Plagues and Famines: Better Not to Know?

Have you wondered if maybe it’s better not to know about great suffering? After all, does knowing help?

Maybe it’s happened to you: you read an eyewitness account of famine, perhaps visit a developing country and see firsthand what extreme poverty looks like, and, turning back to your own life, you’re not sure how to go on as you have been.

You have a fridge. And it’s big. And full.

And not only do you have shoes, but you have more than one pair. And they fit you properly and are in decent repair.

And what you spend on your daily coffee is more than what 75% of Africans have to live on each day.

When you go to the grocery store, you feel overwhelmed by how much food there is. And how much plastic. And excess packaging. And things meant to be used once and then thrown away.)

This weekend, I read William Kamkwamba’s book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. When he was just 15, William built a working windmill out of scavenged scraps and junk complete with a functional circuit breaker, to power his family’s house in their Malawian village. He also built a solar powered water pump, giving his village its first source of drinking water and enabling his family to have two plantings of maize, their staple food crop.

William taught himself everything he needed to know to build the windmill from a discarded American textbook called Using Energy, and through extensive experimentation. And he was motivated to do it–at least in part–by the terrible famine that killed many Malawians in 2002. In the book, William tells of seeing starved, skeletal people walking from place to place, begging for some work to do in exchange for something to eat. At the worst point of the famine, William and his family got three bites of nsima–that’s the Malawian staple food, a cornmeal mush–a day.

William’s ingenuity and determination was motivated by the hope that his invention would protect his family from going hungry.

Because where William lives, “hungry months” are a regular feature of each year.

Where William lives, most people get malaria quite a few times in their lives, and cholera is not an anachronism.

At this point, I want to acknowledge that compassion fatigue is a real thing. How much suffering can we know–and summon the energy to care–about?

Is it better simply to not know about famines and other kinds of suffering ‘elsewhere’ since we can’t do much to help anyway?

I want to discuss this question in more detail tomorrow. For now, I’ll leave you with this:

“The righteous know the rights of the poor;
   the wicked have no such understanding.”
 (Proverbs 29:7, NRSV)

What might that mean?

{repost from the archives…there is famine in Malawi. Please click here to see what you can do to help.}

An Alternative, Christian, Patriotic Song of Peace

a song of peace, especially appropriate as so many on the East Coast of the US are struggling in the wake of the mighty storm…

During election season, there is often a lot of talk of American exceptionalism (“this is the greatest country on the face of the earth!”) that sounds a lot like arrogance to those from other places.  I discovered this song in the wonderful Rise Up Singing songbook, and have sung it since with fellow mission co-workers, as it is found in the newest Presbyterian hymnal.

There’s nothing wrong with loving one’s country because it is one’s own country–but I think it is always important to remember that God is the God who welcomes people from all nations to the feasting table.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,

A song of peace for lands afar and mine.

This is my home, the country where my heart is;

Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.

But other hearts in other lands are beating,

With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,

And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too and clover,

And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

O hear my song, O God of all the nations,

A song of peace for their land and for mine.

May truth and freedom come to every nation;

May peace abound where strife has raged so long;

That each may seek to love and build together,

A world united, righting every wrong;

A world united in its love for freedom,

Proclaiming peace together in one song.

This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms:

Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done.

Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him,

And hearts united learn to live as one.

O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations;

Myself I give thee, let thy will be done.

T minus 8 days…

…and relying on grace. God’s, of course, and other people’s, too as preparations move into high gear.

We will soon be in Malawi. Pardon me if there are a few interruptions in smooth blogging service. Meanwhile, here’s a look at our mission co-worker cards:

{It’s a bit windy today here on the East Coast of the USA! Hoping for peace and safety for those in Sandy’s way…}

Write It As YOU See It.

My dad will tell you that when I was little, I penned stories that sounded exactly like whatever books I was reading, which is to say that Ann M. Martin could have totally enlisted me as a ghostwriter for her series, The Babysitter’s Club. Yes, I wrote fanfiction before I even knew it was a thing. It’s fun.

Almost any writer, if asked, “how do I improve my writing?” will say two things: 1. write (almost) every day, and 2. READ. Well, of course: anything that one does every day becomes easier over time, and apprenticeship is a time-honored way of learning. Reading is one way of apprenticing yourself to a writer, of learning the craft.

Yet I would add one thing: write as you see it. In a previous version of this post, I rather pointedly took down a particular style of blog-writing that appears to be trendy, then thought of one or two other styles that appear trendy (all following a handful of popular bloggers), then realized that the style’s not exactly the point.

The point is that in a world that rewards the handful of people who are very, very, very successful at their chosen pursuit, it’s hard to imagine that you might find success (or simply satisfaction) merely as yourself, and not as some version of the already-successful star.

And I suspect that for every Ann Voskamp and Rachel Held Evans there are scores of writers striving to be similarly (meditative, gratitude-bathed, syntax-inverting, filtered-photograph-illustrated ) or (funny, provocative, egalitarian, emboldened topic sentence-loving). They have clearly tapped into Something that Readers Want.

