Wednesday, May 23, 2018

How Cheap Can a Man Eat, Part Three

Two weeks ago, I began the “simple diet experiment.” I have attempted to eat the same three meals a day (oatmeal, rice and beans, eggs and a side of toast or potato/veggies) each day, and will continue to do so until Father’s Day weekend. In my last blog I discussed my first motivation for this experiment, which was global hunger. I asked, “If someone starves to death every ten seconds (sadly, this is the case), how much money could I cut out of my food budget by eating simply so that I could help feed them?”

Today we are on to the second reason for this experiment, which is driven by this question:

To what extent do I use food to comfort myself, and how does that affect my life?

Confessions of an Snack Fiend
Let’s cut to the chase here: I love to comfort myself with food! Nothing like coming home from a hard day to eat a yummy dinner… or a big breakfast after a hard workout… or a bowl of popcorn and cocktail after an evening meeting. When I was a just out of college, I used to love my standard evening snack of popcorn, an ice cream sundae, and three beers. Now, I’ve come a long way since then (and thank God I don’t have diabetes). But still, I knew going into this experiment that it would be hard to let go of the comfort food. And up to this point the experiment is driving home the reality of my (ongoing) addiction to salty and sweet comfort food- particularly snacks (popcorn!). I have found that I can handle pretty mundane meals, but when it’s 7:30 at night and my snack options are veggies or more rice and beans or bread life gets a little more difficult.

So what’s wrong with comfort food?
Nothing! Comfort food is not inherently problematic. Good food is something to celebrated, as it has been in just about all places and times. However, problems do arise when comfort food becomes our norm and an expectation for life, and perhaps for some of us even a “need.” When comfort food becomes a primary means of comfort and even a necessity to enjoy life…

We lose our sense of gratitude.
I shouldn’t need to eat comfort food to feel satisfied or grateful for the food that I do have. And it’s a problem when I begin to organize my life around eating comfort food (living to eat) instead of simply using food to give me the strength to organize my life around more important objects (eating to live). I should be able to enjoy comfort food and be grateful for it when I have it, but I should be equally grateful for the food that keeps me alive, and be satisfied with it. In the scope of human history, I am incredibly fortunately to live without fear of hunger and to have any options at all when it comes to eating. So the fact that I would complain because I don’t have comfort food, and lose the gratitude I should have, is simply outrageous. Gratitude is a big deal. Grateful people are generally content, generous and merciful. This is because they recognize that they have unique privileges and advantages, and that these things are not owed to them.  If we had more grateful people I believe we’d have less hungry people in our world… and perhaps we’d have less grouchy people as an added bonus.

We lose our sense of perspective.
This is a corollary to the gratitude thing. Addiction to comfort food (or, dissatisfaction with plain food) blinds us to the far greater issues surrounding us. Our addiction to our special food twists our perspective so that we think we actually need that food to be happy or to be nourished. And it’s that twisted perspective that we use to justify the excessive amount of money or time we use to procure that food, instead of say, providing food for someone in need, saving money for more significant needs, or having more time to be with our families or friends. How much less would personal debt be in the United States if people didn’t eat out constantly? Nothing kills me like hearing people talk about budgeting and debt and why they can’t give to people in need and then hearing them talk about all the restaurants they’ve been to recently. But the thought of giving up our delicious food just seems like too big an ask!

We lose our sense of contentment.
Now here’s the real ironic one: the more we satisfy our cravings, the more cravings we have. That’s a basic philosophical truth that you can find in Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Greco-Roman philosophy, and much more. Unfortunately, it completely goes against the grain of our culture, which teaches that the satisfaction of desire makes for contentment. (Which should be obviously false to anyone who simply looking around at our society!) In particular, I love these lines from Lao Tzu regarding satisfying desire and contentment, from the Tao Te Ching chapter 12:

The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the mouth.

