How to Get Started in Giving

A friend recently asked me how he and his wife could find a good charity to start funding.  It’s a good question and not one that’s easily answered.  Maybe it’s helpful to think of starting a giving program like starting an exercise program.  Both of them:

  • help you feel better about yourself
  • require commitment and effort
  • can be fun, but can also be painful
  • are things you “should” do for a well-rounded life

So how would you start an exercise program?  Well, I would look for friends who enjoy their exercise programs and imagine if I would like them too.  I am personally not a big outdoors person, so that eliminates a lot of options.  And I don’t like sweating or getting off the couch, so I guess I’m limited to squeezing hand grips while watching action shows.  But to focus on the positive, I do like sprinting and hitting things with sticks, so racquet sports usually work well for me.  The lesson for giving is that you can eliminate some broad areas but also find some things you care deeply about.  There are many types people in the world who are disadvantaged or subject to injustice.  Some questions to help narrow it down:

  • Do you care more about the local community, the country as a whole, or international issues?  International poverty is on a different scale than domestic, meaning they can be much poorer.  But because of the distance, they are also harder to reach effectively and work with directly.  Or maybe the possibility of traveling there is a plus for you?
  • Are there certain groups you feel for?  Children, homeless, immigrants, women, teenage moms, elderly, cancer patients, starving artists?  I’ve found that being a new parent opens my eyes to the benefits my child has, compared to many other children who live just a few miles away.  So it makes me more open to helping other kids, for example reading in classrooms.
  • How much interaction do you want?  Do you like other kids, but only at arms length (or farther)?  Or do you want to see gap-toothed smiles as you teach and play with them?  There’s a wide range of interaction from none (just writing checks) to regular meetings like being a Big Brother / Big Sister.

One aspect of giving I don’t like is that many charities will sell the names and addresses of their donors, which increases your junk mail.  To avoid this, you can give through a Charitable Gift Fund (CGF) which hides your address.  As an added bonus, it also helps simplify your taxes since you take a deduction when you put money in CGF, not when you disburse the fund’s money to individual charities.

Finally, I’ll list a few concrete suggestions:

Loans and Investments: by putting your money in these places, you are loaning rather than donating it.

  • Kiva: you make no interest, but can invest small amounts in individuals starting businesses
  • Microplace: you make a small amount of interest and can invest in larger amounts than Kiva.  Less hands-on interaction.
  • Prosper and LendingClub: rather than put money into a savings account earning 1% interest, you can loan at higher interest to fellow Americans who need loans.

Direct Donation: here are three places we featured on this blog for the Advent Challenge this past Christmas.

And one bonus: My New Red Shoes helps local Bay Area homeless families by providing shoes, clothes, and school supplies, packaged in bags that you sew yourself.  Crafty…

I hope this helps, and I’d be glad to answer any questions.  Happy giving!

What if Jesus were your financial advisor?

What if Jesus were your financial advisor?  What if the Son of God and His disciples were in charge of all your saving, spending, investing, and giving?  At first glance, the idea seems a bit silly, perhaps even disrespectful.  Jesus came to die for our sins, not dispense advice on mutual funds, right?

But actually, the New Testament turns out to contain an awful lot of financial insight.  In fact, Jesus and the apostles talked about it way more than other important ethical issues, such as sexuality.  Today I did little experiment to shed some light on what Jesus’ meta-message as our financial advisor would be.  First, building on several years of previous study, I decided to identify every passage in the New Testament that is directly relevant to the way we manage our money.  After a full morning’s work, I highlighted seventy-five passages (not including about 30 additional parallel texts).  Then I noted the basic theme of each text and put them all on an Excel spreadsheet.  Here’s a summary of the results:

As you can see, by far the most prominent theme in the New Testament is that our wealth is intended to be shared with the poor.  A close second was the idea, variously expressed, that money is somehow dangerous or at least distracting to our spiritual life.  Those themes make up more than TWO THIRDS of the New Testament’s teaching on money.  A final prominent theme is basically to not worry too much about money, because God will provide.

Surprisingly, less than eight percent of the relevant passages spoke about giving to support the pastor or the local church—which is the topic of the vast majority of “stewardship” sermons.  And there was almost nothing on budgeting, saving, or investing—topics that make up the vast majority of Christian financial stewardship books.

