Of Turkey Legs, Dancing Waters, And the Conflict In My Conscience

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Bellagio Fountains, Las Vegas. Photo by ohitzanna, via Flickr

I woke up in the middle of the night from a deeply disturbing dream about turkey legs. Not the kind of turkey leg you find on your Thanksgiving turkey, but those big honkers you get at carnivals and Renaissance fairs, deep fried. I’ve never had one, but for some reason the image of people wandering around gnawing on those mammoth things always sticks out to me. Probably because I’m wondering how they can eat the whole thing. And then I see the half-eaten remains sitting on an abandoned plate, or collecting flies in a trash can, or thrown away because it fell on the ground, and I think of everyone in the world who would eat it anyway, because they don’t have the luxury of throwing things away because they fell on the floor or they happen to be found in a trash can with flies on them.

 

I really struggle with the luxury that defines western life. On the one hand, all created things are good if used rightly, and I love, love, love good food, beautiful music, a good story, movies, and beautifully-decorated places. Atmosphere, food, trips to beautiful and exciting locations—these are things that enrich and elevate the soul. And frozen custard. Don’t forget frozen custard. And brownies. Dark chocolate. Lots of dark chocolate. A good steak, an easy-drinking glass of wine, and really good bread, flash-fried in oil and exploding in your mouth…

Ahem.

And yet I struggle so much with the abject, soul-crushing lack that defines existence in so many other parts of the world–and sometimes even here, hidden beneath our very noses. So many people live with virtually nothing, and here am I, as skimpy and miserly as I am, still living in ridiculous luxury, and complaining because my kids break things.

I remember an exchange between an uncle and a cousin, an exchange that has defined an awful lot of my world view, both in general and about parenting. It was about this village in some other part of the world that my cousin (I think) had visited—Africa, maybe? I can’t remember now. Anyway, in this village, the two parts of town were separated by an abandoned, but still live, mine field. People knew the safe path through that mine field, even the small children, and they stuck to it. My uncle couldn’t understand why they didn’t just chuck rocks into it until they blew up all the mines. My cousin said there was no need. Kids were capable of learning much more than we in the west gave them credit for.

It’s such a different approach to life, it’s almost unimaginable. We live in a crazy clutter because we have so much, and yet we constantly envy those who have more. Me, my kids, you, your spouses—all of us. I, for example, tend to consider it an act of virtue to keep using an iPad 2 instead of replacing it. Gasp! It is almost SIX YEARS OLD!

And then I think of those people in that village in Wherever, Third World, with their mine field, and I think…oh, man. Does anyone actually need an iPad at all? Can I possibly justify upgrading when so many people are slowly starving to death? Isn’t it all just “chasing after the wind,” from the concerts and movie passes right down to the books I am working so hard to get published?

I often think we just spend too damn much money on too damn much stuff that doesn’t matter. Pardon my language. Dancing fountains in the middle of the desert. I mean, really?

And yet, if people didn’t spend so much money and buy so many things, wouldn’t our economy collapse and we, too, would be struggling for survival?

I suppose this is what Jesus meant when he said “the poor you will always have with you.”

Some people are called to eschew luxury and even much of what would be considered necessities, to wear clothes that are still perfectly good although they went out of fashion a decade or two ago, to eat very little and do without almost everything by choice, in solidarity with the poor. I often wonder if I am called to that and am just too in love with luxury to be willing to do it. Where is the line between planning for a safe future and hoarding what belongs, by Christian duty, to the poor? Is there any virtue in miserliness if I don’t funnel much of what I save into helping those who have nothing?

These are the questions that cause me to live my life in an unending tug of war. I would love to know that I’m not alone, to know how others have found peace amid questions of have, have not, and Christian discipleship.

No Easy Answers

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First World Problems (repost)

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I have a lot of posts started, but this one, from two years ago during Advent, caught my eye a few days ago. It is every bit as timely now as it was then, right down to the reference to famine in North Korea (to say nothing of humanitarian crises in other parts of the world), and so I share it again today as food for thought.

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Sudan, 2010. Image by cliff1066™, via Flickr

I was pulling into Macy’s yesterday afternoon when a story came on NPR about the food supply, or more accurately the lack thereof, in North Korea. When I think of North Korea, I think of world security, nuclear weapons and a hostile dictator–but I’ve never thought of starvation. Until now.

“I saw one family, a couple with two kids, who committed suicide. Life was too hard, and they had nothing to sell in their house. They made rice porridge, and added rat poison,” he recalls. “White rice is very precious, so the kids ate a lot. They died after 30 minutes. Then the parents ate. The whole family died.”

