Thursday, July 15, 2010

Something to think about next time you crave "fast food".

From a book I picked up at the library, after watching the documentary "Food, Inc". I highly suggest both the film and the book if you're really interested in the author's realization "that the straightforward question "What should I eat?" could no longer be answered without first addressing two other even more straightforward questions: "What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?".

(reflections on a McDonald's meal)
"In truth, my cheeseburger's relationship to beef seemed nearly as metaphorical as the nugget's relationship to a chicken. Eating it, I had to remind myself that there was an actual cow involved in this meal - most likely a burned-out old dairy cow (the source of most fast-food beef) but possibly bits and pieces of a steer... Part of the appeal of hamburgers and nuggets is that their boneless abstractions allow us to forget we're eating animals. I'd been on the feedlot in Garden City a few months earlier, yet this experience of cattle was so far removed from that one as to be taking place in a different dimension. No, I could not taste the feed corn or the petroleum or the antibiotics or the hormones - or the feedlot manure. Yet while "A Full Serving of Nutrition Facts" did not enumerate these facts, they too have gone into the making of this hamburger, are part of its natural history. That perhaps is what the industrial food chain does best: obscure the histories of the foods it produces by processing them to such an extent that they appear as pure products of culture rather than nature - things made from plants and animals. Despite the blizzard of information contained in the helpful McDonald's flyer - the thousands of words and numbers specifying ingredients and portion sizes, calories and nutrients - all this food remains perfectly opaque. Where does it come from? It comes from McDonald's.

But that's not so. It comes from refrigerated trucks and from warehouses, from slaughterhouses, from factory farms in towns like Garden City, Kansas, from ranches in Sturgis, South Dakota, from food science laboratories in Oak Brook, Illinois, from flavor companies on the New Jersey Turnpike, from petroleum refineries, from processing plants owned by AGM and Cargill, from grain elevators in towns like Jefferson, and, at the end of that long and tortuous trail, from a field of corn and soybeans farmed by George Naylor in Churdan, Iowa."

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. pp 114-115.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Yesterday (Tuesday) I started a new volunteer position with an organization I really look up to: The Pittsburgh Project. I'm a garden volunteer, which means that I actually go to work once a week in their small farm (reclaimed from an abandoned baseball field!) - weeding, tying up tomatoes, planting, harvesting, and helping the community regain something important - food security. Our neighborhood is a "food desert". There are few stores and what is available is often not the healthiest. Gardening isn't a way of life here. Abandoned lots fill with weeds and detritus from the streets. Kids leave candy wrappers and drink bottles on sidewalks.

It's not barren, but there's little hope. You can see it in the faces of the people here and in the run-down houses, with rotting porches and loose shingles that owners can't afford or don't care to fix. The Pittsburgh Project is working to change that by focusing on youth education and community service in a way that empowers the people they help. They help those who can not help themselves. They teach the local kids environmental stewardship, gardening skills, home maintenance, leadership and interpersonal skills. They have programs which attract mission groups from all over the country who come to provide destitute homeowners with home repairs and cleanup. It's an amazing project and it's making a difference. The park across from their headquarters is low-priority for the city, but they've kept up the maintenance, cleaned up the areas that used to be drug havens, planted gardens and re-opened the pool. The kids love it. The after-school and summer programs are full. There's work to be done!

Someone asked me why I'd bother doing something that's bringing in no money and taking time away from our home repair, when I'm out of work already. It's not about the money; as much as I'd love getting paid for what I'm doing with the project I wasn't motivated to join the group because I was desperate for funding. It's about helping out, feeling good, doing something to give to the community and improve the place where we all live and play. It's about providing a good role model for the kids, making my life an example of responsible living, and having fun with a group of people who are passionate about making the world a better place - one tomato at a time.

