Sunday, August 28, 2011


Pink Sherbet Photography /Flickr Creative Commons

While the east coast was waiting for the wrath of Hurricane Irene, I was driving a young friend to college for her freshman year, then racing back to deliver her mom and friend to Philly before returning to my own home just ahead of the winds and heavy rain. Traffic was wonderfully light since so many good citizens were heading warnings and staying home.

Driving through the rain, I was reminded of our last real hurricane here in Pennsylvania: Hurricane Floyd, September 16, 1999. I had just started my youth ministry job, and drove through the rain to meet a volunteer leader on a nearby campus. As it turned out, she was wiser than me, stayed in from the storm, and since neither of had cell phones, I wandered in the rain a bit, then drove back through the flooded streets to find my kids had been let out of school early and were wondering where I’d gone.

While it’s hurricane season once again, that earlier season of my life is over: the season of youth ministry, volunteer leaders, kids coming home from school wondering where I am. I’m in a new season: no longer summer, not quite fall. It’s an undefined season, one that leaves me space to drive friends to college, or give time to causes I had no time to think about in other seasons of my life.

Looking back, I’m struck by how immediate each season seems, and how encompassing. I didn’t think much about time as a kid, but I remember during high school, and college, when people would say “These are the best years of your life,” I’d wonder. It didn’t seem that way. Those years seemed hard, long, inescapable. Sixteen seemed forever. The challenges of seventeen went on, and on, and on.

When people ask me my favorite season of the year, I can never really answer. I love spring: migrating birds, wildflowers blooming. I could swim all summer, soaking in the warmth of the sun, savoring cherries, melons, tree-ripened peaches. Fall brings more birds traveling through, apples, amazing foliage, those perfect crisp cool days. Winter is hardest, but it has its own beauty, its own fun, its own challenge, adventure, rewards.

Looking across the seasons of my life, I’d say the same is true: every season has had its own beauty, pain, challenge, opportunity, reward. Some people say “Oh, I loved being a young mom. I’d love to go back to that.” Really? I found it very hard: endless days, sleepless nights, repetitious tasks, mind-numbing isolation. Our culture gives little support to young families; little prepares us for the role of young mother. Yet there was a sweetness I’ll treasure forever: warm little bodies cuddled up safe, fuzzy heads against my cheek.  Amazing toothless smiles. First laughs, first hugs, first words, first steps.

My life in academia was another season: college, grad school, years as an adjunct professor. The challenge of leading a good class discussion. The fun of seeing ideas ping around a room. Books to read, lessons to prepare, stacks of papers to grade stealing my weekend hours.

I’ve noticed that whatever season I’m in, I’m tempted to judge my life, and myself, against other seasons. As a grad student, living in the city, I was part of a neighborhood garden, volunteered as part of a food coop, started and led a youth group in my church, helped launch an annual block party that persists thirty years later. As a young mom, living in the suburbs, I did none of those things. I watched small children, hung out on the playground, talked to other moms. I judged my life: boring! Judged myself: inconsequential, self-absorbed.

In the middle of those young mom years, I was contacted by the editor of my college alumni magazine. She was preparing an issue that would explore the challenges of women caught between career and family, and wondered if I’d write a short article about what I was doing, how I was experiencing my calling. I was tempted to say “No.” I wasn’t doing anything. I wasn’t called to anything. But as I thought and prayed, I saw something new: I was called to be a neighborhood mom.

Instead of an article, I wrote a letter, which was printed in its entirety, under the painful heading “Is My Ph.D. Being Wasted?” I described the years I had spent in school, the Ph.D. from an Ivy league school, the difficult decision to stay home with my kids:

“I’ve been thinking quite a bit about calling lately, and about how people drift into decisions without looking at the consequences of their choices. Some women may be called to work full-time all their lives; others may never work full-time. The important question is, what is God calling you to do? Or me to do? It’s taken me a long time to understand that being a neighborhood mom may be a calling, that being available to my own children and to the children around me may be as much a ministry as going overseas as a missionary.”

