My youngest daughter, Meg, and I have decided to take on Jen Hatmaker’s “Seven” fast this year, starting right after the upcoming Labor Day weekend. If you’re not yet familiar with this fast, you can get the full scoop by reading Jen’s book, Seven: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. Each month for seven months (with a one-week break in between each), we will “fast” one area of excess — food, clothing, shopping, waste, possessions, media, and stress. And I’ll probably blog about it so I have someone to whine to.
Most of the fasts have something to do with the number seven. For example, this first month we will choose seven food/beverage items and eat only those for four weeks. The main purpose is to simplify life by minimizing choices, leaving time for more important things (like prayer and relationships). It’s also to create a sense of solidarity with the poor by denying ourselves some of the items they cannot have, but that we take for granted every day. (And I have a feeling I’ll stumble upon other “side effect” blessings as well, but I’m not sure yet what those might be.) Hopefully some of the choices we make over the next seven months will open our eyes to a simpler way to live and help us to make longer-lasting changes to our lifestyle. At the very least, we’ll be more appreciative of what we have.
Monday evening (after the holiday weekend is over, because even I am not dumb enough to try to start a fast on a holiday weekend), Meg and I will stock the fridge and cupboards with our seven items. My poor husband gets to share in the experience as well — or eat a lot of frozen pizza. His choice. (Sorry, honey.)
In the mean time, I’m sitting here licking raw cookie dough off of a wooden spoon as part of my weekend of final indulgences. (Wouldn’t you?)
So… you might be wondering what seven items I’m going to eat for the next month. I was tempted to pick my seven favorite foods, but then realized I would probably ruin my love of them for life. Plus it’s probably not terribly healthy to survive for a month on dark chocolate, coffee, pasta, cheeseburgers, Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch, asparagus, and java chip ice cream. Instead, I’m going with stuff that will be reasonably healthy, that I like well enough to eat often (but will probably avoid at all costs for at least six months after this), that comes in a variety of forms, and that’s easy to cook quickly. Here’s my list:
Chicken (Because you can grill boneless breasts or a whole fryer, and it comes in lunch meat form.)
Sweet potatoes (Because they’re filling but still nutritious and a better alternative than regular ol’ potatoes, and they come in fries and chips!)
Coffee (I know — that’s pathetic. But I have to. I just have to.)
Leaf lettuce (Boring — but kind of healthy, and can serve as a salad or go on a sandwich.)
Whole wheat bread (For toast in the morning or sandwiches at lunch.)
Apples (Another versatile food — apple chips, applesauce, etc.)
Bell peppers (Because they come in three colors but still sort of count as one item. I had a lot of trouble with this last item. I almost picked another vegetable I like. Asparagus and beets were both in the running. And I thought about cous cous, to get a grain in there. But peppers won out because I can eat them raw or cooked.)
Meg’s list will overlap somewhat, but not much. She is also using chicken, apples, bread, and plain potatoes (instead of sweet potatoes). But she pretty much lives on pasta, so that has to go on her list. Plus as a cross country runner, she needs the carbs. She’s still thinking about her other two items. I’m guessing one of them will be pop tarts, but I’ll try to discourage that.
Meg and I had a lot of discussion about extras, like spices and condiments. Jen Hatmaker was really brutal about those, using only salt, pepper, and olive oil. We’re going to be more liberal and make a list of seven things we can use. Mine will be salt, pepper, peanut butter, honey, balsamic vinaigrette, cinnamon, and barbecue sauce. (I know — peanut butter should probably count as a food item. But give me a break. This is going to be hard enough for me since I have zero self-discipline.)
We will start our fast at sundown on Monday, Sept. 3. If you want to join us, please let me know on this blog or on facebook, and we’ll do this together!
My comfort zone is fairly wide. It has been stretched, twisted and beaten into submission over the years by experiences God has dragged me into or that I’ve unwittingly plunged myself into. (Unless we’re talking bodily harm here, in which case the zone is significantly smaller, although still probably bigger than the average 45-year-old woman’s. Chaperoning mission trips gets me into all kinds of predicaments — rock climbing, caving, whitewater rafting, rappelling — in an attempt to save face before a bunch of teenagers. Yes, I’m still vain enough to care what they think.)
However, this summer God forced me to confront new levels of discomfort I didn’t even realize I had. And, of course, He did so via one of His usual methods — the mid-summer mission trip.
When our new youth pastor, Cory, asked if I’d chaperone once again, I didn’t even hesitate. I’ve co-led our church’s winter weekend and summer week-long trips for teenagers for the past few years. I love watching the kids experience God in new ways and learn to serve Him by loving on people whom our society considers “the least of these.” By now teenagers, homeless people, earthy 20-year-old mission guides, soup kitchens, public prayer, and driving our church’s 15-passenger conversion van on urban freeways or Appalachian mountain roads are all within that comfort zone of mine. So I said, “Sure. I’d love to. Where are we going?”
