Monthly Archives: September 2013

the commodification of charity

TOMS became popular because it represented a humanitarian cause. You didn’t just buy yourself shoes, you bought someone else shoes, too. The distinctive style and little flag on the heel became a sign-exchange value, telling people not only the “look how cool I am” of the Nike swoosh, but also “look how generous I am.”

So it’s no surprise that knock-offs started popping up everywhere. The same distinctive cloth-wrapped style, although sans the blue-striped flag and the “One for One” mission statement. I’ve actually heard women brag that they would never buy real TOMS, they’re so expensive, but found ones just like them for only half the price! What a steal!

I know I’m supposed to do the woman-bonding thing and congratulate her on her stealthy hunting shopping skills, but what I want to say is this:

Well, of course you found ones at half the price, because you’re only buying shoes for yourself. You want the sign-exchange value of “look how generous I am” without actually having to give anything. You want it on the cheap. You want to look giving but without it actually costing you anything.

This is especially true of Toms, given the company’s philanthropic nature, but it’s USAmerican consumerism all over the place. We want it to look real, but we want it made less expensive, regardless of how many people we hurt. Forget the second-pair-of-shoes cost of charity; we don’t even care about labor conditions for the people making our items or if the materials are durable, much less sustainably grown. If you aren’t going to do the research on that, the absolute least you can do is think about why it is you want that new piece, what you’re hoping that purse or those shoes will say about your person—and then make it true.

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The Sun Salutation

For whatever reason, God has felt distant. I’m from West Michigan, where it’s not unheard of to go multiple weeks without a glimpse of sun. God feels like that lately: I know she must be there, but there have been too many dreary days since I’ve experienced warmth on my skin, since I’ve seen a ray of sunhope to spark serotonin-certainty in my cerebrum.

In an effort to clear the clouds and re-establish contact, I purchased a book of common prayer. The first few days I read from it regularly—morning, midday, and evening—telling myself that even though I didn’t feel anything beyond the words, I would if I could just stick with it. Soon it became a twice-a-day habit, then down to one. At that point, it seemed to have proven itself unhelpful to me, and I stopped attempting to force it.

It was then that I looked closely at those obscuring clouds blocking me from my Creator that I realized they weren’t made of vapor, at least not any less figuratively so than anything else under the sun. Their darkness is a locust swarm of ink smudges, wasp words buzzing, moths teeming toward the light. The mass is the accumulation of words around God, years of it from the Christian publishing industry, the words of many pastors, centuries of liturgies, manuscripts dating back millennia. The prayer book is just my most recent layer, each page creating moth-flies flocking toward the light. I needed to move beyond the words.

My yoga mat was waiting for me in the corner of my closet. I had tried to practice on my own since moving to Seattle, but never felt revitalized, couldn’t keep committed. There’s something to be said for a faith community, for a leader in liturgy. I’ve known for the last year that I needed to find a studio of good people with whom I could practice, but kept putting it off. Knowing this paper was due soon, I used it as an excuse to commit the time and money to reinvigorating my spiritual practice. Sunday night I arrived at a studio to find the temple hidden on my yoga mat, held within my body.

I didn’t know a single person in the studio, yet—as is often the case with yoga classes—there was an immediate sense of unity. In the first few moments, we align our breathing. I think of the tetragrammaton tattooed on my ribs and recite the Sh’ma in my head: Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad. The still-scabbed four-character name of God was inked the week prior, put on my skin as a reminder that every breath and sigh is an utterance of the name of God. As I use my inhales to lengthen my spine and exhales to bend deeper, it feels true.

As with other spiritual practices, the community sustained me. There are times when I, on my own, wouldn’t have held a pose so long, would have allowed the weakness in my thighs and biceps to win. But I look around at the others in their practice, spine-arches on a ceiling, from my inverted perspective, and I persevere. We breath together. I borrow their energy; I lend them mine. We’re all in this together, I think. We all suffer. Keep going.

We end our practice as dusk is deepening and the golden hour makes the room shine warmly.  Together, we inhale, and together, we exhale an ‘om’. It was powerful – a sound so large, warm, and round that it echoed not only through my vocal chords but my lungs, my body, my very being. My deep contralto grounded the higher notes, an interweaving between us that brought out resonances that were more than the sum of the parts. I choked on a sob, the ‘om’ not the same without me but going on nonetheless. My participation isn’t vital, but it is wanted. And when I can’t participate, the community sustains me. I have never attended a church as openly and calmly supportive.

