The first time I heard of the food stamp challenge, I was driving a rental car through the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland. I was listening to a BBC program about Ministers of Parliament who had decided to live a week or a month, eating only what they could afford on a government food assistance program allowance. I was intrigued by the idea, and looked it up when I got back to the States, and found that there was a similar challenge that anti-hunger advocates and a very few elected officials were taking to get a better perspective on the kinds of burdens people in poverty experience every day.
I decided over the summer that I was going to do this food stamp challenge myself, but I kept pushing it back for one reason or another, and I couldn’t figure out how long I was going to do it, and it was never the right time, blah blah blah. Finally, in the fall, I decided I was going to do it for Lent. Lent is a good time for this sort of thing, and then I could invite people to do it with me, talk about it at church, etc. Great. Fabulous idea.
So, you’d think that, having decided months ago that I was going to do this as my Lenten practice, I would have been somewhat prepared for what it would mean to live on $147 a month. As in, I would have gone grocery shopping, so I would have something to eat when it was time for this whole business to begin. But no, I was traveling through Tuesday night, so what I had in my house was a can of tuna, a dried up orange, and some way past expired milk. So, the first thing I had to do was figure out how one eats for an entire day on under $5 with no preparation, which was eye-opening. Time for shopping didn’t actually happen until Thursday night, so I confess that at some point I blew an entire day’s budget on fast food because I just had no idea what else to do. And this was just the beginning.
I’m still in the first week of the food stamp challenge, and I can tell you a number of things that are harder than I expected them to be. You can eat for $1.50 per meal, it’s true, but fresh, healthy foods that fit within that budget are pretty limited. Having salad, fruit, or decent quality meat at one meal means you have ramen for another.
But that’s not really the hardest part of this whole food stamp challenge thing. The hardest thing came when a friend called on Friday night and wanted to go to dinner, and I had to tell her that I can’t go out to dinner, not just this week, but until after Easter. And because I have to limit that amount of free food I accept from others, in order to make this actually a challenge, I can’t let my friends cook for me either. And because I’m on a food stamp budget, I can’t really afford to cook for them either, unless they’re into macaroni and cheese.
This is the part of the food stamp challenge that I really hadn’t thought about. See, I’m an extrovert, and I like doing things with people. More than that, I believe in the significance of community, and there are few places where community happens as naturally and fully as it does around a shared meal. There’s a reason why the central ritual of Christian faith takes place at a table, with food. Eating with people is something I do all the time, and it suddenly occurred to me that I’ve decided to cut out this really important and good part of my life for a fairly long period of time, and invite a certain amount of isolation in its place. And it was in that moment that I seriously thought about abandoning the whole thing.
But before I threw it all overboard and ran out for some sushi, I took a minute to consider what my initial goal was. I wanted to become more mindful about what I eat, and why. I wanted to remind myself of the reality of more than 50 million Americans who are considered food insecure and cannot be sure of where their next meal is coming from. I wanted to completely reshape the way I think about and participate in our system of food production and consumption. I wanted to change my life.
If I was serious about that, I was probably going to have to do something drastic. I might even have to do something that involved setting aside a valued part of my life, and potentially distancing me from people I care about for a while. It sounds stupidly obvious, but what I realized is that if I wanted to change my life, I’d have to change my life. I would have to get away from my normal habits and do something radically different, even if it meant giving up other things I value, or I really wouldn’t end up any different at all.
In the church year, this season we call Lent follows the model of Jesus life in the passage we heard today. For forty days, he went out by himself into the wilderness and didn’t eat or drink anything. If you think about it, this is kind of a crazy thing to do. Food and water are not bad; they’re things our bodies need. Jesus clearly ate and enjoyed food at other times, because a ton of the stories about his life center around sharing food. People must have thought he was nuts, to fast for that long, and to isolate himself from his family and friends. But he didn’t do it because his family and friends were bad, or because he didn’t need them in the rest of his life.
He did this at a time when he was getting ready to begin his public ministry, and when he needed to focus on what was really important. He needed to orient himself on a new path. He needed to change his life – and in order to do that, he needed to, well, change his life. He needed to step away from normal patterns and routines and assumptions, and do something radically different, or who knows? Maybe even Jesus would have continued on the same old path.
Most of you are probably familiar with the concept of inertia, but in case, it’s the idea that an object resists any change in its state of motion. If it is still, it resists movement. If it’s moving, it resists being stopped. If it is moving in one direction, it resists a change in its trajectory. I am of the firm opinion that humans also get inertia, as anyone knows who has ever stopped exercising for a while and then tried to get off the couch and go running. But our most natural action is always to keep going the way we are already going. Change takes extra energy. Sometimes it requires a sort of forceful impact to alter our trajectory and change our life.
Sure, there are certain areas where we can make gradual changes that add up to be meaningful over time. But on the whole, if you really want to see great change, you have to be willing to, well, change, sometimes radically.
We’re most familiar with radical change when it comes to dieting, right? We have programs like the Biggest Loser where people go from being sedentary and eating every meal at McDonalds to working out 8 hours a day and eating lettuce, and, shocker! They lose a bunch of weight. Being on TV in that way is a big bump out of their inertia. And we have people like a friend of mine who is currently on a juice-only fast that he’s planning to do for six months or more to radically bump himself out of what he has called addiction to foods that are unhealthy. We’re used to people trying to change their bodies, and most of us have probably done some of that ourselves. We know that it takes some kind of inertia breaker, a bump to get us out of our old habits and into some new ones, to change our physical health.
I suggest to you that changing our emotional and spiritual health – deeply changing our attitude or self-image or patterns in relationships – is equally important, and that it’s a similar process, that is usually even more difficult.
– If I want to become more compassionate, I may have to radically change my routines and slow down my schedule so that I can see what is happening with people below the surface, rather than just brushing by them. I may have to expose myself to human pain and suffering instead of guarding myself against it.
– If I want to re-order my priorities so that I’m doing what is truly important rather than what just seems urgent, I may have to step away from ALL the things I do for a while and see what rises to the top, even though that approach risks the possibility that some of those things will fall to the ground.
– If I want to learn how to communicate better and have healthier boundaries in relationships, I may have to drastically interrupt my own communication style to give another one room to grow. I may need to shift my relationships, or even say goodbye to people I care about.
The most difficult thing about all of these kinds of radical change, I think, is that they can isolate us from the people who normally provide support. It’s like being the person on the crazy diet when everyone else goes out to dinner; you either have to skip it entirely, or sit there with your kale smoothie and watch everyone eat steak. My friends are divided between about a third who don’t know what Lent is, another third who don’t understand why I would want to be in solidarity with poverty who are in poverty, and a final third who are practicing wacky Lenten disciplines of their own and can’t go out to dinner with me, either. But at the end of it, we trust that we will come out with something more valuable in the long run. Our perspective on how we interact with God, with other people, and with the world will be changed. We just need a sort of bump, out of our old lives and into the new.
I like to think of Jesus’ time in the wilderness as that bump that set him on the course toward, you know, saving the world and all that. It was a time when he really found out what he was made of. And although it was lonely and terrible and tempting to turn back, at the end, he had become who he needed to be. We may not be headed toward saving the world – I mean, who knows? but… – and this doesn’t have to happen during Lent or JUST during Lent, because most change is going to take longer than 40 days and 40 nights, but…we all need a bump now and then. I invite us to think of Lent as our bump out of inertia, as well. It’s an opportunity to practice radical change, to step out of our normal routines and assumptions, and allow some space for God to transform us. Because if you want to change your life, you have to…change your life.