I could still use a job, but jobs rarely feed the soul. This experience will give me more than resume padding and new friends. It will give me peace, and that's something all of us need. Do you volunteer? Why, or why not?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Summer Challenge 4: Love and Respect

This task was focused on 3 reading selections (linked from the Boundless page) and an action - showing love or respect to someone you share a relationship with, be it parent, child, sibling, or spouse.

I'm going to go do the dishes and tidy the house to show respect for my wonderful man, who I "abandoned" the other day to volunteer while he was helping the delivery guys get our new appliances into place. What better way to wake up from a nap than waking up to a clean kitchen?

Things to consider: Do you show love and respect to each other in your relationships? If not, why? Do you think that others deserve unconditional love and respect, or is there something you expect from them first? Is it fair to withhold love and respect from someone, even if they do not appear to love or respect you? Why or why not?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Summer Challenge 3: Relationships

This week's challenges are all about relationships. What makes a good relationship, how we should act in them and how we can build (or re-build) them. Today's challenge was reading from Romans, Chapter 12:9-13 and meditating on how it affected our views of relationships.

I read the verses and then the chapter to get some context, in 3 different versions (to get further context regarding the translation). The instructions in these verses are general instructions for how to get along with each other: Be kind; be humble; be generous, and treat your enemy as your friend. It's good advice to heed in relationships of all kinds.

I have seen many relationships between family and friends fall apart because one party did not treat the other with kindness or respect. It's hard to watch and harder to experience, especially when one of the people involved is trying to repair or maintain a relationship while the other is oblivious to the destruction they cause. Selfishness, patience and generosity are all necessary to be a great friend, sibling, or spouse. I hope that I can keep this in mind as I move on in my relationships!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Summer Challenge 2: The Weekend!

This weekend's Challenge Task is to read a series of articles on Christian Dating, and to respond to them with agreements, disagreements, and the ways we would, could, or have applied the principles put forth. I don't plan on reading all 8 articles at once, but I'm going to consolidate my responses as well as possible, so I'll be taking notes as I go. I'll sometimes include quotes so that you can reference what I'm responding to. The articles are written by Scott Croft, an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church where he runs relationship seminars, and an attorney.

Right off the bat, I'd like to note that Mr. Croft has no credentials related to relationship or marriage counseling, psychology, sociology, or even theology (aside from a year as a "pastoral assistant"). FotF doesn't even tell us what kind of attorney he is, so I checked with Google. If this is him, he's in "litigation", mostly the 'business and gov't' kind. Therefore, his experience as an attorney is completely irrelevant to the matter of Christian Dating.

So why tell us he's an attorney at all? It's a basic rule of sociology: Anyone with a Degree is More Important Than You and Knows Better, and is therefore Qualified to order you around. There have been studies done on obedience to authority figures, and it clearly works in real situations. Even I have experienced the obedience phenomenon when I tell people I was a Behavioral Therapist. Isn't psychology fun?

Regardless of Mr. Croft's lack of actual related credentials, let's assume he's a smart guy and has enough general life experience to give us some dating suggestions. We'll start with the first article: Biblical Dating: An Introduction. He begins with a pair of Basic Assumptions that color the entire series: Inerrancy of Scripture and its close cousin Sufficiency of Scripture. Basically, Scripture comes from God and is therefore neither flawed nor has errors, and also therefore it is Sufficient to guide Christians in all areas of their faith and life; nothing is left out of God's Instruction Manual.

Ok. So we start with a definition of biblical dating:
We may define biblical dating as a method of introduction and carrying out of a pre-marital relationship between a single man and a single woman:

1. That begins (maybe) with the man approaching and going through the woman's father or family;
2. that is conducted under the authority of the woman's father or family or church; and
3. that always has marriage (or at least a determination regarding marriage to a specific person) as its direct goal.

