The Blessing Basket

On Sunday afternoon when I dropped into my local boutique grocery store, Miss Cordelia’s (in Harbor Town, on the Mississippi River in Memphis) I was stopped in my tracks by this beautiful display of colorful hand-woven baskets in the front of the store. They are part of The Blessing Basket project, which helps end poverty in Bangladesh, Ghana, Madagasgar, and Uganda. My basket came from Uganda.

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When I registered my basket on the web site, I “met” my artisan, Nsoh Adogyoo.

 

Here’s how she’s uses her wages from making baskets and other items:

 

 

I have used my Prosperity Wages to provide food for the family and register for national health insurance scheme for the family members to access health care when one falls sick. I have also used my wages to pay admission fees for my daughter who has gained admission to Senior High School this year.

The changes I have seen in the community are that now our children are in school and we can feed them as well. I have also seen that now our children are entering into higher institutions like universities, polytechnics, and colleges of education because of the inception of BBP in the community.

Thank you very much for giving us hope for our future of our children. You buy our baskets and now we are happy with each other. Thank you and May God bless you.

 Blessing Basket w books

 

The web site has a place where you can write a letter to your artisan, so I just sent one to Nsoh. They will read it to her. I told her that I am a writer and that I am using the basket to carry books to deliver to people and to put in the mail. The basket she made is so sturdy—it can easily carry 8-10 hardback books.

 

Blessing Basket If you’re interested in purchasing items (they’re gorgeous) from the Prosperity Shop, just click here.

 

I’m so thankful to have discovered Blessing Baskets. Maybe a good “Christmas in July” idea….

Faith on Friday: Are We There Yet?

Icon of the Exaltation of the Cross

Icon of the Exaltation of the Cross

Continuing my journey through Lent with reflections from God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, I want to share a bit from the pages authored by the Orthodox poet and theologian, Scott Cairns. The essays on each day of Lent are written by different authors. Scott’s reflections are especially meaningful to me, probably because we share the Orthodox spiritual tradition. And also because he is a friend. And a poet.

It’s already the third week of Great Lent… we’re approaching the half way point of our journey. For some of us—those who have struggled to keep the fast, to live a more ascetic life, to pray more, eat less, love more, and forgive—the journey has been exhausting. For others maybe it’s not been so different than the rest of our lives. Those who have been reading my blog for several years know that I typically do “Lent Lite.” And this year has been the same. I’m not a strict faster. And I’m pretty lazy, spiritually. But I have striven to love more and judge less.

In Cairns’ entry on The Third Sunday of Lent, he says:

I must say that it took me a few years before I finally began to understand the efficacy of the Lenten fast; it took a good three years before I would come to know this somber period of preparation as a blessing.

Cairns writes about what he called “the ache of repentance, which is the beginning of our healing.”

Repentance. Not a word most of us like to think about frequently. But without it, we can’t really move forward. And moving forward, as Cairns says—“Don’t beat yourself up”—doesn’t necessarily mean going to extremes in our ascetic efforts.

In his chapter on the Third Tuesday of Lent, Cairns writes about what the church services are like during this time:

Much of the Lenten journey—the long and slow-moving services of the church, the dark vestments, and (most importantly) the coupling of prayer with fasting, and of fasting with almsgiving—has a way of quieting distractions and centering our minds within our hearts. These disciplines reconnect our minds to our bodies, assist our re-pairing our parsed and scattered persons into souls made whole; they also recover for us our often-overlooked connection with others.

I love that he adds that last part—about our connection with others. If we try to go this ascetic path alone, it’s not always fruitful. It needs to also be about love and forgiveness and alms and healing. And those things require the other—someone other than ourselves in the equation.

0128Ephraim-Syrian0005Cairns ends this chapter with the Lenten prayer most Orthodox Christians pray at every service during Great Lent, and often in our homes with our personal prayers. It’s known as the Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian. I’ll close with this wonderful prayer:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother,

For blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.

Mental Health Monday: How Can You Be SHOPPING?

girl clothesLast Monday I said that one of the themes I would be following in my Monday posts leading up to Christmas is almsgiving: reaching out to others. Our parish in Memphis is putting together emergency kits to send to those suffering in Syria, Armenia and Iraq. They need baby kits, school kits and hygiene kits.

