My favorite things – 2011! (win a free t-shirt)

Oprah gives away cars.  I give away t-shirts. 

But what makes my list of favorite things extra special is that all these gifts give back. From fair trade coffee for the hubby, to handcrafted jewelry from Rwanda for the sis, to a brood of chickens for a family in need, you’ll find gift ideas here that have an impact far greater than what gets measured as “consumer confidence” by reporters this year. 

As promised, I tried to include some of your favorite things in my list, but of course I couldn’t list them all. But that’s okay, because if you leave a comment sharing your favorite place to find gifts that support a good cause, (or any comment at all), you will automatically be entered to win a GIVEN t-shirt from World Vision. GIVEN is a brand new clothing line designed by Jedidiah Clothing that benefits all the amazing work that World Vision does on a daily basis. I received a really pretty “Compass” shirt that I’ve been wearing everywhere.  (It looks cute under a kaki jacket in cold weather.) 

Anyway, browse around, leave a comment, and enjoy—as Oprah used to say with a booming crescendo—MY FAVORITE THINGS! 

Chocolate

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My favorite: 

The Sunbreak Collection from Hill Country Hill Tribers -  HCHT is an organization that provides supplemental income and marketable skills to refugees living in Austin, Texas. I have the red tatted solo flower necklace and I get complimented on it all the time. 

Reader Picks:

Bead for Life – “Our goal is for our members to be independent of BeadforLife within 18 months by being able to support themselves within the Ugandan economy.  To assist members in launching their own small businesses or in creating new revenue streams, we provide entrepreneurial training, facilitate savings accounts, and make business funds available.  In the rural areas our program focuses on agricultural development.”

31 Bits - made out of 100% recycled paper, posters, and magazines by internally displaced women in Northern Uganda.

The Leakey Collection – available both online and in stores, handmade by the Maasai women and men of Kenya from environmentally sustainable materials.

Shoes, Clothing, and Handbags

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My favorite:

World Vision GIVEN collection – Men’sWomen’s (Leave a comment to win a free t-shirt!) 

Reader Picks:

 Sak Saum, - a Cambodian ministry helping women who have been taken out of trafficking rings. Sak Saum means “for freedom.” The collection includes everything from aprons to baby shoes to wallets and purses. (Oh how I love that Lisa B. Cosmetic Case – so pretty!)

The Noonday Collection – provides jobs for impoverished women and raises money for international adoptions (Love the arm warmers and scarves)

Sseko Designs – I’d like a pair of those teal sandals, please

PUNJAMMIES – very cute, and made by women in India rescued from forced prostitution seeking to rebuild their lives

Krochet Kids

Freeset Global 

Books

My Favorites: 
 

The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns – besides being an amazing book about justice and poverty, author royalties benefit World Vision 

After Shock by Kent Annan – one of my favorites of the year; 100% of the author’s proceeds go directly to education in Haiti through Haiti Partners 

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn – will change your perspective on women, poverty, and exploitation forever; both sobering and hopeful 

Miscellaneous Gifts

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My favorite: 

Ten Thousand Villages – one of the world’s largest fair trade organizations and a founding member of  the World Fair Trade Organization, Ten Thousand Village has been around for a long time and has just about the best variety you’ll find online. (They also have plenty of brick-and-mortar stores across the country.) You can always count on beautiful, quality products from Ten Thousand Villages.  I’m putting a gift card on my Christmas wish list!

Reader Picks: 

Thistle Farms - Founded in 1997 by Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest on Vanderbilt's campus, Magdalene is a residential program for women who have survived lives of violence, prostitution and addiction. Thistle Farms is their social enterprise. Founder Beccan Stevens was recently recognized by the White House as one of 15 Champions of Change.

Rwanda Baskets – beautiful and affordable. The Rwanda Partners Basket Co. is a poverty fighting program of Rwanda Partnersworking to change the lives of impoverished weavers and their families in rural Rwanda

Green Heart -   Chicago’s premier eco-fair trade non-profit shop, carrying eco fair trade products made by artisans from around the world. (Love their stocking-stuffers ideas.)

Eternal Threads – so much variety!

The Mercy House Kenya 

Life-Changing Gifts

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My #1 favorite:
Ducks ($18), chickens ($25), or a goat ($75) from World Vision.  In Bolivia, I saw firsthand how effective World Vision’s agricultural fund can be. The gift of livestock helps families lift themselves out of poverty in a way that is sustainable and dignifying. This Christmas we’re giving chickens in honor of family members who live far away. It’s so much better than sending bulky packages or gift cards they may or may not use.(See the girl in the photo with the pig? I met her in Bolivia!) 

My #2 favorite: 
A tree ($1), an orchard ($10), a hillside ($25), a grove ($50), or a forest ($100) from Plant with Purpose, an organization dedicated to helping the rural poor through sustainable development.

My #3 favorite:
A mosquito net ($13), a chicken ($16), or vaccinations ($26) from Compassion International

Reader Picks:
A sewing machine ($85) from Eternal Threads
A mosquito net ($18) from Rescue Gifts

Christmas Cards

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I love Unicef’s Christmas cards because they have so many bright and colorful ones to choose from. I buy them almost every year. But you can find a nice list of charities that make Christmas cards—from Autism Speaks to The Humane Society to The Make a Wish Foundation— here.

So, what else should we include? Anyone have any ideas for children’s gifts?

Remember, leave a comment and you'll be entered to win a free t-shirt from World Vision! 

*Contest runs through Tuesday at midnight, EST.*

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Janet Oberholtzer: Pushing Through a Bad Run

Our series of guest posts continue with this one from my friend Janet Oberholtzer. Janet is a true inspiration to me. A mother of three and former conservative Mennonite, Janet nearly lost her leg…and her life…in severe motor-home accident several years ago. Despite sustained injuries, Janet continues to run and to inspire others with her story. I had the privilege of hanging out with Janet during a trip to Pennsylvania last spring. She’s what we Southerners like to call “good people.”

Janet is the author of Because I Can, a beautiful memoir of survival and faith. (Check out my endorsement!)  You can subscribe to Janet’s blog here or follow her on Twitter here

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Running is hard work and today’s long run is no exception, but it’s easier than some of my recent runs have been. My legs and lungs are cooperating and I move through this half-marathon training run easier than I thought I would. On this run, I plan to alternate running five minutes and walking thirty seconds until I reach my goal of nine miles. 

I’m running alone because I need time to think, and my brain works best when my body is in motion. But as I planned the run, I was worried that I might not finish it because my recent runs have sucked. 

A few days earlier I ran four miles with friends and I was ready to swear off running forever. I was tired, I hurt and I know my friends were ready to kill me because all I did was complain about my body, the weather and anything to do with running.

But this run ... this run is different. I feel stronger.

I listen to the birds and watch the squirrels scamper up the trees. I enjoy hearing the leaves crunch under my feet. I easily step, even jump, over a few branches that blew down during a recent storm. 

My timer beeps which means it’s time to walk. As I walk I take a few deep breaths to energize myself. Before long there’s another beep (thanks, Jeff Galloway, for your no-hassle timer) Before I begin running, I glance down at my feet to make sure they are both pointing straight forward, then I lean forward slightly and run, (tips I learned at a Chi Running seminar). 

As I run, I think about what other tips I’ve read in running books and on blogs. I focus on relaxing my body, starting with my neck, shoulders and finishing with my toes. 

A few miles later, my legs begin to tire, so I play with my running stride. I force muscles that have been slacking into active duty. Every minute or so I alternate between short and long strides, between slow and fast turnover and between landing on the balls of my feet and landing nearer to my heel. 

All this focus on my stride and running style is as good for mind as for my body, which causes a few more miles to pass almost unnoticed. 

Then I’m struck with a thought ... 

How do the ups and downs of my recent runs compare with the spiritual roller coaster I’ve been on over the past few years? My beliefs have been in transition, which at times has been exhilarating and other times exhausting. 

I can be feeling spiritually strong one day, then completely undone the next. 