I sat in a parking place, preparing to go into Macy’s and buy a pricey gift for someone who doesn’t need it, and my stomach flipped over. I started thinking about the things I was worrying about. A missing cell phone that I hardly ever use. The noise the car was making.

Eating few enough calories to allow me to have gingerbread for dessert.

I don’t even know what hunger is.

When I was twenty weeks pregnant with Alex, I woke up on the floor of the bathtub, Christian bending over me. I had been on metformin (to treat polycystic ovaries) for two years, and it was a new enough treatment that there wasn’t an established protocol for how long into pregnancy to continue use. Well, now we knew. For the next six weeks, my body went crazy as it tried to return to regulating sugar on its own. I felt horrible all the time, and learned to dread low blood sugar to the point where I never allow myself to get very hungry–I grab a slice of cheese, or some carrots, or a cracker or two.

The process of slimming my caloric intake has made that more complicated, but I realize now I can’t tell the difference between “hungry” and “sugar imbalanced,” and I’m too scared of the second to risk the first.

"Famine"

“Famine” (Photo credit: Anosmia)

So the voice coming out of the radio yesterday was like a mirror. I suddenly saw my family’s life, modest (even miserly) by cultural expectations, as wanton–our Thanksgiving feasts and Christmas cookies, the plethora of gifts growing under the tree, golf and scrapbooking. I thought of the five homeless men I’ve passed by lately because I was in the far lane, and the one to whom I gave a dollar. They’re all the face of Christ; how far does my responsibility extend? How do we strike a balance between enjoying the bounty we’ve been given and being wasteful, immorally profligate at the expense of others starving to death because we won’t simply give our excess to save them–because we think we need Thanksgiving feasts and new cars and acid-free scrapbooks?

The existence of poverty stretches so many fingers in so many directions, inserting uncertainty and questions into so many other issues. Half the population objects to genetically modified food, but the industry insists it’s necessary to increase yields to feed the world–that natural and organic is a path to world starvation. Is that true? Or is the real reason we need those kinds of high yields the fact that we’re a nation of gluttons? We ate at the Olive Garden on Sunday, and I scoured the menu for calorie counts ahead of time. You could easily–easily–consume 2500 calories in one meal, and not even be aware you’d done it. I ate half an entree, two fried zucchini medallions, one bowl of salad, and half a breadstick, and I consumed over 750. And was still hungry, mind you.

Last night, our Advent calendar activity was to take coffee and cereal to a local homeless shelter. It was the first really cold night of the year, and the place was full. The director invited us to stay and visit a while, but we were too uncomfortable. In the car on the way home, we talked about it. We need to do that, I said. We need to spend time with them, not just sail in like benevolent aristocrats and drop our tiny donation and escape. There were men in that room I recognize after three years of Advent visits.

What is the answer to these conundrums? I’m not claiming an answer–I’m only struggling with the questions. What is the Gospel-driven response to poverty, to hunger around the world? How far does my responsibility and yours extend? Are any of us meeting it, or are we all hoarding most of what was given to us to ease others’ suffering? Where is the line between saving to prepare a stable future for us and our children, and simply being greedy by not passing on what we aren’t using to those who have nothing?

Small Things, Great Love (Reblog)

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blogger-image--817386017The past two weeks.  It has almost been too much to bear, all the heartache.  All the hatred and the hurting and brokenness everywhere we turn.  It is too much.  I am tempted to shut it out: turn off the news, avoid the rapid-fire of social media politicking.  Sink into my own comfortable life, where my biggest inconveniences of the day revolve around the fact that we have too many clothes to wash in our HE washer in our house with electricity and running water.  Continue about my day to day life, free from stigma of skin color, free from fear of opression and violence.  

What can I do about all that is wrong in this world?  I am often paralyzed by insignificance.  I don’t work in a job where I make or carry out policy.  I know nothing about medicine.  I am not educated about how to approach issues of race in this country.  I don’t have the means to travel abroad or adopt an orphan.  I don’t know any refugees.  
When God allows our hearts to be broken, what is it for?  It can’t just be so that we feel sad for a few minutes or days until we forget. ….

12 Years A Slave

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Photo by Michael Rosenquest, via Flickr

There are times when you walk through the world filled with awe and joy and gratitude, aware of the wonder, the beauty, the innate goodness of all that exists on earth.

Other times it’s like a veil is ripped from your eyes, revealing the brokenness of the world in all its heartbreaking clarity. A brokenness so deep, so profound, so widespread, you realize it’s beyond the possibility of healing by any human effort.

And sometimes, being aware of one sensitizes you to the other.

I had another post planned for today, a post about joy and the search for the beautiful and the holy. But as I watched the passing moments in preparation for that post, the brokenness made itself clear, too. It came out most clearly in the news that a shelter for abused and neglected children in my town got muscled out of its planned location by residents saying “not in my back yard.”