The more we get it, the less pleased we are with it. If you want to find someone who is content with their meal, then find someone who eats the same things every day…

We lose our freedom.
I’ll never forget, years ago, sitting in a room of people about to go on a trip to serve desperately poor people in a majority world slum, and someone became terrified that they wouldn’t have Diet Coke. Diet Coke?! The people they were going to serve live in fear of hunger and their focus was Diet Coke?! But- if I’m honest- I get that. How often have been prompted (by God, I believe) to do something that would “mess up” my next meal or give away the money I use to buy comfort food or perhaps to even skip a meal so I could give mine to someone else and not done it because of my “needs?” To my shame, too many times. And through those moments, I learned that whatever culinary delight that I can’t give up for God or even for another human being is a chain. Furthermore, if we have these sorts of “needs” for our special foods then we are also filled with anxiety when we aren’t in control of our schedule or meals, and are prevented from simply enjoying what we do get.

I am always going to love comfort (snacks!) food. But I don't want to "need" it to be content and grateful for what I have, and I want to be able to give it up for more important things. So I guess we could say my second reason for undergoing this experiment is to learn to be content with simplicity. And while simplicity isn't exciting or always "comforting," I believe it makes for a higher quality of life in the end. So, that being said, I’m going to enjoy another “delicious” bowl of rice tonight!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

How Cheap Can a Man Eat, Part Two

Last week I posted about the simple diet experiment that I am undertaking until mid-June. In brief, the idea is to eat the same meals everyday and to make them as cheap as possible. After posting I got a number of questions about why I was doing this, and I promised to share more. Today I will share my first reason…

Facing Global Inequality
For many, including myself, the reality of global inequality is an entirely mundane fact. The disparity between the rich and the poor is such an ancient and pervasive (universal?) feature of life that we often go for long stretches without it even breaking the surface of our consciousness. Then, every so often, something happens that reminds us that about a billion people on this planet live on $1 a day or less and who struggle just to get enough food to survive. When that happens our lives are suddenly put to the test, and we are forced to confront how we live in light of this information. I think there are many options for how we do this, but I think these five generally cover the spectrum:

We can immediately do everything we can to forget about it and keep on our way.

We can justify our lifestyles by focusing on how hard we work (we deserve what we have and enjoy!) and keep on our way.

We can justify our lifestyles by claiming it’s part of the world, maybe even an evolutionary fact, and keep on our way.

We can lament it but claim our powerlessness to change it, thereby letting ourselves off the hook and keep on our way.

We can lament it and then ask what we can do to prevent another human being, made in God’s image, from suffering and starving to death or watching a family member starve to death.

Now, this blog entry isn’t about solving global poverty or assigning blame. Rather, it is simply about my own struggle to live into option five (I usually camp out at option four). If I believe that other humans are loved by God to the extent that God’s Son died for them, then I should probably be willing to ask what I can do to prevent their preventable suffering.

“The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”
The above words were said by Gandhi, and they stand as a great follow up and challenge to accompany Jesus’ teaching about money provision (see Matthew 6:24-33, for example). There are indeed more than enough resources on the earth for everyone to get enough to eat, yet a person dies of starvation approximately every ten seconds ( Certainly much of this has to do with political instability and violence and disaster, but that does not acquit the rest of humanity. The UN has reported that food and water could be provided to the poorest of the earth for about $70 billion. (Carol Bellamy, The State of the World’s Children 2001, 81), and if Christians in the US tithed we could offer over $100 billion to this project. (Ronald J Sider. The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, 132). So the truth is that in spite of politics and disaster almost all we could put a pretty big dent in the problem of poverty if we all scaled our lifestyles down a bit and gave away more.

Years ago I began challenging people to give up eating out once a month so that they could give someone in poverty enough food or water to survive. It seemed like a slam dunk to me. Think about it: did you know that you could provide clean water for one person FOR LIFE for $50? ( So if you were to just give up the $10 a month on one meal you could provide that for someone every five months!

Back then, I did a lot of eating out, but my food bills weren’t too high. Now, with two kids, the tables have turned. I rarely eat out, but every month I have to fight tooth and nail to stay on our food budget. And then it hit me: while I am generally a pretty cheap guy (to my shame I practically subsist on Walmart knock offs- yes I know Walmart is the evil empire) I realized I could give more if I simply gave up a few of the non-essential items I regularly buy. And that got me to wondering, how much do I really need to spend on food to live healthily?    