In the past, there have been days of solid belief in the power of God, love, and people. Reading about the good things done in the name of Jesus has convinced me that people following his way will truly change the world. Leaning on other Christians and on prayer helped bring healing to my body, mind and spirit after a traumatic event.

But recently ... not as much. 

I’ve been having a bad run. A bad run of faith and beliefs. I’m tired, I’m hurt and I know my friends are ready to kill me because all I do is complain about Christianity, churches and anything to do with religion.

My spirit is not hearing any birds sing and anything that crunches is pissing me off, instead of helping me learn and grow. While I still love people and am willing to help others, I find it hard to read the Bible, listen to a sermon, or pray. 

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I’ve lost my desire to go to spiritual seminars or conferences. And I’m definitely not into anything equivalent to a spiritual half-marathon. Actually at times, I ready to swear off this belief/faith thing forever. 

I think about my spiritual funk as I run ... and realize that if I had quit running on my bad-run day, I would have missed this run. This empowering run that makes me feel like I could tackle the world. 

As I take a few deep breaths on my next walking break, I allow it to come out as a prayer. I realize that to give up on faith during this funk would not be wise. Though I still have bad running days, my running has been on a gradual incline over the past few years, which came about through practice and by educating myself through running books, blogs and seminars. Shouldn’t I give my spirit the same treatment? 

Maybe I need to practice different spiritual techniques to find one that works best for me. Maybe finding new ways to use my slacking spiritual muscles would help me. Is there some type of beep that could signal between times to challenge and times to energize my spirit?

Readers of Rachel’s blog, you are wise, kind and encouraging... just like my running thrives with the expertise of others, for my faith to not only survive, but also thrive, will you please share some advice on how to get through a bad spiritual run?

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Kathy Escobar: Insecure Christians

Today I am delighted to welcome to the blog my friend and a true “woman of valor,” Kathy Escobar. Kathy is the co-pastor of The Refuge, an eclectic and beautiful faith community in Denver. She is passionate about community, healing, equality, justice, spiritual and transformation, and is the author ofDown We Go, a challenging book about following Jesus into the hard places of community. When I think of women who inspire me, Kathy’s one of the first to come to my mind because she truly puts her convictions into action.  If you enjoy the post, be sure to check out Kathy’s blog, or follow her on twitter.

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I had an amazing conversation last week with a non-Christian counseling grad student who had a project in this class to "move toward something in their culture they were uncomfortable with."  He chose Christianity.  His experience with it wasn't a positive one so he was trying to bravely explore it.  We had a delightful conversation because he asked the best questions, the kind where trite Christian answers won't quite do.  He wasn't talking about atonement theories or biblical interpretation of certain passages (for the most part, I think only Christian insiders give a rip about that kind of stuff).  

He asked--Why do Christians never seem to feel very good about themselves?

I laughed that he had hit the nail on the head.  The basic premise of Christianity is that there is nothing good in us.  That original sin has ruined us and we are miserable sinners, unworthy of anything good without the blood of Jesus.   That depravity is our essence.  

With that as our starting place, my experience has been that despite all of the "God loves me" messages that get tossed around in church services and Bible studies, nothing completely fills in the cracks of that deep chasm.  That somehow, no matter what, we just aren't good.  We aren't worthy.  We aren't secure.   We aren't loveable.  We are fatally flawed as human beings.  

I know this well in my own life. I come from a liberal, non-churchy family that believed in the basic goodness of people (we were those people who evangelical Christians worried about!).  When I opened my heart to following Christ, I needed a real, tangible God and was strangely and beautifully drawn to Jesus. I always say that if I had just stuck with that and never became involved in the kinds of churches I ended up attending, I would have been better off in the security-as-a-person department.  But alas, that is not my story, and the rigidity and rules sucked me in, and I learned about what a miserable person I was without the cross of Christ.   I ended up feeling worse about myself than when I started, and I brought a lot of shame and guilt to the table from the beginning!  Christianity seemed to cement in me my badness.  It reminded me constantly how much I fell short and how unworthy I was without God in my life.  

