The 7 Experiment – Reflections on Stress

The 7 Experiment if finally over.  If it wasn’t Lent, I’d be shouting all sorts of “All—ias,” but a loud “Thanks be to God” will have to suffice.  From food to clothing to possessions and media; through waste, spending, and finally stress, the last seven weeks have been a real opportunity for growth and theological reflection.   The over arching question that 7 has invited me to ask is “why?”

Why is it, that every time I fix the girls a snack, I have to grab a handful of whatever they’re having?
Why do I need seven long sleeved polo shirts, when I might wear two a year?Why am I convinced I need the next great gadget?
Why am I posting this on Facebook?
Why am I throwing away the last great gadget?
Why do my spending habits not reflect my stated goal of being a part of bring God’s Kingdom to earth?

And perhaps the most important question for me, Why did I go on blood pressure medication at age 33?

Jen has a very practical means for the releasing of stress – prayer.  What I appreciated about her model was that it wasn’t about rehearsing the list of crap that is weighing me down, that is to say, another opportunity to be stressed about it all, but rather she prayed the hours.  She engaged in the ancient prayers of the Church and allowed the words that have been used for generation upon generation to express the deeper concerns in heart.

Many Christians, even a lot of Episcopalians don’t know anything about the Daily Office or the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families that are in the Book of Common Prayer.  They are a treasure trove of material that, when done with regularity and intentionality (and not as an added source of stress) can do wonders for the hurried and harried among us.  There are many resource out there to make the Daily Office accessible to the average lay person.  Phyllis Tickle’s three volume series “The Divine Hours” is a great place to start.  As is, the website of the Mission Saint Clare that offers a full service of Morning and Evening Prayer every day of the year.  They even have an app for Android, iOS, and eReaders.

All in all, I would highly recommend The 7 Experiment to anyone.  It is more than a self-help book.  It is a chance to think theologically about my place in the economic engine that is 21st century America.  If you engage the experiment, your life will be changed, and you might even come out the other side feeling closer to the Kingdom of God.

The 7 Experiment – Reflections on Spending

As you’ve probably guessed by now, my energy around this 7 Experiment is waning, and waning greatly. This week’s focus was on spending, and the idea was to only spend our money in seven places. If we had been doing it for a month, like Jen did, I can see how this might be a challenge, but honestly, I could spend money at maybe only two places in a given week: the gas station and the grocery store. Add to that that this week included a pay day and bill paying, and I just wasn’t up for the mental gymnastics required to make online bill pay a single payee.

What this week did do, as the rest of these weeks have done, is to invite me to pay attention to the choices that I often make unconsciously. In the Church, we often say in that a budget is a moral document, which is true. It is perhaps more true in a household budget than it is in the parish.

The final week – Stress

I might like Lent this year

Over the past few years, I’ve grown increasingly annoyed with the penitential seasons of the Church.  I just don’t get Advent and last year, I gave up Lent for Lent.  With Ash Wednesday just around the corner, I’ve spent some time over the past week or so thinking about Lent this year.  Ever since The 7 Experiment’s week of fasting from media, I’ve found myself, more often than not, riding in the car without the radio on.  Naturally, then I’ve been thinking about the season in which traditionally, we give things up that take our attention away from God’s saving work in our lives.  As I drove to a VTS alumni lunch over in Pensacola last Thursday, I gave the first real thought on my Lent 1 sermon this year, and these words came to mind, “I love Lent.”

I love Lent!?!

This can’t be true.  My subconscious mind is playing tricks on me in the silence of a hour long car ride.  The more I pressed myself, however, the more I realized that I might, in fact, like Lent this year.  Maybe it is because by the time Lent rolls around, the hardest parts of The 7 Experiment will be over.  Maybe I won’t feel guilty about not giving anything up this year because my life has already been dramatically rearranged by this crazy book.  Maybe I’m already more in tune with God’s calling me toward Kingdom living than I have been in years past.  Or Maybe Lent is starting late enough and coupled with Daylight Savings Time, so the season of penitence won’t be couple with miserable weather and 6pm darkness.  Whatever it is, I find myself with the strange feeling of looking forward to Lent this year.

