The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Vegetarian Misconceptions

It is amazing to me the way vegetarianism is such an "all or nothing" endeavor for many. I don't know what it is, but when people become vegetarians it turns into a near religious crusade for them. Not one scrap of meat at all! Some even avoid honey, since it is the byproduct of insects. Honey, imagine that!

I can sort of understand if someone chooses this lifestyle because they are against the exploitation of animals. However, that is only one of a number of reasons why people opt for a vegetarian diet. Many are vegetarians for environmental reasons or for their own health. Yet, many of these folks often fall into the same fervor about avoiding meat. It almost doesn't seem to matter to them that they are chowing down on bananas and coffee shipped from several thousands miles away from farms where humans and the environment are exploited. Nope, they still are against my grass fed beef grown right down the road by a reputable farmer with well-raised animals.

I think the vegetarian movement has done a lot to devalue the health benefits of meat. When someone becomes a vegetarian, the first thing people ask is, "Where are you going to get your protein?" That very question itself communicates misinformation. It makes people think that meat is nothing more than a lump of protein. And we know we can get protein from all sorts of sources. In fact, getting enough protein is quite easy for a vegetarian--even a vegan--just by eating a balanced diet that includes some whole grains, beans and nuts.

The real question for a vegetarian should be this: "Where are you going to get your B-12, calcium, iron, beta-carotene and omega fatty acids?" B-12 is the most significant issue, because it is not to be found in a vegetarian diet at all. Milk and eggs have some B-12, but what they have is often not absorbed well enough by people to be useful. B-12 deficiencies can be quite serious. Supplements are not always effective (B-12 is destroyed by exposure to the sunlight). Certain individuals are not good at extracting beta-carotene and omega fatty acids from plant sources. A lot of it is probably based on genetics.

The only meat out there that actually is nothing but a lump of protein would be your lean muscle meats, like a chicken breast. While that is a prized item on today's menu, it is the least nutritious. You have no doubt heard stories of our hunter & gatherer ancestors who were able to utilize every last item from an animal without wasting any, right? Well, truth be told is that if they were ever to leave some of the meat behind, it would have been the lean meat. Lean meat is devoid of the essential oils and other nutrients, and if you ate nothing but lean meat you might actually die. Lean meat must be accompanied by starches or fats or else the body can go into something called rabbit starvation (usually that requires living in extremely cold temperatures, though). People who tried to survive a tough winter by hunting rabbits found out that the lack of fats made the meat actually useless.

So meat has been devalued, but that's nothing compared to the misconceptions about fat. People think of fat as nothing but empty calories. Not true. Fats and oils are every bit as critical to good health as vitamins and minerals. They are nutrients! Yes, there are such things as "bad fats", such as hydrogenated oils or the weird masses of fat that develop on feedlot animals (which you won't find on animals fed a natural diet, such as grass fed cattle). Those fats are unbalanced and can cause health problems for humans who eat them in excess. But eating a diet that is too lean can throw yourself out of whack, too.

Fruits and vegetables are not always so friendly, either. Yes, we need to eat a lot of them, but any single one of them eaten in excess can be harmful. Most plants have defenses to keep predators away and digestive inhibitors to keep themselves from sprouting. Raw items are good, because you have access to all the microbes, but they can be bad in excess because of all these chemicals that are often broken down in cooking. Yet, the current assumptions that people have would idolize fruits and vegetables.

I say this not to arouse suspicion about fruits and vegetables--just eat a wide variety of them, cooked and uncooked. I say this only to point out that for all the so-called negative effects of meats and fats, you can find negatives about fruits and vegetables, too. This all-or-nothing attitude that is promoted by many vegetarians is misleading and promotes an unwise diet. Most of the negative impact of meats is limited only to those raised in factory feedlot conditions, which, admittedly, is most of the meat consumed in the America. But sustainably raised meats can be a great option for the environment as well as your health.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What Does It Mean To Be Male?

One of the best effects of the women's liberation and feminist movements is that people have spent a lot of time trying to understand what it means to be female.

Right off the bat, this approach causes some problems as all males and all females don't fall in line the same way. Still, when you consider the separation of men and women in society plus biological differences and a history of discrimination, you have the justification for grouping people along gender lines to some degree.