I don’t think that my spiritual dry spell is over; I’m not naive enough to believe that one yoga class is enough to both clear away the swarm and destroy the nests. I think back to the time period of my conversion: it began with weekly yoga classes, grew to include running, and as I shaped my life around formative practices it exploded to include church service, krav maga, more regular yoga, a young adults group, strength training, becoming church leadership… . No, the problem isn’t solved, and I can’t re-trace the journey that’s behind me. Still, this feels like a move in the right direction, a place to be supported, sustained, and to listen for what God is calling me to next.

This piece was originally written for course called Prayer, Presence, & Practice, taught by Pat Loughery. Students were asked to reflect on their current spiritual practices as they are.

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media marriages

On December 29, I wake up and whisper “happy anniversary” to my husband.  On January 28, he gives me a birthday gift (and  I give him his, six days late, because we always agree to not do gifts so shortly after Christmas and I don’t want him to feel obligated to get me one because I always get him one; but we both do, anyway). When I want him to know I love him, I hug him, or text him, or sometimes slip a note in his folded shirts for him to find later.

What I don’t do: write on his Facebook wall. Tweet about it. Write a status update in which I tag him.

I want my husband to know I love him. And yes, you, our friend, his family member, my acquaintance, you will probably be able to tell I love my husband because of the way we are with one another, because of the way we talk about one another, because of the way we look at each other. I don’t need to convince you of it, because it’s true, and as something true, it’s already evident.

By posting flowery love notes to social media (especially people who use social media pretty much exclusively for this), I don’t think you love your spouse. I think you want me to think you love your spouse. I think you care more about the appearance than the reality. I wonder if I can tell that you and your spouse love one another by the way you are across the room from each other at a party. I wonder what your tone is struggling to hide. I wonder what your eyes can’t hide.

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September 11 Eucharist

In discussing what we could possibly say on this September Eleventh, the other pastors and I talked about the ways that the events of that September Eleventh twelve years ago  threw us into chaos, the ways we didn’t know how to respond as individuals and as a country, the ways in which our narratives failed us.

Our experience is not unlike, after the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples were traveling on a road, lost in their despair. Nothing had prepared them for the violent and humiliating death of their teacher. In times of great stress and trauma and pain, we lose the ability to make sense, reason fails us, we don’t know how to narrate.

But there’s another way to be. From a distance, Mary stands pondering the crucifixion. She does not wail, does not protest. Scripture tells us she stood there. Ronald Rolheiser notes that for a Hebrew, to stand is a position of strength. Standing, Mary ponders, but not with the intellect; she ponders in the biblical sense, which means to hold, carry, and transform tension so as not to give it back in kind.

And that’s what Mary does. She holds, carries, and transforms the tension so as not to give it back hurt for hurt, anger for anger, an eye for an eye. Sometimes, in doing the work of holding, carrying, and transforming, there is nothing to say. All we can do is stand, in silent strength, waiting until the work of transforming means we can speak and act in ways full of grace and peace.

We invite you to witness and ponder–not ponder with the intellect, but ponder as Mary did on the hill, ponder by holding events and images in the heart–without the cohesive narrative, without resolution. We invite you to hold, to carry, to transform, amidst all the brokenness and chaos. We invite you to notice where God is present in the broken bread, that the Divine is present and inhabits even the brokenness of creation.

Where is God present in your life?

This is what I read in leading The Seattle School community in Eucharist today.

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the human movement

For the first time, I dropped a class. After one session.

Still, I learned something.

I learned that you can be a respected editor, a decent writer, an in-demand speaker, and keep company with Impressive People–and still be the kind of person I wouldn’t want to be. In fact, it might even require a strand of arrogant narcissism to become such a success. I learned that what matters most to me is the character of an individual, not their list of successes and achievements.

In another class, while giving introductions, we were asked to share what we hope to do after graduating. After half a dozen men shared their career aspirations, I hesitated, then stated that after graduation I hope to be a gardener, and a writer, and a mother, and a good friend, and maybe spend some time attempting to articulate the ways that our bodies teach us about the Divine in ways that words do not.

I am ambitious in that I want to do good work, but I am not ambitious in a career-oriented, worldly, everybody-look-at-me sense. I don’t want to promote my blog. I don’t want to follow people hoping they follow me back. I don’t want to cultivate a persona. I want to live a full life and be a whole-hearted person, and our current society does not measure ambition nor success on such criteria.

There are times–more than I’d care to admit–that I worry I’m failing the feminist movement. And I probably am. And yet, perhaps I am furthering the human movement, the movement that does not place the burden on doing it all—whether it’s “gain all the money and power” or “do all the housework and childrearing” or “gain all the career goals AND be the perfect wife/mother”—but instead places equal emphasis on doing and being. That’s something, I believe, that would benefit women and men and culture and the world.

After writing this, I heard Arianna Huffington’s commencement address in which she states that our current definitions of success aren’t working for women, aren’t working for men, and aren’t working for polar bears. Listen to it here.

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