Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace

We live in a culture of frenzy.

Double-shot espressos and sugar-charged energy drinks come in a can so we can grab them without waiting in line at the coffee shop. Gas stations offer pay-at-the-pump so we can fuel up without having to engage in bothersome conversation with the clerk. Our cars now come with Bluetooth so we can multi-task on the way to work and save a few minutes of phone calls in the office. We are enslaved by tasks.

And when we get home, it’s not much better: Dinner is often a frozen entree complete with carbs, meat and veggies so we don’t have to waste time individually preparing separate components, and breakfast can be popped in the toaster and shoved in a hungry kid’s hand as she heads out the door. Television is picture-in-a-picture and TiVo so we can watch all of our favorite shows in the same prime-time span (and, of course, use our iPhones to monitor our social media sites while we do so).

Even our leisure time isn’t leisurely. After that period of shoving food in our mouths that we call “dinner,” we rush off to Kid #1’s soccer game, leave half way through to catch the end of Kid #2’s pee wee football game, drop Kid #3 at a friend’s house so we can make an appearance at our church board meeting, then bluster into mid-week yoga class just in time to say “namaste.”

The most extreme example of our culture of chaos I’ve ever seen is Times Square in New York City. I remember seeing it for the first time when there for a conference, emerging from the subway into the heart of Manhattan, and watching an A.D.D. friend of mine stop dead in his tracks. He just stood there, rooted in one spot, mouth hanging open, eyes glazed over — overwhelmed by the light/color/noise coming at us from every angle. We had to shake him to get his attention. New York City moves at a pace that we Midwesterners just can’t handle.

This morning, all of that came to a halt thanks to a force of nature. As Hurricane Sandy heads toward NYC, the city prepares for a possible 10-foot storm surge, which would flood lower Manhattan, Wall Street, subways, tunnels and more. News cams showed a very unusual Monday morning scene in midtown Manhattan — streets void of buses and taxis, sidewalks with only a handful of pedestrians. It’s like God pushed the “pause” button on NYC.

Sometimes I’d like to do that here.

I am entering a season where life is starting to slow down just a little. But I still live in the midst of the frenzy, and I see my younger friends succumbing to it, and I see how we as a society measure it: The busier you are, the more things you can juggle at once, the more programs you (and your kids) are involved in — well, the more successful you appear. Isn’t that how this game works?

Sometimes I bet God just wants to scream, “STOP IT!!!”

But, because he’s God, he whispers it instead: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message)

Pause (even though you’re trying to read this blog entry quickly because you have a dozen things to do today). Read that last paragraph again. Slowly.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? We ARE tired, worn out, burned out. We DO want to recover our lives. That “unforced rhythms of grace” part sounds especially appealing. And “freely and lightly” — what does that even mean?

I’ve been mulling this over for a while, and I think it boils down to this: God wants us to live according to his rhythm for our lives rather than keeping up with the insane pace set by our culture. I’m always afraid I’m going to miss out on something. So in the past I have tried to pack it all in — every class, every meeting, every activity. And I’m afraid that, looking back, there have been many times I’ve experienced many good things but missed out on the best thing — something God had in mind that I blew right by in my quest for self-fulfillment.

Other versions of this same passage tell us to bear Jesus’ yoke because it’s easy and light, and we’ll find rest for our souls. “Rest” in this passage doesn’t equal “lack of activity.” It doesn’t mean just vegging out on the couch with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s watching all of the Twilight movies in a row (er — not that there’s anything wrong with that). I think we’re pretty good at wasting hours in front of the TV, mainly because we’re so tired from the rest of our day that all we can do at the end of it is zone out and let someone else entertain us. I’m not suggesting we need more of that kind of “rest.”

Jesus is talking about real rest in this passage. He is talking about recovering our lives — doing the things that God designed to fulfill and energize us: Work that matters. Unhurried conversation with people we care about. Leisurely activities (whether sports or arts or music or whatever) that challenge us and let us express ourselves. Meals that nourish us and give us time to connect with family. Volunteer activities that we’re passionate about and that really help people. Time worshiping and listening to God.

We can’t do all of those things in the same day, or sometimes even in the same week. But we can do them if we start gradually turning away the stuff that doesn’t matter (and this is me calling myself out here, because I’m just a girl who can’t say “no”), and creating more space in our lives for God to fill up with the stuff that does.

And, when none of that is working and we’re so stressed out we can’t think straight, we can do as one of my former professors suggests when he  says: “Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap.”

Does God care about food?

Note: Sorry for the long span between blogs. A lot has happened. For one thing, I quit my job. Long story, so I’ll save it for another time. Let me just say that it’s amazing how much stuff piles up around the house when everyone is working full time, going to school, and involved in a zillion activities. I spent September wrapping up seven years of work at Park Street Brethren Church, and I spent October catching up on neglected projects around my house. More on that later.

My last blog post was at the start of the “Seven” food fast, which my youngest daughter, Megan, and I took part in throughout September. (If you aren’t familiar with “Seven,” you might want to go back and read my Sept. 7 post first.) Basically, we each picked seven food items (including beverages) and ate only those for an entire month.

So what was the point?

I spent most of the month asking myself that. Usually when we fast, the point is to hear from God or to mourn or repent of something — every time we get hungry, we’re reminded to pray and listen for God’s voice instead of filling our rumbling bellies with food. But this “fast” was different because hunger wasn’t really a major issue (except for the first week, when we were still adjusting to our inability to grab a handful of chips or bowl of cereal to stave off hunger until meal time). We deprived ourselves of certain foods, but we had enough to eat and sufficient calories to get through the day.