Maybe you are too.  Or perhaps you haven’t given it any thought yet.  With parades running almost non-stop today and tomorrow, I can understand that, but by the time you’ve gobbled down your pancakes and buried your alleluias tomorrow night, I hope you will have taken a minute to think about what Lent will be for you this year.

The 7 Experiment – Relections on Waste

I had several goals for this week’s experiment on waste.  None of them were particularly kingdom building, at least not explicitly.  Of course, that is part of the problem with the “Green” movement, it is all a bit squishy.  Do you buy the Prius because it is good for the environment or because it will pay itself off in skipped gas station trips?  Is the local power company really interested in your having an energy efficient hot water heater, or do they just want to make sure you buy it from them?  Are Christians called to be environmentally friendly because of Genesis 1?  Because it is the right thing to do?  Because Jesus came to redeem the whole world (John 3:16-17)?  Because it saves us money that we can use to feed the hungry?  Because the hungry are those most affected by environmental shifts?  Because…?

My goals this week were to limit my carbon footprint and to get my almost 2 year old out of diapers.  The latter was a pipe dream, at best.  The former, I have no idea how to measure.  In the end, I pretty much failed waste week.  Sure, we ate leftovers, used up items in our freezer, and were more careful to sort out recyclable materials, but I put more than 500 miles on my car this week, took a shower everyday in clean drinking water (I’m still mad at 2004/5 VTS Student Body President, Carlye Hughes, for pointing this out to me), and threw out, on average, seven disposable diapers a day.

To be serious about removing oneself from the cycle of waste is really difficult work.  Should we have used cloth diapers?  Probably, but how much water is wasted in the cleaning of those?  What sort of detergents are used?  Could we live with just one car?  Not in South Alabama when my vocation has me running to hospitals 40 miles in either direction.  Are cloth napkins better than paper napkins?  Suddenly, I’m back in Tim Sedgwick’s Ethics class weighing goods in conflict.  Which may, in the end, be the true benefit of waste week, it got me thinking about my habits, about what I really “need” as opposed to what is really a “want.”  Maybe I didn’t fail this week afterall.

The Penultimate week of The 7 Experiment is Spending – Our money can only go to 7 places.

The 7 Experiment – Reflections on Media

This week in The 7 Experiment, we were invited to fast from media: traditional, social, and otherwise. Off limits this week were: television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, most of the internet and iOS games. As with every other week, we cheated in a few ways. With the 22nd Olympic Winter Games going on, we decided that their historical significance meant we should be able to watch them. Also, with the 43rd Annual Convention of my Diocese starting on Thursday, as Chair of the Commission on Communications and member of the We Dream Committee that had 18 resolutions up for debate, SHW decided I should be able to at least Tweet some of the proceedings. Finally, with me preaching yesterday (the sermon will be posted tomorrow), I made use of my usual preaching and news gathering sites to make sure I was still in the know come Sunday morning.

My week of media silence began on Sunday morning as I drove to church with only the rattling of my car engine and the blub-blub of a slightly out of balance tire to entertain me. Driving in the car without listening to the radio was, by far, the hardest part of this week. Not to overstate it, but it was excruciatingly awful. Until I realized that all of the noise that I’ve put into my life has made it next to impossible for me to actually listen for the voice of God. As my mind wandered while attempting to fill the silence, I found myself much more able to pray, much more able to listen, much more able to just be in the presence of God.

The radio thing surprised me. What I thought would be the hardest part was turning off the notifications on my social media apps. The success of Facebook and Twitter is based, in my opinion, on the natural human desires to be liked, popular, and to find our 15 minutes of fame. Getting a “like” or a “retweet” taps into that deep longing to be a part of comminity, and to turn that off for a week made me nervous. I accidentally opened Facebook three times on Monday, but I closed it before I saw anything. From then on out, I didn’t even think about it. It was surprisingly easy to be disconnected – freeing even. I didn’t have to be clever. I didn’t have the chance to let my inner snark monster loose. I was able to be present in every situation: at home with my family, sitting on the floor of Diocesan Convention, whereever. I think I’ll try to disconnect more often.

All in all, the media week was the best week of 7 thus far. It was eye opening, challenging and spiritually engaging.

This week – waste. I hope that doesn’t mean we’re potty training the 20 month old.