And he said, “Vegas.”
Vegas. In July.
I wanted to ask a lot more questions, but I think I just said something like, “K. Sounds good.”
So off to Vegas we went — six high school seniors, one college sophomore, Cory and me — to spend a week in Sin City with an organization called Youth With a Mission (YWAM). Things were about to get uncomfortable. Rather than try to recap the whole trip, I’ll explain each episode by the level of discomfort it caused, from mild chafing to serious churning.
Discomfort #1: Vegas itself. There really is no other place like it. The Strip is a superficial Mecca for pleasure seekers of all kinds — a strange blend of glassy-eyed gamblers, wide-eyed foreigners, stressed out parents with toddlers in tow, and upper middle class vacationers with maxed-out credit cards. In contrast to the strip’s massive casinos and cacophony of lights/sounds/people, the neighborhood surrounding the YWAM base on F Street was barren and silent. Blocks of flat-roofed beige buildings on dirt lots bordered by rusted metal fences. Dust-coated people sleeping in alleys or camped out under highway bridges. Abandoned cars. Glass-ridden playgrounds void of children. I felt like our group was part of some bizarre social experiment, traipsing through the world’s largest H&M and dining at the Bellagio buffet one day, then eating day-old pastries and rice & beans at the Vegas Rescue Mission the next. We criss-crossed these two worlds all week, retreating to our bullet-proofed, gated base at night. I found myself wondering where my daily life fell on this continuum and wrestling with the discomfort of that question.
Discomfort #2: Heat. One of the first things I did after learning of our Vegas destination was Google the average summer temperature, so I went in prepared for it to hit a hundred degrees, or maybe a little more. But since everyone knows Vegas has a “dry heat” rather than the dripping humidity typical of summers in my home state of Ohio, I figured it couldn’t be that bad…right? Our first night there, the YWAMers took us to the top of a mountain for worship overlooking the city. It was 10 o’clock at night, and it was still 104 degrees. The steady wind felt like a full-body blowdryer set on “high,” and we squinted to keep it from blowing dust into our eyes. By Tuesday (the day that, of course, we were outside for more hours than any other day) it was 117 in the shade, and locals were complaining that it was the hottest day in five or ten years. That was the day we had a dance party with 50 or so kids on the unshaded playground of a local housing project and fed them spaghetti for lunch. (Yes — spaghetti. The perfect food for a blistering summer day.) Fortunately we were drinking gallons of water, and no one went to the hospital. But that night, while we cooled off in front of air conditioners back at the base and slurped tepid water from our Camelbacks, I thought of the very pregnant homeless woman I’d prayed with in the park that morning and wondered how she was staying hydrated and where she was sleeping that night in the miserable heat.
Discomfort #3: Social awkwardness. YWAMers, I soon discovered, are quite comfortable with social awkwardness. They can rapid-fire unfunny jokes and go unphased by the groans of teenage listeners. They laugh loudly and often and at everything. And they will talk to anyone on the street about Jesus, even if it brings on public ridicule. After giving us a crash course in street evangelism, the YWAMers loaded us 17-deep in their 15-passenger, poorly air conditioned vans and dumped us in the parking lot of a nearby outdoor mall, where in pairs we gave belief surveys to unsuspecting shoppers until security politely but firmly asked us to stop. The next day, we did “free prayer” on Fremont Street in the older section of Vegas, approaching street vendors, tourists, and others passers by, asking if we could pray for them. (Surprisingly, about half of them let us.) There we managed to draw the attention of a very angry and slightly crazy religious zealot who harassed us off and on for more than an hour and told us we were representing Satan. The next day, we did similar stuff at an enclosed mall, which was by far the worst place to approach people. My teammate and I got lots of rejections but did have an interesting conversation with an Orthodox Jew; however, our only actual prayer was with an elderly black woman sitting on a bench who turned out to be sleeping behind her dark glasses. That same evening, we did “cross walk” on the strip; this involved two of us carrying a giant wooden cross back and forth between the Harley Davidson Cafe and the MGM while the rest trailed behind looking for people to talk with and pray for. (Believe me, there is something really disturbing about seeing people mock or even run from the cross.) Finally, the grand finale of social awkwardness — our team led a worship service on the Strip in front of Bally’s. With less than 30 minutes of prep, we prayed, sang, shared testimonies, and preached — sandwiched in between an amazingly talented hip-hop dance troupe and a professional grade Motown performer. (I found myself interpreting what was happening for some Norwegian tourists, and also had a great conversation with a slightly high homeless woman who thought the blond girl in our skit was Jesus’ girlfriend.) Although every single one of those experiences challenged us (and I would probably never try any of them at home), I realized by the end of the week that we had all been forced to get over ourselves and our fear of what others think of us. Instead of dwelling on our own insecurities, we started hearing people’s stories and having positive conversations about faith. It was still awkward… but we were okay with it. And by comparison it was a piece of cake to initiate conversation with the man sitting beside me on the flight home.