While I've never been a fan of the whole "asking her father" thing, it does help when starting any relationship to have adult guidance and good role models to look to for help when things get awkward or difficult. Authority is something entirely different, and I do take issue with that. I have no problems with #3, though. Dating for me was never about getting into short, semi-casual relationships "just because". I've always considered it to be a search for a mate. I don't think casual dating makes much sense from either an evolutionary standpoint or a moral one. People are built for love and attachment - the goal of all life on earth is to reproduce, and in our case that goal includes hanging around long enough to properly raise our young. So marriage, or at least a settled domestic partnership, is a good idea, and therefore dating ought to lead toward partnership.

The rest of the article bashes on modern dating. He makes a few good points - that many people are entering the dating world entirely self-centered, looking for the person who fills their wants and needs without thinking about whether they are ready to fill someone else's wants and needs, that others are only dating to fill some basic emotional or sexual need without looking for the future commitment, and in doing so are keeping themselves satisfied in the short term but damaging their ability to commit to marriage in the future. Our system is flawed. But do we have to return to 300AD to get around that? Wouldn't advocating personal responsibility and attention to the needs of others get you the same result? The historical and social context for our current dating behavior bears examining; is this 'trend' going to continue, or will a few more generations experience the backlash of single mothers and unattached 40-somethings, and be pushed into marriage earlier than we were?

[derail]Mr. Croft mentions regret - in the context that he has never heard a Christian not express regret for a sinful relationship before they turned around and started living a more Godly life. It's not surprising. Most cultures (and Christianity is a culture) will encourage you to look back on the time before you came into the fold as one of disgrace, or at least one of ignorance. Why? Is it so important to alienate ourselves from our pasts that we must be told that not a single one of our companions has ever accepted past behavior as a good or necessary thing? I firmly believe that everything we experience is a chance to learn about ourselves and the world, and that we put ourselves into situations because we subconsciously know (or, if you will, God knows) that we can benefit from the lessons we will receive. If you regret something, you haven't learned everything you could from it, or are denying the lesson. I've made quite a few "mistakes" in my time, but I work every day to understand why and to eliminate regret. Life is too short to look back with sorrow and guilt, and besides, isn't thankfulness a lot more spiritually mature? So I strive to be grateful for the lessons I've been given, instead of regretting that they had to be taught. [/derail]

Now I'm going to nitpick at the biggest issue I see with Biblical dating. "Men initiate, women respond". Men are, of course, put into leadership roles in the Bible.
Hollywood's perfect woman runs with the boys, knows what she wants, and is aggressive en route to getting it — especially romantically. Hilariously, Hollywood even writes these characters into period pieces, as if the normal woman at all levels of society in the 18th and 19th centuries was a post-feminist, post-sexual-revolution, "there-ain't-no-difference-between-me-and-you" libertine.

Take one look at 18th century London with 10,000 prostitutes top-to-bottom, courtesans to streetwalkers, and tell me that society hasn't always had its share of "liberated" women! The "normal" woman back then succumbed to a lot of peer pressure when she chose a husband and lived a "normal", quiet, meek life. The "normal" woman had to live with her husband taking a mistress and say nothing, as it was common for him to do so and in some cases encouraged, especially when the wife wanted to avoid pregnancy (contraceptives being neither readily available nor Godly)!

Historically, ancient Rome (from which Christianity sprang) was a patriarchy, and most societies since have been patriarchal. There are few surviving female voices from those times to tell us whether they liked their roles in the household; whether they struggled as women today do with their expected roles; whether their husbands left their togas on the floor. There's been debate since 200BC regarding women's independence and authors in all eras have blamed women to some degree for ruining families by taking on male roles, whether it was owning land or money in ancient Rome or having the ability to work outside the home in more recent times. There's nothing new about the debate regarding male and female roles. It's rather telling that despite Mr. Croft's insistence on the vague historical ideal of women as meek and willing participants in the Patriarchal order, a good hard look at history says that the ideal has existed as long as written history, and so have the "recent problems" regarding marriage and family values. I'd much rather hear "either can initiate, as long as they do so with honesty and good intentions". Defined roles are not bad (see my post "Femininity" regarding gender roles), but I think the definitions should be left up to individuals.