In summary, here’s what the two Great Commandments of Jesus’ financial advice look like to me:

  • You shall intentionally, generously, and regularly share your resources with the poor.
  • And a second is like it: you shall become free of consumerism and the need to find your identity in your possessions, instead trusting that God will provide what you actually need.

Now that is some weird financial advice.  You definitely won’t hear anything like that from Prudential or Charles Schwab.  For me, spending almost an entire day poring over these teachings really drove home just how radical and counter-cultural Jesus is, especially for those of us coming from a society that reveres material accumulation like no other in history.

But why not check out the Jesus’ advice for yourself?  I’d like to invite you to reflect personally on the wisdom in my spreadsheet.  If you just do about ten passages a day, it will only take a week.  And it just might be good news for your (financial) life.

Abstinence and Abundance

Funny Easter Ecard: Let's resume everything we gave up for Lent without any newfound spiritual insights.One month ago it was Lent. I was coming to the end of my commitment to drink only tap water for forty days. Now it is Eastertide, a time of rejoicing in the hope of the resurrection. And as part of the celebration, I can drink anything I want. Orange juice, cranberry juice, two-buck Chuck, Newcastle brown ale, soy milk—it’s all there, just waiting to be enjoyed.

In the past, I’ve been suspicious of giving up things for Lent because I feared that it didn’t really promote spiritual growth. Instead, it seemed to be  just a temporary exercise in giving up some sin, excess, vice, or bad habit—only to return to it with a vengeance after Easter. Christ is risen: pass the high fructose corn syrup! So now that we are on the other side of the resurrection, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on my Lenten fast. After a month, was there any lasting spiritual value in completing the Simple Living Challenge?

Actually, at least for this month, I have seen some valuable benefits. I’m still much more conscious of those without clean water, and was inspired to do something about it. So far, the habit of turning to a glass of water when I’m thirsty still endures. I’m spending less on expensive and unhealthy drinks.

But most importantly, I think I gained a firmer grasp of the role of abstinence in cultivating a lifestyle of abundance. Here’s what I mean:  although am more content just drinking tap water, when I do decide to enjoy something else—like a simple glass of orange juice—it’s SO AWESOME! After 40 days of only water, when I take a swallow of that golden liquid with extra pulp, it tastes like the nectar of the gods.

About a month ago, another kind of “Lent” also came to an end for me. After almost three years in Central America, I moved back to my home state of California. Instead of being an immigrant in a country not my own, I am now surrounded by familiar friends, tranquil places to think and work, an abundance of wonderful food from all around the world, and (thanks to Amazon) any consumer good I could want delivered right to my door for about half of what it would cost in Costa Rica.

Before my time abroad, I took all this stuff for granted—it was just part of my birthright as a middle-class American. None of these things are especially luxurious by American standards. But now it feels like the tremendous wealth it is. Because of three years of abstinence, everything seems so abundant.

Yet I know that soon the wonder will wear off. After about the fifth time I eat a taco truck burrito or a Vietnamese sandwich, I’ll still enjoy it, but it will no longer seem like such a feast. The glories of being able to flush toilet paper will cease. Such novelties will wane, and the impulse to get MORE stuff and BETTER stuff will grow stronger. Contentment will fade and covetousness will follow.

Obviously, this is a familiar pattern: getting bored with what we have, and then wanting something better. We expect and need to be constantly “better off” as our life progresses. It seems to me that there are at least two possible responses to this phenomenon. The default is to take the well-travelled path of the American Dream, centering our lives around the pursuit of more, slowly strangulating our desire for the simple, generous lifestyle to which Jesus calls us.

But there is also another approach. We can allow our lives to be guided by the historic rhythms of the church, in which time undulates between seasons of feasting and fasting, abstinence and abundance, Lent and Easter. In this model, when we become bored of food or drink or cars or other stuff, instead of trading them in for something better, we fast from some of these things for a time, so when we return to them, it is with a new sense of appreciation and abundance. At least I think that’s what I appreciate about my recent experiences of Lent.  It seems trite to say it, but I now believe just a little bit more that true abundance is found in wanting what I have instead of getting what I want.