Then last night, Christian and I started watching 12 Years A Slave. I expected it to be disturbing, but I wasn’t prepared for how deep it pierced, how mercilessly it convicted. It’s not just about the past, you see. What I realized, watching that movie, was that the state of our world, the problems that plague our nation today, began there, with the dehumanization of an entire race of people.

When I write it out like that, it’s a clear “well, duh” moment. But I had never seen the connection before–or at least, not in a way that transcended the theoretical. Like many people, perhaps most, I’ve always placed a dividing line between the past and the present. Our nation has done so much to work toward equality; what good is there in lashing ourselves for slavery and reconstruction and Jim Crow? It’s past. It’s done. The world isn’t perfect, but the real problems have been addressed.

Watching that movie unfold in all its shattering ugliness, I realized they haven’t.

A friend of mine told me once told me a story that I’ve spent a lot of time puzzling over. In a teacher training they were told that they had to understand the culture their students inhabited: a culture in which kids thought it was normal to receive their Christmas gifts from the Voluntary Action Center, and in which parents paid for a Lexus with spinning hubcaps before putting food on the table for their kids–because that was what was considered important in the circles in which they moved.

I thought: There is no way. It sounded like a lesson told by bigots, not by educators. To this day I have trouble believing it.

And yet if, indeed, a mindset like that exists, it’s because for hundreds of years one group of people–mine, I’m sorry to say–systematically dehumanized another, suppressing the expression of intelligence and the desire to achieve in order to keep them safely under control. Whites literally tried to beat it out of them.

We don’t do that anymore. But we do blame people for not breaking out of the cycle of poverty and poor education. There’s a less obvious and more plausibly denied racism that we cling to–the underlying assumptions that poverty and poor choices are a person’s own fault, because they just didn’t try hard enough. Ignoring the history that created the culture of poverty. Acting like it’s in the past, and thus not a real problem at all.

It makes me wonder: if I had lived a hundred fifty years ago, would I have been a participant? A collaborator? Would I have had the clarity of vision to recognize the abomination for what it was?

These are the times when I see the world and I want to weep for it. For myself. So broken. So far beyond helping ourselves. I move in my privileged middle class circles and rage at the super rich like the real battle is between me and those higher on the socioeconomic ladder, when the reality is I’m just as much to blame.

But I’m grateful for the clarity of vision, however painful, because it strips another layer of sanctimonious pride off my soul. And if somewhere there is a solution, I’ll be more likely to see it.

Advent Wednesdays: Light

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Deutsch: Opferlichter

Deutsch: Opferlichter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I want to point you to a post by another blogger: Advent: On Seeing Light And Poverty. It’s been nearly two weeks, and I’m still turning this post over in my mind. Light is a central theme of Christianity: light of the world, Christ our light, light to the nations. When we pray for light, it’s because light symbolizes hope. Security. Warmth. Homeyness. All that is true, but until I read Rae’s post, the obvious never occurred to me: when the light is turned on we see everything more clearly, the bad as well as the good, the difficult and uncomfortable realities as well as that which uplifts us.

During Advent, light is used symbolically every night, in a progressively more expansive way each week. This year, I realize that if Jesus associated himself with the poor among us (as often as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me), then this season requires us to face the unpleasant realities, both in the world around us, as I wrote about on Monday, and in ourselves, as I wrote about yesterday.

First World Problems

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English: Photo showing some of the aspects of ...

English: Photo showing some of the aspects of a traditional US Thanksgiving day dinner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was pulling into Macy’s yesterday afternoon when a story came on NPR about the food supply, or more accurately the lack thereof, in North Korea. When I think of North Korea, I think of world security, nuclear weapons and a hostile dictator–but I’ve never thought of starvation. Until now.

“I saw one family, a couple with two kids, who committed suicide. Life was too hard, and they had nothing to sell in their house. They made rice porridge, and added rat poison,” he recalls. “White rice is very precious, so the kids ate a lot. They died after 30 minutes. Then the parents ate. The whole family died.”

I sat in a parking place, preparing to go into Macy’s and buy a pricey gift for someone who doesn’t need it, and my stomach flipped over. I started thinking about the things I was worrying about. A missing cell phone that I hardly ever use. The noise the car was making.

Eating few enough calories to allow me to have gingerbread for dessert.

I don’t even know what hunger is.

When I was twenty weeks pregnant with Alex, I woke up on the floor of the bathtub, Christian bending over me. I had been on metformin (to treat polycystic ovaries) for two years, and it was a new enough treatment that there wasn’t an established protocol for how long into pregnancy to continue use. Well, now we knew. For the next six weeks, my body went crazy as it tried to return to regulating sugar on its own. I felt horrible all the time, and learned to dread low blood sugar to the point where I never allow myself to get very hungry–I grab a slice of cheese, or some carrots, or a cracker or two.

