Who are the Joneses?

Ever since I was in junior high, I’ve been the kind of person who cuts things out of magazines and plasters them to her wall. As an adult, I try to keep myself from doing this–it isn’t a very “mature” way to decorate, after all–but sometimes I can’t help myself. Often these days, it’s not magazine clippings but quotes, prayers, or scripture. I write them out on index cards and use the old fashioned method of scotch tape to fasten them to the wall right above our computer. I spend a lot of time at the computer, and when my mind wanders or my eyes glaze over, these are good reminders of what is important.

Recently, I came across this page in the Compassion magazine (click on the image to enlarge it).

It’s rather startling. The bottom half Continue reading

You Are What You Eat: An Autobiography

I’m working on an essay about food. It’s an autobiography through food, actually, and it’s still most definitely a work-in-progress. I’ve been thinking about this project, especially how food is so central to our personal identities, ever since I went to see Please Don’t Call Me Homeless (I wrote about that production here and here).

I don’t typically like sharing works-in-progress, but I’ve got it on my mind at the moment, and I’d be happy to get some feedback.

Here’s an excerpt from one section of the essay, “You Are What You Eat”:

The most difficult thing about living on the streets, he said, was not what most people think. It’s not food and clothing that are the biggest problems. It’s things you might not expect: ice water, toilet paper, things you take for granted. Safety. He could stand in line somewhere and get a meal at almost any time, if you knew where to go, he said. A sack lunch. A juice box.

He was off the streets now, performing in a production of Please Don’t Call Me Homeless…I Don’t Call You Homed. He was playing his former self.

Just before intermission, the cast came down off the stage and helped a group of volunteers hand out sack lunches to the audience, to people who had never waited in line in a city park or a soup kitchen for a free meal. The crumpled brown paper bags were passed down the rows until everyone had gotten one. Everyone.

One was passed to me, and I peeked inside. Two squashed triangles of white bread stuck together with a slice of balogna. No cheese. Two vanilla sandwich cookies. A Capri Sun.

This isn’t a meal, I thought. I couldn’t help myself. This isn’t food.

Just that morning I’d sat in the warmth of my own home and had an e-mail conversation about organic, local milk, and whether it was worth the price to buy it. About the life span of cows at factory farms in America. About local food issues, farmers’ markets, and raising healthy children.

As a rule, I do not eat balogna or white bread.

I do not buy sandwich cookies.

But as they passed the sack lunches around, they began to sing. One a capella voice became a room-full.

And I sang, too.

Amazing grace

how sweet the sound

that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found

was blind but now I see.

Counting Down: “A New Redemption Song”

A friend of mine helps to coordinate a local outreach called “Timothy Christmas,” which I’ve heard a lot about over the three years we’ve lived in our little town but hadn’t ever bothered to ask anyone about. I knew that toys were collected by the kids in our church, and I knew that our Sunday school sponsored a local family who otherwise wouldn’t have a Christmas, and that we took the family Christmas shopping and gave them food. That sounds pretty straightforward, right? What else is there to know?

Well, I was talking with my friend on Monday night about this and how she got involved in this outreach more than twenty years ago. It’s a story worth retelling, and it actually begins a year before Timothy Christmas was started. That year, a few days before Christmas, my friend suddenly found herself to be a single mother with two little girls. To the outside world, she looked fine–she had a house, she had food, she had her kids. But there wasn’t any money left for Christmas. She went to the Christmas Eve service at church and knew that afterwards she’d be going back to an empty house without gifts for her girls. But when she came out of church that night, she found an envelope on her car. Inside that envelope was fifty dollars. That anonymous gift of fifty dollars–to this day she doesn’t know who left it for her–provided Christmas in a way she hadn’t expected.

The next year, Timothy Christmas was started for local families who otherwise wouldn’t be able to celebrate, and it focused primarily on children by asking children who did have lots of toys and Christmas gifts to select one of value to give to a child who had nothing. The outreach has grown from there, and now provides gifts and food to a significant number of families.

And there are more every year.

A few days ago the main headline at CNN was called “Hungry at the Holidays,” and since I so rarely see news stories worth reading, I couldn’t help but click on it. It mentioned a food ministry on Long Island that offers turkeys and other food items to poverty-stricken families on Thanksgiving and Christmas so they can enjoy feasts like the rest of us take for granted. Last year, they provided 25,000. This year they’ve received requests for more than 42,000.

The same article mentioned that fourteen percent of Americans, that’s 1 in 7, are currently receiving financial assistance relating to food.

Remember how I mentioned that even right here in my little town, thirty to forty new families are seeking assistance from local food pantries each month? Thirty to forty new each month. My town is not that big, nor under extraordinary economic pressures. This is life in America, “post-recession” (whatever that means) or not.

