Wednesday, February 25, 2009

what i'm giving up for lent

For Lent this year, I’m giving up purchasing prepared food for breakfast/lunch.

A couple of weeks ago, I was stopping at Starbucks on the way to work to pick up a tea and a piadini (pastry thing) for breakfast, and sometimes something for lunch as well.

It’s not that I can’t afford it. It’s not even that the money could be put to better use. It’s just that by doing that, I’m being a spoiled brat! I’m getting my breakfast on demand, because I can’t be bothered to prepare something in advance, or because I like the Starbucks tea with milk and bergamot better than the plain old tea I have at work, or just because it strikes my fancy. I’m expecting exactly the thing I want, exactly when I want it, without being flexible about it or preparing for it in advance.

(Of course, I could definitely put the money to better use, too, but I think for now it will just go toward the giant rent increase I’m taking on next month.)

Here’s my plan for making it happen:

For breakfast, I’m going to make a big pot of steel cut oats (with raisins, craisins, and almonds) every Sunday. Then I’ll pack it up in individual serving sizes and take them all to work on Monday and stick them in the fridge. That way, I don’t have to do anything at home in the mornings; I can just stick the oatmeal in the microwave when I get to school and make myself a cup of tea.

Lunch is trickier. It’s going to have to consist mostly if not entirely of leftovers. This week, I have a whole quiche that I’m eating a couple of slices of every day. Last week, I had about half a meatloaf. I think the trick is to make a HUGE excess of dinner at least once a week. I can’t just have one day worth of leftovers, since I sometimes only cook twice a week. I have to make, like, a whole extra recipe of lasagna or casserole or whatever. And it has to be something I’d be willing to eat for several days in a row.

Of course, there’s all kinds of gray areas. I’ve decided the following are ok: leftovers from restaurant dinners; supermarket bagels (as long as I don’t buy them on the way to work); crackers + cheese. But the following are not OK: TV dinners or instant meals of any sort (even cup-soup); buying extra food at a restaurant for dinner so I can have leftovers for lunch.

Oh, and this only applies to work days. (Building community by going out to brunch is a great ritual!)

Well, that’s that. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

the divided church

I had to laugh when I saw this article about how American protestants are more picky tied to their toothpaste than their denomination. (I can’t believe people research these things!)

Of course, the headline makes it sound completely ludicrous, but it actually makes a lot of sense to me.

First, pay attention to the question asked – it was whether you’d consider “another” denomination – meaning you should say yes if you would consider being Episcopalian instead of Lutheran, for example. (For those of you who are unfamiliar, Episcopalians and Lutherans are among that seem to me most like Catholics – although people in those denominations might violently disagree.) It’s a much bigger leap from being Episcopalian Church to the Assemblies of God (think Pentecostal / revival meetings).

But more importantly, I don’t really put a lot of stock in these denominations anyway. I see them more as different styles of worship / learning that work for different people – but not as fundamentally different belief systems.

The Bible has lots of language about the body of Christ – one body in which we are all different parts. There’s no way Jesus would have wanted to see a Church so divided as modern Christianity is. As far as I’m concerned, if you believe Jesus Christ is the son of God who came to earth and suffered (died and rose from the dead) to save us from our sins – then you’re a Christian, part of one Church, and that’s that. Which church you choose to worship at doesn’t make you any more or less a Christian. (Lots of people would disagree with me about this.)

[Plenty of Christians don’t consider Catholics to be Christian, which, as far as I’m concerned, is either rather misinformed or rather disrespectful. It’s about as correct as going around saying Protestants aren’t Christian, they’re just Protestant.]

I want to say that I think it’s REALLY important that the Christian Church has had all these movements, even if they resulted in (hopefully temporary) divisions in the Church. While the Catholic Church has on one hand done a fantastic job of producing a lot of great Christian thinkers and developed and preserved numerous invaluable traditions, it has on the other hand tried stifle many ideological movements.

In particular, the Reformation-based focus on reading the Bible, rather than merely letting your local priest read and interpret it for you, was very important for modern-day Christians, both Protestant and Catholic. Other benefits of the schisming of the Church include alternate forms of worship (the solemn and the dancing-and-clapping styles); the opportunity for women who feel called to lead congregations to be able to do so; the welcoming of people back into the Church who no longer feel welcome/comfortable in their old church.

But ultimately, I think these are all examples of God working through our brokenness – NOT the way God wants the Christian Church to be.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Secular Service Opportunities

When I wanted service opportunities to share with friends, I used to search particularly for secular organizations. They would feel uncomfortable, I reasoned, going to a “church thing”. (Some of them said as much themselves.)

But it’s HARD to find good secular one-day service opportunities!

[Disclaimer: everything I’m saying here is totally unscientific and based purely on my experience, so I might be way wrong about it.]

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are tons of great non-profits out there that do fabulous work, from the old standards like the Peace Corps to new, ultra-focused groups like Free the Slaves and BuildOn (formerly known as Building with Books). But the vast majority of one-day service opportunities are with religiously affiliated organizations.

The big exceptions –the big secular one-day volunteer opportunities for secular service – are food banks and Habitat for Humanity. Both of which are fabulous programs, and definitely play an important role in raising up the lowly, or however you want to think of it.

But one thing they have in common: neither Habitat nor food banks get volunteers into the grit of daily life of the people they’re helping. In fact, volunteers never even see these people. Instead they get a kind of sanitized volunteer experience – the knowledge that they were helpful and even visible results, but no interaction with the people who need that help.

