Confronting Our Americhristianity

I don’t know who coined the term “Americhristianity.” I’ve seen it mentioned here and there on other blogs, and it seems to refer to a general conflation of “American values” with Christianity.

I have grown up in conservative Christianity, and while the “conservative” label is no longer important to me (though it probably still applies in many areas), “Christian” is. I’ve also grown up under a good deal of patriotism. This includes things like listening to patriotic music as a child, attending Memorial Day parades, Independence Day fireworks, and other things. All good things in their way.

But I think Americhristianity goes deeper than that. It is subtle and largely unnoticed, which is why it’s a term that is so rarely used. I would define it as a fundamental understanding of American loyalty and allegiance as being an inherent aspect of Christian faith, though I’m sure there are as many definitions as people who try to talk about it. I also doubt it is limited to conservatives, but that is the only “side” I can speak from experience on.

It seems to me that a lot of the principles that I and many others have subtly understood as falling under both the “American” and “Christian” umbrellas are based on a few faulty premises, including this one:

America was founded on Christian values, and therefore is a Christian nation.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this said or implied. I am less clear on which Christian principles, specifically, this is referring to. Surely it couldn’t be the principle of rebelling against the God-ordained king of England. I don’t remember reading anything in our constitution about our sinfulness and need for a savior, or about Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection. I assume it is making reference to the numerous mentions of “God” or “the creator” in America’s founding documents, but in that case, it seems just about any other theistic religion could fit the bill.

But when you internalize this idea that America has some degree of inherent Christianity about it, sometimes it’s easy to confuse the two, or to forget where one begins and the other ends.

Let’s consider the pledge of allegiance:

I pledge allegiance
to the flag
of the United States of America
and to the republic
for which it stands,
one nation,
under God,
indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all

I didn’t have to look up those words. I recited them every morning of every school day for many years, despite the fact that I didn’t set foot in a public school until I took the PSAT as a junior in high school.

I have recited these words aloud more often than any Bible verse, nursery rhyme, tagline, or other phrase that I can recall. I’ve recited them far more often in Christian homes, churches, and camps than in any government-run facility.

Look at the parts in bold. The allegiance we repeatedly pledge is being described as to a flag, and then to a republic. God is given lip service in the version that most of us still say (though “under God” was only added in 1954), but he is certainly not the one being pledged to. It seems to imply that by expressing our allegiance to the American republic, we are by default pledging to God too, since it is “under” him.

As a child, I remember many instances of uproar and panic among conservative Christians when anyone threatened to remove “under God” from the pledge (or from our money, or any other thing it was inscribed on). I still remember the controversy over the apparent omission of this phrase from the post-9/11 Dr. Pepper cans.

Why do we place so much importance on an American pledge, as if it’s a sacred document vital to our faith? As if the removal (or addition) of the “under God” phrase has any actual bearing on a person’s Christian faith? As if proclaiming our allegiance to a political entity (on church grounds, no less) is sanctioned by God simply because we throw his name in there?

(To clarify, I am not against the pledge itself–I would have less of a problem saying it at a government-overseen place or event–my issue is mixing it with church teachings.)

Right now, the world is in an uproar, and rightfully so, over attacks carried out by radical Muslims in Paris, Beirut, and other parts of the globe. This uproar is channeling itself into fear as millions of refugees from the Middle East make their way west, with some hopefully to be resettled in America.

As I look at this situation, and read the words people are expressing, I’m again struggling with my own Americhristianity, and sense others are too. I have come to realize that when faced with a question, sometimes the “political answer” and the “Christian answer” are different. For a long time, I was under the mistaken impression that the American political answer was the Christian answer–the two were so closely intertwined in my mind, because if this truly was a Christian nation blessed by God, then we must protect it (and therefore, ourselves) at all costs, right?

I am torn because I know that I owe a debt of gratitude to millions of American soldiers who fought for my freedom and still continue to do so today. And Jesus said that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:3)

I am torn because we are wired for self-preservation, and even, to a certain extent, stereotypes. If a certain “type” of person hurts us, we remember things about them to help prevent it from happening again.