As we crawl toward Christmas morning, let’s spend some time asking for new eyes and ears, to re-envision, to really hear, what we might be called to do come Christmas. Maybe it’s significant, like an entire life-path-changing decision; or maybe it seems insignificant, like committing to buying an extra can of tuna or jar of peanut butter every time we go to the grocery store to donate. Who knows?

But I guarantee that if we listen, if we look, if we wait, we’ll be able to hear, to see, and to know.

Lord, we need a new redemption song. Lord, we’ve tried–it just seems to come out wrong. Won’t you help us, please? Help us just to sing along? A new redemption song…

— from “New Redemption Song,” a track off one of Over the Rhine’s holiday albums, Snow Angels

Main Street, USA

I live in a picturesque town in the middle of America.

This is my town, but not my photo. I swiped it from virtualtourist.com.

On Sunday, here on our picturesque Main Street, a handful of folks gathered to talk about homelessness and hunger in our little town, in our little county, in our little corner of rural America. You might not know that this week, the week of Thanksgiving–when most of us get to eat lots of food, visit with families, and count our blessings–is National Hunger and  Homelessness Awareness Week. Some of us who gathered were community organizers, some musicians, some just concerned citizens. I fall into the latter category.

From one concerned citizen to another, no matter where you live, here’s what I found out.

The Amen House, one of my little town’s local nonprofits that offers emergency assistance to folks in need, is giving assistance on average to 350 families per month. Did you read that correctly? 350 families, no repeats, per month. And they report to be registering approximately thirty new families each month. Remember that I live in a very little town. These are single-parent and dual-parent families, grandparent-led families, white, Hispanic, and black families. The economic crisis is affecting lots of us. There are thousands of people, even here in my little town, who don’t have enough food to eat.

Look at that photo again. Not much homelessness or hunger in sight.

But it’s there, folks.

And it’s not far from where you live either.

I guarantee it.

Buy More Stuff? Great Idea.

Occasionally I will turn on NPR when driving home from work. It helps me pretend that I’m cultured and informed and that I care about what’s going on in the world. Last week, on Wednesday, I decided I should turn it on to hear about the various elections that had occurred the day before. (You’ll notice that I avoided blogging about elections because I am sure what I have to say would only upset some of my constituents, I mean, readers, on both sides of the political spectrum).

After an election update, the news turned to the economy. What I heard made me so angry, I began to fume. I fume rather well. And I turned off the radio. I was still fuming when I got home, and so I spent some time preaching to the choir (that is, J) while we made dinner together.

Did you know that Americans should spend more money? Our government (and a lot of people who know WAY more about economics than I do) really thinks so. In fact, as we find ourselves in the middle of a recession that can arguably be said to be prompted by living beyond our means—heck, maybe even just living beyond our “needs”–we’re being told that the best thing we can do is spend more money. In fact, the powers that be are doing all in their power to keep the interest rates down so that we can spend more money. Buy even more stuff we don’t need. As we are losing jobs, let’s spend more money. As we are looking into the eyes of homeless people on our streets, let’s go buy another pair of jeans at Express or a pair of winter boots at LL Bean. As we look into our grocery carts full of prepackaged and processed foods that are leading to the demise of the small family farm, let’s head on over to Fallmart and buy some more Great Values.

Buy more stuff? That sounds spectacular.

And what’s more, say you decide that you will do your part to help out the economy. Say that our economy suddenly gets “turned around” or “back on track” (notice the quotation marks). Then I’ll be proven wrong and we can go back to our worry-free lives and our good jobs and our safe neighborhoods. Nope. Sadly, that won’t get us off the hook either. When our economy is thriving, when we’re buying and consuming more stuff, we’re exploiting more people around the globe, regardless of how it looks from Wall Street.

Sound like a great idea?

Hooray! We have jobs and more pairs of flip-flops than we could wear out in a lifetime! Who cares about where the rubber came from to make those flip-flops? Or the wars and violence that went into the fuel economy to get them to our big box stores? Or how many children spent back-breaking (near slave) labor bringing them into our Targets and Eddie Bauers and Old Navys?

I’m not trying to be a sky-is-falling Chicken Little here, but our system is broken, people.

And yet (there’s always “and yet”), and yet, we as Christians are quick to make capitalism a “Christian” system, or at least to act that way. Why is that? Why do we talk like this? Why do we think that rich people have been blessed by God more than poor people? There is nothing Christian about violence, exploitation, or consumerism, and that’s what is just under the surface of our current system. (Sometimes it’s barely “under the surface” at all.) There is nothing Christian about it.