Obviously this is a HUGE generalization, and we could list many exceptions. I think Food Not Bombs is the most widespread of them – like all those church groups, they prepare and serve a meal to whomever’s hungry, and you can go help them out for just one day if you want. (Incidentally, if you are not familiar with Food Not Bombs, it’s worth your time to read about it.) But I think if you talk to most people about their community service experience, it has been either with religious groups, or involved a long commitment, or it has been that kind of sanitized volunteer experience.

Some more thoughts on entering into the grit of the daily life of the less fortunate:
  • Most jail ministries / services are run by religious groups.
  • Food banks tend to be secular, but who raises food for them? Put another way, when was the last time someone asked you to donate food to the poor, other than a holiday can drive?
  • Most meals ministries (free meals for the homeless) are run by religious organizations (there is one Food Not Bombs in San Francisco, but many church hall meals).
Why is this? Is it about churches/temples/mosques having a big enough network to have access to a lot of one-time volunteers? Does it have to do with religious leaders (or religious writings) giving people a sense that they should be helping the less fortunate? Is an artifact of the way help-structures were built up in this country?

Regardless, if you are an atheist/agnostic/non-religious person, I want to encourage you to seek out service opportunities that put you into the grit of daily life of the people you are trying to help, even if it’s through a religious organization. In fact, maybe especially if it is. Religious people aren’t total weirdos, and it’s a good way for you to get to know some, so you can disabuse yourself of that notion. (If you don’t have that notion, then what’s the problem with working alongside a bunch of them?)

RESOURCES (not comprehensive – please add your favorites!)

One-time service opportunities
One-time service opportunities in San Francisco
  • Curry Without Worry (
  • Martin de Porres House ( -- named after a St. and modeled after the Catholic Worker movement, but not Catholic-run
Totally awesome service/missional organizations
  • Narika -- offers information, support, and advocacy for South Asian women suffering domestic abuse
  • Boys Hope Girls Hope -- a live-in program for urban kids that offers a safe home environment, including meals, mentoring, HW help, etc – very focused on getting them through high school into college
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters -- mentoring young people
  • Mission Graduates -- SF only – mentoring and tutoring for kids living in San Francisco’s Mission District

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

why i respect the pope

After hearing about those un-excommunications, I feel both fiercely angry at the Pope and fiercely defensive. Weird, right? But it’s the same way you’d feel if a leader you respected took an action that you (majorly) didn’t agree with: you wish they hadn’t done it, but you think the criticism is over the top.

And yes, I did just refer to the Pope as a leader I respect.

[Side point: people have often asked me how I can square my liberal politics with my religion. “Isn’t the whole point of Catholicism that you follow the Pope?” NO!! The point of Catholicism is the same as the point of any other strand of Christianity: that God sent his son to suffer in our place so that we could be saved from out sins. The Pope is miniature compared to all that.]

Okay, so why do I respect the Pope? And where does that respect end?

The Pope (whichever Pope, any and all Popes) is a far holier person than I am or can every hope to be. He has probably spent more time in prayer / conversation with God in the last month than I’ve spent in the last year. He’s also far more learned in theology / church history than I will ever be. This means that, at least sometimes, he’s going to be right and I’m going to be wrong.

In addition, Stanley Fish summarizes an Augustinian argument nicely:
St. Augustine (rejecting the position that the church should be made up only of saints) contended that priestly authority derived from the institution of the Church and ultimately from its head, Jesus Christ. Whatever infirmities a man may have (and as fallen creatures, Augustine observes, we all have them) are submerged in the office he holds. It is the office that speaks, appoints and consecrates. Its legitimacy does not vary with personal qualities of the imperfect human being who is the temporary custodian of a power that at once exceeds and transforms him.
Nonetheless, I definitely disagree with a lot of the Pope’s politics. (Do you agree on every point with every person you respect?) For example, I do not agree with the Catholic Church’s teaching about condoms – not only does it fail to make sense logically (why would natural family planning be ok if condoms aren’t?), but it doesn’t “ring true” to me.

When the Pope makes what to me appear to be bad decisions, I have to remember (apart form how much holier he is than I am):
  • Everyone screws up on their job. The pope is not immune to that.
  • The pope is a spiritual leader, but also a politician and, like all politicians, must sometimes make concessions for unity’s sake. (Though why he wants to make a concession about the existence of the Holocaust and not about the use of condoms is a little beyond me.)
  • ...or he might be right. He's not infallible, but I'm even less infallible! And I need to reflect and pray about what our differences are and if maybe I'm the one who's not seeing the big picture.

bless us with anger

I thought I would have more to say about about the clergy and the Inauguration and all that, but it turns out I don't, other than this:

If you didn't get a chance to hear/see/read Gene Robinson's pre-Inauguration prayer, here it is. I think it is way more powerful, realistic, and appropriate than Rick Warren's. (Not that Warren's was inappropriate -- it was just less specifically appropriate.) He started with an acknowledgement of the reality of our world and asked God for the humanity to react appropriately -- with anger/sadness and with strength

The media really latched onto the phrase "bless us with anger", and honestly so did I, at first, but ultimately these two clauses were the ones that resonated with me that day:
  • Bless us with discomfort at the easy, simplistic answers we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth about ourselves and our world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.
  • Bless us with patience and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be fixed anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.
Anyway, please check out the video or the full text below, from

O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will:

Bless us with tears -- for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless us with anger -- at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Bless us with discomfort -- at the easy, simplistic "answers" we've preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience -- and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be "fixed" anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility -- open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance -- replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.

Bless us with compassion and generosity -- remembering that every religion's God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

Give him wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln's reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy's ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King's dream of a nation for ALL the people.

Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times.

Give him stirring words, for we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters' childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we're asking FAR too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand -- that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace.