Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Teaching kids about scarcity

[This is a guest post from my wife, Ellen. Check out her posts on our family blog.]

I was listening to Midday Connection, and they were talking with William C. Wood, author of Getting a Grip on Your Money. The section I heard was on teaching kids about money. One of the things William mentioned was the importance of teaching kids the concept of scarcity, the idea that we can't always go out and get whatever we want. It struck me that this can be a hard concept to teach. I know that our family struggles with this.

I grew up in a family where we were frequently told, "We can't afford it." A trip to the ice cream store was a treat because we knew that we could not afford to go out and buy ice cream any time we wanted. Birthday cards from my extended family would contain one or two dollars. Now our kids get twenty dollars (or more!) in their birthday cards, and although trips to get ice cream are still special it's more because we don't want to spend $3 each for a cone than because we can't afford it.

I can tell that our five-year-old does not understand scarcity well. If he asks for something and we tell him that we do not have any he responds, "That's okay. We can go to the store and buy it." He has recently added, "You use your money, Mommy." The other day he tried to talk us into giving him $20 a week for his allowance (which is better than the 1 million dollars he originally proposed).

When our son asks for something at the store we will often say, "Okay, but you will have to use your own money." We hope this will help him begin to understand that you cannot always buy whatever you want and help him make wise choices. He is pretty savvy with his spending and won't buy something if he thinks it is too expensive or if he is saving up for something else.

The problem is when we want something we are often all to quick to run out to the store and buy it. Don't get me wrong, we are a fairly frugal family and are careful not to buy what we cannot afford. But we can afford more than we need and end up spending a lot of time at Target and Dominick's. We may know that we are not buying everything we want, but I imagine that this is not as obvious to our sons.

I recently tried to talk to Josiah about where money comes from (we have to earn it by working, etc.) and how a lot of people don't have enough money to go to the store and buy everything they need. I talked about some of the ways our family helps other people and he said, "We should share our money with other people." I thought, "This is great!" So I offered to show Josiah some places where he can give some of his money to help other people. He said, "I don't want to give them my money. Then I will not have money to buy my own things."

I guess we still have some work to do. Does anyone have suggestions for teaching kids about scarcity? How do we encourage them to help other people for whom scarcity is their day-to-day reality and not just a concept to learn?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Homelessness in suburbia, especially of teens

A few weeks ago I posted about the hiddenness of suburban poverty. Here's a follow-up - teen homelessness in the suburbs. A friend in Texas forwarded me an article, "Homeless in Suburbia" from the Houston Press, about the growing presence of homelessness in suburban Houston. Many teens find themselves homeless because they are fleeing abusive family situations or parental alcoholism or drug use, or have been kicked out. One student woke up to discover that his mother had killed himself, and her suicide note told him to live with his sister. There he was abused by his sister's boyfriend, so now he stays at a friend's house. The reporter writes,
The suburban homeless are largely hidden. They're more apt to sleep in cars or double up with friends than push grocery carts downtown. And the few existing programs to help them are severely limited. For instance, shelters serving domestic violence or sexual assault victims deny aid to hundreds each year due to lack of space, and families needing Section 8 housing assistance are put on a two-year waiting list.
What's most interesting to me is the denial on the part of suburban civic leaders regarding the issue. One suburban mayor claims, "There is no homelessness in Katy -- none whatsoever." Another says that his city does not need a homeless shelter or public transit. (Naturally, they don't want anything to detract from their images of suburban affluence. It would be bad for business and investment.) The reporter continues:

Social workers in Fort Bend tell a different story, of extended families crammed into trailers with no running water. And school social workers say they are overwhelmed by rising numbers of teenagers from even the most upscale communities camping out on sidewalks, park benches and school campuses.

So often the kids get sent on to Houston, where there's generally a waiting list and no room.

If we are to seek the welfare of the suburbs, Christians and churches need to partner with the nonprofit social sector and help local governments recognize the reality of the issues. What's encouraging is that churches have taken the lead when local municipalities have focused their resources elsewhere. May God raise up Christians who will be active in churches and in public service to minister to the suburban homeless, orphan and widow.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lenten reading and blogging

It's now Lent, and my friend Jana Riess blogged about what she's giving up for Lent - shopping. She has a nice plug for Lynne Baab's new book Fasting, which is certainly appropriate Lenten reading. Jana comments, "there's an interesting and unexpected chapter about 'other fasts' like the one Phil and I are doing. Some of the things she suggests are listening only to special sacred music during Lent, or going on a media fast, or taking a longer amount of time each day for Scripture study and personal prayer. The book profiles one extrovert who uses Lent for time alone, and a woman who gave up cosmetics because she felt she had too much pride in her appearance."