In some seasons the task is obvious, the rewards clear. Well-defined jobs are great: they provide a clear answer to that quintessential American question: “What do you do?” And a regular paycheck is a comforting reminder of our economic value.

But there are values outside the purely financial, and job descriptions only God could put on paper.  Lessons that have nothing to do with grades, rewards we can only see when we look with eyes not our own.

Sometimes I’m asked if I’m enjoying retirement. I’m really not retired. I’m not sure I believe in retirement at all. I may change my mind a few decades from now, but for now, I may no longer work for a paycheck, but I’m not retired. Not at all.

If you ask me what I’m doing these days, I'll probably laugh. I have no idea. Each day is different. The assignments vary. I’m a free-lance follower of Christ. Part-time writer. Full-time listener. Back-up for those who need back-up. Watcher on the walls.

This season may last longer than some of the others. Or it may end tomorrow. I have no way of knowing.

What I do know is if I stay close to Jesus, my priorities will be his, his love will shape my days, and I’ll find myself part of what he’s doing around me. If I stick close, and listen well, there will be fruit that will last. Whatever season it is. I think that’s all that matters.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. . . . You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.”   John 15
 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Speak up

United Nations Photostream
What does it mean to advocate for the poor in the current political climate?

I wish I knew. I talked recently with a relative who has been involved in advocacy for almost half a century. When I asked him who he trusts, what steps he would take, how to start, he just shook his head. “We’re all just pawns.” He repeated it several times, a decades of engagement summed up in four discouraged words: “We’re all just pawns.”

Angry voices call for cuts in foreign aid while children starve in Somalia. Caring people shrug: what can we do? Yes, it’s complicated.

But sit a minute with the chart below. Here’s what it shows: In March 2002, twentytwo of the world’s wealthiest countries agreed to move towards a goal of each giving 0.7 per cent of their national income as aid to the poorest countries. This conference was attended by U.S. President George Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac among others. The original commitment has been reaffirmed repeatedly in the years since, with an understanding  0.7% of the developed nations gross national income would provide enough funds to meet the UN Millenium Goals of eradicating extreme hunger, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDs and malaria, achieving universal primary education.

Here’s the chart:

In total, the US gives more aid than any other nation. But as a percent of per capita income, we’re competing with Greece, Italy, and Japan for least generous nation.

  • Less than half of the reflected aid from the United States goes to the poorest countries
  • The largest recipients are strategic allies such as Egypt, Israel, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • Israel is the richest country to receive U.S. assistance ($77 per Israeli compared to $3 per person in poor countries).
One argument raised in these discussions is that the church /Christians/ caring individuals should feed the hungry, not governments. It’s hard to find statistics about international giving; the best I can find is this:

“The highest estimates from recent years put individual U.S. donations to overseas aid at 0.16 percent of national income, according to the Center for Global Development’s Steven Radelet. (More conservative estimates suggest that this number may actually be as low as 0.03 percent; an OECD estimate put the number at 0.06 percent.)

So - using the generous estimate of 0.16 percent, add it to the 0.21 percent of foreign aid - all US giving combined, private and governmental, is still less than half a cent for every dollar earned, less than half of what we promised back in 2002, less than the governmental aid alone of half of the world's wealthiest nations. 

Who is my neighbor? I’m picturing those very frail children in the evening news. The mothers who love their starving children as much as I love my own.

An easy start is a check to Care, Conpassion, Oxfam, or World Vision. Or a quick text to any organization listed by CNN in their "how to help Somalia" roundup. 

Jo Harrison/Oxfam 
Easy next step: an online petition, asking congress and other leaders to follow through on internation aid commitments, through ONE,  Bread for the World, Care.