(Sunday's Thoughts)
Now that I'm through with the reading I realize: I wanted to get mad at these articles. I fully admit that I went into this Challenge geared up for a full-on "Logic vs. Religion" rant about the various ways in which Biblical dating was both absurd and cheerfully ignorant of real life situations. Despite that initial reaction on my part, the rest of the articles are fairly straightforward and agreeable. Even though I'm still tempted to pick God right out of the equation, the guiding principles - communication, getting to know not only the person but his/her friends, family, etc to better judge compatibility, taking it slow - are all sound concepts to apply to dating in general, Christian or not. And of course, it reminds us not to leave our friends behind in our zeal for finding a mate. (Keeping a healthy social network is another post on its own)

Really, despite Mr. Croft's repeated assurance that Biblical Dating does not include "playing at marriage" and warns against too much intimacy and getting to know someone "too well" before marriage, lest a breakup cause more damage than it really should, he does advocate a lot of getting-to-know-you kinds of discussions. Discussions are GOOD. What he doesn't advocate, clearly, is finding out whether your potential husband leaves his socks all over the house by moving in with him. I guess you should just ask his mother! In all seriousness; I would bet that the most awkward part of marriage is learning to share your space with someone else. Suddenly you have two dressers, the closet is half full of someone else's clothes and there are socks on the living room floor. Old habits are hard to change, and again he gives the advice that to solve potential problems, you must communicate. Nothing wrong with that!

I think that what I am most having a problem with is the idea that women need to subject themselves to some invisible authority who will make all of their important decisions for them. I love the quote "If you love something, let it go. If it comes back, it is yours (love it forever). If it doesn't, it never was." And really, that's what women are advised to do in this series of articles - let go of the control.
The Lord is sovereign. If it doesn't work out with a particular guy because he didn't step up, the Lord will cause something else to work out. He knows what is best for each of us, and all of us must learn to trust him — especially about things that are really important to us.
The wording is enough to get under my skin! Even though the meanings are similar, the first quote puts control in the hands of the reader; the second puts it in the hands of God. I guess this is something I have to work through - my own desire for control. But that's another blog entry on its own, and a lot more learning ahead. For now, I'll just say that I have not been forced to submit to my partner but that I do on occasion simply because I love him and respect him. And really, that's what dating should be about - respect for the other person; wanting to find someone who is worthy of that respect and who can not only help you in your own growth, be it spiritual or material, but who can be helped by you. All relationships are a two-way street, and I think a lot of people forget this.

I'm glad these articles reminded me of the work it takes to willingly put your partner first in a relationship, instead of selfishly asking them to put you first. The challenge certainly gave me a lot to think about this weekend!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Summer Challenge

Before I tell you about the Challenge I am taking on, I'd like to give you some background.

I really dislike and distrust Focus on the Family. I have for a while; even during my adolescent years when my father was doing his most intense spiritual searching and taking me to churches along the way, listening to FotF on the radio, and handing me FotF-approved tape sets on relationships, I wasn't sold on their approach. I thought them shallow; trying too hard to appeal to as many people as possible, spewing the same thoughts over and over again in a desperate attempt to brainwash listeners without ever encouraging true thought or growth in faith. And I think I've finally pinpointed why I disliked them so much: They Lie.

An excerpt:

Our young believer listens, and two subtle evils begin to work in his life. Focus On The Family first admonishes our believer to keep listening, because their programs will help heal the damage in his soul. They don't just come out and say it, but the message is clear. If he wants to learn how to be a better Christian, he need look no further. In other words, they set themselves up as the authority on moral living. This little device hooks our young believer. If he rejects what's being broadcast by Focus On The Family, he is rejecting the information God obviously wants him to hear.

He keeps listening, and over time the second evil takes root and does its damage.

