Saturday, April 26, 2008

Beans and Rice, Rice and Beans

I just finished a week of subsisting on beans and rice. Or was that rice and beans I was eating? Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. However you choose to word it, I don't want to see it again for a long, long time.

My choice to forego my usual vegetarian diet of fresh, organic (read: expensive) foods was part of an act of solidarity with my church congregation (several thousand people all over Chicagoland eating nothing but rice and beans for five days - whoa). The point of the rice and beans was to spend five days eating as the Third World eats, to come alongside the poorest third of the earth's population and understand their forcibly limited diet. The point was to understand what famine feels like.

I didn't think five days of rice and beans would be that bad, and it wasn't, really. I wasn't suffering in any way, after all. As a vegetarian, the lack of meat didn't impact me the way I'm sure it did all the carnivores in the congregation. But I did feel hungry. Portions were small - about one cup of food at each meal. That's not a lot - our stomachs can hold about a pint, which is twice that much, and most of us (this is America) eat to an overfull state at meals. My tummy grumbled quite often. And I definitely felt reduced energy - I managed only one run all week, and it was a short one.

Besides being hungry, I was quickly tired of the lack of variety. I'm a fruit lover, and I eat three or more fresh fruits a day. I have never been as glad to see a banana as I was the morning after the famine ended. But one thing in particular stuck in my mind: all throughout those five days, I was aware that there was an end to my famine, and that it was not far off. I had a goal to reach - a place to get to in order for the hunger and the monotony to stop. The poor don't have that opportunity. There are no bananas waiting for them on Saturday morning.

As members of the top 10% wealthiest population, we have so many choices. We choose where to live, what to wear, what to watch on TV (for that matter, we are able to choose to watch TV in the first place), what to listen to on our iPods, whose calls to answer, whether or not to respond to that email. And we choose what to eat.

Every morning, I open cupboards and fridge and decide what to have for breakfast. The Third World eats rice and beans. I choose what to put in my lunch bag. The Third World eats rice and beans. I choose to cook dinner or to go out to dinner. The Third World eats rice and beans.

I have a balanced diet of protein and whole grains, fruits and vegetables and healthy fats. I am able to take vitamins and drink at least 64 ounces of safe, clean water every day. I have access to organic produce and every kind of ethnic food I could possibly want. I am so blessed.

The poor feel blessed just to get three small meals a day. I am annoyed if I forget my afternoon snack. The poor feel blessed to have their rice and beans. Eating the same thing for five days made me crazy.

What does this say about me?

It says that I am privileged and used to it. It says I am spoiled. It says I am conditioned to expect things to be a certain way, and to feel irritated when my expectations are not met. It says I am, unfortunately, a product of my culture whether I like it or not. It says I have a long way to go to shed my very American entitlement issues.

It also says that I need to remember to appreciate the abundant variety of foods to which I have access daily. It says I need to remember to be grateful every time I feel full.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Year of Need Versus Want

I've made a rather monumental decision in the interests of financial freedom and self-discipline. For one calendar year, I'm committing to not purchase anything I don't need. This means no new clothes, more than likely (with the exception of a new pair of running shoes when my current pair has accumulated 500 miles). It means no more kitsch for my apartment. It means no DVDs, no CDs, no books that are not purely educational. It means not going crazy at the grocery store and buying way more than I can possibly consume in a week's time, but establishing a budget and sticking to it. It means downsizing the amount I spend on socializing - foregoing dinner out in favor of coffee, for example.

It means no recreational shopping. Argh. This is not going to be easy.

My decision was prompted by a few things. For one, my budget has been a little tight lately, and I know it's possible to ease that. I need to be taking better stock of my resources and paying more attention to my cash flow. I'd really like to be saving more money than I currently do. With my income tax return due to arrive in my bank account any day, I will be in good shape - that money will enable me to get some things in order that have been out of order. But I'd like to be in even better shape. The Bible counsels against debt, and I'd like to get rid of mine, student loans included. It would feel so great to be debt-free. If I had no debt, I could do anything, go anywhere. Nothing would hold me back. I like that idea. I also like the idea of having more savings set aside, so that in the case of an emergency, I don't have to go into debt again, to anyone, even my family.