The 7 Experiment – Reflections on Possessions

I failed the possessions experiment.  Part of the reason I didn’t do much this week is that I don’t really care about possessions.  As I mentioned last week, I’m cheap, so when I do actually buy something for myself, I use it and abuse it until it is worn out.  Whether it is our 2003 Honda CR-V, a clergy shirt, or a laptop computer, replacing it is not an option until it cannot be salvaged.  I had plans for this week, of course.

I had hoped to follow up on the clothing week by taking stock of all that I do have and eliminating the excess, the tattered, the stained, the should no longer be worn even in the comfort of my own home.  I still plan to do that, but (here comes excuse number 2) life is just too hectic to be sorting through my drawers.  I had planned on taking stock of the copious amount of books in my office.  I wanted to actually think about what books I will continue to use in my ministry, what books I’ve purchased or received that I will never actually read, and what books could be used by someone else.  I still plan to do that, but refer back to excuse number 2.

The truth of the matter is that I didn’t care much about the week on possession and so I didn’t take the time or put forth the effort to engage it much.  Maybe I’ve been so brainwashed by Madison Avenue that my excess of stuff doesn’t bother me, except when we moved last year and I was actually embarrassed by the amount of stuff we have as a family.  Maybe even in my nickle-nosery, I’m just as tied into the game as everybody else.  That is surely possible, but what struck me this week more than anything else is how priorities affect decision making.  Possessions are not a priority for me and so rifling through them went to the bottom of the list.  I think I’m OK with that, even if it means I failed possessions week in The 7 Experiment.

Back to tough stuff this week, Media.  Facebook and Twitter notifications are turned off, so if you want to comment on a post this week, do it here so I can see it.

The 7 Experiment – Reflections on Clothing

Clothes aren’t my thing.

There was a time when they were. When my wife and I first met, she called me “Stylin’ Steve” and I don’t think it was meant to be ironic. While I was in seminary, when the dry cleaner was located inside the grocery store and my Safeway card meant my shirts were cleaned, pressed, and lightly starched for $0.89 a piece, I usually looked crisp and clean. Two kids later, I’m a cheapskate who is a big fan of the LL Bean Wrinkle Free collection. Still, I pulled on my Dockers this morning, the one’s that seemed like they fit well on Monday, and realized that maybe they more closely resemble Hammer Pants than dress khakis. Maybe clothes are more my thing than I’d like to admit.

This week for The 7 Experiment, we were challenged to only wear seven articles of clothing this week. After three or four different list adjustments before Monday morning, I finally settled on 1 Pair of Dockers, 1 Pair of Jeans, 1 Clergy Shirt (Black for those who are wondering), 1 Wrinkle Free Button Down, Shoes (3 pair – running, black dress, and brown deck), Long-Sleeve Winter Light’s at Beckwith T-Shirt, and a black fleece. Free items were socks and underwear, and I cheated by wearing a belt (3 actually: black and brown dress and brown casual) Maybe clothes are more my thing that I’d like to admit.

I also cheated on Friday and Saturday mornings. Thanks to a treadmill and blinds on the windows, I had been able to run without having to add a workout outfit to my list, but with my mother-in-law hanging out with us Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, I thought at least a pair of running shorts was in order.

I’ll keep telling myself that clothes aren’t really my thing, and so the seven articles thing wasn’t a real struggle for me, except that in February in South Alabama, the temperature can swing wildly. This week, it ranged from 34 to 68, and being cold most of the week was an opportunity for me to pray for the homeless. For most of the US, even here in the Deep South, it has been a really bad winter, and around our region, attendance records have been set at our very limited shelters. Being cold is an inconvenience for me, but it is a life threatening situation for the most vulnerable. This week was a reminder to me of the vast luxury of choice.

I can choose between eight different sweatshirts, ten sweaters, and five weights of jacket to stay warm. I’ve got gloves and scarves. I can layer up like Joey wearing all of Chandler’s clothes.

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The 7 Experiment continues to open my eyes, and some of the lifestyle changes that were started in week one, continue now in week two. I hope that as the weeks continue, I can remember that this ins’t about self-help, but about bringing the Kingdom of God to earth.

Next week is possessions.