I put together several infant kits. Shopping for those babies brought me great joy in the midst of shopping for my own granddaughters. But of course that’s only one of many ways we can help our fellow man during this season.

infant kits

I’m in New Orleans for a few days, and tonight as I was walking down Decatur Street, a young woman sitting on the curb near The Christmas Shop started yelling at everyone that passed by. She was talking about people who are suffering in Malaysia, and how we could be so selfish as to be SHOPPING while they are suffering? A group of women walking in front of me were carrying shopping bags. I hadn’t bought anything that night, but I had done some Christmas shopping the day before. I almost stopped to talk with the young woman, but I decided she was so angry she wouldn’t listen. What I wanted to say was that helping people who are suffering and shopping for ourselves or others aren’t mutually exclusive activities. I wanted to tell her that you can do both.

adoptafamilyWhen our children were young, we decided to involve them in a hands-on almsgiving activity. I don’t think we were motivated by guilt—by the amount of gifts we would be giving our own children for Christmas—but by a desire to lead them into the practice of helping others. We “adopted” a family to help. It was a single mom with two young children. Their apartment had just burned down and they had nothing. We shopped for clothes and toys and food and took it to them in person.  I’ll never forget the children’s shy happiness and the mother’s tears of gratitude.

I tell this story to say that it’s not JUST sending money and other helpful items overseas (even to Malaysia) but it’s also helping the person right in front of you. In your own city, or even the person begging alms on the street. The Christmas season is a great time to re-up our efforts to see these people as our brothers and sisters all throughout the year.

Christmas Giving Header copy

Our parish has also supported the MIFA (Memphis Inter-Faith Association) Christmas Store for many years—donating new toys for needy families.

But if you’re looking for a specific charity to support locally or nationally or internationally, there are plenty to choose from. Here are just a few I’ve found.

Top 5 Christmas Charity Projects: Click the link to read more about them.

More ideas are described here at All Things Christmas.

If you’d like to share a link to one you are supporting, please leave it in a comment here on my Facebook thread. Thanks for reading!

Mental Health Monday: Everywhere is War—How Can We Help?

SKR-4-3-cover-PROOFI’m late getting this post written today because my heart is heavy. I’ve just read Angela Doll Carlson’s article in the new issue of the *Saint Katherine Review, “Everywhere is War.” Carlson is author of Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition. As a mother, Carlson reflects on the effects of not only wars overseas but violence near our homes—and especially in our children’s schools. She says:

We are in fact, our own worst enemies. The evil of mass shooting isn’t, finally, some outside force. It’s not aliens invading. It’s not a metaphysical phenomenon, demons approaching, or acid rain, tsunami, earthquake or invasion. It is human, and it arrives on choice, one person, one trigger pull at a time.

Carlson and her husband know something about violence from their experience shooting a documentary film in Guatemala City. There was an uprising near their hotel and they were forced to find shelter elsewhere until it was over.

And she knows something about the effect of violence on the next generation, as she reacts (or over-reacts?) to her sons’ enjoyment of violent video games:

…these are my boys, and I am afraid when I hear them laugh in response to death, even animated, video game death.

I had that same struggle when my children were young. I’ve always hated violent video games. Really any war games—even those waged with water pistols by the barefoot children of summer growing up in Mississippi.

A recent article in BMC Medicine examines how the affects of war can propagate across generations. How it affects not only the soldiers involved and their immediate families, but the cultures devastated by violence, and the generations that follow. Yes, even children yet to be born.

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Khadoug Sawady, a Syrian refugee, holds her infant daughter

Khadoug Sawady, a Syrian refugee, holds her infant daughter

I’m sure there are many organizations involved in serving the victims of war and other disasters, but I’m going to mention just one in this post. It’s the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC). Our (Orthodox Christian) parish here in Memphis is collecting donations for emergency kits to send to victims in Syria, Armenia, northern Iraq and their environs. CLICK HERE to learn what to send and how to send materials for (1) Baby kits, (2) School kits and (3) Hygiene Kits.

Maybe we can’t prevent the inter-generational affects of war, but we can at least help comfort those who are suffering.

*Note: Three prose pieces from the Saint Katherine Review have been nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize. Kudos to my friend, the editor, Scott Cairns!