I am torn because in addition to protecting ourselves, we must protect our loved ones. I want my children to be safe, just like any other parent. Just like the millions of refugee parents making their way west, traveling through dangerous territories, not knowing where their children will sleep on any given night.

I am torn because I know Christians are and should be in American politics, and how do they weigh making decisions based on personal, faith-based convictions vs. protecting their own country? When does even well-meaning “protection” become an idol? I can decide to help feed and clothe and care for others, but how much power should the average person have to legislate others to do the same?

Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). He told us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), setting up a stark contrast to the way the political systems, including our American one, operate. He told us to do to others as we would have done to us (Luke 6:31).

He also said:
“If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6: 34-36)

So many of my long-held American principles seem directly at odds with those words.

I am having to learn to ask myself difficult, honest questions: “Is my attitude being formed more by my Christianity, or by my American heritage?”

And if my American heritage and my Christianity give different answers to the same question, then which one wins? Which attitude should trump the other?

Am I a Christian American or an American Christian?

If an American political candidate says they are a devout Christian, and opposes resettling Syrian refugees in our country due to safety concerns, do I still support them? What would I do in that situation? How do I best attempt to imitate the Christ who identified so strongly with “the least of these,” who said “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”? (Matthew 25:40) How does a Christian politician decide which of Jesus’s commands should be legislated to the population at large, and which should be merely individual (and is there such a thing?)?

When do safety concerns become excuses? When does our desire to save our own lives become a refusal to lose it for Jesus’s sake? (Luke 9:24)

These are hard questions, and I’m certainly not wise enough to know the answers to all of them.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop asking.

Chocolate Black Bean Muffins

One carryover from having gestational diabetes twice is that I have become at least somewhat more aware of how many carbohydrates I’m consuming in my regular diet. Carbs aren’t inherently bad, of course, but the GD diet emphasizes combining a moderate amount of carbs with protein to help control blood sugar. For example, banana and peanut butter, an egg and toast, crackers and cheese, etc.

While I’m glad I don’t have to follow a strict diet right now (and certainly am not averse to indulging now and then!), I wanted to find a way to incorporate more protein into my diet, especially when it comes to snacking. When hungry, I’m quick to just grab a handful of something, and that something tends to be all carbs. It seems a lot of protein sources are messier (peanut butter, cheese), need to be cooked first (meat, eggs), require refrigeration (meat, cheese, eggs), and are just generally a bigger hassle when you want something quick and/or portable.

Well, I can’t claim to solve all of those problems with one recipe, but I will say that I have been looking for a good, reasonably healthy muffin recipe for a while now, something both my toddler and I liked, and so far this has been my favorite. The fact that they’re very chocolatey doesn’t hurt either! According to my calculations, each muffin contains about 5 grams of protein, and 2+ of fiber.

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Some people may be weirded out at the idea of bean muffins, but I really can’t taste the beans, especially with all the chocolate in there. The texture is a bit different, but I like it.

Being grain-free, these muffins would work great if you’re avoiding wheat, gluten, or just grains in general. Or if you’re just someone like me, who isn’t, but thinks they’re healthy and delicious, and loves chocolate. They’re also very portable for snacking on the go.

Ingredients:
1 15.5-ounce can of black beans, drained
1 banana
1/2 cup peanut butter
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup sugar or other sweetener*
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
1/2 tsp guar gum or xanthan gum**

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Combine the drained beans, banana, peanut butter, and vanilla extract in a food processor, and blend until smooth. (Truth be told, my food processor is too small to fit the peanut butter too, so I just blend it in with the mixer later. It still works.)

Transfer the bean mixture to a bowl, and add cocoa powder, baking powder, sugar (or other sweetener), salt, eggs, and guar or xanthan gum, blending well with an electric mixer. Once everything is well blended, spoon batter into a greased muffin tin until all 12 cups are filled about halfway. The batter will be fairly thick. Bake for 20-25 minutes. I usually do 22 or 23.

I find these keep best in the fridge.