Jana also mentions that Lauren Winner tried to give up reading for Lent, but couldn't do it. I don't think I could do that either. On the other hand, one thing that has been a bit obsessive for me lately is that I keep on getting stacks of books from the library. Whenever I see a new book that looks interesting, I click over to my library's website and reserve it. Sometimes I get a dozen or more items a week. The result is that I end up not reading the books already on my nightstand. After all, the due date puts some urgency into reading the library books first, and the books I own just sit.

So for Lent this year, I will stop reserving books from the library. (I'll still pick up those that I have on reserve that come in, but no new holds for the next few weeks.) And I will focus on reading the books I already have, some of which have been there for months, even years. At the top of my list are two books that are intended for Lenten reading, commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The first is Miroslav Volf's Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, which was last year's Anglican Lenten study book, and the second is Samuel Wells's Power & Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection, which is new for this year. Volf's book has been sitting by my bed since Urbana, along with the other books I picked up there, Philip Jenkins's The New Faces of Christianity and Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Without new library books coming in to distract me, I'll try to get through all of these and others that have been piling up.

The other area of my life that has been a bit overconsuming lately has been time spent in the blogosphere. A few months ago I thought I might give up blogging for Lent. Then I started wondering about that, because one of the things I appreciate about the blogosphere is the relational networks and connections. So to drop it entirely might feel like giving up certain friendships for Lent, and that doesn't seem right. On the other hand, I waste a lot of time just surfing and going from blog to blog, and much of that kind of blog reading and commenting does seem superfluous.

It's tricky, since there's overlap and it's hard to tell what kind of blog activity is healthy and what is counterproductive, but for Lent this year I'm going to try to scale back my time in the blogosphere. I'll still try to post somewhat regularly, but my posts may well be cut and pasted from pre-existing material, like my NPC seminars, or I may find alternatives for content - my wife just sent me a draft of a guest post that we'll post soon.

And one more area that I'm giving up for Lent is eBay, both buying and selling. (I just got a purple star for having 500 positive feedback. Yahoo!) My philosophy is that I only buy stuff on eBay when I have earned money from selling stuff on eBay, so the money in my PayPal account feels like free money, but it's still a sphere of consumerism that I'll give up this Lent. (Ron and Deb Rienstra have a nice post about their Lenten plans. Oops, does that count as blog surfing? Drat.) What are you giving up for Lent?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The theological questions of Lego Star Wars

Our five-year-old son, Josiah, has been playing the Lego Star Wars I and II videogames for several months now. It's a fun father-son activity for us, and we occasionally play with customized characters of "Josiah Padawan" and "Papa Jedi." We now have detailed conversations about the differences between R2-D2 and R4-P17 and the coolness of Mace Windu's purple lightsaber. One morning he greeted us with, "Guess what? I dreamed about Princess Leia." (He has not yet gotten to Return of the Jedi, so at least he wasn't dreaming about her in the skimpy Jabba's slave outfit.)

More significantly, however, Josiah has been peppering us with questions like these:

"Qui-Gon died. Will he come back later?"
"Why did Anakin become a bad guy?"
"Why did Padme have to die?"
"Why did the bad guys blow up Princess Leia's planet?"
"Why did Obi-Wan disappear? Did he die?"
"Why are the stormtroopers bad guys?"
"Will Darth Vader turn back to Anakin? Will he become a good guy again?"

So Star Wars has provided plenty of opportunities for us to talk with him about morality, justice, mortality, the afterlife, the reality of good and evil and the possibility of redemption. After playing through The Empire Strikes Back, I asked Josiah, "Do you understand what just happened? Darth Vader wanted Luke to become a bad guy. Luke said no, I don't want to be a bad guy. That's why he let go, so he could get away."

Josiah thought for a moment and said, "Luke made the right choice. He escaped. He did the right thing."

So Luke's escape from Darth Vader at Cloud City has become a parable for fleeing from evil and temptation. And it's interesting to me that Josiah likes playing Anakin (Boy) from Episode I and Anakin (Padawan) from Episode II, but he doesn't want to play Anakin (Jedi) from Episode III because that's the Anakin that turns bad. He'd rather play Obi-Wan, because Obi-Wan is always a good guy and never becomes a bad guy.