Faith on Friday: Hump Sunday (We’re half-way there!)

god-for-us-rediscovering-the-meaning-of-lent-and-easter-7Today I’m continuing my Lenten reflections from the book, God For Us. You can catch up from previous posts here:

“Facing the Desert Inside” (March 14)

“Cleansing the Palate” (March 7)

My friend Scott Cairns wrote the main sections I’ll be quoting from today. He also wrote the wonderful new collection of poems, Idiot Psalms, which I’m also reading during Lent. (Here’s a nice interview Cairns gave with Angela Doll Carlson about Idiot Psalms.)

crossThis coming Sunday is called The Veneration of the Holy Cross in the Orthodox calendar. It marks the half-way point of Great Lent, the “hump day” of our journey. This day will have great meaning and power to those pilgrims who are taking the journey seriously—making efforts to fast, pray and give alms—and is meant as a point of refreshment along the way. As Cairns says in God For Us:

If we have been paying due attention to our journey along the way, we will have confronted the so-far chronic illness of our personal sin—our missing or the mark—will have examined the untoward effects of that illness on our persons and in our relationships with others, through prayer and fasting we will have experienced some measure of what I think of as the ache of repentance, which is the beginning of our healing.

The ache of repentance, which is the beginning of our healing. I love the way Cairns says this (he is, after all, a poet) and it was just the reminder I needed personally this week. I am, at this point, a weary pilgrim. Although my personal weariness isn’t so much from the self-inflicted ascetics of fasting and increased attendance at church, but more from the other-inflicted struggles of illness (day three of a pretty bad cold/sinus infection/cough) and on-going recovery from my wreck and surgeries. I think either method of delivery works on our souls, if we let it. And if we don’t get negative about it. As Cairns continues:

Don’t beat yourself up. This sense of having already met—and so quickly—the limits of our strength is actually a very good thing. Like the children of Israel, we already have traveled a significant distance, have tasted the waters of the desert, and have found them to be bitter. This is where the cross comes to our assistance.

The cross. It’s what turned Saint Mary of Egypt from her life of prostitution to one of a miracle-working dessert hermit in the fourth century. It’s what calls each of us today to turn from whatever is holding us back from the lives we are meant to live.

As Beth Bevis says (also writing in God For Us):

Orthodox Christians see their mid Lent Sunday as a time of refreshment and encouragement. When turning to the cross halfway through Lent, the faithful are reminded that, while Lenten efforts may have brought fatigue, ultimate deliverance does not depend on human strength: through the cross and Resurrection, Christ has already conquered sin and death.

idiot-psalms-new-poemsI am so ready to turn my focus from my own individual preparation to Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. I am pretty much spent with my own inadequate efforts. And so I look forward to leaning on Christ’s strength for the rest of the journey. With a little help from my friends, like Scott Cairns and this wonderful poem, which appears in Idiot Psalms:

Lenten Complaint

The breakfast was adequate, the fast

itself sub-par. We gluttons, having

modified our habits only somewhat

within the looming Lenten dark, failed

quite to shake our thick despair, an air

that clamped the heart, made moot the prayer.

As dim disciples having seen the light

we supplied to it an unrelenting gloom.

 

Wipe your chin. I’m dying here

in Omaha, amid the flat, surrounded

by the beefy, land-locked generations,

the river, and the river’s rancid shore.

 

O what I wouldn’t give for a lifting,

cool salt breeze, a beach, a Labrador.

[reprinted by permission from Scott Cairns]

Faith on Friday: Preparing for Great Lent with Concrete and Personal Love

This coming Sunday is known in the Orthodox Church as the Sunday of the Last Judgment, or “Judgment Sunday.” It’s one of the Sundays leading up to the beginning of Great Lent. You can see the names of each Sunday in the Lenten and Paschal cycle here. You can read a (rather long) article by Fr. Thomas Hopko on Judgment Sunday, or listen to his podcast, here. He emphasizes that in the end, God will welcome those into His Kingdom based on this:

I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty; you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in, you welcomed me. I was naked; you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison; you came to me.

Sperindio Cagnola, Works of Mercy (Feed the hungry), 1514 -24, Paruzzaro, San Marcello Church - May, 2009

Sperindio Cagnola, Works of Mercy (Feed the hungry), 1514 -24, Paruzzaro, San Marcello Church – May, 2009

I love this, because almsgiving is the one part of the Lenten “tripod” (the other two parts being prayer and fasting) that I can most easily embrace. It’s an activity in which I interact with other human beings, rather than with myself (fasting) or with God (prayer).

hungryJust this past week I had two such interactions, and each one taught me something different. The first was with a man holding a sign at a busy intersection. The signed said “Hungry.” I quickly looked in my purse and found I had no cash. Then I remembered that I had a couple of “care packages” which our church had assembled, so I handed one out the window to the man.