* – I have only tested this with white and brown sugar, but I’m sure there are other sweeteners that would work. I have never made these for any kind of diabetes diet, but I imagine it would work well with Truvia. If you try it, let me know how much works for you. :-)

** – If you regularly do gluten-free baking, you probably have either guar or xanthan gum (or both) on hand. If you don’t, you probably don’t need to go out and get some just for this recipe, but the muffins will definitely be more crumbly without it. Vital wheat gluten may work as well, but I haven’t tested that.

Book Review: The Original Jesus, by Daniel Darling

Without Jesus, there would be no Christianity, and so it is imperative that we know, to the extent that we are able, who we are talking about when we talk about him. In this book, Daniel Darling helps us to trade “the myths we create for the savior who is.”

I was intrigued by the chapter titles for this book, each one debunking a common label that Christians sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, apply to Jesus. These include, but are not limited to: Braveheart Jesus (the idea of the savior as the epitome of modern manliness), Prosperity Jesus (the “Jesus just wants you to be happy” trope), American Jesus, BFF Jesus, Legalist Jesus, etc.

For each one, the author mixes some personal experiences and observations with Scripture to present the problems and limitations or inconsistencies with each perception, and point us to passages and principles in Scripture that contradict our shallow labels. I could certainly nod my head in agreement at ideas and concepts I’ve seen in the culture around me, and also, unfortunately, in my own heart as well. This book is most definitely gospel-driven, but I didn’t feel the theology was too deep to understand or too heady to feel personal. The author also has a humorous voice when appropriate, which helps the book read in a conversational way.

This is a short book–only 160 pages including notes and introductory sections (are books getting shorter or is it just the English major in me?) There are parts that I felt could have been fleshed out more. Certainly, a separate book could probably be written on the subject of each chapter. But that’s not to say it isn’t as thorough as it can be for its length. Ultimately, the author hones in on the primary problem behind all of these labels in the first place:

“I’ll admit, I want to accept the Jesus who conforms to my image, the Jesus whose statements fit nicely on coffee mugs and T-shirts. But this safe, sanitized Jesus looks nothing like the real one, the one who came not to give me what I want but to rescue me from the kingdom of darkness. This Jesus, the real Jesus, is dangerous and unpredictable, calling me to lay aside my life and follow him regardless of what it costs. Jesus came not to conform to our desires but to transform us into his image.”

Even though this book primarily focuses on what Jesus is NOT, there is still room to succinctly spell out who he ultimately is, although this book is no substitute for reading about him in the gospels. But it is a good takedown of our cultural stereotypes. I would recommend it not only to Christians, but also to those who are seeking more information about him, or are dissatisfied with the stereotypes. For further reading, especially reading that focuses on a more chronological look at Jesus’s life, I’d recommend Philip Yancey’s “The Jesus I Never Knew.”

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/wa….

Book Review: Blessings for the Morning, by Susie Larson

Blessings for the Morning: Prayerful Encouragement to Begin Your Day, by Susie Larson, is a little book of blessings that can be read in the morning to spiritually jump-start your day. The book is arranged with a blessing and a scripture quotation on each double page. Each of these has a header sentence that introduces the theme, such as “Wisdom to guard and guide,” and “Forgiveness and mercy,” etc.

What I liked about this book:

Presentation-wise, this is a gorgeous book. The cover is padded, the colors are well selected, there is a nice pink bookmark built in so you can keep your place, and a “presented to” page at the beginning. This would make a nice gift for graduations, birthdays, etc. All of the pages have full-page photos as the background image, making this a very vibrant, colorful book, which helps give it more appeal beyond just the words on the page; though it is not overly wordy, there is no “wasted space.” The photos themselves are very beautiful, and usually involve nature–sky scenes, landscapes, flowers. In fact, the presentation is probably one of my favorite parts.

But the blessings are nice too. They are not deep or complicated, but seek to remind us that God is with us as we begin our day. Most of them contain about 4 to 7 lines. Here are examples of some of the lines from different blessings:

“In this day of uncertainty, may God give you a faith that cannot be shaken.”