As much as I believe that reading improves people’s writing, I’m convinced that good writing comes from someplace else. It comes from writing things down precisely as you (you! you! you!) see them–not from writing them down the way Popular Writer X would nor by writing them down in the style that Today’s Readers Enjoy.

I don’t read many books on writing at all, simply because I would rather read about other things, but one that I keep nearby always is Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. It’s all about silencing the voices in your head that say “you can’t!” and freeing yourself to express what it is you have to express in ways that are fresh and exciting because they come from you–not from who or what you think you should be.

Let other people write as they writefor you to write as they do will never be more than fan(non)fiction. Write it as you see it.

It’s a reminder I need fairly often. Maybe you do, too!

“…so long as a writer is working to satisfy imagined expectations that are extraneous to his art as he would otherwise explore and develop it, he is deprived of the greatest reward, which is the full discovery and engagement of his own mind, his own aesthetic powers and resources.” ~Marilynne Robinson

What I’d Like My Children to Know About Politics and Jesus (w/ a recipe for Non-Partisan Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Brownies)

A few nights ago we were talking politics at dinner, much to the boredom of my children, one of whom finds it hilarious to proclaim, loudly, that he is going to vote either for John McCain or for “Bushel.” We’ve explained that neither of these people are candidates, but it seems not to matter to him. He is only four.

My seven year old, on the other hand, is bored by politics (“why all this talk of PRESIDENTS?” he’ll say, sounding vaguely Biblical somehow) yet wants to know who we’re voting for and why. It’s been an interesting challenge to explain to him what we think and why, and how that’s different from what others think (and why), without making anyone out to be the “bad guys.”

I slipped up, though, at dinner the other night, clutching my head and moaning, “What if [Candidate X] wins?” as if his victory would slay me. “What does it really matter?” Aidan said.

And I didn’t explain why it did, even though it does. Instead, I turned the tables and asked the kids:

“Hey, guys–who or what could bring hope to everyone in the world–not just this country. Not just us?”

Graeme (4), without hesitation: “God!”

Aidan (7), solemnly: “Yes. I agree.”

There you have it–out of the mouths of babes, as they say.

My post today was going to be partisan, I’ll admit. But then I couldn’t bring myself to hit “publish.” There has already been so much talk, and, really, at this point, I’m convinced that the Undecided Voter and the Sasquatch are one and the same. Even Family Circle has created a way for you to show partisanship–you can bring Ann Romney OR Michelle Obama cookies to the office, you know?

And in any case, the hope of nations is Jesus, not any of the candidates nor the USA.

Am I encouraging Christians not to vote, or not to care about the elections? Not at all. There are real and important issues at stake in this election, and I believe voting can be an important civic duty, though not the only one that Christians have. There are good and sincere Christians all along the political spectrum.

And, though there have been ugly words on all sides, some of the worst of which are those insinuating that other Christians are not ‘real’ Christians, in the end, we follow a risen Christ who spoke peace and showed it, too, in the breaking of the bread.

That is why some Christians are starting an inter-denominational movement for Election Day Communion.

It’s not that there are not real differences between parties and denominations, for there certainly are. It’s that the breaking of the bread crosses all the lines. That’s what Jesus did. Oh, it didn’t win him popularity–quite the opposite, in fact–but he did it.

And in the early days of America, there were no magazines hosting partisan cookie contests. In those days, people had to travel such distances to vote that hosting towns would bake and serve Election Day Cake as a gesture of hospitality, presumably, the cake was shared regardless of affiliation.

Now that’s an American tradition worth reclaiming, no?

So instead of a partisan post–or partisan cookies!–I decided to offer this recipe I’ve created, Peaceful Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Brownies, as something seasonal to bake and to share with Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and non-voters.

To speak peace in the breaking of the brownies, as it were.

And so, the recipe…

He’s envisioning world peace. (Or, whirled peas.)

Peaceful Pumpkin Brownies

I make them without leavening; the absence of baking soda or powder is not an error. That makes them chewier, as I lean chewy on the chewy-cakelike spectrum of brownie politics. If you are on the other side, please don’t feel marginalized–just add 2 tsp. baking powder and an extra egg.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, (spooned and leveled)
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin-pie spice
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 and 1/4 cup pumpkin puree, cooked down to 1 cup, and cooled (or skip step 1 and use 1 cup pumpkin)
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips dusted thoroughly with 1 tsp. flour
  1. Cook your 1 and 1/4 cup of canned pumpkin, stirring constantly, until reduced. But you can skip this step, and I will not judge you for doing so. Just use 1 cup puree instead.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with baking parchment. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, pie spice, and salt; set aside.
  3. Cream butter and sugar together until smooth; beat in egg and vanilla until combined. Beat in cooled pumpkin puree (mixture may appear curdled). Mix in dry ingredients until just combined. Fold in flour-dusted chocolate chips.
  4. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out nearly clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool completely in pan, before lifting out and cutting into squares.
  5. Share across party lines.

{And they were very good.}