The next step takes a little more time: Bread for the World calls it “an offering of letters.” Taking the time to write personal letters to senators, representatives, President Obama, asking that relief funds not be considered when other priorities are cut. Bread for the World offers suggestions, and a quick way to find representatives addresses

A final step, maybe more difficult, but possibly most fruitful, is to engage others in the conversation. Post the ONE petition on your facebook page, or talk with others about what’s at stake in cutting foreign aid. An article this past winter in the New Republic explains why “Real Conservatives Don’t Slash Foreign Aid.” As the article makes clear, the UK, despite a tight budget and cuts in almost every area, has “ringfenced” foreign aid, taking it out of discussion for reductions, for three compelling reasons:
1. It makes sense economically: foreign aid is the most cost effective way to strengthen fragile nations and head off potential terrorism.

2. It makes sense diplomatically. Foreign aid build good will not just with receiver nations, but with other countries working together to end global poverty.

3. It makes sense morally. “A sense of compassion for the enormous suffering across the globe and a determination to help reduce it is neither a liberal cause nor a conservative one. It is a human cause.”

So, give, of course. Pray: yes. But speak up, speak out, "open your mouth." Remind those you know, those who represent you: God is on the side of the poor, and as a nation, we've promised to do more.

Proverbs 31:9
Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (NIV)
Open your mouth, judge righteously, And plead the cause of the poor and needy. (NKJV)
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.  (NLT)

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Global Soccer Mom

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and the needy. Ezekiel 16:49

Browsing new non-fiction at our local library, I was drawn to a book titled Global Soccer Mom: Changing the World is Easier than You Think. I don’t really like the label “soccer mom,” although I suppose I was one for almost two decades. How is a soccer mom different from a baseball mom? Or rugby mom? Or any other mom?

I also don’t resonate with the idea that “changing the world is easier than you think.” Who thinks they can change the world at all? And what, if anything, would be easy about it?

But I’m always interested when non-fiction from Zondervan ends up on library display racks, and skimming the back cover, I was amused to see that author Shayne Moore and I have much in common. She attended my evangelical alma mater’s top rival, Wheaton, has three kids, believes stay-at-home moms are called to make a difference.

Early in the book, Moore describes an incident where she feels God leading her to visit a convent, an unfamiliar setting, where she is shown a “Center for Peace, Justice, and Integrity of Creation .”

She doesn’t know why she’s there, doesn’t know what God is doing, yet “All the nerve endings in my soul start firing at the same time. I had never heard of a Center for Peace, Justice, and the Integrity of Creation. What do they do there? My world, my church, and my life do not include such a place. My heart pounds as a voice from the depth of me says distinctly, ‘This is what pleases me. This is what it’s about.’”

I feel as if I’ve been on a parallel journey with Shayne Moore. Unemployed for the first time since I took a decade off to stay home with my kids, I’ve been moving forward as if with a blindfold on, listening carefully to that quiet voice I’ve learned to trust: this way. Now wait.

And then – moments of “this is what pleases me. This is what it’s about.”

What it’s about, I see more and more, is compassion. Grieving with those who grieve. Waiting with those who wait. Offering to carry the burden with those whose burdens are too much to carry.

Moore’s journey carries her into advocacy about global HIV and AIDS, and into conflict with a church tradition uncomfortable with the harsh realities of poverty, disease, and human suffering. When first confronted with first-hand stories of African AIDS orphans, she admits: “I have no file in my brain for this information. No context. I am angry: Why have I never heard this? Why aren’t we talking about this every Sunday in church? Where are the sermons and the offering plates for this pandemic? Why are we harping on the same things over and over from the pulpit, yet are ignorant of our neighbors’ suffering?”

We are ignorant of our neighbors’ suffering because we choose to be. Because we’re afraid of the responsibility that comes with knowledge. Because we don’t want to be different from the people around us. Because life is hard enough already, so why make it harder? Because it’s easier to focus on superficial things than tackle the underlying structures and systems that are part of our neighbors’ suffering.

Moore tells her own story of moving deeper into a life of obedience and advocacy, while offering a wealth of statistics and stories about AIDS, global poverty, and initiatives that have been begun, and often set aside, as other economic priorities intervene. She also shares some great quotes.

