This Lenten season, my wife and I are foregoing the usual 40 days of fasting from one specific item or practice and instead are partaking in a social experiment. We, along with several friends, will be participating in the study version of 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, purchase at amazon.com, by Jen Hatmaker.In the book, Jen and some friends choose seven justice issues that they will interact with, one each month, by altering their lifestyles and habits in a way to better understand the hold that excess has on their lives and to draw closer to God. The interactions look something like this: for one month she will only eat seven items of food. For another month, she will only wear seven articles of clothing (discounting socks and underwear). And for another month she will only shop at seven stores. And so on. The book then chronicles her joys, struggles, and frustrations with these fasts, often in very funny ways.
As stated before, we will be using the study version, which lasts only seven weeks, rather than seven months. This happens to correspond almost perfectly with Lent, so now seemed like a great time to start. For seven weeks we will fast from certain practices or alter the way that we live in order to draw our minds away from the excesses of the world and towards a greater understanding of justice and a reliance upon God as we journey towards the cross and Easter.
The first week is focused on food. The suggested practice for this week is that we would eat only 7 items of food. It’s amazing to realize how much of a variety there is in my diet when I have to pare it down. Jen really states it best when she writes: “Picking seven foods is like trying to pick my favorite kid. Some people eat to live, but I live to eat.” (11)
Easy, I thought. I’m on the road two days of the week for school, and I’m often so busy that I can’t really make a full meal. So in some ways I believed that I would be relieved without the burden of choice. There were a few considerations that I had to make, though.
I recently started dieting and taking supplements for working out, though, so good sources of protein needed to be taken into consideration. Beyond that, I am a caffeine addict and cannot function well without my standard half to full pot of coffee in the morning, accompanied by a Diet Dr. Pepper in the afternoon. Since it is a fast, and there should be SOME sacrifice, I decided that I could forgo the soda (pop) for the week; coffee alone should suffice. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with brewing a pot as an afternoon pick me up, right?
Notice that I didn’t put coffee in there. That’s actually eight items for me. Admittedly, I am a cheater from the get go, and my wife is just a better person than me. There, I said it. Moving on.We chose rice and beans as one of our meals, recognizing that this is a staple food for many countries. So in an effort to begin to understand what it is like to live without the freedom of choice, we cast our lot in with this simple meal, which also happens to provide a fair amount of carbs, fiber, and protein.
Interestingly enough, there were a series of events which led to a trying start to our fast. Before I recount these, though, I need to say that our land-friends (I don’t like the term landlords because it sounds like…well like lords), are awesome. They take amazing care of us, and we are so grateful for their love and concern. The events I will discuss have nothing to do with them; they worked their hardest to help us, the incidents were really only unfortunate because of timing and weather conditions.And so, the week before, our bathroom was being painted. This was a blessing, but as we have only one bathroom, it displaced us from showers for a couple of days and messed with the feng shui of trying to herd two active dogs around without disrupting the painting process. On Friday, we had mostly reclaimed our bathroom when our furnace broke. Sadly, it turned out to be a fairly brisk (see freezing) weekend in Ohio, and so the core temperature of our house quickly dropped to 48 degrees. We were assured that our heat would be on by Monday night, so we attempted to be scarce around the house until our climate troubles were righted. Unfortunately, and due to nobody’s fault, this was not able to happen until Tuesday; after that, the workers continued to piece together the new furnace throughout the week. This all created an “out of the norm” atmosphere (it’s all fine now though!). On top of that, we were beginning this fast, which removed many of the comfort items we would normally have turned to (i.e. pop, chocolate, ice cream, Chinese buffet!).
In the midst of this, I was planning for our Ash Wednesday service. In doing some historical and contextual research for the sermon, I stumbled across this little factoid: it is a common practice to fast on that day. Great! Fasting has not been a regular practice of mine for some time, and I thought that this seemed like the perfect occasion to begin again. And so in the midst of my 7 fast, I was taking an even stricter fast, to be broken again by the 7 fast. It was like a fasting Oreo, a delicious Oreo that I could not eat because it was not one of my seven items.The week was certainly not without its struggles and temptations. As a pastor, I have many opportunities for breakfast and lunch meetings; much business can be done (and should be done) over a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. This week, it seemed, held more of those types of meetings than usual. And so frustration has run a little high; why couldn’t we pick a week to fast when there would be no meetings (and no small group with delicious dessert)? We really should’ve carefully planned this fast in such a way that we were sleeping most of the time. But, that would really negate the purpose of the fast, wouldn’t it? After all, it is only six days.
Week one’s fast has given me an opportunity to consider the excess of food in my life. Not only do I simply eat too much (as do most Americans) but I am so blessed to have a great cornucopia of food at my disposal. I can eat peaches in February, shipped from somewhere in South America because it is nowhere near time for peach harvest in the U.S. I can choose from a variety of organic cheeses at premium prices: mango cheddar, chocolate cheddar, jalapeño havarti, smoked baby Swiss! And if I want, I could place those delicious chunks upon any number of wheat, whole-grain, or even cornbread crackers and top them with a smoked meat or fig jam or some kind of vegetable shaving. And I could eat all of that until I explode!
All the while, people in the 2/3rds world are happy just to have eaten at all.
It’s only been four days and I’m ready to throw out the rice and beans and never look at deli turkey again. What is it about excess that makes us so unappreciative of what we have? I resonate with Jen’s words of reflection and reassurance during her food fast.
“I’m doing this for a reason. This is a fast, a major reduction of the endless possibilities that accompany my every meal. It is supposed to be uncomfortable and inconvenient. Not because I’m narcissistic but because the discomfort creates space for the Holy Spirit to move. This shake-up of my routine commands my attention. I can no longer default to normal, usual, mindless, thoughtless. It’s like having an eyelash under my contact all day.” (16)
It’s hard not to think about food while fasting or not to long for something not included on my list. And yet I think that this longing is healthy; it puts my life into perspective, realizing that I really am fortunate to have been born into the circumstances in which I live. That I am not in want of anything and that to many people my “meager” seven items would be a feast.
And it forces me to rely on God just a little bit more. In these sorts of situations, I am constantly reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Well, yes, God assures me that I am valuable. And He has always provided for me. And I have the audacity to look at the manna that he has provided and say, “This is great and all Lord, but can’t I have a little bit of ketchup or Siracha with this?”
Lord, forgive my unappreciative spirit; teach me to live simply and enjoy the bounty you’ve laid before me. And Lord, every once in a while, may I please add some Frank’s Red Hot Sauce? Amen.