About 17 years ago a wise and beautiful friend rocked my world with an important theological twist that some of you might say "duh!" at, but it was never taught to me in my hyper-conservative-evangelical circles.  We were made in the image of God.  That goodness is in us from the beginning.  Sure, sin and brokenness has infiltrated this Genesis 3 world, but we must remember it all started with Genesis 1.  Man and woman, created in the original image of God.   That is our essence even though brokenness buries it.  

I think that the spiritual journey is to uncover God's image that was originally placed there.  

I know from experience in my own life and journeying alongside many others that this is no easy task.  It makes it far worse when the starting place is "I am really a miserable wretch." 

The Apostle Paul in Romans 7 talks about the struggle of our humanity to lean into sin.  This passage is used all the time to hold up basic depravity, but we forget the twist that is there--"It's not me, but the sin that lives in me" (vs. 7:12).

As a mother of five, the last thing in the world I want my kids to think is that they basically suck and are unworthy, unlovable.  I want them to know they are beautiful, created in the original image of God with his imprint built into every fiber of their being.  I want them to know they are worthy, secure, free.  With a great human capacity to sin, fall, fail and really mess things up, sure.  But I do not want a faith that forces me to build in them a basic insecurity from the start.  That feels cruel.  And completely counter to what I know about being a loving parent, and I'm only a human one.

My experience in working with people in pain in the church is that there's an awful lot of insecurity going around in a system that is supposed to be built upon freedom, healing, and wholeness.  Far too much fear, depression, inadequacy, unworthiness exists in countless Christ-followers when they have a chance to be really honest. Something is gravely wrong with this!  

But the systems we've created and the theologies we've clung to perpetuate it.

Ultimately it not only damages us personally and relationally, but keeps the real power of the church paralyzed and stuck.  

And really insecure.

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Ray Hollenbach: Jumping Off The Treadmill of Importance

Today’s guest post comes to us from Ray Hollenbach, a writer whose wisdom and grace I have long admired.  Ray is a Chicagoan who writes about faith and culture. He currently lives in central Kentucky, which is filled with faith and culture. You can check out his work at Students of Jesus (or follow him on Twitter). 

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Here’s a disturbing trend in the Christian blogosphere: we would much rather talk about other people than ourselves.

When I post something about the church at large, page views soar and comments pour in. Everyone rushes to the table where the state of the church is sliced, diced, and analyzed in detail. As a bonus, the mere mention of a Christian celebrity I can purchase hundreds more visitors to my site.

If, however, I post something about our individual need to wait for God in silence, or our personal destiny to become conformed to his image, I get the internet equivalence of chirping crickets. Nothing. Like a busker singing at the Metro, everyone hurries by.

And why not? Christianity is way more fun when we’re talking about other people. Following Jesus isn’t such a joyride if he wants to talk to me.  I would much rather pontificate on the issues facing Christendom across the continent than listen to the still small voice addressing the secrets of my heart. I would rather do significant things. I want to be a part of important conversations.

Recently I found the private notes of a world leader who longed to hear the whisper spoken to him alone. This man held a position of national significance, no, wait--historical importance. Yet he was a man who positioned himself in the quiet place and waited for his best friend to come and sit with him.

My heart is not proud, O LORD, 
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters 
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,  
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD 
both now and forevermore. 
(~ Psalm 131, a psalm of David)

God took a boy out of the shepherd’s field and put him in the palace, but not before embedding the hillside, the breeze, the night sky and the quiet times into his heart. The Biblical histories of Samuel and Chronicles will tell you the palace was a place filled with intrigue, politics, war and power--and it was. The Psalms and Proverbs will tell you that David took time to climb the stairs, shut the door, and pick up the harp.

Our greatest need--my greatest need--is the daily presence of the Holy Spirit. When David knew he had stepped over the line, claiming power and privilege as some sort of birth right, he repented before the Lord and begged that the presence would remain:

Create in me a pure heart, O God,        
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence        
or take your Holy Spirit from me. 
(Psalm 51: 10-11)

At the end of each day my Father won’t be impressed with my intellect or insight. He’ll be concerned with the beat of my heart. In the quiet (if there is quiet) he will want to know if I lived a whole-hearted life that day. Did my actions spring from the well of the Spirit or the treadmill of importance? He will be concerned with these questions because he knows that spiritual formation happens each day.