It was that line of thinking that led me to this experiment. I want to see how little money I can (sustainably) spend on food so that I know how much luxury I live with, and how much therefore I could actually give away so that someone else can eat.

In my next post, I’ll tackle my second motivation for the experiment, which will explain why I’m trying to eat the same things everyday, as well as some of the other "rules and caveats" of the diet.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

How cheap can a man eat?

Not tasty but very cheap.
If you had to eat the same three meals every day, what would you eat? What if you were also trying to see how little money you could spend on food for six weeks? Then what meals would you choose?

I’m asking you these questions today because (as of yesterday) I am embarking on a six week dietary experiment. My goal is to eat the same food every day for six weeks, and to spend as little money as possible in the process. I’d love to stay under $100, but not sure if I have the willpower to pull that off.

I have two primary motivators for this experiment. First, I want to see how much money I can divert to helping feed hungry people by eating simpler. Second, I want to learn to “eat to live” instead of “living to eat” so that I can give more energy to bigger issues and break my comfort dependency. I’ll unpack both of those reasons in the next couple of blogs… but for now, here’s the menu!

Breakfast: Oatmeal w/honey and a few walnuts or just salt
Snack: Protein shake
Lunch: Eggs and Toast
Snack: Banana or Apple
Dinner: Rice and Beans or Lentils, plus cheap veggies or potato
Snack: Toast, Apple or Banana

I am going to allow myself to juggle these meals, or to double up on rice and beans if I can’t stomach any more oatmeal at one point. (I’m not a huge fan of oatmeal… cutting out cereal for oatmeal is a tough one.) Yesterday was the first day of the experiment, and while I did stay full I certainly had moments of significant temptation for popcorn or something sweet. As a disclaimer, I do realize that the protein shake is expensive, but I do a fair amount of working out and if I don’t get protein and calories I will be very hangry, and that will not be good for family or ministry or anything. Also, while I don’t plan on keeping this diet forever I do want it to be somewhat sustainable (more on that to come…) and losing too much weight would derail the plan.

So, I will keep you guys posted on how this is going, and in the meantime if you have suggestions on ways to go cheaper and get nutrition please fire away!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Discipleship and Loyalty, part two

The things we'll trade our souls for...

Hello faithful readers! Last week I suggested that if we considered discipleship through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus we’d see that it is essentially about our loyalty and allegiance to (King) Jesus and to his mission. As promised, today I’d like us to consider a few places where I believe that our discipleship is regularly compromised by virtue of our uncritical allegiance to other “rulers" and missions. Please note, I will not be dealing with the obvious idols of money, power and sex… not because we’ve got them under control now but because I’m taking them for granted here. Today’s blog is about the overlooked or unrecognized challenges to Jesus’ authority that are pervasive in our corner of the world today. So, drum roll please….

#1: Economic Growth and The Market
Okay, I said we weren’t going to deal with money… but I was talking about how individuals accrue or spend money. When I say “ Economic Growth and The Market” I am referring to national and global commercial systems. For the record, there is nothing inherently wrong with economic growth and market systems. The issue is that many disciples of Jesus accept purely secular reasoning and goals when it comes to these things. They go right along with arguments that:

… economic development and growth is ALWAYS good,
… what makes for economic development is therefore always good,
… what’s good for “The Market” is good for the country/state/city,
… profit is the only goal of commercial enterprise,
… a thriving economy means people are happy and flourishing,
… consumer desire should be the engine that drives what a society produces.

Rather than get into any economic or political arguments here or take on small issues, I’d like to propose that we simply ask different questions regarding The Market, like:

How does this business or economic policy affect my neighbors?
How does it affect disciples of Jesus in other parts of the world?
What is the human cost of development and growth?
Am I more concerned about getting large quantities of cheap goods than the lives of the people who produce them? (Who produces them? Under what conditions?)
As a disciple of Christ am I selling, advertising or investing in a worthwhile product/company?
What does God think of an economy that thrives off consumer debt?
How do my patterns of consumption point to my love of neighbor?