“When the storm rages overhead, may you know–with everything in you–that new mercies are on the other side.”

“May God heal your heart, soul, mind, and body, and may you approach life with eternity in mind.”

What I didn’t like about this book:

There wasn’t much. Obviously this is not what you want if you’re looking for any kind of in-depth study of scripture. Some of the phrases used may seem to become repetitive, especially if you want to read it more than daily. I could also perhaps critique the out-of-context use of certain phrases, such as “God is for you,” which certainly depends on the person reading, and does not offer a blanket approval to everything any person does–otherwise it could venture into sentimental territory.

But provided this is read by someone who has enough understanding of scripture to see the bigger picture and is not using this as a means of learning it, then it can be a lovely way to remind oneself of some timeless and encouraging truths from God’s word, and remind us to keep our focus on him–because he values us very much.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Bethany House through the Baker Books Bloggers www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/wa….

Book Review: Mothering From Scratch, by Melinda Means and Kathy Helgemo

When I was a new mother to my now-toddler, I was pretty insecure. I’m not sure how much of that came out to those around me (probably more than I realized), but one of the ways I tried to compensate for it was by finding some particular “cause” or belief to cling to. It’s an easy thing to do, and it usually involves something that is external and rather unlikely to truly make a big difference in the long run, at least compared to more important decisions, or the degree to which it would actually affect the child’s future character (for example: infant feeding choices).

I know I’ve learned and grown since then, but there is certainly more of that to do, and this book does a great job of hitting on the underlying threads of things that cause us to struggle as moms. It’s not that learning about the “externals” is necessarily wrong, but if such a pursuit is not firmly grounded in the truth, it can easily take us over. For Christian moms, this is a great and encouraging resource that I would definitely recommend reading before (or alongside) any other parenting books or “philosophies” you may peruse.

Melinda and Kathy are conversational and open about their own struggles and growth, and share various specifics and generalities of their experiences as they relate to different topics.

Some of the topics that are covered include:

“Mommy guilt”:
“Let’s cut to the chase: Mommy guilt is a liar. It tells us that if only we had made all the right choices and done everything perfectly, we would’ve been able to produce all the right outcomes. It tells us that if we’ll only try harder, the internal struggle will stop. Unfortunately, it’s a false, misleading trap… Mommy guilt stems from an illusion that we’re ultimately in control.” (pg 36)

Perfectionism is definitely a struggle of mine, and so I related quite a bit to this section. The authors encourage us to take realistic appraisal of our past regrets and current weaknesses, and then move forward, breaking free from condemnation and the false assumption that we are “in control.” This can be painful, because many of us use our desire for control as a crutch. But the authors continually point us to Jesus, and remind us of what we’ve been set free from.

We are encouraged to realize that none of us will ever be good at everything, and we don’t have to be – we only make it worse by pretending that we are, or striving for an impossible goal. We need to be honest about our strengths and weaknesses, to maximize the things we are good at, and develop the humility to ask for help and encouragement in the things we aren’t so good at.

Identity:
“How many times have we thought ‘I feel like I’ve lost myself in being a mom’? Isn’t it reassuring to know that’s not possible? We can’t lose our identity. It’s eternally secure in the hands of the Savior who died to purchase it. Rest assured, we may lose our keys, our kids’ soccer uniforms, and even our minds from time to time, but we can never lose who we are in Christ.
However, if we believe our identity is formed by us alone–our achievements, our circumstances, and our productivity and usefulness to others–we’re bound to feel unstable… If we look for our sense of self by pursuing the goals our culture tells us are valuable, we’ll never end our search. And we’ll never measure up. They use a different yardstick–one that’s always changing, by the way.” (pg 70-71)

The authors encourage a long-term perspective on mothering. It is so easy to get caught up in the details, both important and ultimately unimportant, and while they certainly do not minimize the sometimes agonizing choices we must make or situations that arise, the authors remind us to look at the big picture. Our identities are not found in the externals, and if we live as if they are, we will never be satisfied or secure, no matter how well we follow our own (or someone else’s) “rules.”

