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?

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?

Are you rich?

 

The financial downturn has made it tougher to give.  Many of us are losing jobs, accepting underemployment, or remaining in sub-optimal work environments.  It is very hard to give generously and joyfully when you feel financially stressed and pinched yourself.

So now might be a good time to evaluate the true status of our wealth.

The terms “rich” and “poor” are relative—that is, “rich” or “poor” compared to whom?  For example, most people with at least an undergraduate degree work with and live around others of a similar education level, so it becomes natural to feel that “I’m middle-class.”  Or, we compare ourselves with successful college friends or colleagues who got promotions—and then we feel poor.

Even the top 1% of wage earners are beginning to feel financially victimized.  As Paul Krugman sarcastically observed in a recent NYT editorial,

It has become common to hear vehement denials that people making $400,000 or $500,000 a year are rich. I mean, look at the expenses of people in that income class — the property taxes they have to pay on their expensive houses, the cost of sending their kids to elite private schools, and so on. Why, they can barely make ends meet.”

Perhaps all this can be traced back to a failure of perspective.  What if we compared ourselves not only to the guy who just bought the impressive new car, but to all of God’s children, everywhere?  Looking at it this way, an average twenty-three year old college graduate’s first job will immediately place him or her in the top ONE PERCENT of the richest people on the planet.  Try it for yourself here and see how you stack up.  I know that for me, reality checks like these help me feel just a little more grateful, and give just a little more generously.