How about you? Anyone want to share the long-term impact of your Lenten practice?

Where Face Paint and Foreign Aid Meet: Fusing Fun with Purpose

When God calls us to “open wide” our hands to the poor (Deuteronomy 15) and pour ourselves out for the hungry (Isaiah 58), He leaves the specifics up to us. We can give to aid organizations or donate canned goods to the food pantry, for example, or volunteer at the soup kitchen.

We can even take those dictates literally by sharing a meal with hungry people. Here in Cambridge, I’ve had the pleasure of befriending Mike, who likes to eat chicken fried rice with his hands, and Harold, a gourmand who makes his own pizza and experienced such horror toward my weekly spam dinners that he once surprised me with a bag of fresh groceries. “Anything but spam, please!” he said. Given his nonexistent income, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Yet, most of these responses preclude participation by my large and rather diverse network of friends. Few of our calendars are brimming with empty weeknights that allow us to take a volunteer shift, for example, and from experience, I’ve learned that food pantries can accommodate only so many volunteers each evening anyway.

As I celebrated my 26th birthday this year, then, I decided to put another spin on responding biblically to hunger: I threw a huge, “Back to Childhood”-themed, birthday costume party. Culinary highlights included childhood snacks such as Twizzlers and Yoohoo’s as well as my favorite dessert, pecan pie.

Instead of presents, I invited friends to come bearing costumes and a gift of another kind of wealth, one that we sometimes forget about—political capital. I asked guests to bring a letter for their congressman advocating for foreign aid reform. I tracked their gifts on a spreadsheet and set up a letter-writing station next to my face-painting “booth” for those who hadn’t had time to write letters at home.

hand-writing letters at the letter-writing station… in full costume

creating masterpieces at the face-painting booth

With the help of preprinted templates, all it took was five minutes to hand-write a letter, and in the end, I collected a whopping 30 letters from friends across six states.

My party took place the night before my actual birthday, and I ended up spending much of my birthday tracking letters and stuffing envelopes—all over bites of leftover pecan pie, of course.

In the end, I couldn’t have imagined a more meaningful way to celebrate turning 26.









more costumes, snacks and face paint: just further proof that we can fuse fun with Biblical purpose in our day-to-day lives — all very simply



A few weekends ago, June and I hosted a smallgroup.  One of the guys who came was in his early 40’s, a bit quiet, college-educated, lived in Boston, clean-shaven, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans and wire-rimmed glasses, an immigrant with accented English.  With the exception of being an immigrant, that could describe me.  Except our visitor was homeless.

It’s easy to stereotype the homeless with negative connotations, maybe from the media or maybe from contact with panhandlers.  In the same way, it’s easy to stereotype the rich and the poor.  Interestingly, most people in the U.S. think of themselves as middle-class — the “poor” are people who are worse-off, and the “rich” are people who live in mansions.  The danger of such thinking is that it fosters a territorial mentality.  It brings about such thoughts as “tax the rich” or “I don’t want to raise my kids in a poor school district.”

Another danger is that stereotypes erase individuality.  They prevent one from seeing people as unique children of God, with their own gifts and callings and personal histories.  It can be offensive to assume people are a certain way because of a stereotype.  “Hey Mr. Asian, can you help me with my math homework?”  The PC movement has helped raise awareness of such issues in racial stereotypes.  But money and class stereotypes are still strongly entrenched.  And buying into those stereotypes can blind us from seeing individual needs.  Maybe that trust fund kid has money struggles, while that poor retiree does not.  Not every homeless person is looking for a handout, or even a job.

I’m curious to hear about your experiences of being surprised by a “poor” person.  Did it change your way of thinking?

Engineering clean water

When I lived in inner city Oakland, I loved the way folks in our church community could use their careers and professions to serve their neighbors. Teachers, social workers, medical professionals, programmers, attorneys, etc., all found ways to use their skills and background to work with those around them.

Now that I live in Guatemala, doing community development in a small rural community, I love seeing how engineering can radically alter an entire community’s existence. One of the engineers on staff builds water filters out of cement, fills them with three layers of sand, inserts a plastic tube, and voila: contaminated water goes in, 99.9% pure water comes out. I’d explain how this ridiculously simple concept works, but being a social worker, I’ll just post this image:

It works, it’s simple, and it saves lives. It’s estimated that water-borne illnesses account for 1.8 million deaths every year1. These water filters also prevent illness, reducing absenteeism from work for parents and from school for kids. I love being a social worker, but I’m so grateful for engineers’ creative use of their gifts to love their neighbor.