Working at home vs. outside the home:
Thankfully, the authors do not “take a position” on which is objectively “better.” Instead, they simply encourage mothers to maintain the home as their first priority, no matter what their employment status may be.

Connecting with other mothers:
Melinda and Kathy wisely caution mothers not to get too caught up in seeking the validation and encouragement we need primarily from the Internet. It can be tempting, and can offer what seems to be an unlimited forum for complaining, venting, and seeking validation for just about any choice we’ve made, but it is also incredibly fickle. They outline several qualities and character traits to look for in wise friends and fellow mothers.

Balancing self-care with our other responsibilities:
We are encouraged to take care of ourselves, and not to get so caught up in mothering that we neglect our own needs–especially spiritual ones. We are also encouraged to involve our children in the household duties, rather than enabling them by feeling that we must do everything ourselves–because in the long run, that’s not good for us or them.

There are also a few practical tips on how to balance household duties–cleaning, instructing, cooking, etc. But the last chapter is another admonition to depend on God’s power–and therefore to flee perfectionism and our desires to be “super moms”:

“When we primarily look to our husbands, our children, or our role as a mom to fill us up, we ultimately come up starving and empty. There’s a real danger of making false idols of our families. Our children’s accomplishments and opinions of us can become the focus of our worthiness. We burden them with the job of being our measure of effectiveness in the world. Yet nothing else will fill the God-shaped void in our souls. Not even the ones we love so dearly.” (pg 191)

I found this book encouraging, and it helped to really spell out and deconstruct some of the things I have struggled with. I appreciated the balanced advice and helpful tips, and the continual reminder of what’s most important in life. It’s so easy to get caught up in the details of life, and this book offered much-needed perspective.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Bethany House through the Baker Books Bloggers www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/wa….

Gluten-Free Fried Dough

A year ago we went to the fair and Laura had fried dough.  Being gluten-free, of course, I couldn’t have any.  So I came home and looked up a recipe.  They do exist.  And maybe some of them are pretty good.  But the one I found was pretty heavy on the eggs, and didn’t really taste much like fried dough.  (I know, the eggs provided some of the fat that held it together, but it just didn’t taste right.)

Anyway, why am I bringing up the subject now?  Because a couple weeks ago, I discovered how to make GF fried dough by accident.

A couple weeks ago Laura used my biscuit recipe, and while I was eating the nice, piping hot biscuit, a thought crossed my mind: I bet if I put BUTTER and CINNAMON SUGAR on this biscuit, it would have the taste and texture of fried dough.

I was right.

So forget the fried dough. Make my biscuits and go crazy with the sugar coating.  Done.

 

Book Review: The Making of an Ordinary Saint, by Nathan Foster

A few years ago I was introduced to “A Celebration of Discipline” in a small-group study, and found it very helpful and was intrigued and encouraged by the pictures it painted, and the various threads of spiritual life that were all woven together and yet distinctly different, and differently practiced.

So I looked forward to reading this book by the author’s son, and found it not only a good “refresher” on the disciplines themselves, but a personal journal of sorts from someone who dedicated a few years of his life to integrating them into his spiritual life.

The book is divided into 12 sections that cover each one of the spiritual disciplines: submission, fasting, study, solitude, meditation, confession, simplicity, service, prayer, guidance, worship, and celebration. Each section is introduced with a very condensed version of the discipline from the original chapter by Richard Foster. Then we get to hear Nathan Foster’s take on each one, and get to hear about his struggles and triumphs in practicing them, and other observations he makes along the way.

I appreciate his honesty and the fact that he doesn’t sugarcoat things. I know there is a lot that he’s left out, by desire and necessity, but he isn’t afraid to identify his own brokenness and failures in the process. He certainly doesn’t *have* to tell us about arguments with his wife, or bad thoughts he has about people, but he does, and usually finds good applications and lessons to take out of them when he does choose to share specifics like this.

Granted, this is just one person’s take on things. He probably does not practice all of these disciplines in the same way others would, since we all have our own baggage and personal limits. But I appreciate that, despite the personal nature of what he shares, he doesn’t allow his observations to get too small. In the introduction and the conclusion, he keeps coming back to the greatest commandment: love. God’s love is seen as the driving force and fuel behind all of this, and joy in Him as the ultimate reward.