I've struggled to fully surrender my finances to God for a long time, but haven't been able to do it. I don't know why, but I woke up the other day suddenly ready for the free fall into reckless trust with my money - maybe it's the intensity of my recent journey back to Christ and the sense that it is time to surrender all the areas of my life I never have before; maybe it's the desire for total freedom from control. After all, if I give my money over to God's care and start thinking of myself as just the recipient of a gift, or a simple steward and not the "owner" of my financial resources, then I am responsible in a much different capacity. I have to answer to God, rather than to my broken self (and my broken self is very good at making flawed decisions, especially about money). Anyway, it's funny how we can resist God's call for years sometimes and then we just wake up one day convicted and everything looks different, and there's no rational explanation for it. I think that is often how we know it's Him working in our lives.

Last Saturday morning, the day I awoke feeling so charged up, I went to Target to pick up a few household items. Target can be dangerous for me. I tend to fill the cart with all kinds of stuff I don't need - clothes, accessories, shoes, DVDs, books, CDS, you name it. This week, though, I stuck to my list. I left the store with nothing more than what I'd come to buy - some toothpaste, a bottle of hairspray, shower gel, a pack of toilet paper and some gum. It felt good. I felt self-disciplined and in control (in a surrendered way, if that makes any sense), rather than controlled by the urge to buy, buy, buy. I want to have that feeling more often. The Bible advises us not to store up treasures on earth, but to keep all our treasures in heaven. I get it. Heaven lasts forever. Manolo Blahniks, iPods and Xboxes don't.

I was explaining my decision to a friend, and she challenged me on it, saying I was trying to be too in control and didn't I think that was unhealthy? She just didn't get it. I'm reading Rob Bell's second book, Sex God, and he sums it up well, writing, "Freedom isn't being able to have whatever we crave. Freedom is going without whatever we crave and being fine with it."

I think this kind of freedom is why God doesn't want us to be in debt - He doesn't want us to be controlled by something as earthly and as corruptible/corrupting as money. Financial freedom gives Him freedom to do amazing things in our lives. Financial debt not only hinders us, it hinders Him and His ability to send us to new places, to give us new callings.

I also want to be in a position to be more generous. I want to give more freely to ministries and charities I view as worthwhile and as making a positive impact in the world. I want to increase my pitiful tithe to a full 10% of my gross income, and then give on top of that when the opportunity arises. God calls us to care for the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. There was nothing Christ emphasized more, other than loving God.

The other day when I was driving home from work (just a few days after my pivotal shopping experience at Target), I was thinking about my car and how many miles it has accumulated in the short three years that I've owned it, and I found myself wishing I had a new car. Then, out of the blue, it hit me how selfish, materialistic, and unreasonable that desire was - and how much a product of my culture. As Rob Bell writes in
Sex God, craving what we don't have is lust. "Lust often starts with a thought somewhere in our head or heart: 'If I had that/him/her/it, I'd be...'" We are constantly confronted with the message that we need to have the latest new "thing," that we need to keep things new, and that buying will keep us young, beautiful and happy, that acquiring what we don't have will fulfill us, complete us. I know this cultural mentality is a lie, but it's difficult to resist. I buy in sometimes without even realizing it's happening - it just seeps in. This time, I gave myself a mental slap on the hand. Your car is fine, I told myself. Besides, it's not even your car - it's the car God has provided for you, and it's more than good enough.

enough. Enough. That word raised a question for me: what is enough? Most residents of the U.S. are among the top 10% of the wealthiest people in the world. I am in that category. I have a nice apartment. I get three very good, usually organic, meals a day. I have nice stuff - way more than I need. I have a college education and a job that enables me to feed, clothe and shelter myself without anyone's help. That's pretty profound, considering the state of most of the rest of the world.