Some of these questions are very complex, and there are multiple, valid viewpoints. The goal for me though, or at least a good starting point, is for us to begin considering how our role in the marketplace (as consumers, producers, and politically active citizens) is connected to our allegiance to Jesus. Do we just go along with “more and cheaper is better” without any other questions asked? Do we accept the theology of the market which tells us that the satisfaction of human desire via consumer goods is the highest good? Do the ways we consume and spend money and invest point to a belief in this theology of consumption?

#2: My Child's Success

This is a tough one. I am a father of two and I love my children dearly, and cannot (or don’t want to) imagine my life without them now. However, as much as I love my boys, children cannot be the center of life or the organizing principle of life for a disciple of Jesus. Those places belong to Jesus and his mission. As a parent, I believe it is my task to invite my child along on this journey of following Jesus; to allow my child to participate in the work and worship that is at the center of my life. I don’t consider myself anything close to an expert on parenting- just trying and struggling to not screw up my kids- so I will not dispense any advice here. My goal is to get us questioning the narratives and entities that compete with Jesus for our allegiance, and specifically, to take on the cultural assumptions that our children's "success and fulfillment" are the most important goals in life for parents. So we might gently ask:

… Am I more concerned about my child’s desires, success or fulfillment, or the mission Christ
     has called my family to?
… Do I trust God to protect my child if (when) I am called to engage in risky mission?
… Do I measure myself as a parent by society’s standards, or Jesus’ standards?
… How does my child’s calendar- or our family calendar- reveal our family’s Kingdom values?
… When I dream about my child’s future do I dream about their faithfulness or their success?
...  Does my value or my "success" depend on my children "doing well?"

Some of the most heart-wrenching things I have seen as a pastor/missionary/youth worker are parents who love Jesus, but never questioned our society’s idolization of children. Because of this they did all they could to help their children succeed… endless sports, art, music, special academic programs, and the rest, and Jesus and his mission were entirely lost in the process. Their commitment to their child’s “success” prevented them from joining the community of faith and from meaningfully engaging with Jesus. The children learned from their parents that their success was the mission, and that was the end of the story.

#3: The Nation
If the two preceding issues haven’t stirred the pot this one is a good contender. Again, this is a complex topic with multiple valid viewpoints, and I don’t intend to go into much detail (though perhaps I will share my views in depth down the road). In general, I believe that for disciples of Christ our love of country should function as a sub-category of loving our neighbors. Our love for our country should manifest itself in loving service that benefits the PEOPLE of our country. It should not manifest itself in uncritical allegiance to a national ideal or flag or government or political principle. Our allegiance is given to God alone and his anointed King, Jesus. Therefore, all our obedience and participation in national and political life must be held against his commands and the mission that he’s given us. However, there are powerful narratives at work in America that suggest that we can give complete loyalty to our nation and that God approves of this. Here are a few questions we might ask to get at these competing loyalties:

Do we consider what’s in our nation’s interest before we consider what’s in the best interest of Jesus’ mission? Or the body of Christ?
Do we see our country as special or sacred or exceptional in God’s eyes?
Does the world's hope depend on my country?
Do we identify more with members of our nation than with foreign disciples of Christ?
Is dying for one’s country “holy?” Is that true for all countries, or just mine?
Do we discourage mission work because it’s dangerous but celebrate those who join the army?
Do we remember our brothers and sisters who are martyred around the world with the same vigor and reverence that we remember soldiers killed in combat?

There is much to say here, and the historical record of Christians giving uncritical allegiance to their government and nation is very bleak, to put it mildly. Somehow we turned the Apostle Paul’s admonition to pay taxes and be law-abiding citizens in Romans 13:1-7 into a belief that disciples of Christ can give their full and unquestioning allegiance to their political rulers and nations, and that serving the nation was the equivalent of serving God. May we relearn the meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone," and be done with "God and Country" theology. Let's give our sole allegiance the One who created us, redeemed us and sustains us, and let His love flow through us to to our fellow citizens and neighbors in whatever country we find ourselves in.

Baby Steps into Mission: Presence, Part 2

Faithful readers, I apologize for the long delay in getting this blog up. Between summer vacation, official cross country practices starting...