I also appreciate that Foster doesn’t take himself too seriously. He needs these disciplines to help him draw near to God, not to puff himself up. He says,

“In recent years I’ve been coming to the conclusion that I have very little idea what’s going to be good for me. I think I know what I want, but historically, some of the best things for me I never would have chosen.”

Thus the very real need for discipline, for all of us.

These are very personal accounts, and won’t follow the same way for everyone, but the book is not all about one person. He knows there’s something bigger out there, and sees these disciplines as a way to connect with God. But, I was encouraged by the personal stories he shares – of the times he practiced a discipline well, or found he had to change his actions or attitudes before he could really even start to get it right.

At the end of each chapter is a brief blurb about someone in history who was known for that particular discipline, which I found interesting too.

I also found the two “interlude” chapters to be vital to the larger story: “Discipline Hazard #1: the Self-Hatred Narrative,” and “Discipline Hazard #2: My Inner Pharisee.” Some of us may identify with one of those more than the other (or both!), but in the midst of learning what discipline is and is for, it is also SO important to be reminded of what it is *not*, and once again the author is honest and willing to admit his own failures in order to help us get a better perspective.

Overall, I found this book to be a great follow-up to Richard Foster’s “original,” and I think this could easily be read even by those who have never read “A Celebration of Discipline,” though it will hopefully point readers in that direction. I may not agree with everything the author says, and we are different enough people that I can’t relate with everything he experiences, but he captures enough of our common human faults and desires that there were many many parts of the narrative that I related to quite well, and I’m sure others will have the same experience. He is also a very good, clear, succinct writer, and I found myself picking this book up again even after I’d put it down, and even knowing that it was probably better to be sampled in “small bites” because each chapter contains so much to think about.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

Viral Charity

There has been an awful lot of back-and-forth about the ALS ice water challenge; some folks think it’s great and some folks think it’s awful.   I think that it’s great for ALS research, but is bad for society in the long run.

I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon of those who insist this viral charity thing should never have happened; I’m glad that a great deal of money was (apparently) raised for ALS research.  But I think it does not bode well for the future of charity and giving in our world.

There are millions  of causes that are equally worthy (and perhaps even more worthy) of our attention as ALS research.  AIDS research. IBS research.  Starving children in Haiti.  Starving children in Rwanda.  Cancer research. Homelessness in the US.  Parkinson’s research.  Education.  Orphanages.  Clean water in third world countries.  Hurricane recovery.  Alzheimer’s research.  Flood recovery.  On and on the list can go…just do a search for charitable organizations, and you’ll find just how many causes there are.  And just because someone came up with a creative idea for ALS research doesn’t mean that ALS research is a more important cause than any of the others.  If ALS “deserves” to have such a successful fundraising campaign, don’t all of these others?

Now that ALS has had such a successful viral campaign, I suspect that  many of these other organizations are thinking to themselves, “How can we get in on this and use viral social media to get more money in our coffers?”

The ALS fundraiser has taught people a lesson, and it’s not a good lesson: “I can make a difference in the world without it costing me anything.  In fact, not only did it not cost me anything, it was actually fun to make a video and post it to social media and impress my friends with my activism!”

And when the next viral charity campaign arrives, those people will say, “Alright!  I’m going to make a difference to people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome by posting a video of myself on the toilet !” (yes, this one has already started, and without any ill will toward my various friends with IBS, I sincerely hope it doesn’t catch on).

But here’s the problem: if 20% of the people who did the ALS challenge  donated to ALS, of that 20%, a certain percentage (I can’t guess how big a percentage) will say, “This is a great cause, but I just donated to ALS research, so I’m not going to donate to IBS research; I’m going to take the easy way out this time, and just post a video for all my friends to like.”

And once the IBS thing is done, and viral charity #3* comes along, even fewer people will donate to it, and we will quickly reach a point of little-to-no return for a whole lot of social activity.