This two-minute video features the community leader where I work demonstrating the use of the filter:

This Lenten season, although I wish I could drink the tapwater here, I’m so grateful I don’t have to hike up the hill like Judith and all her fellow residents do every day. Cheers!

1. World Health Organization:

Fasting and Feasting

My first date with my future wife was a group backpacking trip to Kings Canyon in California.   One of the highlights of that weekend—besides launching our marriage—was dinner the night we arrived.  We had hiked in 11 miles and had brought scarce snack food for the trail to minimize weight.  It had taken forever to set up the campsite. We were almost shaking with hunger by the time we got the fire going. So we got out our freeze-dried dinners, added some boiling water, waited two and a half minutes instead of the three you’re supposed to, and dived right in.  Sitting out there in the open air, gazing dreamily (but subtly) at Jodi, savoring every tongue-burning bite—it truly deserves to be called a feast.

About ten years later I was on a retreat at the the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s Emery House in rural Massachusetts..  It was one of my infrequent experiences of fasting, and after a full day and night I dined with the monks.  We ate without speaking, only spoons scraping plates to break the silence.  It was corn from the farm next door, homemade bread, and squash soup, all prepared very simply.  As my food preferences generally lean toward the “massive carne asada  burrito with lots of hot sauce” kind of thing, I was not expecting anything spectacular.  But I was wrong.  The bright, fresh tastes, savored without distraction, were perhaps the purest joy I’ve experienced through food.

These are two of my most wonderful memories of eating.   It surprises me that they came to mind first because objectively they are not my favorite tastes.  In fact,  one time we had a leftover freeze-dried backpacking meal, so we ate it around the kitchen table just as an experiment. It was horrible. We couldn’t even finish it.  And to this day I still don’t like squash.  But both meals took place in the context of fasting, and I think they were unforgettable because my hunger made me so fully appreciate every nuance of the taste.

Right now I am two weeks into my Lenten commitment to drink only tap water, and I think I’m experiencing some of the same dynamic.  First, because I can’t have them, I’m appreciating much more the awesomeness of orange juice, tea, and cas (a kiwi-like fruit juice only available in Central America.)  I’ve noticed how often during the day I absent-mindedly go to the refrigerator for a little shot of liquid tastiness.  So I think I’m learning to really savor the privilege of access to such luxuries.  That big, cold glass of high pulp orange juice on Easter is going to be spectacular.  But I don’t want to underestimate plain old water either.  Despite all the shelves and shelves of manufactured thirst quenchers, it’s hard to beat the original.

So for me, I think this Lent’s Simple Living Challenge is deepening my sense of what God meant when he created water and fruit and tea leaves and said “It is good.”  When my life is just an all-you-can eat buffet or an unlimited refills large drink, I begin to experience diminishing returns in terms of taste and thankfulness.  I know that the rhythm of feast and fast that marks the traditional Christian calendar means more than just deeper appreciation of food and drink, but it certainly does not mean less.

How about you?  How’s your experience of fasting (tap water or otherwise) this Lent?

World Water Day

Every Tuesday in Lent we’re highlighting a different aspect of the global water crisis, so it’s very convenient that today is World Water Day.  (I wish I could say I planned that, but I can’t.)  Since the UN and every respectable NGO out there are doing their part to raise awareness, I thought I’d just post a few of the best links I found.  I’ve arranged them in a kind of Easy Ten Minute Guide to World Water Day.




from Sojourners:

In commemorating World Water Day, we pray especially for the millions who do not have access to clean water or who face regular water shortages. Millions of children die every year from preventable water-borne diseases, and it should not be so. On behalf of those who lack important resources, stir us to righteous anger and propel us to action, Lord. For your kingdom and for your glory, amen.

from the Ursuline order:

Creator God, whose Spirit moved over the face of the waters, who gathers the seas into their places and directs the courses of the rivers, who sends rain upon the earth that it should bring forth life; we praise you for the gift of water. We believe that water belongs to the earth and to all species. We believe that water must be conserved for all time. We believe that polluted water must be reclaimed.  We believe that water is a public trust to be guarded at all levels of government.  We believe that an adequate supply of clean water is a basic human right.  Create in us a sense of wonder and delight in this and all your gifts, that we might receive them with gratitude, care for them with love and generously share them with all your creatures, to the honour and glory of your holy name. Amen

from the WCC:

God of life, God of all those who walk miles for water, God of those whose only supply is contaminated, bringing death, not life: May water, clean and lifegiving, be available toevery living creature. May that vision move forward. May your will be done. Amen.