Discomfort #4: Humility. I met so many different people that week whose spiritual strength made my faith look flimsy. There were the Foster Connect people who talked to us about their ministry of supporting foster families (for more on that, see my next post — People Who Have Wrecked My Life, Part 2) and who sacrificed personal time and comfort for the sake of kids with no place to go. There were the YWAM staffers: Sara, who grew up Muslim until her father died, who led a Bible study for 50 teenagers in her basement (while a teenager herself), and who was struggling to help her family get back on their feet after they lost everything due to her mother’s illness. Kenny, the bearded biker and spoken-word artist who shared his life with us through poetry. Lauren, who as a teenager was the go-to prayer warrior in her school and who challenged our kids to do likewise. There were the often nameless folks at the rescue mission who so willingly came forward to let teenagers pray for their deepest needs: “That I could stop drinking.” “That my son will stop having seizures.” “That we can become citizens.” “That my baby will be okay.” There were the “Burners” (as we dubbed them) — a group of teens and 20-somethings who stayed at the YWAM base with us doing street ministry in Vegas as part of their summer-long journey across the Southwest. These people and others helped me realize how superficial my spirituality can be, and how little I’ve sacrificed.
Discomfort #5: True freedom. Our last night in Vegas, the YWAMers held a “commitment service” for the kids, and the Burners joined in the worship time. About a hundred of us crammed into the YWAM base common room where we prayed and sang, and sang and prayed, and prayed some more. I don’t know what it was — the uninhibited way the worship leaders played their music, the Burners praying passionately in a half circle behind us, the kids sprawled all over the floor… or if it’s just that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas — but I have never felt such freedom in worship. A few songs in, even jaded, middle-aged chaperones (like me) were jumping up and down, waving our arms over our heads, singing loudly, “We were made for – we were made for – we were made for love….” We didn’t care who was watching. We were celebrating an amazing week of seeing God do incredible, uncomfortable things through us. And it just felt right to worship Him with everything we had. So I danced, and I sang, and I prayed for kids in ways I never had. And I found myself wondering why worship in church was never like this, and wishing I could stay in that moment for a very long time. Because I felt free. And if that was what freedom felt like… then what was holding us back the rest of the time?
But perhaps the most uncomfortable experience of all was returning home, and easing right back into my life like I would a well worn pair of slippers. Realizing that, just six weeks after one of the most powerful weeks of my life, I had started to forget the lessons I learned and retreat back into my old comfort zone. (We’ve all done this, haven’t we?)
So my prayer today is that when God expands our comfort zone, we don’t let it shrink back to its former size. That we learn, and we keep learning, and we put into action the stuff that we learn.
Some Christians just make the rest of us look bad.
And no — I’m not talking about those who claim to be Christian but who make all Christ-followers look bad by leaving tracts about hell under windshield wipers, or picketing funerals, or shouting through bullhorns on college campuses. (I’m quite convinced that those tactics send non-believers sprinting in the opposite direction. Really — don’t even those of us who believe in Jesus dodge those people in the supermarket?)
I mean just the opposite. I’m talking about those few-and-far-between followers of Jesus who are the epitome of “salt and light” — who have perfected the art of living skillfully and actually obeying Christ’s commands. And who make most of us look wimpy and superficial in comparison.
Several people are or have been incredible examples to me and hundreds/thousands/maybe millions of others in how to walk the Christian talk. In order to do each of their stories justice, I’ll spread them out over a few blog entries, in no particular order.
The first people who come to mind (mainly because I heard one of them speak at a conference and read the other’s books this past month) are Brandon and Jen Hatmaker, who pastor Austin New Church in Austin, Texas (check it out at http://www.austinnewchurch.com).
I first heard Brandon’s story — detailed in the book Barefoot Church — about a year ago at a workshop. Basically, Brandon left an established position at a more traditional church — along with the corresponding comfortable, middle-class lifestyle — to serve the poor in his city. Austin New Church started through regular cookouts that the Hatmakers and friends held for the homeless community — a practice that continues today. The church spends as little as possible on itself, its staff, and its facilities in order to give away half of its income to the poor. (By comparison, my church — Park Street — gives away about 15-20% of what it takes in, and I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve bragged about that.)
The Hatmakers strive to live up to the same high standards they’ve established in their church. For example, they adopted two children from Ethiopia — and not because they couldn’t have children. (They also have two children who were born to them.) They did so because they trust God when He tells us to take care of the orphan.