“I’m so sorry I don’t have any cash right now,” I said. “But there are a few items in here that might help you.”

He smiled as he took the bag and said, “Oh, thank you ma’am.”

“I’m Susan.” I offered him my hand.

He took my hand and shook it gently. “I’m ___________.”

“Nice to meet you. Please pray for me.”

“And for me.”

It was a short interaction, but one with a very real human connection.

A few days later a woman approached my car as I was leaving a parking lot. She began to cry and share her story. I listened for a few minutes—not because my almsgiving would be based on her story, but just to show her I cared about the things she was saying—and then I handed her a $20 bill. Thinking she would respond the way the gentleman to whom I had given the care package did, I was surprised when, instead of thanking me, she began to beg for more money. I wasn’t sure what my response “should” be, but I finally told her that $20 would be enough for two nights at the Union Mission (which was only a few blocks away) or for about 8 meals there. She began to argue about needing money for the bus to get to the mission, and I reminded her that the $20 was enough for that, also. Sad that she seemed angry rather than thankful, I rolled up my window and drove away, feeling that I could not do enough for her. I’m still a bit frustrated about that encounter, but we are both broken human beings, and so our relations are often messy.

There’s an excerpt from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s book, Great Lent, here. His words struck me:

When Christ comes to judge us, what will be the criterion of His judgment? The parable answers: love–not a mere humanitarian concern for abstract justice and the anonymous ‘poor’ but concrete and personal love for the human person, any human person, that God makes me encounter in my life.

Like the man and the woman I encountered on the streets this past week. I’m afraid I didn’t love the woman enough. Maybe I’ll do better next time.

Judgment Sunday is also called “Meatfare Sunday” because it’s the last day to eat meat as we enter the Lenten fast. (The following Sunday, Cheesefare Sunday, is the last day to eat dairy products.) For 40 days. Yes.

As you know if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, fasting is one part of our spiritual tradition that I struggle with. I know that it’s supposed to be a struggle—for those who embrace it—but my struggle has to do with why and whether or not to embrace it. If you want to catch up:

“Lent Light” from March, 2013

“Why Does it Have to Be So Damn Hard?” from November, 2012
“The Violent Bear It Away” from March, 2010

fasting

 

This week I’ve eaten lots of meat (much more than I normally do) and other rich foods. It’s not that I’m “storing up” the fat my body will need when/if I enter into the fast. It’s just that my husband had surgery a week ago, and people gave us food, and I also have cooked “comfort foods” for his recovery, like pot roast with rice and gravy, spaghetti with meat sauce. Today I’m actually looking forward to eating less. But I’m not sure it’s a spiritual feeling so much as a physical one. I feel fat and uncomfortable and I want to feel (and be) lighter. Maybe it’s all related. Maybe I will try to eat less meat this Lent. But more importantly, I’m going to try to lighten the burdens of the people around me.

 

kindnessI love Iris Dement’s song, “My Life.” (Watch her sing it here.)

I gave joy to my mother,

And I made my lover smile,

And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting

And I can make it seem better for awhile.

 feed_the_hungry

 

As the Prophet Isaiah said:

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:

To loose the bonds of wickedness

To undo the heavy burdens,

To let the oppressed go free,

And that you break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

And that you bring to your home the poor who are cast out;

When you see the naked, that you cover him,

And not hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then your light shall break forth like the morning,

And your healing shall spring forth speedily,

And your righteousness shall be before you;

The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

 

Isaiah 58:6-8

Faith on Friday: Courage and Kindness in Kiev and Syria

Ortohdox priest Kiev

 

I’m sure by now everyone has seen this image of an Orthodox priest standing between the police and protesters in Kiev. There are many more images I could share, but this one struck me as a powerful picture of courage. Of faith. I’m sure this video only captures a small picture of what is happening there. I’ve never lived in a war zone. My faith has never been tested in this way, but I don’t think I would be so brave.

5b174f24-df84-42d0-b2eb-6991358f6471

 

And with the world watching Sochi and the security issues surrounding the upcoming Olympic Games, I think it’s important not to forget those suffering in Syria. Our Orthodox parish here in Memphis recently participated with other parishes within the Antiochian Orthodox Church here in America to send aid to help the orphans of war in Syria. One account says that over four million Syrian children have been displaced throughout the country, thousands of them arriving in refugee camps without family.

article-0-14A1D72F000005DC-393_472x344Our parish recently sent donations, but there are ways individuals can help. Check out  SyrianOrphans.org, an organization that works inside Syria to hand deliver food to orphans and to help provide shelter.