So what is enough? For some people, one bowl of food a day is enough. For others, a safe place to sleep at night is enough. In light of this, having my needs met is more than enough, and restraining myself from indulging my frivolous material wants looks like a good practice to put in place.

Coincidentally, my church is launching an event this weekend called "Celebration of Hope." For the next several weeks, we are being challenged to actively raise our own awareness and understanding of world hunger and take action to help alleviate it. Events include reducing consumption (translation = spend less $$) and contributing the money we might have spent to help starving people, helping pack 3.5 million meals to feed 10,000 children in Zimbabwe for a year, a fair trade market weekend to encourage increased understanding of fair trade and microenterprise and the difference they make in Third World communites, and a five-day famine during which participants consume a limited diet in order to understand what most people in the world live on. After all, as Atticus Finch says in Harper Lee's
To Kill a Mockingbird, "You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them." I'm going to participate in all the Celebration of Hope activities, but when it's over, I'm going to keep on limiting my consumption. Celebration of Hope is just a good jumping-off point.

It's going to take some practice, I admit. I'm going to have to be mindful everywhere I go, from restaurants to the grocery store, Target and the mall. I'm certain to falter at some point, and I know there are going to be occasions, like my annual girls' shopping weekend in July, that are going to stretch me. Maybe I need to process what to do in those times, and make some kind of reasonable provision for them. It definitely warrants more consideration. I do know that I am going to need to be able to give myself grace from time to time, but not to allow grace to encourage me to lose ground, as with any challenge. No permission to fail just because permission is available, so-to-speak.

A year of need versus want. I wonder what my life, my soul, and my bank account will look like a year from now. I wonder if I will have made a greater contribution to the world. I will say this: I already feel a greater sense of freedom. And that alone is
enough for me.

*Side note: a GREAT book to read to learn more about hunger, poverty, and solutions like fair trade and microenterprise is
Hope's Edge: the Next Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe. Also check out The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Brickianity v. Trampolinianity

I love Rob Bell. Well, I don't mean I actually love Rob Bell, but I, you know, "love" Rob Bell, or rather, I love his writing. Who is Rob Bell? Some people seem to think he's the greatest reformer of the Christian faith since Martin Luther (although I doubt Rob would call himself that). Some people seem to think he's a threat to traditional Christianity and the "established" church (and he just might be, but that just might be a good thing). I think he's cool because he's not afraid to ask tough questions, and because he makes me think outside the theological box.

Bell is the enigmatic pastor (I can label him "enigmatic" because I've seen him teach, and I am therefore allowed the use of such adjectives) of Mars Hill Church in Grandville, Michigan. He's also the creator of a series of superhip video shorts on the Christian life called NOOMA, and the author of a couple of books.

I read Rob Bell because he makes me think hard. He causes me to question my existance, to seek clarity about the tenets of my faith, to humger for greater understanding of the character of God. Right now, I'm reading his first book, Velvet Elvis. And let me just say, it is so velvet, and so Elvis, if that makes any sense.

Velvet Elvis is like drinking a pitcher of red Kool-Aid on a really hot, humid day - you want to gulp and gulp and gulp because you are just that darn thirsty and now you want to go jump in the neighbor's swimming pool, or off the end of Navy Pier into Lake Michigan, fully clothed, because it's so hot out and you drank all the Kool-Aid, and there really wasn't enough of it to satiate you. Yeah, that pretty much sums up how I feel about Rob Bell and Velvet Elvis. Except that since I'm only on the fourth chapter, I still have a lot of Kool-Aid left to drink. But enough of the Kool-Aid metaphor. Let's move on to brick walls and trampoline springs...

Rob theorizes that some people's faith is built like a brick wall, with each piece of doctrine a hard, angular brick fitting into its exact space in the structure of the wall. These people believe in what he refers to as "Brickianity" (nice play on "Christianity," don't you think?). If a piece of a brick wall believer's doctrine is removed, or comes into question, then the integrity of the whole wall is threatened. The problem with Brickianity is that it's hard to invite other people to share in your wall. You're asking them to agree with the scope and placement of every individual brick in order to be vested in the wall at all. And if they don't - if they see things just a little differently from you, which is bound to happen - then the wall doesn't work for them. The people you meet who are seeking to encounter Christ are not looking for a faith that functions like a brick wall.