From N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: “I want to explore justice. I use this word as shorthand for the intention of God, expressed from Genesis to Revelation, to set the whole world right – a plan gloriously fulfilled in Jesus Christ, supremely in his resurrection, and now to be implemented in the world. We cannot get off the hook of present responsibility by declaring that the world is currently in such a mess and there’s nothing that can be done about it until the Lord returns." 

From Richard Foster's Devotional Classics: "The social justice tradition (the compassionate life) is not a set of pious exercises for the devout, but a trumpet call to a freely gathered people who seek the total transformation of persons, institutions, and societies. We are to combine suffering love with courageous action . . . . We are to become the voice of the voiceless, pleading their causes in the halls of power and privilege."  

From Arloa Sutter, president of Breakthrough Urban Ministries in Chicago: "Scripture sheds light on the why of poverty by addressing issues of greed, disobedience, isolation, and discrimination, but ultimately the power to overcome poverty and disease lies not so much in assigning blame as in learning to live the Jesus way; to follow him in how he interacted with the poor and suffering, to take up our cross of loving generosity, kindness, and tenacious advocacy for the poor and oppressed."

Thinking and praying about these quotes, I’ve been struggling with the idea of “tenacious advocacy.” Shayne Moore’s tenacious advocacy led her into tension with her church, into partnership with people very unlike herself, and took her far past her comfort zone on trips to Honduras, Kenya, Russia, and the G8 conference in Scotland.

Some friends and I were talking recently about human need, suffering, poverty. One friend said “well, all we can really do is pray and help people one by one.”  I like that idea: I do pray, and I do help people one by one.

But even as I heard her say it, I was sure there was more demanded. As another friend answered quietly, “if we don’t try to change things, we’re complicit in the way they are.”

What does compassion look like? What dose it mean to be “the voice of the voiceless”? Am I really called to join others in “pleading their causes in the halls of power and privilege”?

Shayne Moore concludes: “I may never have all the answers when it comes to what divides the church or our nation; however, if I am sure of one thing it is this: I am not wrong if I am spending myself on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. . . . In our churches we pray the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday and we say, 'Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven' (Matt. 6:9 KJV). I am confident extreme poverty, the exploitation of women and children, and preventable diseases are not in heaven. I can act in this world, in my time, to fight these things, knowing I am in the will of God."

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Big Government, Small People?

Kayaking on Marsh Creek Lake the evening of August 2, just hours after the debt ceiling agreement was signed into law, I found myself thinking about government. Good thing? Bad thing?

House Speaker John Boehner, in his televised remarks on August 1, made a remark that has already been recirculated with great glee: “the bigger the government, the smaller the people.” Apparently he was paraphrasing a Dennis Prager column from a few weeks earlier that has already been accepted as common knowledge: “Big Government Means Small People.” 

Watching the families picnicking along the side of the lake, the inevitable dads and kids fishing from the bank, sailboats tacking across the water, I found myself giving thanks for government. Marsh Creek State Park is owned, operated, maintained by government, as are most of the places important to me: Central Park, the vast reserves of the Adirondacks, the hawk-watch platform at Cape May Point, the sandy beaches of Bombay Hook.

But government has given me more than parks.

Government gave me thirteen years of really great schools: committed teachers, formative programs. I learned to play the cello thanks to a government-funded music teacher. I learned to love art using thick, government-funded tempra paints. Our town helped pay for my summers at camp through a program for low-income families, and when I wasn’t at camp, watched me all summer at a government-funded rec program, where I perfected my knock hockey skills.

I think it’s safe to say I would not have survived childhood without government. When my grandmother, sole guardian of four needy kids, didn’t have money to take us to the doctor, government stepped in and paid our doctor bills. And when she found she couldn’t earn enough to pay rent, buy us clothes, and also put food on the table, government stepped in with Food Stamps.

College? Without government, I wouldn’t have gone. I was fortunate to live in New York State during a period when the state put a high priority on developing its human capital. State grants and scholarships paid all of my tuition, and most of my living expenses. Thank you, government.