Focus On The Family tells our young Christian what good Christians do. They talk about how to love correctly. They talk about how to talk correctly. They talk about how to believe correctly. They talk about all the evil sins our Christian should avoid. But unfortunately, they inadvertently use themselves, their speakers and their leaders, as examples of what good Christians do. They do this by holding up their own interpretations of Scripture as God's will for our young believer's life.

Now, FotF recently sprouted a new website/media offshoot called "Boundless", aimed at single twenty-somethings and young married couples. They're trying their hardest to be the Cool Ministry on the block, which to me is both ridiculous considering their already large following (why conform to our "immoral" society's ideas of 'cool' when you already have 3-5 million listeners?) and scary - I don't want people like my sister and brother-in-law being targeted by an organization that preys on the weak and confused, especially when they're using FACEBOOK as a way to get their message across!

So when I stumbled on the Boundless Summer Challenge through a pair of Christian friends of mine, I wasn't terribly impressed with the whole idea of Boundless, or the Challenge itself - I mean, they're offering an iPad for "the person who completes the entire challenge and writes us the most compelling final essay". (Keep in mind that the only way they know you've completed it is by you following them on Facebook, which gives them access to your wall and your Facebook Notes, in which you are expected to keep a daily journal of the "tasks" they set). Maybe it's just me, but the idea of offering any prize at all for a challenge which is supposed to be about immaterial, spiritual growth seems a little like... what's the word I'm looking for?... desperation? Hypocrisy? Reeking of underhandedness - ah, duplicity!

Still, the idea of participating grew on me despite the threat of winning an iPad. For a start, I noticed that nowhere in the selling points for the challenge does it mention that it's Christian-only or even that it's directed at any given God or Faith. In fact it's not until the first Task appeared today that the word "Christ-followers" (not Christians!) was written in relation to the Challenge. Well, I'm a follower of Christ, if you translate that to mean "I follow the Golden Rule!". And since "The primary benefit in this Challenge is growth in godliness and the enjoyment of fellowship.", I'm going to translate "godliness" as "cleanliness" (no, not really, but I thought that'd get a laugh), that is, enlightenment. I'm going to use this challenge for growth toward Nirvana and the enjoyment of the fellowship of humanity.

So! While I'm not interested in using the Boundless Summer Challenge as a way to improve my relationship with Christ, I'm going to follow along anyway. The first task is a 3-part: Register on Facebook, pray, and ask people to join. I'm not interested in the iPad, so I feel no need to register with these people and allow them access to the most private parts of my public life (Because I do actually have privacy settings enabled; I'm not sharing my information with the entire world!). I consider this blog entry my official, formal registration for the Boundless Summer Challenge. "Praying" (or at least meditating) I will do. If I come up with any interesting thoughts I'll share them later today. Finally, asking: Consider this my invitation for you to join me on my 31-day journey through faith and spirituality. Regardless of your faith (or lack thereof), you are welcome to use this challenge to improve your relationships with people, study whatever religious texts you feel will help you in your journey, and meditate daily on how to live a better life (whatever "better" means to you is ok). If you'd like support, a dialogue, or just want me to know that you're participating you are welcome to leave a comment with a link to whichever website, profile, or blog you'll be updating for the next month. The challenge starts today, but you can join any time during the month (unless you're joining with them on Facebook; they set the deadline at Monday, July 12). Here's to a month of spiritual growth!

Oh, and for the friends who are doing this, especially N: I am going to pray not that you don't condemn yourself if the new baby prevents you from completing these tasks, but that you never feel or are ashamed of the "condemnation" of FotF and its members; that you remain innocent of the greed and anger that cloud its work and that your faith and companionship with your husband grows stronger not because of a few days spent in contemplation but because of a life well-lived with honor, compassion, and grace.

I leave you with this:
"How much better it would be if we could just remember that our Basic Assumptions are just that: assumptions. We do not know for a fact that anything is true because we are humans, and our minds are interpretive machines. We may believe something with all our hearts and still be wrong. We might fight and die, or even kill, for our interpretation of truth, but it won't make it any more true. All we can do is learn as much as we can and then remove everything that cannot be true and start seeing what is left. It'll never be a perfect truth, but at least it won't be a self-created one based on our personal or our group's own Basic Assumptions."