The only question is: what have we formed?

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David Nilsen: On Leaving – And Finding – Church

David Nilsen is a writer from Greenville, Ohio. He loves good coffee and beer, deep talks that keep him up too late, books and snobby films. He’s been married to Lyndie for ten years this January, and has a four year old daughter who is already asking questions about God he doesn’t know how to answer. He blogs athomekettle.wordpress.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @DNilsenKettle.

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My wife and I attended Grace Church for ten years. Then we left. 

Finding a new church hasn't been easy. We live in a small Ohio town surrounded by corn fields. Livestock outnumber Democrats. Meeting a person of non-European descent is a rare event. This isn't a place where change catches on quickly.

When we left our church home we knew we had our work cut out for us finding a new one. Consistent with the local politics, the churches are almost exclusively conservative, and the ones that aren't are usually trying too hard. If we insisted on attending a church with a vibrant arts community, a progressive stance on theology and an emphasis on social justice we would be driving an hour each way on Sunday mornings. That's no way to experience community.

So we have to compromise.

Much of the search has been disappointing, but there have been pleasant surprises as well. We've sat in churches we'd walked by for a decade without ever stepping foot inside, churches that in our earlier, fear-filled days we would have condemned as "liberal", and have found within them sincere believers doing their best to follow Jesus. Which is the same thing we've found in the churches more conservative than we ever were.

It’s been good to experience how other Christians worship. It's easy to make assumptions about other pilgrims on the journey, especially when they say their broken prayers from the pews of a different church building. In our search we've seen both bondage and beauty, and have recognized in our own hearts that we've taken part in both. There have been good experiences - discussing the apostleship of Mary Magdalene with an Episcopal priest during coffee hour - and bad ones - the Baptist preacher who struggled during a sermon illustration to think of a magazine that all the women present would know and like and finally came up with Ladies' Home Journal.

My favorite image from this journey has been from a Church of the Brethren we're considering. It's a boring, uncool church, but comfortable being what it is. They sing hymns accompanied by a piano, and no one leads the singing, and they sound shrill and awkward and I kind of love them for it. One week a partially blind old woman was sitting near the middle of the sanctuary. She was wearing a hideous pink dress she was clearly proud of. In the middle of a hymn she pulled out a flute and began playing along as loudly as she could. No one was phased. They kept right on singing around her. I get the feeling this happens somewhat regularly, and the fact that no one has suggested she leave her flute at home tells me a great deal about the hearts of these people.

We are grateful for the grace we've been shown by those who watched us leave, especially those in leadership at our old church. Some of our conversations have been frustrating for both sides, but they’ve loved us.

Leaving a church because of differences in belief and practice is not something anyone should do lightly. If you are considering leaving a church here are some thoughts and questions to keep in mind as you walk through this process:

1. If you're thinking of leaving because of theological differences, you need to ask if and how those differences inhibit your ability to live in fulfilling community with your church family, and which is worth more to you. If you find you can still experience strong community, it might be worth it to grin and bear the doctrinal frustrations. In our case, we found they made too much of an impact on our fellowship.

2. If you decide to leave, don't throw Molotov cocktails at your church on the way out. Tell your story truthfully when you discuss your reasons for leaving, but in speaking honestly remember also to speak lovingly.

3. No matter how hard you try to avoid it there will be misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Most people will be kind. Some, however, will make this difficult, especially if you are leaving because your theology has diverged from what they deem acceptable. There are a few people I'm pretty sure think we're only a few steps away from sacrificing our daughter to Zothora the goat demon. There's nothing you can do about it, so don't exhaust yourself on pointless explanations.

4. Don't leave just because you disagree, but don't stay just out of fear. When you realize you can no longer grow spiritually in your current church environment and there is no possibility of that changing, leave. It's time.

5. Show grace. Pray for the church you've left. As much as it is up to you, live at peace with all men.

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.