Thank you, too, for Title Nine, passed as I was entering college. It encouraged my school to add some women’s sports, which made it possible for me to play field hockey, and eased my entrance into graduate school and access to grad school funding.

When I was first married, living in Philadelphia, we found we couldn’t afford a car, so were grateful for Septa and Amtrack, both subsidized by government. Of course, we still enjoy government-subsidized transportation: safe bridges, good roads, modern airports. As I write this, a crew is repaving the road in front of my house. Thank you, government.

We lived for years near the United States Geological Survey offices in Reston, Virginia, so when I check the weather, or hear about hurricane warnings, or read the latest about forest fire control, I think of my USGS friends, government workers I’m thankful for.

scene from Gasland, a documentary
about fracking and water safety in PA
I have friends involved in water missions to parts of the world where government is small and human needs are great. In a world where more than 880 million people have inadequate access to clean water, I am deeply grateful that every time I turn on my faucet – every time! – clean, clear water flows out. Our government works hard to make that happen. There are some who think they should work less hard, but I believe they’re wrong.

Do I agree with all government spending? Of course not. Misguided farm subsidies have done real damage. Too much US aid is channeled through corporations like Monsanto in ways that harm, rather than help, food production in developing countries. And I’m still trying to understand why multinational banks like Bank of America were given billions of dollars in federal bailout money when they did little to help people in foreclosure, have paid no US taxes in years, and managed to give their executives millions during the worst recession in decades.

But that’s not a problem of big government. It’s a problem of big business exercising undue influence in the process.

Do I want less government? I’m sure there are some places where less government would be a good thing. But in the places I care about, for the people I know best, less government would be a disaster.

The old Willard School entrance
The new Willard Elementary School recently replaced the oldest school building in Philadelphia, a four story building built in 1907 – no cafeteria, no library, no elevator, no gym, no playground. It took almost forty years of community activism to find funds to build the new school, and even though it’s beautiful, and has a library, gym, cafeteria, even an auditorium, the last time I asked there was no staffing for the library, and no funds to buy library books. Too much government, or not enough?

A friend enrolling her daughter in kindergarten in the same neighborhood asked about classroom size. She knows her daughter needs help to catch up. The mom never even started ninth grade, but she’s determined her daughter do better. In her poor, urban neighborhood, there are twenty-five children per kindergarten class. Extra attention? One on one help? Not possible. Too much government? Or not enough?

I know quite a few young adults who are eager to teach in urban settings. Some began jobs a year or two ago, only to lose them in the current round of budget cuts. Some can't find a first job at all. Is this a win? To me it looks like a triple loss. They, and the kids they would have served, are all suddenly smaller, as is our economy, and the urban neighborhoods where they would have rented apartments, bought food, built community.

Waste? Fraud? Those are bad things. But I wonder – who is more likely to think government is too big: those in school districts where the per capita expenditure is above average, or those where it’s below? You can buy a very good education for $14,000 a year (our regional average), if you’re in a district with limited special needs and lots of motivated parents. Could you do as well on $10,000 in an outdated building, with lots of special needs kids, on a street with an active drug trade? 

Would it be better if churches and other community groups took a larger role in caring for human need? That’s a great ideal. I’ve seen some wonderful, effective faith-based programs. I’ve been part of some good work in needy places, and have benefited myself from the care of people of faith and compassion.

But a lot more churches would need to be a lot more proactive –consistently so - before I’d accept that as an argument for less government. And there are things government can do that no one else can: insist on fair treatment, protect our environment, ensure our food is really food, with no unknown, untested ingredients mixed in. I’d argue there’s a way to go on all of that.

I don’t believe big government makes us smaller. I believe wise government enhances our lives, opens doors of opportunity, protects us and our environment, provides a safety net for the poor, the frail, those squeezed out by the systems of the day.

How big should government be? Big enough to accomplish those tasks well.