Let your light shine

When I read Jesus saying, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” I think of two things.  First, I think of the priest of my childhood, The Reverend David Powers Thomas, who used this passage in its KJV form to invite the congregation to the Offertory.  “Let your light so shine before men [others] that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  Second, in a problematic bit of juxtaposition that I’m certain makes Dave smile while he is seated at the heavenly banquet, I think of the closing scene from The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

Of course, one is the actual verse from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about letting the light of Christ shine through you, and the other is a song about new age hippie crap like letting the sun shine into you, but as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m not in the least bit normal.

Having suitably digressed this morning, I’ll come back to my point: being a Christian means being a role model.  To be clear, aren’t required to live moral lives in order to gain our salvation.  Instead, our response to God’s amazing gift of grace should be to live lives worthy of the Kingdom.  That means doing things like seeking peace in the midst of conflict or finding hope in the midst of despair or putting the needs of others above ourselves or, as Jesus puts it here, doing “good works.”  Living life as a follower of Jesus should look different from the life lived by everybody else.

This is a difficult concept for most 21st century American Christians (myself included) because over the years discipleship and citizenship have become so co-mingled as to be unrecognizable from the other.  That is to say, discipleship has been co-opted by the empire so that being a Christian now means fitting in to the society at large: getting an education, going to work, getting married, having 2.5 children, paying your taxes, and, as The 7 Experiment is showing me, buying the daylights out of everything to keep the giant economic machine churning.

Yet, the things Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount seem to call us to something different.  Something more simple.  Something impossibly more difficult.  I’m not sure how we extricate ourselves from this co-mingling.  There are some – like Shane Claiborne who felt called to follow the example of the divine Word and “move into the neighborhood” or Jen Hatmaker and her husband, Brandon, who gave up their mega-church for a humble community seeking to serve Jesus – for whom this change is life shattering, but I’m not sure that everyone is called to give it all up.  We can’t all live in the poor neighborhood, they wouldn’t stay that way for long.

So, how do the rest of us live lives that allow the light of Christ to shine through us in the midst of the messiness of this world?  How do we let others see the glory of God through our normal, everyday actions?

The 7 Experiment – Reflections on Food

In case I haven’t said it enough, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley is a cool place to hang out.  From our oldest members to the nursery-aged kids, there is just a lot going on in the lives of the saints that call Saint Paul’s their spiritual home.  One of the coolest things that has happened here recently is the growing interest in lay-led Christian Education.  We currently have two groups that have started, on their own, based on the interests of a few people.

The one that is impacting me the most is a book study on “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess” by Jen Hatmaker, mostly because of my wife’s direct involvement in it.  Let me tell you, these young adults are crazy.  Each week, they (and by extension I) will engage in a discipline aimed at extricating ourselves from the rat race that is “work more to buy more.”  I’ll reflect here each week on the experience.

Food.  Why on earth did she start with food?  Here’s this week’s deal, eat only 7 foods.  Thanks to the scheduling gods, SHW and I had a big house blessing/warming party on Sunday afternoon before this started, and it didn’t seem to be within the spirit of the experiment to let a bunch of perishable foods go to waste in the name of simplifying our lives.  So, aside from the left over veggie tray (and the chocolate cake at SHW devoured in 2 days and the open bottle of white wine that I tried to ration over the week), my list of 7 items was: oatmeal, honey, whole wheat bread, peanut butter, apples, chicken, and zucchini.

We’ve all had the experience of taking a mission trip and seeing these people who have next to nothing: one change of clothes, beans and rice once a day, fetid water, and a tin shack; and they are joyful people, eager to share what they do have and love without reservation.  My week of 7 foods made me realize that they are able to live like that because they haven’t been made evil by the demon of privilege.  What eating only simple foods did to me was make me grouchy, with absolutely no patience for my children.  I was hungry, mostly because by Wednesday, I couldn’t imagine shoving another apple down my throat, but that’s not an excuse.  I’m used to eating and drinking what I want, when I want, and I’ve gotten nice and fat because of it.  I lost 10 pounds this week, and could stand to lose 20 more, but the real take home for me was to realize that entitlement ain’t just a government program.  Instead, it lives deep within me as I expect to be satisfied at all times.  I could probably do with less satisfaction.  This week has helped me realize that, and hopefully, it will produce fruit in the weeks, months, and years to come.

This week’s experiment is clothing – 7 articles.  How hard can that be?