It’s hard to watch the news these days. But once we see these images, aren’t we responsible to help? Isn’t that part of what faith does? Whether or not we can be brave, surely we can show kindness.

Mental Health Monday: Countdown to Christmas!

keep-calm-only-30-days-to-go-15Someone posted a rant on Facebook the other day about how upsetting it was to see folks putting up Christmas trees before Thanksgiving. And of course there’s the big buzz about Black Friday creeping over into Thanksgiving day, forcing employees to work on the holiday and enticing families to leave their happy homes and enter the fray a day earlier than in the past. While I’m not sure these events are related—beginning Christmas preparations before Thanksgiving hardly seems the same as retail shopping on Thanksgiving Day—they both seem to hint at an underlying, perhaps national angst that many suffer this time of year. Which is sad, since Thanksgiving and Christmas are supposed to be times of joy, of celebrating family and for some, pious religious commemorations. So, what’s with the angst?

Last year I wrote a post on Christmas Eve (from our son’s home in Denver) called “A Winter Dialogue.” It was inspired by a poem with the same name by Joseph Robert Mills, in which Mills describes in a lovely scene the need we all have to be touched. As I read it again this morning, it struck me to endeavor to touch those around me with compassion and joy as much as possible this holiday season.

Children moving the figures in a Nativity Scene as they anticipate Christmas

Children moving the figures in a Nativity Scene as they anticipate Christmas

Looking at the calendar this morning, I realized that Christmas is only a month away—30 days to be exact. Those who commemorate the Nativity of Christ on December 25 are probably already counting down the days in various traditional ways in their homes and churches. I remember the fun of opening the windows on Advent calendars each day. (Here’s a cute homemade calendar.) And I loved moving Mary and Joseph one step closer to the manger in our nativity scene each day. And then moving the three wise men closer each day to Theophany.

So, where am I in this year’s Christmas preparations, as the countdown begins?

Coptic Nativity iconCARDS: I had a great time creating our Christmas cards again this year. And yes, all 125 of them are ready to put in the mail. It’s one of my favorite traditions, and no matter how busy I am, it’s one I will continue as long as I’m able. This year I designed our card using a Coptic icon on the front and an excerpt from a poem by my friend, the Orthodox poet, Scott Cairns, on the back. Scott’s poetry inspires me frequently, but especially during the Nativity Season. (I also used part of a Coptic icon to design the custom-made stamps I ordered online.)

GIFTS: I’ve bought about 95% of our Christmas gifts, many online purchases that could be shipped directly to Denver, where I’ll wrap them when we arrive a few days before Christmas. Others await wrapping and mailing or delivering here in Memphis over the next few weeks. I don’t have many stocking stuffers yet, but I enjoy browsing for those in stores where I can listen to Christmas music playing and enjoy the decorations. I’m a big fan of small businesses—especially bookstores—so lots of my gifting comes from such places. Please remember Small Business Saturday if you plan to shop this weekend!

DECORATIONS: Since we’re traveling to Denver for Christmas, I’m not going to put up a tree this year. I’m also still recovering from my wreck and surgeries, so I have to pace myself with physical activities. I’m going to do a few simple, holiday touches in the den—including some new pre-lit willow branches with berries for our mantle—and try to enjoy the scent and glimmer of candles frequently as we spend the next few weeks preparing our hearts for Christ to be born in them again. Maybe I’ll put out our collection of Saint Nicholas figurines on December 6.

homeless-and-cold-400ALMSGIVING: Oh! That reminds me, I need to pick up some toys to take to church on December 5. We celebrate Saint Nicholas Vespers and the teens put on a play, and we collect toys for MIFA’s (Memphis Inter Face Association) annual Christmas store for impoverished families. It was fun participating in our Thanksgiving baskets last week, and I hope the families we served will have more reasons to give thanks as they enjoy the turkeys and other goodies we delivered to them this weekend. We might get some sleet in Memphis today, and as I’m snuggled inside my warm house, I’m remembering the joy of giving out blankets to people on the street a couple of years ago. Maybe I’ll pick up a few blankets and put them in the back of my car, since I drive through downtown Memphis almost daily, often right past folks who are in wheelchairs, or huddled up against buildings trying to get warm. Our parish is again putting together close to 150 bags of necessity items to give to the homeless this year. I love what Trinity Methodist Church, in my old neighborhood in midtown, is doing to help give the homeless a warm place to spend the night. Read about them and other churches that are part of the Room in the Inn program. And here’s one more almsgiving opportunity I recently participated in, with a quick click of the mouse and without leaving the house. Please help Danielle Troup get a handicap van for college!