I'm proud of my little Padawan. May the Force be with him. Always.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Whole Foods Market CEO's salary

I recently resubscribed to Fast Company, and their Feb. 2007 issue reprinted this letter from John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, to his employees:

The board of directors has voted to raise the salary cap from 14 times the average pay to 19 times the average pay, effective immediately.... We are raising the salary cap for one reason only--to make the compensation to our executives more competitive in the marketplace.... Everyone on the Whole Foods leadership team (except for me) has been approached multiple times by "headhunters" with job offers to leave Whole Foods and go to work for our competitors. Raising the salary cap has become necessary to help ensure the retention of our key leadership.... This increase to 19 times the average pay remains far, far below what the typical Fortune 500 company pays its executives.... The average CEO received 431 times as much as their average employee received in 2004, while Whole Foods' CEO (me) received only 14 times the average employee pay in cash compensation.

Most large companies also pay their executives large amounts of stock options in addition to large salaries and cash bonuses. The average corporation in the United States distributes 75% of their total stock options to only 5 top executives.... At Whole Foods, the exact opposite is true: The top 16 executives have received 7% of all the options granted while the other 93% of the options have been distributed throughout the entire company.

The second part of today's announcement has to do with my own compensation.... The tremendous success of Whole Foods Market has provided me with far more money than I ever dreamed I'd have and far more than is necessary for either my financial security or personal happiness.... I am now 53 years old and I have reached a place in my life where I no longer want to work for money, but simply for the joy of the work itself and to better answer the call to service that I feel so clearly in my own heart. Beginning on January 1, 2007, my salary will be reduced to $1, and I will no longer take any other cash compensation.... The intention of the board of directors is for Whole Foods Market to donate all of the future stock options I would be eligible to receive to our two company foundations.

One other important item to communicate to you is, in light of my decision to forego any future [pay], our board of directors has decided that Whole Foods Market will contribute $100,000 annually to a new Global Team Member Emergency Fund. This money will be distributed to team members throughout the company based on need.... The first $100,000 will be deposited on January 1, 2007, and requests will be considered after that date.

With much love,
John Mackey

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Reclaim the true Christian meaning of Valentine's Day!

Yesterday on a Christian radio station the host was talking about things to do for Valentine's Day with your sweetie, and it just seemed like an extended commercial with specific brand-name product placements for this or that kind of candy or flowers or whatnot. And it struck me that while Christians have long bemoaned the commercialization and secularization of Christmas and Easter, we haven't had as much of an outcry against the commercialization and secularization of Valentine's Day.

I think this is probably because many of us haven't really seen it as a Christian holiday. But it really is. As I mention in my book Singles at the Crossroads, St. Valentine (or Valentinus) was a priest and physician in third-century Rome. According to church tradition, Valentine was known for doing good deeds, caring for the poor, healing the sick. He was arrested during a persecution of Christians, and the Roman emperor Claudius Gothicus handed him over to a magistrate. While in custody, Valentine healed the magistrate's blind, adopted daughter, and the entire family was converted to Christianity. Upon hearing this, the emperor had Valentine beheaded--on February 14th.

From then on, Christians have commemorated this day in memory of Valentine's life of selfless service and ministry. And note what is missing from this narrative - it's not all about romantic couple love. Rather, the emphasis is on love of neighbor, agape service love, not romantic love. The romantic emphasis didn't come until the Middle Ages, and then of course it was heightened by 18th-century Romanticism and now exacerbated by modern Hollywood mythology and Western consumer culture. I think Valentine's Day should be reclaimed by Christians with a more holistic, trinitarian, agape understanding of love, not this narrow emphasis on romantic couple love.

After all, in Christian tradition, romantic love is not the highest love. Greater love has no one than this, that we lay down our lives for our friends. For much of church history, friendship love was acknowledged as the highest form of Christian love and service. And actually, romantic love was viewed suspiciously because it tended to be overly emotive, irrational and could create an idolatry of the love interest. So while we certainly should love and honor our spouses and significant others on Valentine's Day, we should only see this as one particular expression of the greater love that is agape love of neighbor.

Last night my wife said that she hadn't gotten me anything for Valentine's Day, and I said, "Great! Don't get me anything." Don't buy into the commercialism of the secularized holiday. I told her that if she really wanted to get me something, she could make a contribution to Compassion International, World Vision, Samaritan's Purse or something else, or find some other creative way to share God's love with the world. And instead of spending lots of money on an expensive date out, we're exercising stewardship by having a quiet date night at home. Not to diss romance entirely (both of us are NF romantic saps on the Myers-Briggs), but this is our modest attempt to celebrate Valentine's Day more Christianly.