Rob basically says that Brickianity isn't effective, and I'm inclined to agree. Jesus isn't a brick wall, for one thing. For another, the church can't thrive as a brick wall - the need for interpretation and application of the scriptures, the history of the church and theologians' disagreements about these things, the subsequent fragmentation of the church (if not for the need for flexibility, we would all still be one church, and not divided into denominations), all support this. I won't get any deeper into a refutation of Brickianity - Rob does a much better job than I possibly could, and anyway, he's already covered it in Velvet Elvis. So get the book if you want to know more of what he says about it. Now, let's consider his other idea: trampoline springs.

According to Rob, faith needs to be more like the springs on a trampoline (refer to Velvet Elvis for a full explanation). Our beliefs should be flexible in some ways. Obviously, there are some things that should be beyond question - the basics, like God's existence - but the interpretation and application of the scriptures need to be flexible in order to be viable in our culture. Our faith should be like a trampoline on which we bounce - and on which we can invite others to jump with us, with the realization that each jump is unique unto itself, and each person's experience on the trampoline will have its own nuances. This makes more sense to me - Jesus meets people where they're at, after all, and invites each one of us to take our own journey with him. Jesus is far more like a trampoline than a brick wall, I think.

I really like the trampoline idea. I like it because I like jumping on trampolines (my little sister has one, and when I go home, we jump. It's one of my favorite things to do with her) and I like the idea that my faith should feel the way jumping on a trampoline feels - exhilarating and fun and sometimes breathless and sometimes just a little scary when you jump really high or lose your footing for a second. I also like the idea because it's friendly. While inviting someone to sit on a brick wall with you doesn't sound like much fun, inviting someone to jump on your trampoline does.

I definitely don't want to drag around a brick wall. I'd rather spend my life jumping. So I'm at a point of consensus with Rob Bell on this. But I'm left with a very important question:

How do I invite people to jump on my trampoline? For that matter, how do I present my trampoline? Does it really look like a trampoline, or does it look more like a brick wall? Do I make people want to jump with me, or would they rather not? Do I look like I'm loving every minute on my trampoline?

I don't think I'm very good at this part. I'm better at interacting with people who are already on the trampoline. But that's easy - they're already there. And yes, interacting with other jumpers is important - it helps us refine our own jumping techniques. But inviting new jumpers into the adventure is equally important.

To someone who's never jumped on a trampoline, the experience can look risky, even scary. How do I make it look non-threatening? How do I make it look like the amazing thing it is?

I'm going to keep working on the answer to this question. And while I'm working on it, I'm going to keep jumping, and I'm going to focus on keeping my trampoline a trampoline, so that I don't wake up one morning and find it's turned into a brick wall.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jack-Jack and What He Taught Me

I spent the past week at my sister's house in Oklahoma City. It's the second time I've visited Carla since she and her husband, Mike, moved there two years ago. Mike is in the Air Force and is stationed at Tinker Air Force Base. Anyway, they relocated as newlyweds (after spending three of their first five months of marriage apart while Mike was in boot camp - gah!) and bought a little house (probably for about 1/3 what such a place would cost in the suburbs of Chicagoland) and just settled right in to Oklahoma life. My sis is a nurse at a local hospital, and the Right to Life is one of her greatest passions, so she also volunteers at a nearby pregnancy center, providing free ultrasounds to pregnant women who are struggling to decide whether or not to keep their babies. Her life is pretty busy with public service. Soon after she and Mike settled in and found a church to call home, my sister became pregnant (something she'd been dreaming of for most of her post-pubescent existence, I think - she is the ultimate babylover). Anyway, these days they're like a couple of nesting ducks and their house has changed considerably since the arrival of their small offspring, Jackson, more commonly known as Jack, or if you are Mommy, Daddy or Auntie Harmony, "Jack-Jack."

I could have been in New York City seeing some theatre for Spring Break. I could have been on Anna Maria Island's pristine beaches, enjoying the sun and the sound of crashing waves. But no, I decided to forego that and spend the week chatting with my sister and playing with my nephew instead. It was priceless time, because the next time I see him, sometime in July, he will be a different baby. He'll be crawling, probably, and babbling more, and he won't look quite the same. I'm glad I got to know him as his six-month-old self. New York and the beach can't compete with that.

I flew home to Chicago missing him already - his cheerful chatter, his desire to be involved in everything that is going on in his house, the way he snuggles against my shoulder when he's sleepy. As I reflected on my week with Jack, it occurred to me that we should pay more attention to babies and what they have to teach us about priorities.

Jack reminded me that we need to focus on the simple things in life that bring us joy. Watching him, I marveled at the things that made him smile: the sound of someone who loves him crooning his name, the taste of his favorite food, being sung to, being tickled, snuggling, being held in the arms of his mother as she dances around the kitchen, accomplishing something new (for him, it was rolling over from his back to his stomach), the feel of the sun on his face, bouncing in his Jumparoo...

All these are things that can give me joy as well (okay, so they don't make Jumparoos for adults, but maybe someone should start - hey, I'd like a Jumparoo), but I allow my life to get so hectic and so task-oriented that I forget to make time for small pleasures. I eat my meals in the car or while grading a stack of papers, which means I don't really enjoy them. I allow myself to get stuck inside the house or my workplace all day long and don't get out into the sunshine. I don't sing enough, dance enough, hug enough.

I'm making a commitment to do more of these things; to eat my meals more slowly, to read more, to take walks on the lakeshore and write and dance (even if it's around my house when I'm home alone) and try new things and seek adventure and laugh and hug the people I love and pray more. I need to stop being in so much of a hurry to get things done that I don't get anything
important done.

I am generally a reflective person, and I'm surrounded by intelligent, educated adults. We should know what we need most; we should be smart enough to make time for it, seek it out. The odd thing is, we don't. Instead, we work too hard, we overcommit, we burn ourselves out. How ironic that no adult in my life ever tells me to slow down or take a break or seek to be joyful. Instead, it took my six-month-old nephew to remind me what's really important in this life. No wonder Jesus told us to become more like children.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Jell-O Factor

Being disconnected from God feels like drowning in Jell-O.

It's more than feeling like I can't breathe. It's feeling like I'm suspended, limbs pretty much immobilized, in something that allows me to wiggle a tiny, tiny bit, but won't let me really move.

I've spent a year feeling like I'm drowning in Jell-O. But it crept up on me, so I didn't really notice what was happening until it was too late. I started out swimming in something liquid, something that colored my vision and muffled my hearing and had a distinct, attractive flavor. I didn't mind diving deeper into it. And then, all of a sudden, it solidified, and I was trapped beneath the surface. (This Jell-O metaphor is really working for me.)

My Jell-O year began almost exactly 12 calendar months prior to when it ended, which is sort of eerie (but hey, at least it hasn't been the biblical 40 years). I'm glad it's over, but now I'm struggling to feel like it wasn't wasted time. A lot of good has come out of it, a la Romans 8:28 ("God uses all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose"). Not that I'm recommending a year of spiritual disconnection. I'm thinking hell could look like a swimming pool full of Jell-O when you first arrive. I don't intend to find out.

If I've re-learned one thing from my Jell-O, it's that God has impeccable timing. He allows us free will, but He is there beside us all the way, and He will stick his nose in when we become dangerous to ourselves. The week before Easter, I made a rock-bottom choice that could have been really, really destructive. At that point, I think God just got sick of my defection and said, "Enough. You're done." God reached down into the Jell-O and pulled me out. He sent a stranger my way who shared with me how he came to know Christ, and it struck a chord in me - his story was incredibly like mine. I was suddenly overcome with longing for re-connection with my heavenly father. I went home, got down on my knees, and asked God to let me come home. I think I cried for a couple of hours. For the first time, I could see the past year with clarity. I could see just how far I had strayed from God's purpose for me. Of course God was merciful. Of course He was generous with His grace.

It was time to go back to church. But where? Coincidentally, a friend invited me to Saturday night service at Willow Creek. I didn't expect one service to be the beginning of something (especially not after I'd failed to find a church on my own during two years of searching), but God is funny that way. Walking into Willow felt like...well, sort of like coming home, cheesy as that sounds.

At Willow, Bill Hybels talked about how, sometimes, growing Christians encounter pain and then disconnect from God. Bill didn't use my Jell-O metaphor, though - he used a car metaphor instead. He described how a believer can be driving along with everyone else, then have a crisis and stall out on the side of the road. He also described the progression of what happens next pretty accurately in relation to my experience - that after a crisis, we can question where God was, feel abandoned, lose faith, and then gradually stop praying, stop serving, stop attending small group, and stop going to church. (Listening to Bill talk about all this, I started feeling like God must have called him up and told him about me.) Granted, I was out of the Jell-O at this point, but I was still standing on the side of the road. I needed to know God was right there with me.

How did I end up on the side of the road in the first place? Like Bill said, all it takes sometimes to stall someone out is a little bit of pain and confusion. A year ago, one of my best friends abruptly stopped being my friend. At the same time, my spiritual community dissolved and I no longer had a place to turn to. I was at the end of two years of church-seeking, and was in between churches, so I wasn't attending anywhere on a regular basis. This was not a good combination of circumstances. Crisis. No church in place. I did exactly what Bill described: I floundered. I wondered why God had allowed me to be wronged. I felt let down. I stopped believing I could hear Him accurately, so I stopped praying regularly and with any real spirit. I stopped reading His Word. I stopped going to small group. I stopped trying to find a church that felt like the right place for me. I just...stopped. Stalled out on the side of the road. This is where the Jell-O came in.

Since I felt like I couldn't reach God, I filled my days with more tangible things - family, friends, work, running, dating. These are all good things, sure, but without God, they are nowhere near as amazing they could be with Him involved. And so my dreams started to dissolve. I can look back, and see myself starting to let go of my dreams for my calling, for my future. I started to believe they weren't viable. I started to look at the earthly alternatives. And the earthly alternatives looked pretty good (read: liquid Jell-O). But then, I wasn't comparing them to the Godly versions, because I no longer believed those were possible. Before I knew it, the Jell-O hardened, and I was stuck. I was motionless, airless, unable to cry out for help.

Bill's messages offered me exactly what I needed: the reassurance that God IS present; that He IS good; that He loves me; that He is FOR me (read Romans 8 for more), that He understands what happened.

I think it's pretty common for believers to think that their faith will be okay without church, without community, without reading the Bible regularly, without prayer. This couldn't be farther from the truth. In my year of disconnection, I never refuted God's existence. I never stopped believing Christ died for me. But I stopped growing. I would even say I took a big step backward. Believing is just the beginning of faith, after all. It's just the first step. If all we do is believe, we will never know what it truly is to know God intimately. We come to know Him through being part of His church body, through reading His Word, through communing with Him in prayer, through worship.

Paul pushes these "spiritual disciplines" for a reason - we need them. We can't do life effectively without them - we weren't designed to, and if we try, we will gradually stall out, or become suspended in Jell-O. In Looking for God, Nancy Ortberg asserts that the spiritual disciplines play out a little differently for everyone, and I agree with her. But whatever they look like, they are still necessary. Without them, we just have Jell-O. And God wants our lives to be so much more than a resemblance of a cheap dessert that comes in a box and just needs water to take shape. God is more of a creme brulee kind of guy if you ask me. Or maybe tiramisu...

Personally, I'm relieved to be done with Jell-O.