Men are behind the curve when it comes to understanding ourselves. This hurts the feminist movement, too. It is hard to create a truly healthy society when we are trying hard to understand only half of our members. It is almost impossible for women to find true equality and fulfilment if men are not in a healthy, enlightened place as well. That is what makes us a society--we are in this together. Since our hurts come from relationships our healing will no doubt come from relationships too, as someone once said (I don't remember who that is). There is going to be a limit to how far our society can go if only half of us are healthy, trying to interact with unhealthy people.

There is a "masculinism" movement out there. It is small and not always popular, but in some ways that is to be expected. If we live in a society where we just assume that male = bad, female = good, then we are bound to ruffle some feathers when we show (just like feminists have been doing) that things are not always what they seem and societal assumptions--even some that have been held for centuries--can be flat wrong.

It is also wrong to assume that being male is "Easy Street" while being female is not. Those simple categories just don't hold up to a closer evaluation. However, you might be amazed to find out how hard people will fight to hold onto their preconceived notions. For a society that is weary of female discrimination, just on the cusp of making some great strides, probably the last thing it wants to hear are the concerns from its male members. But again, you can't address one without the other, unless the goal is simply to replace one form of discrimination with another.

On a Mission

So then what does it mean to be male? You ask anybody out there, probably the first response you hear is "competitive." You may also hear words such as "domineering" or "aggressive." I have never found those words satisfying, and I think they miss the point. That's like saying that all women are "bossy" and "bitchy." You can find some truth there, but you will miss the true essence of a person with words like that. You might also have to deal with the Political Correctness Police.

One idea that I have heard bandied about is "adventure." Somehow, someway, a healthy man will have adventure in his life. More importantly, he will see his life as an adventure. A quest. A mission. Just like Abraham leading his people to Canaan or Moses leading them back to the Promised Land, a man needs to believe his life has a mission.

Even if man is working 9-5 in some office with diapers to be changed at home, there is no reason why he cannot perceive his family life in adventure-terms. Men like challenges: Bringing home the bacon and getting mouths fed can be a satisfying challenge at the end of each day. Building a better life and raising good kids can all be seen as mission-driven. A lot depends on how men choose to interpret their lives. A society that can't find a way for its men to channel these God-given energies is going to have a population filled with angst who will eventually lash out, and all of society will pay for it.


Some have said that the churches have lost the male element because of this as well. Christianity has been accused of largely presenting itself in feminine terms and has thus lost male enthusiasm. This may seem outrageous, because a counter accusation is that Christianity has too often tried to present a "male" God with men in the institutional positions of power. But consider this: When you look at your average congregation, the enthusiasm and active involvement is mostly through the female members. Men have been sort of hangin' in there for 700 years, which is surprising since men supposedly have the power. Being "pastoral" is often seen as a nurturing profession to be in--a trait largely considered feminine. It is not that the churches have been ignoring men--they just have not been connecting to them.

I am not suggesting we re-create Christianity to go on military Crusades again. But if you look at the highly successful recruitment tools of the US military, there is no reason why Christianity can't appeal along the same lines: Teamwork. Adventure. Challenge. Mission. Camaraderie. These terms get a lot closer toward the essence of maleness--they probably still fall short but they are a lot closer than "aggressive" or "competitive." Imagine all those sickening Army commercials instead advertising an outreach mission along the same lines! There is no reason why we can't go on a mission to clean up the environment or extol the camaraderie of Christian brotherhood. Christ himself was the Messiah--the "one sent", and his mission was to "save us." He came from somewhere and he was going somewhere.

We should never have allowed the military to co-opt those characteristics. We never should have allowed religion to refuse them. Is there a way to manifest the same zeal people feel toward taking up arms to protect our country and instead take up bricks and mortar to build homes for the homeless or deliver grain to the hungry with every ounce of military fervor? Or instead of Christian get-togethers being spoken of in terms of group hugs and affirmations to instead talk about camaraderie and our common work together?

Instead of attending church and just "being there", we need to present church as "going somewhere." Where are we headed? What are we trying to accomplish? Men need to be on the move--like Abraham, like Moses, like the "One Sent."

I actually have nothing against group hugs or the pastoral/nurturing side of ministry work. I am a male who finds those elements extraordinarily appealing. But I think we are missing a lot of people who take a quick look and find that religion doesn't resonate in their being, even if they want it to. War is stupid, but the military excites them on some level that can't be denied.