Tap Water Tuesday

People come to Costa Rica for its tranquil beaches, stunning volcanoes, and wildly diverse plants and animals.  But my favorite thing about living here is the water.  You see, other times I’ve lived overseas, accidental imbibing of tap water has inevitably led to bouts of writhing in pain on my bed for hours, accompanied by other unpleasant and unmentionable symptoms.  But here I haven’t gotten sick even once in three years. I don’t even think about it.  It’s wonderful.

But today, on Tap Water Tuesday, I wanted to find out if Costa Rican water could pass a more stringent test: the taste test.   Every Tuesday in Lent we’ll be discussing various aspects of clean water, one of the most important topics in global justice today. There are many health, environmental and economic reasons to prefer tap water to bottled water (to be discussed in later posts), yet many people pass up the tap because of taste.   So for lunch today I got my family together for a blind taste test.

We had three candidates:


Coca Cola’s bottled water Alpina, sold throughout Central America at about $2 a liter. (A liter of gas is $1.20 a liter.)


Fiji, which is the Rolls Royce of H2O at $3 a liter.  According to the label, it was bottled at a spring in Fiji “preserved and protected by one of the last virgin ecosystems on earth”


Straight tap water, prepared according to the advice of Megan Z, Simple Living Challenge participant and scientist:  We ran the tap a bit to get fresh water that hadn’t been sitting in the pipes (waiting until the water ran cold.)  Then we collected it in a pitcher & waited a bit because the water naturally dechlorinates when it sits out (you want the chlorine to kill germs in treatment & as the water gets to your house, but it’s not so tasty.)


We chilled each candidate to the same temperature and placed them in wine glasses.  We included a fourth glass of tap water just to see if we could tell the difference between two identical water specimens.  Here are the results: utter confusion.  Isaiah liked the Fiji best, but the Alpina worst.  Camila rated identical glasses of tap water the best and worst.  Jodi preferred, in order, Alpina, then tap water, then Fiji, then tap water.  I liked tap water best, then Fiji, then Alpina.  None of us correctly identified the identical glasses of tap water.  So according to our taste buds, water that costs almost three times the price of gasoline was indistinguishable from decidedly unsexy tap water.

Perhaps we’re just water philistines with undeveloped palates, but I doubt our experience is that unique.  Many studies have shown that our perceived taste preferences are often due to packaging, marketing and the desire to feel sophisticated rather than objective reality.  But why not find out for yourself before you spend another dime on bottled water?  Have your own blind taste test with friends or family–perhaps even a prize for whoever can guess correctly.  We’d love to hear your results if you do….

Happy Tap Water Tuesday!

Simple Living Challenge Update

So tomorrow it begins.  Although right now we are, shall we say, a rather select group,  I want to say a huge thanks to those joining us for our Simple Living Challenge.  I’m anticipating learning a lot about my own consumption patterns as well as having a powerful daily reminder of the 800 million of God’s children who can’t just go to the faucet like I can.  That being said, I’m drinking everything in sight today!

And it’s not too late–if you’ve been considering participating, you can still sign on here.

Moreover, we’ve decided to add a new wrinkle to the Challenge:  for those of you who might feel that forty days is a bit much, why not join us for Tap Water Tuesdays?  Every Tuesday in Lent would be a tap-water-only day, and I’ll be publishing something on the water issue each Tuesday morning.  Tomorrow’s post: the de la Peña VanderPol family’s tap water vs. bottle water blind taste test….

Finally, I want to say how much I appreciate all other the creative ways I’ve heard different friends are celebrating Lent.  The World Vision campaign seems especially excellent.