

I do wonder if the extreme conditions used throughout the book might do a slight disservice, however, as some who may suffer more mildly from hoarding tendencies may read this and think, "Well, at least I'm not as bad as that." As the authors point out, the problem with hoarding is not the stuff per se, but the pain and distress it causes the hoarder.

As I said earlier, however, the overall sense I got from this book was one of compassion for hoarders and their families. It shows that hoarding is not a moral failing, a weakness,  a sin, or consumerism run amok, but a painful and difficult problem that requires treatment and care.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

This Week in Britishness

As an unrepentant tea drinker I of course lean toward the Anglophilic, but even I have to concede that these two pieces take Britishness to extremes.

The first was an excerpt of a memoir called Coming Up Trumps that I have to admit sounds wonderful, written by the 90-year-old Baronness Trumpington, nee Jean Campbell-Harris, who seems to have been brought up in luxury and been willing to do pretty much anything to anyone at any time. The photo here is the time "when my good friend Tom King – Lord King of Bridgwater – commented that those people who had served in the Second World War were starting to look ‘pretty old’, it was a natural reaction to stick two fingers up at him." As one does when in the House of Lords.

In the snippet in the Daily Mail, the Baronness writes (among other things) of her time at Bletchley Park.
Although essential, the work formed a dull and exhausting routine. Whenever we could, we rushed up to London and danced all night, then ate enormous breakfasts at a Lyons Corner House, with fake scrambled eggs, fake everything. We always went to the 400, a nightclub on Leicester Square that doesn’t exist any more. We had such happy parties there. I was horrified once because I was at one table with a boyfriend and I looked round and saw my brother at another table with a girlfriend. That was bad enough. But then I looked round again and there, at a third table, was my father. With a girlfriend.
I will have to get my hand on this memoir when it comes out.

And the second moment of Extreme Britishness...well, this is where I have to admit that I regularly and very happily listen to The Deadline, the weekly obits podcast produced by the Daily Telegraph. And there is this very odd section in the middle about letters written to the Telegraph that almost makes me wonder if it's a parody of Britishness.

Take this week, for instance, in which there is a segment about letters on "the proper way to fold fitted sheets" that somehow leads us to King Alfred bowling the cakes, George II's son Fred "who was killed by a cricket ball," and Rule Britannia...I'm still not sure how that worked. You'll just have to listen to it yourself. And say no to the tyranny of hospital corners.

Now, mustache news...

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The World Vision Thing

h/t to the Millennial Pastor for
the great image (& responses)
You heard about this, right?

On Monday, World Vision announced in Christianity Today that it was changing its hiring policy so that gay Christians in legal marriages could be hired. Rich Stearns, president of World Vision, explained the policy change this way:
"It's easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there," he said. "This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support." "We're not caving to some kind of pressure. We're not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us," said Stearns. "This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We're an operational arm of the global church, we're not a theological arm of the church."
The shit immediately hit the fan with close to 5,000 people canceling their sponsorships of children. In less than 48 hours, Stearns announced that the board reversed the decision, saying it was a mistake.
"We made certainly in retrospect was a bad decision, but we did it with the right motivations. We weren’t trying to harm, or trying to find revenue, we weren’t doing it for wrong motives. We were trying to find some kind of solution to a divisive issue that would create some space of togetherness around differences within the church. Our regret is that we caused more division instead of finding a place of more unity."
So by Wednesday, I had a fair number of thoughts going through my head. Let me see if I can set them out in any sort of coherent order.

First of all, I'm hugely disappointed by how this whole thing played out. And although I'm upset at those who decided to withdraw their sponsorship of children, I have to admit I understand it. I have not been a financial supporter of World Vision in part because of its conservative Christian background (not the only reason, but one of them). So I'm certainly in the same boat as people who don't want to support an organization that they think represents values counter to their own.

I'm much more disappointed with World Vision, for a few reasons:
  • They (apparently) didn't anticipate this. Really? Knowing the political climate we live in, knowing the reactive nature of our current Christian culture, knowing that homosexuality is THE hot button topic...they hadn't thought through the plan? 
  • They didn't give this any time. Rachel Held Evans had begun rallying the troops to solicit new donors. I suspect many other church leaders would have done the same. I'd come home on Tuesday, after learning about the reaction, planning to donate to World Vision as a show of support for this change, knowing they were getting a beating. But they reversed the decision so quickly, I hadn't gotten to it yet. 
  • It seems tremendously short-sighted. They said they weren't trying to find revenue, and that may be true, but I think they lost a great deal of revenue in the long run by the reversal. Look at these charts, people! Do you see which way these lines are trending? 

  • It's inconsistent. Of course, if opposition to the marriage of same-sex couples truly were one of the fundamental principles under which World Vision operates, then looking at the approval rates would be irrelevant. However, one post I read this week noted that World Vision Canada has had a non-discriminatory hiring policy for over 15 years. Which leads me to believe
  • This is a failure of leadership, not a principled decision. Was it based on the financials? It certainly could be. Their latest 990 (financial reporting) shows that expenses were higher than income in 2011 and 2012, at an increasing rate, so there may be serious financial pressures at work. But I am reminded of Friedman's book A Failure of Nerve, which explains that leadership means holding fast in the face of conflict, rather than immediately reacting to loud and negative voices. 
I was appalled at this particular statement in Stearns' retraction: "We’re learning that a number of people are calling back since the reversal to reinstate their sponsorship. They’re forgiving; they’re saying, ‘Hey we stand with you.’” That, sir, is not forgiveness, any more a child stopping a tantrum after you buy him a toy means the child has forgiven you.

I wish them the best, but I continue to believe this was a huge mistake.

FWIW, here are some of the international aid organizations to which I contribute, in case you're looking for other organizations to support:

Against Malaria Foundation:
CA Bikes:
Evidence Action:
Partners in Health: