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?

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: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/diseases/burden/en/index.html

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?

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:

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

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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”

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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.)

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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!

The Simple Living Challenge

“What are you giving up for Lent?”  I usually have mixed feelings when I hear that question this time of year.  On one hand, I deeply value Lent as a way to prepare myself to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.  I appreciate the opportunity to grow in one specific aspect of my faith and character for a defined amount of time.  On the other hand, I often don’t know what exactly to do, and the churches I’ve attended rarely have done anything together, so I flounder.

But five years ago a group of friends came up with the most inspiring Lenten idea I’ve ever encountered.  They were concerned by the painful fact that one of every eight people today has no access to clean water.  Women and children must trudge long distances to find dirty, bacteria-infested water, keeping them from school or productive work.  Once they drink it, they inevitably get sick.  But my friends also pointed out that those of us from more privileged backgrounds often pass up free, clean, healthy tap water to drink sodas and other high-fructose concoctions that are prime contributors to the obesity and diabetes epidemics.

The great thing about my friends’ response is that they didn’t just think about these hard truths, which feels bad. They did something about it—which feels good! They called it Project 440.  The nine of them, inspired by their faith, decided to drink only tap water for the duration of Lent, bringing attention to the issues while saving themselves money and improving their health.  Meanwhile, through March Madness basketball pools, raffles at house parties, and matching grants, they raised enough money to drill deep-water wells for five villages in Haiti. Not a bad answer to “what are you giving up for Lent?”!

I think Project 440 was so memorable for me because it convinced me that small groups of friends have big potential to make a difference–both for themselves and for people like those in Haiti still drinking clean water today.  In fact, I’d like to celebrate Lent in a similar way every year.  But unfortunately, for the last few years I haven’t been in close proximity to like-minded friends, so I’ve let my vision languish a bit.

So this year, using this space now available in the blogosphere, we’d like to propose a new Lent experiment.   We’re calling it the Simple Living Challenge, and we hope it’s a fun, meaningful way to concretely reflect Jesus’ justice and compassion, even if we’re separated by distance.  Here’s how it works:

  • First, let’s commit to giving up all beverages except tap water for the entire duration of the forty days before Easter.  Every day will be a chance to appreciate the gift of clean water. You’ll save money, simplify your life, and maybe even feel better without the unhealthy stuff we drink in our “comfort beverages.”  If forty days seems too hard, join anyway and challenge yourself to make it as many days as you can!
  • Second, let’s find sponsors to support our tap-water-drinking efforts.  Just as race sponsors donate a certain sum per mile run, we’ll ask folks to donate something for every day we drink only tap water, up to forty.  We’ve set up a page at the charity: water website which will direct 100% of our tax-deductible donations to support clean water efforts throughout the world.  And after Easter we can even see on Google Earth exactly where our donations are put to use.

So what’s next?  This Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we’ll kick off a six-day window for everyone to sign on.  The Simple Living Challenge will begin at sunrise on Tuesday, March 15.  If this sounds like something you’d be excited about, we’d especially encourage you to spread the word and participate together with friends, family or church small groups.  Please consider joining us!

Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For . . . . I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

–Jesus