Maybe you can tell me...

Is it better to satisfy one thousand desires or conquer just one?

Samsara poses this question, with beautiful cinematography and careful attention to detail. A young Buddhist monk trained from the age of 5, Tashi begins to desire the experiences of the outside world and is allowed to leave the monastery to live in a nearby village - but what does he learn about himself and the nature of the Buddha in the process?

As someone who is interested in Buddhism, I found this movie both entertaining and thought-provoking. It's also spurred me to continue my study of Tibetan, which I and a friend are beginning together. Although right now I only have a basic grasp of the alphabet, I'm enjoying the feeling of being new at something.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Living with Grace

I find myself on the edge. I have been reading blogs like Feelin' Feminine (which I have linked here before) and Little Homestead in the City, many of which have feature some very intelligent women who happen to be writing about their lifestyles - homesteading, homeschooling, self-sufficiency, femininity, modesty, grace... and on top of it all, Christianity.

Here, I am torn. I love the dialogue I can have with these women at times, and I admire their insights on life, appreciate their dedication to their homes and families, and envy (yes, I admit to such an emotion!) their talents and skills (cooking, cleaning, sewing, knitting and crochet, soap and candlemaking, gardening, art, music, song, and so much more!). I feel unaccomplished at 24, next to these graceful and mostly humble young women. I am sure I could achieve most of what they have (I do not aspire to be a parent, and that is one difference I do not wish to erase), were I to apply myself. However, I am not a Christian and that brings up some tension.

I do not want to be a Christian, and I have chosen my spiritual path after a lot of thought, not because someone else was doing it or because I felt the need to fit in. I fully appreciate the appeal of religion; I understand its use in leading a purposeful life and the support it provides for both men and women seeking to live according to a moral code and belong to a supportive, tightly-knit group. I don't think there's anything wrong with living according to religious principles; I simply choose not to. And I feel that because of my choice I am not welcome to engage in discussion or befriend some of these women; they speak words of welcome but they discuss openly the fact that those who do not follow Christ/YHWH/Yahweh/Jeshua are not to be 'left alone' or 'tolerated' but actively spoken against and encouraged to join the fold. Some of them speak of "standing out from the crowd" of sinners and non-believers and then turn around to encourage conformity and group support within the ranks. I have yet to decide how hypocritical I think this is, but I know Christians aren't the only group to do it (there's an entire blog post on the psychology of groupthink just waiting to be written).

I'll give you this - you choose your friends, and if one of them does something you don't approve of, you have every right to say something. Against strangers, though? If I want criticism of my life I have no further to look than the nearest mirror; I don't need others to judge me for me. I think there is a fine line between living an upright life in support of the Lord and proclaiming loudly that anyone who doesn't live such a life should convert immediately. We all have the right and the duty to "be the change we would like to see in the world", so to speak. We have the right to surround ourselves with people who support our lifestyle or to go into the world to witness to others, knowing the intellectual dangers that associating with those different than us can introduce - namely, having our opinion softened or swayed by the very people we would like to convert. We all recognize that to associate with someone is to be influenced by them and maybe the loud proclamations against nonbelievers are simply a way of protecting oneself against the inevitable erosion. I still don't think it's the correct way of going about things.

I think that if you want to live a certain lifestyle, you should do so. Live in a way that glorifies God, or Nature, or yourself. Blog about it. Welcome discussion. But be open and accept that others will come to you seeking more than condemnation. Be an example to those around you of the things you hold most dear. If you live as a true example of the things you wish to uphold, others will seek you out and convert to your way of thinking on their own; seeing your success and happiness will bring them around more effectively than a hundred thousand years of proselytizing ever could.

I want to live with grace and let my actions speak for me. I only hope I'm not letting my mouth get too far ahead!