Keep in mind, I am not advocating for unlimited military symbolism in religion or to describe maleness. We have enough cases where religious mission is described with battle imagery and good vs. evil vocabulary. I am talking about the social elements that the military has taken in its advertising, elements that are not exclusively the domain of the military, such as the camaraderie and adventure.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bag It Up

It is easy to hate plastic grocery store bags. You can often see them decorating tree branches or strewn along roadsides. They are an eyesore and are extremely dangerous for wildlife who ingest them or get tangled in their handles. They are made from petroleum and thus contribute to our dependence on foreign oil, not to mention global warming. All plastic is quickly becoming a worldwide problem as it is turning up just about everywhere, such as the massive pile of trash in the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of Texas.

You might think it is good news that some stores offer paper bags as an alternative. This seems like the best solution--here you have a biodegradable option. The unfortunate reality is that it is not so. Paper bags actually require much more energy to manufacture and produce more pollutants than plastic bags.

So you have what seems like a catch-22 situation: You can use the plastic bags but find yourself contributing to plastic waste and fossil fuel usage. But if you choose paper, you may have a biodegradable option but the increased energy use to make them contributes to global warming. You're damned if you choose one, damned if you choose the other.

There is another option: B.Y.O.B! Bring your own bags. This is a wonderful habit to get into and you can nip this problem in the bud right there. You can use backpacks, gym bags or even a cardboard box. I have a few reusable bags with handles and they work out great. Here are some options.

I admit it took some adjustment for me to do it, because this is a lifestyle change (albeit a minor one) and I had to remember to keep the bags in my car or in a readily accessible place. But now that I have gotten into the habit it is quite easy. If I have to make an emergency trip to the store and don't have a bag with me, I try to buy only what I can carry in my hands. Keep these pointers in mind when using reusable bags, such as making sure to actually use them without having them sit in a closet somewhere, just becoming a new form of waste.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Healing through Hunger

I've been hurt by ecumenical dialogue in the past, sometimes deeply. I have attempted to commune with Christians from different denominations on a number of occasions. More often than not, they tended to be from evangelical traditions. This was both in college and afterwards, as well.

I went into these relationships bright eyed and bushy tailed. I knew we had differences, but I was eager to interact with them and figured we could find a lot in common through our music, ministry and common ground. I was comfortable in my tradition, but open to what they had to offer. I wanted my church to be more "Protestant like" in a number of ways, so I wanted to see what it was all about.

The openness wasn't mutual. They didn't do a good job of hiding their sneers. They would sometimes begrudgingly tolerate parts of my tradition I would share, but it always seemed like an uphill battle. It felt like it took long discussions just to convince them that there was something "okay" about my faith tradition. It wasn't just that they disagreed with my beliefs or customs, but rather the very validity of my faith itself. There were also other times I was convinced they were moved in a positive way by parts of my tradition but just didn't want to admit it.

Once I became sensitive to it, I started noticing an anti-Catholic vibe just about everywhere, even among many so-called "liberal" Protestants. There are sly and subtle ways that the Catholic Church is dismissed in our culture on a fairly regular basis. It is one form of discrimination that is fairly well supported by our culture.

I just felt sad that the richness I was experiencing seemed totally lost on them. I was also disappointed by the closed mindedness. Was it some kind of inferiority complex, I wondered? I also wondered if the Catholic tradition was just an artifact from the past that I was lucky enough to have gotten an introduction to, but which modern folks just were not likely to connect to nor understand.

I became embittered and found myself in lots of "Catholic vs. Protestant" debates, fighting tooth and nail in the trenches.

Not all of my friends were mocking, of course, I have many non-Catholic friends who respect my tradition and we have had many wonderful moments sharing together. But when faced with the absolute hemorrhaging in membership that Catholics and other mainline Christians are losing to the evangelical churches, I just always felt empty. It was like there was a wonderful piece of artwork, and I was the only one who could see beauty, and I was trying to turn peoples' heads but they just weren't seeing what I was seeing.

An Unexpected Twist

The Spirit moves in mysterious ways. I blogged previously about the surprising draw that some evangelicals are having to parts of the Catholic tradition recently, with radio preachers going into long discourses about Augustine and the like. The other day I met some folks who came from an evangelical background who were eager for something different. They didn't just tolerate the Catholic tradition--they were hungry for it. They drank it up.

Normally, when talking to non-Catholics I try to talk it up or even apologize for my tradition to help outsiders understand what it is about. I always feel like I have to justify being a Catholic or put qualifiers into it. I didn't need to do that with these folks--they were all into it and understood the range of beliefs among Catholics. They were absolutely hungry for ritual and liturgy. They wanted nothing to do with "popcorn prayer." Chanting the psalms word-for-word is something they appreciate. They were independently doing deep research into the monastic traditions and the role of Eucharist in community worship. When they get together to worship they design liturgies and rituals and sometimes follow established ones from the Anglican or Catholic traditions. It was amazing watching them gather in a living room and put together a mass-like worship service, eager for tips and advice.