MUSIC and ART: Last  year about this time I did a post called, “Fighting the Holiday Blue with Music, Art, Food, Friends and Writing.” As I read it again today, I realize that I really want to get out and hear some live music and see some good art between now and Christmas. Any suggestions, Memphians?

I hope you enjoy the next 30 days of preparation for Christmas… and aren’t too exhausted to enjoy the celebration that BEGINS on December 25 and continues for twelve days and beyond! I’d love to hear about your preparations and traditions.

Mental Health Monday: Lent Light

While Western Christians are less than two weeks away from celebrating Easter, Orthodox Christians all over the world are just beginning their Lenten journey today—on Clean Monday. I made it to Forgiveness Vespers last year, but not last night. It’s complicated. But my reluctance to jump into Great Lent wholeheartedly has something to do with longing for a life that isn’t so… heavy.  That may surprise those of you who know me well enough to know that I’m all about intensity and embracing the dark side of life. But when it comes to God and Orthodox spirituality, I struggle with the heaviness of the season, at least the way it often comes across in parts of the Orthodox world.

If you’re tired of reading my rants about fasting, you can just skip the rest of today’s post, because I’m going to do it again. But don’t worry, it’s going to be a much lighter rant than in the past.

LightSideOfSin

 

With excerpts from a surprising (and completely secular) source: the April issue of Reader’s Digest. Joe Kita has a piece in the “Our Lives” column called, “The Lighter Side of Sin.” He breaks down the seven deadly sins—wrath, greed, envy, sloth, pride, gluttony and lust—giving each of them a slightly scientific spin and revealing their lighter sides.

Here’s a taste: (Some are quoted, others are paraphrased.)

 

Wrath—The chronic suppression of anger can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and sleep disorders, studies show. … If you’re married, a little bit of wrath might even save your life. A report from the University of Michigan determined that couples who regularly got problems off their chests lived longer than those who internalized them.

Greed—Materialistic greed can have positive effects. Research shows that when you’re pursuing and acquiring what you desire, you feel great. This has the potential to benefit not only you personally, in the form of happiness and health, but also those around you, including family, friends, and depending on your business, shareholders and society…. It’s basic human nature to feel greed. Whether it’s a sin depends on the limits we place on it.

Envy—Dutch researchers recently determined that benign envy, which lacks the venom of its poisonous big sister, (malicious envy) motivates us to improve.

Sloth—Richard Wiseman, a British psychologist who measures pedestrian walking speeds around the world, says the human race has sped up ten percent since the 1990s. But where is all this hurrying getting us? Taking it slow may have benefits, like weight loss. Adults sleeping five or fewer hours per night have a 55 percent greater chance of being obese.

Pride—Although pride is regarded by some as the original deadly sin, achievement-oriented pride creates feelings of optimism and worthiness. It is motivational, resulting in greater perseverance and personal development. It can even change physical appearance, prompting more smiles and better posture.

Gluttony—Thirty-six percent of American adults are obese, so it seems there could be no upside to gluttony. But scientists at Tel Aviv University discovered that adding a little dessert to an otherwise balanced breakfast facilitates weight loss. A cookie at breakfast or an occasional cheat meal can keep you from going elbow-deep into a bag of chips before bedtime. (He explains this better in the article, but I do think this was the weakest of his 7 arguments.)

Lust—Research at the University of Amsterdam (why does the location not surprise me?) shows that lust helped study subjects focus better on the present and its details. Kita admits that lust for sex can certainly be destructive, but a lust for life is virtuous. Like all the Seven Sins, what determines whether it’s deadly is a simple matter of whether we control it or it controls us.

Lent ecardI think Kita nailed it on the head with that final sentence. The Lenten Fast (and all of the spiritual lifestyle promoted by the Orthodox faith) aims at control—our control over our flesh, rather than the other way around. I do get that. It’s not the goal I take issue with—it’s the method. The rules and regulations just don’t help me draw closer to God. I know some Orthodox Christians who are greatly helped by the same regimen that undoes me, so my thoughts are just that—mine.