I kept waiting for some huge spiritual epiphany, or for some deep emotional connection with the millions of people in the world who don’t have enough to eat every day. Instead, the epiphanies were small and practical. But I don’t think that prevents them from being life changing. (And in some sense, nearly everything is spiritual.)

So here are some of the things I learned by eating only seven foods:

  • I, like most Americans, eat too much — and consume too many empty calories. I did not realize how many times a day I grab a bite of something (a piece of candy from the secretary’s candy dish, a handful of tortilla chips after work, a cookie after dinner) until I couldn’t do it any more. Apples were the only snack-type item on my list of seven foods. So if I got hungry before lunch, I grabbed an apple. If I needed something to nosh on during my drive home, I could munch on . . . an apple. If I wanted something sweet in the evening, I could have — you guessed it — an apple. I realized I’m especially bad at gatherings where there’s a lot of food (like small group night on Wednesdays, when we totally pig out on finger foods); I just hover over the food table, talk to people and graze. All those tiny bites each week add up to a heck of a lot of food. Depriving myself of the ability to do this helped me break that habit. (And although I didn’t drop a lot of weight, I did lose a few pounds over the course of a month, and my muffin top is disappearing. This wasn’t the goal, but it’s a nice side effect.)
  • My family, like most American families, wastes too much. This became obvious almost immediately when I cleaned out the fridge to get rid of all of the non-seven-sanctioned stuff (thereby removing temptation). Most of the stuff in my fridge couldn’t be eaten anyway because it was outdated. Usually this stuff gets shuffled around and ends up in the back of the fridge, hidden behind the stuff we actually eat. I had at least five loaves of half-eaten bread and several stale bags of snacks in the bread drawer, I-have-no-idea-how-many bottles of condiments and salad dressings in the fridge, several boxes of stale cereal and so on. We like variety, so we buy a little bit of everything and probably throw half of it out. A few months ago, a widely reported independent study revealed that Americans throw out 40% of our food. Meanwhile, 1 in 7 people in the world go to bed hungry. You would think that, since I only had to stock up on a few items, I would not be so wasteful. Think again. I still craved variety and tried to find every possible variation on my seven foods. So instead of just buying a couple of sweet potatoes, I also bought sweet potato fries, and — thanks to a discovery in the organic food section — sweet potato chips! I didn’t just buy one loaf of wheat bread — I bought the soft kind for sandwiches, and the hearty kind for toast, and a fresh-baked loaf for dinner. I stocked my freezer with boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but I also bought frozen chicken nuggets and chicken lunch meat and a rotisserie chicken in case we needed something quick. I also bought at least four different kinds of apples. And this was all in the first week. Thankfully, I repented of my overindulgent ways by week 2 and learned to buy only what we could eat in the span of a few days. This has resulted in more frequent trips to the store, but a lot less waste. And (thank you, God) this habit has also continued.
  • It’s really hard to eat healthfully in a restaurant. I tried to avoid restaurants as much as possible during the fast, mainly because of the temptation to cheat but also because I don’t want to be one of “those people.” You know — the ones who order the crispy chicken salad but then ask the server to grill the chicken instead and to basically remove every other ingredient aside from lettuce. And oh yeah — to put the low-cal, sugar-free dressing on the side. (We all know the server rolls his eyes after turning around, and whoever makes the salad is probably irritated enough to spit in it.) So when I did have to order from a menu, I tried to choose the closest thing possible to my seven list, and then picked off all the non-seven-sanctioned stuff. Which just made me look weird, and — once again– wasteful. And fast food was really tricky, so the seven fast got me away from my go-to fast food places during lunch time and forced me to make better choices. I’m kind of proud to say that I’ve only been to McDonald’s once since my fast ended.
  • Simple, locally grown and/or organic foods are better for you, and they taste better too. (My husband will roll his eyes when he reads this because he thinks “organic” is a total scam.) I first discovered this when trying to find the best-tasting apple. I bought one of every kind in the produce section, and when I bit into the Ohio-grown Honeycrisp, I had a clear winner. (If you’ve never eaten one of these, they are totally worth the extra buck a pound — delicious.) I also tried organic chicken (slightly more expensive, but so much better), veggies from the Local Roots farmer’s market, and bakery bread. Since most of my seven items were individual, stand-alone ingredients, I did a lot more cooking from scratch, and I learned to enjoy the process more. There’s just something about making soup from scratch and eating it with bread baked in the shop downtown. “Seven” slowed down the whole cycle of buying-cooking-eating for me, and I am appreciating meals more and seeing them as a way to connect with people who matter to me.
  • God cares about what we eat. This might sound weird — but throughout the month (and in the weeks since then), I had a growing awareness that God cares about even the simplest choices we make every day. And I feel like it’s honoring God to make good choices about what I feed myself and my family. I am far from a health nut, and I still am terribly self-indulgent when it comes to certain items — coffee, good wine, chocolate. I don’t think it’s about avoiding those things; I think it’s about being aware of those daily choices and feeding ourselves with nutritious, simple, good food. I heard someone say recently that the best way to stay thin and be healthy is to just eat really good quality food. That’s it. Strangely, the foods I craved the most during the seven food month were all vegetables — so I’m buying a lot more of those and building meals around whatever is at the farmer’s market that day. This practice is changing the way I eat, hopefully forever. (It’s not earth-shattering, but I think God likes it.)

In October, the fast is clothing. Meg totally bailed on me this time (can’t blame her — I don’t have to go to high school every day!), so I’m doing it alone. I’ll blog about that soon. Meanwhile, if any of you are interested in joining me in these seven months of fasts, pick up Jen Hatmaker’s book (see previous post for link) and jump in. It’s an interesting journey.

Grace & Peace,