It was almost like watching the Dead Poets Society--or perhaps the early Christians--who gathered together to savor a special but forbidden practice--the sharing of the Eucharist.

One of them remarked how we are passing each other like two ships in the fog, waving. Many Catholics are looking for more improvisation in worship and trying to incorporate Bible study and other things that are more commonly part of Protestant traditions. Catholics are looking for a more personal connection. These people I met recently have been there and know the downside of that approach. They are looking for ritual, structure and longstanding traditions--not in some sort of rigid authoritarian way, but they realize that those things have a deep meaning. They want the magic and mysticism of ritual. Nobody likes the authoritarian tendencies of structure, but these people have seen what happens when you don't have those structures in place. They said they are part of a strong movement of former evangelicals moving toward Catholicism.

I also warned them that there are dangers when ritual becomes empty. Routine is important, and you won't always connect in a profound way each time you attend a service, but if an entire congregation stops singing on a regular basis you know your church is in trouble.

When I talked about attending to mass, they were eager to know where I went and any information about traditions I could share. Imagine! It used to be that mentioning "mass" in an ecumenical crowd was like dropping a dead animal into the room. The change in energy is profound from what I've experienced before. This wasn't begrudging acceptance--this was an open heart to where I come from and what my Church is about. I have never experienced this before and in all honesty I never thought I would. These are people who were raised in the evangelical tradition who are positively hungry for the Catholic churches--Anglican, Roman, etc.

There is still plenty of room for disagreements, and they shared many that I have and in some ways were more sympathetic to Catholic doctrines than I am. The point is that it feels totally different to be faced with this kind of openness. No doubt, this is the same kind of openness many former Catholics showed them as they were hurt in their tradition and started looking elsewhere, too.

I suppose outside affirmation can only take you so far, but it is nice to hear someone validate and echo what I've been feeling all along. After years of only a trickle it has been good to feel this kind of warmth and acceptance, and I believe it is healing for me. I am glad that I have been in a really good space recently and haven't been in my "Catholic vs. Protestant" mindset, so that when I met them I was able to receive them without having to work through my baggage or embarrass myself in the process.

So I have learned to trust the Spirit. If something is good--if it is really good--it will come back again. And of course, being Catholic is not just rituals and rules. There is mystery and tradition, storytelling and drama, beauty and imagination that goes with the tradition.

Pet Peeve

When a certain person drives past me on I-71 in the morning and doesn't wave. :-)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

I Used to Like Sports...

...until I moved to Columbus, OH.

My gosh. "Buckeye mania" is the city-wide obsession here. It is the lifestyle. And it's a little too much for me. That's saying a lot, considering the fact I'm from Cleveland, which is known for having some of the most hardcore, loyal fans in the land.

What Columbus has is something altogether different. It isn't loyalty. It's ridiculous.

I tell people here that I don't like the OSU football and they literally look at me like there is something wrong with me, like they don't even want to be around me and certainly don't know what to do with me. I sense true anger, like I just announced that I had committed a crime. People here do worry about physical violence in such situations. God forbid you buy a blue car (the trademark color of Michigan) and leave it on the street on the wrong day.

You would think this were a tough town, from all this talk. I don't see it. Fans here are a little spoiled. Their team gets spanked in one game and they get all depressed. It takes the wind out of the entire city. People walk the streets all quiet and gloomy. Where is the anger, where is the outrage? When they win a game, there is euphoria and cars burning. There was a span of several years where people just expected to win every game.

I used to be okay with sports. I liked to root for the home team. I have followed some teams for a season or two. I was right there during some hard fought nail biters on the lake up north. But I've come to a point in life where I realize that time is limited, and I don't want to spend one second on some enterprise that I could care less about. The amount of time and energy this town devotes to OSU football tipped the scales for me from ambivalence to outrage, and I want nothing to do with it.

I don't care about your tailgate parties or all the inane post game wrap up. I don't bleed scarlet and grey, and I don't get a rush returning a volley of "O-H!" with "I-O!" I won't wear a hat that looks like a stadium, nor do I have any desire to dress like Jim Tressel. It's all a little too much like watching paint dry to me.

"Hang on Sloopy" is still a great song, though. One of the best, actually.