And the results of Kita’s lighter approach to the seven deadly sins might not even be things that you consider “good” goals for Christians—longer life, health, happiness, improved marriage, weight loss, perseverance, good posture, personal development, material success—but I appreciated his thoughts.

LentWhat I do like about the Orthodox approach to Lent is how fasting is only one third of a three-pronged “stool” that, as our pastor said yesterday, won’t hold up without all three legs. I embrace (anonymous) almsgiving and I try to pray (in secret) but it’s the fasting that keeps tripping me up.

If you’re in the throes of a serious ascetic struggle, please don’t take offense at the lighter approach I’ve introduced here. But if, like me, you struggle with the heavy cross of self denial in the seemingly legalistic form of which foods not to eat on which days (and the endless “fake foods” and recipes to make fasting taste good) I hope you can take this post in the spirit in which it’s shared, and find the lighter side of Lent. And please forgive me.

Faith on Friday: Just Buy the Beggar a Beer

This time of year many people are looking for ways to help others. We sometimes refer to the Christmas season as the “season of good will.” A few years ago, I blogged about my favorite activity during the season here, and here—Christmas caroling to the residents at Kings Daughters and Sons Nursing Home. (I’m sad to be out of town for it this year, but I know it will be a blessing to everyone—carolers and listeners.) And of course millions of people have seen the picture of the New York police officer giving a pair of new boots to a homeless man this past Tuesday. (The man didn’t know a tourist was photographing him.)

Jockluss Thomas Payne

My friend and neighbor, Ellen Morris Prewitt, works with homeless and previously homeless people in a writing group here in Memphis through an organization known as Door of Hope. Some of their work was recently published in The Advocate: A Voice of Experience. Like this essay, by Jockluss Thomas Payne.

 

Just Buy the Beggar a Beer

by Jockluss Thomas Payne

 When people ask me for money in front of a grocery store, I usually recoil. If you bum enough quarters, you’ll soon have enough for a beer. I pontificate on misery. It’s a daily routine. Bum change and buy beers. Many street people have made this their daily occupation. Sometimes I will give some change to hustlers and sometimes I won’t. It’s according to how I feel in a particular day, I guess. When I was homeless I worked at temp services and always had some sort of income. I never stood in front of the grocery stores and bummed change. An upstanding tramp I was. I do feel some compassion at times and will part with a dollar or more. Or just buy the beggar a beer. I know what he’s after. I could have been the same way myself. But by the grace of god I survived. I don’t like enabling street people to get drunk. At the same time I feel that drunkenness is their only solace from a miserable life. The same as mine was.

 And yet another member of the writing group, Veyshon Hall—who used to be homeless—disagrees with Payne. This is her essay:

 

Panhandling

by Veyshon Hall

I have given people money who were panhandling. That was before I realized what some of them do with the money. I hear people say that thy are responsible for blessing others with the money, not what they do with it. I feel differently. When I know they are going to buy drugs or alcohol, I am enabling them. I know because I used to be one of them. I also feel bad knowing that a drink or drug I helped pay for may be the one that kills them. There are places to get food, clothes, hygiene products and shelter for free. There is even a free doctor and medication. Anyone who spends all day panhandling has the sense and energy to do a job. Too often I hear people say they won’t do a job sweeping or mopping, but those same people think it’s o.k. to panhandle. Panhandling should be a job so they can pay taxes and help our economy. Let’s see how many career panhandlers we would have then.

I know there are “two sides” to every argument, and I really don’t like to argue. I prefer a non-judgmental exchange of ideas. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. But first, I’ll close with a quote from a favorite book, The Diary of a Russian Priest, by Father Alexander Elchaninov.

“Some do not give alms, saying: it will be spent on drink, and so forth. Even if it is spent on drink, the sin is less serious than the anger we provoke by our refusal, and the harshness and condemnation which we cultivate in ourselves.”

I’m off to Athens, Georgia, this weekend, for my eighth and final event (since July) for Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality in 2012. I’m looking forward to seeing co-editor, Wendy Reed, again, and to meeting one of my fellow contributors, Barbara Taylor Brown, at the reading/signing at Avid Bookshop on Saturday. Have a great weekend, everyone!

And please share your thoughts about almsgiving. You can leave a comment here or start/join a thread on Facebook. Thanks!

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