So commemorate Valentine's Day by being other-centered and honoring others in the spirit of Christian love. Get a pack of children's valentines and give them to your friends and coworkers. Use the day as an opportunity to call, write or e-mail someone you haven't heard from for a while. Honor Christ by serving him in the spirit of St. Valentine. Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 12, 2007

How global justice can transform suburban discipleship

After being in San Diego last week, I'm back home in Chicagoland now (and shoveled the driveway this morning - *sigh*). The convention went well, and if anybody is interested in hearing my seminars on suburban culture and the suburban church, CDs are available for purchase from the folks that recorded the conference talks. (And I should have been more clear in my previous posts that the general sessions can be listened to as free online webcasts.)

Something that's interesting to me is how conference interaction shapes the content of one's presentations. My second seminar about the suburban church covers some material about how the suburban church needs to have three spheres of ministry scope (suburban, urban and global) and how the suburban church can marshal its resources on behalf of global justice and mission. Mark Labberton's plenary talk about worship and justice included some themes that triggered thoughts of some additional dimensions to my own topic. So I adjusted my seminar on the fly and said something along these lines to add a new point of application:

Do the men in your church struggle with pornography? Okay, men in every church struggle with pornography. Here's an idea. What if your church started partnering with ministries that fight global sex trafficking?

Mark Labberton talked about International Justice Mission and how they work to free women and girls from the sex trade. These are often Christian girls who are kidnapped from their villages, imprisoned in brothels and forced into prostitution, being raped repeatedly every day. Often by Westerners. When we start realizing the effects of the global sex trade on our sisters in Christ, how they're the victims of our lust and exploitation, that should have an impact on our personal discipleship. If we're supporting ministries like IJM, we'll think twice about what we look at online. Global mission can transform suburban discipleship.

Friday, February 09, 2007

NPC and $100 update

I'm still in San Diego for the National Pastors Convention, and things are going well here. Yesterday we heard great plenary talks from IVP authors Ruth Haley Barton (author of Sacred Rhythms and Invitation to Solitude and Silence) and Mark Labberton, who spoke on themes from his new book The Dangerous Act of Worship about worship and justice. And my seminar this morning went well.

I don't have much time (folks are waiting to use the laptops here in the digital cafe) so let me just highlight that Craver has posted follow-up posts to his original $100 post that I tagged him with. He stopped by my office earlier this week to show me an anonymous letter that he got in the mail that said "Tag! You're it!"

Along with a $100 bill.

God has funded Craver's $100 project through the generosity of one of his blog's readers. Very cool. Here are some of Craver's comments on the money's impact at his church's food and clothing pantry:

We currently average 45 guests each Thursday. Because of the hard work of our frugal food pantry directors, and the many donations by local restaurants, grocery stores and the Northern Illinois Food Bank, we only spent $200 for one month’s worth of food!!

That means that this particular $100 paid for $40 worth of groceries for 45 people… twice! ($3,600 value)

On top of that, people got hot soup, made by our dear friend (For now…), plus all the regular stuff: coffee, tea and snacks, clothing, Bibles, devotional booklets, clothing… AND, a set of plateware to all who wanted. We had plates left over, so they will be donated to our local Crisis Pregnancy Care center.

The plates were donated by a local Red Lobster that donated 55 sets of test-marketed dinner plates, soup bowls, saucers, cups and the like. I just think that's fantastic. Kudos to all who participate in this ministry, from the local church to nonprofit organizations to corporate donors.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Hi from the National Pastors Convention

I'm in San Diego right now for the National Pastors Convention with about 1500 pastors and church leaders. They have a digital cafe here, so I'm blogging a bit. This is my first time attending; I was invited to come to do a couple of seminars, one on "The Suburban Christian: Understanding How Suburbia Shapes Us" and another on "The Suburban Christian: Ministry to and from the Suburbs."

What's interesting about being here is how many folks I've run into that I know, some of whom I have not seen for years. I saw one fellow that was in my InterVarsity chapter fourteen years ago who is now a pastor. And I also bumped into the former associate pastor of Blanchard Road Alliance Church, where I was on the leadership team of the singles group during the time that I was writing Singles at the Crossroads. It's a very small world.

The opening plenary featured Brian McLaren, who talked about the challenges of pastoral ministry and what has been helpful to him as he's faced criticism and difficult times. It was a well-done presentation of universalizing some of his personal experiences and applying them to the audience here. After all, some of the folks here may well have been some of those very critics. But all pastors face criticism and unfair attacks and can identify. (McLaren mentioned that his friend Bart Campolo told him something like, "The next time you get a hate e-mail, forward it on to me so that you're not the only one who has to feel the pain of it.") McLaren also said that we need to be friends to ourselves, because so many of us are our own worst critics and treat ourselves worse than we would treat our own friends or enemies.