Most of us would just send a check. I guess I can stop patting myself on the back for that 30 bucks a month I send to World Vision. (I’ve never even sent a birthday card to Onyango, the boy our family “adopted” several years ago after being moved to tears at a Barlow Girl concert.)
The Hatmaker family has shown me that any of us can do this. We can take God’s words seriously and make radical changes in our lives (and often in a remarkably short span of time). But sometimes those radical changes start with a series of smaller changes that open us up to what God wants to do.
Luke 16:10 says, “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.”
This tells me that maybe God isn’t quite ready to entrust me with the care of an Ethiopian orphan. But if I get serious about the hundreds of little choices I make every day, I might soon be prepared to handle greater responsibility.
Jen Hatmaker’s most recent book, 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, gave me a starting point. This book chronicles Jen’s seven-month-long commitment to simplifying her life and obeying God’s commands. Her extended “fast” is really seven fasts — each lasting a month:
Month One: Food — Choose seven food items and eat only those for a month.
Month Two: Clothes — Choose seven pieces of clothing (under garments don’t count, but shoes do!) and wear only those for a month.
Month Three: Possessions — Give away seven things every day for a month. (This sounds hard — but think about how many pieces of clothing, how many books, how many collectibles, how many electronic items, etc., we all own.)
Month Four: Media — Eliminate TV, video games, internet (except for work and school-related communication and research), texting, and all social media for a month. (And maybe rediscover the art of conversation in the process.) Er — does blogging count?
Month Five: Waste — Practice seven good habits that eliminate waste and take better care of creation this month (recycling, gardening, composting, and the like).
Month Six: Spending — Spend money with only seven vendors this month.
Month Seven: Stress — Observe the Sabbath every week for a month.
At the start of Jen’s book, I simply thought she was crazy. By the end, I decided she was a crazy genius. Being radical in the small things of day-to-day life, obeying God in the drudgery of the every day, and eliminating some of the noise so we can hear from Him just plain makes sense.
So… I’m thinking of trying this, starting in September. (I would have procrastinated until October, but Month One is food and I’m scheduled for a long weekend at the beach that month. There is no way I’m passing up seafood. See how I’m already manipulating this to fit my selfish needs? Or should I say shellfish needs…)
By most people’s standards, I’m a good Christian girl. I spend time with God (most mornings, bleary-eyed over my first cup of coffee), I lead a small group, I chaperone youth mission trips, I serve the poor, I pray a lot, and I gave up a respectable career and decent money to work for the church for a much smaller paycheck. That should be enough, right?
These last few months, I’ve had this nagging feeling that God expects me to give Him everything. All of it. Not just the parts I’ve neatly classified as “church stuff” and devote what I consider a significant portion of my life to doing. Not only the things that are comfortably “just beyond” my comfort zone. Not just what fits in with my plans, my budget, my cozy middle-class life. All of it — my money, my house, my time, my lifestyle, my kids, my husband, my job… even the seemingly inconsequential, day-to-day choices I make like what to wear and what to eat and what to do with that leftover couple of hours at the end of the day that I usually spend mindlessly watching Top Chef wannabes churn out braised pork belly and creamy polenta on my flat screen TV.
All of it? Really, God?
Last Sunday a guest preacher named Rickey Bolden (awesome guy — a former NFL player turned pastor) challenged our congregation to pray that line in the Lord’s prayer — “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done…” — for ourselves. He asked us to stop asking God for what we want and start asking God to make His Kingdom real in our lives. To stop making selfish choices and start living each day for Him. Then Rickey told us to stand up if we wanted to pray that prayer for the first time.
I didn’t stand up. Not because I don’t want that very thing, but because that’s the prayer I’ve been saying every day for months now. It wasn’t my first time; it was my hundredth time muttering, “God, help me get over myself. Show me how you want me to live. And give me the strength to change whatever I have to in order to follow you.”
Matthew 7:14 says, “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” I always wondered how that could be true when so many churchgoers fill the pews every Sunday. There are more than “a few” of us who profess faith in Christ and perform our churchly duties on a regular basis. So maybe Jesus was talking about something more.
In that same section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that only those who do the will of His Father will enter the kingdom of heaven, and only those who hear His words and put them into practice are considered wise. So how are we as Christians doing with that? Are we focused too much on avoiding the “wrong” things rather than doing the right ones? Are we so enamored with our way of “doing church” that we think it’s the be all, end all?
I’m on a journey to figure this out. I’m asking God what it looks like to follow Him, to be on mission right where I live, and to find a new (and hopefully better) way to be His Church in this beautiful (thanks to God) mess (thanks to us) of a world we live in. Recently some friends and I started a “missional community” because it’s always better to travel together than alone.
Consider this blog a sort of “travel log” for that journey. I have a feeling many of you are on the same journey, and I’d love to compare notes. So please join me, check in from time to time, and leave a comment if something strikes a chord with you.