Why is this a problem?  Because as viral charity continually decreases in effectiveness, what will not decrease is the number of people who repeatedly (and incorrectly) tell themselves, “I’m making a difference in the world without it costing  anything.”  (Don’t believe me?  Consider how many people were proudly convinced that they were making a difference in the world by “sharing” the Kony video back in 2012.  ’nuff said?)

(And if you’re thinking, “What Kony video?” you’re also proving a point about the fickle and shallow nature of “awareness” that social media promotes.)

Charity is costly.  But we are in the process of training an entire generation into believing that they can make a difference in the world without lifting a finger and without spending a penny.

I’m thrilled that ALS research will hopefully take a step forward as a result of the ice challenge, but I can’t in good conscience participate in it, because I don’t want to lend my own voice to the flawed notion that – in the long run – we can change the world without cost.   I also don’t want to lend my voice to the flawed notion that the charities worthy of my attention are the ones which can come up with clever, creative, viral campaigns.

If you participated in the ice challenge, rejoice in the fact that it was successful, but remind yourself that this is a flawed and doomed technique, and the next time something like this comes up, please politely decline to participate, and ask yourself if there is a worthy cause you can donate to.

And remind yourself that Doug doesn’t want to see a video of you sitting on the toilet!

Learn More about ALS

In 1994, a college professor at Brandeis University was diagnosed with ALS.  When one of his former students, Mitch Albom, heard of his diagnosis, he began a weekly pilgrimage to visit his old professor.  A pilgrimage by plane from Detroit to Massachusetts.  On his own dime.  For thirteen weeks.

In 1997, he wrote and published a book about the experiences, titled Tuesdays with Morrie.   The book topped the New York Times Bestseller List  for 22 weeks in 2000.  It was made into a TV movie and a stage play.

In 2013, 16 years after he wrote the book, I picked up a copy, because I had heard so many good things about it.  That – and not the ice challenge – was my introduction to ALS.  Imagine that – 16 years after publication, Mitch Albom’s work is still causing people to find out more about ALS.  I sincerely hope the book has been successful enough to recoup the money he spent on all those plane tickets, but the truth is, regardless of how much the book may have profited him, the difference he made to Morrie, and to others with ALS, began at cost to himself.

That’s the model of giving I want to use for myself.

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* Viral Challenge #3 is “Chug a beer to stop PMS,” which points out another issue that we’re going to have to deal with: people are already not taking this seriously.  

National Poetry Writing Month

This month I received an e-mail about a month-long online writing “camp” hosted by NaNoWriMo, happening next month, which caused me to remember that April is also National Poetry Writing Month.

What a coincidental combination. I couldn’t help but wonder that perhaps the two were happening at just the right time. Camp NaNoWriMo lets you choose “flexible writing goals,” the smallest being 10,000 words, so that’s what I put. I don’t know if it’s practical to expect that I’ll write quite that much, since poetry is so different than prose, but my personal goal is to write at least one poem each day, no matter how terrible.

I came across another site called NaPoWriMo that offers poetry writing prompts each day during April, so I would like to follow that as well.

Then of course, there is also our very own Fifteen Minutes of Fiction which offers weekly writing prompts, and a writer’s page to publish writing. We are also planning to post only poetry prompts during the month of April.

I have no idea how it will turn out, I just know that I need to get back into writing, and nothing’s going to happen unless I start. As a preparation, I’ve been reading poetry from different poets that I like, such as “Rough Cradle” by Betsy Sholl, who taught my Poetry Workshop class when I was at USM. I’ve also been reading Annie Dillard lately (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Teaching a Stone to Talk), and while she’s not a poet, her writing is so evocative and image-filled that it oftentimes seems very poetic to me. I’ve read a few more by Billy Collins too, who has the wonderful ability to say so much in so little space.

And that’s one of the major traits of poetry, isn’t it? An awful lot of feeling, imagery, and meaning, all packed into a small space, often written with meter and rhyme and other literary structures to hold it together. I love this stuff. Spring is no longer the only reason I’m looking forward to April!