All this is a reminder of how challenging is the call to pastoral church leadership. In many ways, this convention represents an alternate life of mine. In college I was a double major in biblical studies/theology as well as pastoral ministry, and at one point I thought I would go into pastoral church work. I took Greek and Hebrew, learned to exegete Scripture and prepare sermons, had classes on pastoral counseling and how to baptize, marry and bury people. For various reasons I ended up going to graduate school and then got into publishing, for which I'm tremendously grateful, but I think I've still brought a pastoral eye to my editorial work and feel an affinity for local pastors ministering in difficult circumstances. IVP's publishing vision is to serve the university, the church and the world with thoughtful Christian books, and we tend to interact more often with students and faculty in the academy than local pastors. So it's good to be here and see how we can better serve the church.

So anyway, if you'd like, you could pray for my seminars (Friday and Saturday morning), and I'd be quite appreciative. But more significantly, do pray for the pastors here and pray that they would find restoration and refreshment for their work. And pray for your own pastoral staff, and think of ways to encourage them in their ministry.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Can you live on $2 a day?

This article excerpt comes from Tom and Christine Sine's Mustard Seed Associates newsletter. Gary and Ev Heard talk about their family's experiments with living on $2 a day (not in overall expenses, but in terms of food):

During the first week of school last year, our family undertook an interesting challenge: to live on less than $2 per day per person for food. Aware that over one billion people in the world live each day on less than $1, we undertook the challenge as an effort to identify with the circumstances which they face. Being a family of five, we began our week with a group negotiation centered on how best to spend our $70 for the week. There were sacrifices which needed to be made, and a reflection on how we might construct a menu which would last a whole week. Our three children, ages 13, 11, 9 were keen participants!

Two things were either eliminated from considerations very early, or curtailed severely: meat and dairy products. We also needed to shop around to get the best value for our limited resources. New veins of creativity began to flow. During the week we kept a family journal where we recorded comments and reflections: how we were feeling, what we were enjoying, what we were missing, things we were learning. We quickly realized that those who live on so little and whose resources must stretch to cover more than food require levels of creativity and a range of skills which do not come naturally to us.

Although this only went for seven days, the long term impact has been quite extraordinary on all of us. Ironically, our food bill isn't anywhere near what it was and we are eating healthier and a much more varied menu. I don't deny that more work is involved, but I have gone somewhat European in that I avoid supermarkets where I can and take enormous pleasure shopping at fresh produce markets and getting to know the vendors. The European tradition is also to eat what is in season, in which case you get the finest quality without as much quantity. This experience has turned our meals upside down.

Alongside our change of lifestyle, we have committed the savings from our normal food budget to a micro-enterprise project in a community in Africa. This project provides interest-free loans to people to allow them to set up a small business which allows them an opportunity to break out of the poverty cycle.

What a challenge. For my own family of four to have $2 per person per day for food would be $56 a week. Just looking at our most recent credit card statement (Dec/Jan), I see that we spent about $300 for the month at the grocery store. That's not too bad - it translates into roughly $75 a week. That amount includes some extra expenses for the holidays, but doesn't include eating out, which we try not to do more than once a week. I think I probably actually did live on $2 a day when I was a grad student living on ramen noodles, but it's been a few years since that was the case. (BTW, I know that many Christians practice fasting as a way of identifying with the global poor. One of my heroes, John Stott, intentionally never takes seconds at meals as an act of solidarity with the majority world.)

I've mostly been touting the $100 project recently, but is anybody up for this $2-a-day challenge?

Friday, February 02, 2007

Christianity Today review of The Suburban Christian

One of my colleagues just gave me a copy of the Feb. 2007 issue of Christianity Today, which has this review of The Suburban Christian:
How does a Christian live a faithful, others-engaged life in suburbia, a culture pervaded by consumerism, status-seeking, long commutes, and a dearth of community? Hsu, who has lived in suburbs nearly all of his life--and likes it--has created a seamless narrative of the socioeconomics, demographics, and spirituality of suburbia. Winsome stories tell of his personal grappling to live counterculturally.

Hsu and his wife, who both work in Christian publishing, live what seems to be a modest lifestyle with their two young sons. Still, as an admitted "book geek," Hsu recounts struggling with whether to buy more bookshelves or just give lots of his growing library away.

The Suburban Christian may invite comparisons with David Goetz's wisecracking, wry, and a bit jaded Death by Suburb. Hsu gives a more comprehensive, almost textbook, analysis, like a mentor--unassuming, humble, positive, hopeful.

Not all of Hsu's suggestions will resonate with every reader. "There's no one-size-fits-all" way to live intentionally for Christ, Hsu says.

Perhaps his most significant suggestion for optimum suburban living is simple: Try to live where you work and worship. He says this will help move us from anonymity to community--even in spiritually challenging suburbia.