Yes, I realize that this is complicated and messy and really hard to wrap our brains around, but let me tell you straight up that I will not back down on this point one bit.

Our souls are at risk, and most of us don’t even know it.

school buses, morning commutes, and drive-through communities

I’ve been  hitting the road by 6:45 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings. Okay, so I’ve tried leaving a little later than that, but since I find traffic unbearable, I’d rather go earlier and have a few extra minutes of breathing time. I am not a patient person, despite evidence to the contrary.

Here in Kentucky, elementary school students begin school earlier than middle-school and high-school students. Apparently studies have shown that high school students’ brains don’t function at 7 am, which explains a lot as far as I’m concerned. So around here the little tykes begin really early, so early in fact, that they’re waiting for the bus when I’m breezing through their neighborhoods on the outskirts of [Closest City to My House].

Lots of people avoid driving on the road I take to get to work/school–it’s a two-lane road, and the traffic gets bad with very little cause, and well, I don’t know why else, but a lot of people avoid it. I can’t talk myself into going another way, though, because it’s the most direct route into town.

I’ve been known to tell people that there isn’t anything between my little town and above-mentioned City, except for the liquor stores on the county line (my county is “moist,” which means you can only purchase alcohol in restaurants) and horse farms. But guess what? That’s not true (about there not being anything between them, not about the liquor stores).

Sure, there’s the “Kentucky Horse Park,” home to the World Equestrian Games in less than three weeks from now (which will not make my morning commute very pleasant), but that’s not what I mean.

The school bus for the elementary kids stops on this very busy, two-lane road, right during rush hour, and over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself sitting and waiting for little hordes of children to board and then find a place to sit on their buses.

I like this forced slow-down (then again, I give myself a half-hour cushion). I like the slow-down because it makes me pay attention. It makes me see the lower-income housing I’d otherwise drive right by, the shady-looking motels with weekly rates, the communities of mobile homes, the small, square cottages within ten feet of their neighbors, the restaurant that’s been under different ownership at least three times in the two years we’ve lived here (the most recent incarnation advertising “Karaoke and Cold Beer”). It’s a lot easier to see these places when you’re at a stand-still.

Most of the time, I drive right on by. I listen to my Over the Rhine at really loud volumes, singing along with Karin Bergquist’s smooth vocals, wishing I were as awesome as she is, and quite frankly, I don’t look around very much. Even the picturesque white picket fences, enormous horse barns, and blind-folded thoroughbreds (which, by the way, are in quite close proximity to patches of poverty, a juxtaposition that isn’t talked about very often in these parts but is striking) are lost on the drive.

But then the red flashing light of the school bus forces me to stop, and I see the little boy in the navy blue pants and light blue oxford button-down shirt (do they wear uniforms here?) is getting on the bus for the first day of school. His parents–a less-than-reputable-looking couple trying to hold back tears, I really could see that, as they wave and point at him as he makes his way to his seat on the bus–the parents hug as the bus pulls away and I drive by them, and I can’t help but wonder about this entire world that exists outside of my life.

It’s easy to drive through and ignore the life around us that doesn’t affect our lives.

But that’s community, too.

So let’s not drive on by, okay?

Let’s not.

Excuses, Schmexcuses: Loving Our Neighbors, Loving Ourselves

Advent is here, friends. Today, my little family will be putting together the sad Christmas tree that has endeared itself to us over the years. We might put some greenery on the mantle. Drink some hot cocoa. We’ve even got an Advent playlist with about a half-dozen versions of O Come, O Come Emmanuel on it.

It’s New Years Day as far as the church is concerned, so let’s celebrate!

This morning in church, the Thanksgiving baskets our church distributed last week in our community were mentioned and thanks were given to everyone who donated. This morning in church, we were told about the work the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is doing overseas and we were encouraged to give to the annual Christmas missions offering. This morning in church, I was handed a packet of paper with information about a low-income family in our community, a family our Sunday school class will be providing gifts for this holiday season. This morning in church, we were reminded about the myriad activities we’ve got going on throughout Advent and Christmas, the ways we can participate and give and do lots of good.

My point is this: we are doing lots of good in the world. Let’s take a moment and pat ourselves on the back, shall we?

*pat, pat*

Riiiiight.

Like I’m letting us off the hook that easy.

Sure, we are doing lots of good. We are. I am. You probably are, too.

But since it’s the first Sunday of Advent, and it’s kind of Texas Schmexas tradition to toss a little guilt in to start off the year, let’s be introspective for a moment and ‘fess up.

We aren't really loving our neighbors as ourselves.*

Continue reading