Friday, August 13, 2010

Last Day in Berkeley

This morning I wrote my self-assessment for class, e-mailed it to Nichola, and then went downtown, where I had lunch and bought an $18 silk scarf with all kinds of colors and textures. Shopping, yes, but less than I usually do here!

In class -- where I got many compliments on the scarf, and an admiring comment from a classmate about my consistently fabulous accessories (go, me . . . my dorky, unfashionable inner seventh grader squirmed with delight, I gotta say) -- we did a series of closing exercises. One, timed, gave us a minute each to talk about concrete steps we'll be taking as a result of the class.

I named a couple. The first involves a tithe on discretionary spending. I've never been good about tithing 10% of my income; I'm nowhere near that, although I do make small monthly donations to four different charities. Tithing income is inherently tricky, too, because my income also supports Gary and the cats. Gary isn't religious and wouldn't choose to tithe; I don't know where the cats fall on the issue! But the point is that it's not just my money. It's household money.

So tithing income presents certain family and ethical dilemmas. What I can do more comfortably, though, is to donate ten percent of the money I spend on personal discretionary purchases: i.e. nonessential clothing, shoes, jewelry, scarves, purely "extra" food like chocolate bars, etc. This will make me more mindful of my spending on such items and will also ensure that if I do spend on them, someone besides me gets some benefit. It's kind of like tipping: if you can't afford to leave a tip in a hotel or restaurant, you shouldn't be there in the first place. If I can't afford to give back ten percent of what I spend on goodies, I shouldn't be spending on the goodies, either.

I've already donated an extra $12 to Modest Needs -- one of the places where I donate every month -- based on shoe, scarf, and chocolate purchases this week. I didn't "tip" on basic meals or coffee, and I haven't figured out yet if I'm going to tip on my monthly Audible subscription or Kindle e-books. This is a work in progress, but at least it's gotten me thinking.

So that (described far more briefly than I've talked about it here, obviously!) was my first concrete step. My second will be to start some kind of "house community" for church folk; maybe not a formal house church, although I'd already e-mailed my bishop about that possibility a while ago, but some group that meets in a home (mine or someone else's), thereby rendering the ordinary sacred. I've come to believe very strongly that church buildings become idols, draining away money and energy from the work of ministering to the world. Even if I don't convene a house church (which would raise pesky issues of clergy, etc), I could host something as simple as evening prayer once a week, or a book discussion group, or, ideally, a 12-Step recovery-from-empire group. I'll probably also keep attending church in a building, but at least I'll be giving myself and others an alternative model.

This would also help me get better at community. One of the things that kept coming up this week is that we can't do any kind of social-justice or social-change work by ourselves (and Christian life has always been communal; even solitary religious are supported by communities), but I tend to be a loner. I join groups, but isolate within them. That's a pattern I'd like to change, and I hope this will help.

So we listened to each other's concrete steps, and then we did one of those appreciation circles where you turn to the person standing on your right and say, "I appreciate you because . . . ." I always find these exercises incredibly nerve-wracking. What if my neighbor can't think of anything nice to say about me? And sure enough, when my neighbor turned to me with a smile and said, "Well, Susan," everyone in the room started laughing, no doubt remembering Wednesday. But my neighbor said she appreciated my willingness to speak up and be vulnerable, and she seemed to mean it. (Nichola told me later, "You modeled that for us," which was a very positive spin on behavior for which I haven't always received positive feedback.)

The person to my right was the person with whom I had The Conversation on Wednesday. (By the way, I figured out on Thursday that one reason Wednesday had been so hard was that it was the four-month anniversary of Mom's death. Duh! That body memory'll bite you every time.) But again, I came up with lots I genuinely appreciated, and I think my appreciation was appreciated.

We ended the class with a blessing, and then people got ready to leave. Nichola lives in a group household, an intentional community, with five other people in West Oakland; tonight's their open dinner, so she invited all of us to join them. She gave me a lift, stopping at the Berkeley Bowl for a side dish and to let me ogle the vast produce department.

The dinner was just wonderful. We had great food -- fruit salad and a yummy kale and potato soup with optional rice -- and the company was even better. One of the housemates and her partner had just gotten back from several months in India, and her parents were visiting from South Carolina, so we had lively conversation about everything from camel rides to powerboats to physical books versus e-books (her mom's an art teacher who binds her own books from her own handmade paper) to kids' television, pondering the pluses and minuses of Mr. Rogers versus Sesame Street. We talked about animals; one of my classmates and her partner visited Washoe the chimp and own artwork by Koko the gorilla. My classmate's partner, songwriter and storyteller Nancy Schimmel, sang us her wonderful song 1492, as well as a beautiful grace. I was very impressed to learn that she's Malvina Reynolds' daughter. Yes, that Malvina Reynolds. Little Boxes Malvina Reynolds. Wow.

After dinner, Nichola taught some of us a speed-Scrabble game called Bananagrams. I was initially very bad at this, but won the last round. Then I got a lift back to campus from a classmate.

Very fun evening.

Now I have to either start packing, or go to bed so I can get up and pack. Please pray for a better trip home than the one I had to get here!

G'night, all.


  1. Anonymous12:16 PM

    Dear Susan,

    I love your idea of tithing discretionary purchases! I had a deal with myself during Lent this year where every time I bought a new piece of clothing for myself, I donated an equal amount of money to Haitian relief. I loved the way it made me feel - a balance much like breathing in and breathing out - something for me and something for you.

    I have had a hard time sustaining that level of giving since Lent ended - house projects, professional travel, and a lot of unanticipated but extremely entertaining shopping have put a big dent in my regular budget. I've started to feel somewhat self-conscious about how much I've been spending on myself, but I haven't seen what to do about it. Now your tithing plan offers me an alternative to just giving up, a new strategy for sharing what I have, but this time in a more manageable way. Thank you!

    It sounds as if the last day of class was much, much better for you than the first day of class! I hope the same will be true about the trip home relative to the trip out ...

    Travel safely,


  2. FWIW, I think the point of tithing is to give abundantly, but not to the point that your needs are neglected in some way. What's recorded is a mandate to give, but notably with a cutoff point.

    In short, perhaps people who are barely making ends meet don't need to give 10%, but people who can afford expensive cars and boats could probably afford to give more than 10%. I find it to be entirely a personal decision. However, I do like your idea on discretionary spending tithes... I'm going to file that idea for later.

  3. Glad things ended on a positive note. God speed. May the trip home be swift and safe.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly that church buildings can become idols, as can ritual for the sake of ritual.

    Take the Catholic tradition where the priest crosses his forehead, mouth, and heart before the readings. This is done as a prayer that the Lord be on the mind, in the words, and in the heart of the priest during the reading, but many in the congregation mirror the ritual.

    Doing so with knowledge of the accompanying prayer and sharing in the prayer is valuable. Doing it because it provides the comfort of communal ritual can also be valuable. But it can also easily become a path to idolatry of the ritual.

    I think the same can be said of setting aside 10% as tithe. We must not make the mistake of the Pharisees and think that it is the percentage, or specific ritual giving, that is vital. Instead it is the sacrifice and the emotional power behind the giving that give it power. Tithing is a prayer for good works that can be achieved through financial means.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.