The process of slimming my caloric intake has made that more complicated, but I realize now I can’t tell the difference between “hungry” and “sugar imbalanced,” and I’m too scared of the second to risk the first.

"Famine"

“Famine” (Photo credit: Anosmia)

So the voice coming out of the radio yesterday was like a mirror. I suddenly saw my family’s life, modest (even miserly) by cultural expectations, as wanton–our Thanksgiving feasts and Christmas cookies, the plethora of gifts growing under the tree, golf and scrapbooking. I thought of the five homeless men I’ve passed by lately because I was in the far lane, and the one to whom I gave a dollar. They’re all the face of Christ; how far does my responsibility extend? How do we strike a balance between enjoying the bounty we’ve been given and being wasteful, immorally profligate at the expense of others starving to death because we won’t simply give our excess to save them–because we think we need Thanksgiving feasts and new cars and acid-free scrapbooks?

The existence of poverty stretches so many fingers in so many directions, inserting uncertainty and questions into so many other issues. Half the population objects to genetically modified food, but the industry insists it’s necessary to increase yields to feed the world–that natural and organic is a path to world starvation. Is that true? Or is the real reason we need those kinds of high yields the fact that we’re a nation of gluttons? We ate at the Olive Garden on Sunday, and I scoured the menu for calorie counts ahead of time. You could easily–easily–consume 2500 calories in one meal, and not even be aware you’d done it. I ate half an entree, two fried zucchini medallions, one bowl of salad, and half a breadstick, and I consumed over 750. And was still hungry, mind you.

Last night, our Advent calendar activity was to take coffee and cereal to a local homeless shelter. It was the first really cold night of the year, and the place was full. The director invited us to stay and visit a while, but we were too uncomfortable. In the car on the way home, we talked about it. We need to do that, I said. We need to spend time with them, not just sail in like benevolent aristocrats and drop our tiny donation and escape. There were men in that room I recognize after three years of Advent visits.

What is the answer to these conundrums? I’m not claiming an answer–I’m only struggling with the questions. What is the Gospel-driven response to poverty, to hunger around the world? How far does my responsibility and yours extend? Are any of us meeting it, or are we all hoarding most of what was given to us to ease others’ suffering? Where is the line between saving to prepare a stable future for us and our children, and simply being greedy by not passing on what we aren’t using to those who have nothing?

Looking For A Line

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Photo by LucasTheExperience, via Flickr

I wasn’t there. I was supervising the little ones at Children’s Liturgy. But Alex, my thoughtful, empathetic Alex, was riveted to the missionary’s story of life in Haiti, of poverty so intense that children eat “cookies” made of clay.

When church was over, we drove home to a building that would house dozens of people in other parts of the world, but which shelters only six, a house filled with Stuff we rarely use but can’t or won’t get rid of, and a refrigerator stuffed with food, which we often stand in front of and sigh heavily, “There’s nothing to eat!”

In the days before, we bought a new DSLR camera for which we’ve been saving for well over a year, as well as solar lights for the front and a lovely arbor for my climbing roses. Each of these purchases, long anticipated, fills me with quiet happiness every time I look at them.

“Therefore I praised joy, because there is nothing better for mortals under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be joyful; this will accompany them in their toil through the limited days of life God gives them under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 8:15)

But now there’s an undercurrent of disquiet in my soul. The umbrellas and brooms in the coat closet fall over for the umpteenth time, and I growl, “We need some sort of closet organizer!”–and I think of children eating clay. “I hate all my clothes,” I complain. “As soon as I lose this baby weight I’m going shopping for things that actually look good on me!” And then I remember this picture, and I recognize my supposed necessities for the vanity they are.

We live in a world defined by our consumption. If we don’t consume, everything will fall to pieces, and everyone will be in dire straits, not just those in developing countries. Yet I look at the list of things I want to purchase, and I can’t help thinking how much better spent the money would be going to a place like Haiti, to keep people alive instead of feeding my need for more, more, more. Everything I want to do–travel, home decor, scrapbooking–in the face of such poverty, it feels vaguely immoral. It feels like a scam for me to earn money for singing or writing music or stories, for instance.

I know it isn’t. Beauty is built into the human psyche. What we need to stay alive is only part of the story; God made us to be fulfilled, not just survive, and art, music, beauty–all those “luxuries” are part of that. Somewhere there must be a line between using money to affirm and enjoy the beauty of the world…and gross waste of resources.

But I don’t know where it is.

How do you reconcile consumption and care for the larger world?