I have 347+ articles of clothing, which is disgustingly typical for the American woman. This doesn’t include undergarments, accessories, or shoes. If each article cost $20 that would be $6,940 wasted, since I wear maybe 17 articles in a week. I have enough clothes to wear something new, everyday, for 5 to 6 months.
Do these envious, gluttonous tendencies our culture tells us we need in order to ‘fit in’, cause us to be discontent and unhappy? People are walking 20 miles, without shoes, to get water to survive. There are homeless people, who don’t have a coat this winter, who might die. There are people starving to DEATH. How can we rationalize our gluttony? Is our clothing/possession reputation more important than real human lives? Wouldn’t we be happier if we saw the lasting and perpetuating joy from helping someone in need?
Jen got my attention when she put herself on the line, sharing a gross number of excessive clothing she owns. I had to know, and of course I had even more than her… In Seven: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, Jen asks, ‘What in my life, and in the lives of most Americans, is just too much?’ She comes up with 7 categories: food, clothing, possessions, media, waste, spending, and stress. She tackles one category a month, for 7 months as an exercise in simplicity to create space for God’s kingdom to break through in her life. I fell in love with her journalistic writing style and attention grabbing evidences. The following are some ideas from her book:
Month 1 – Food:
– Jen chose 7 foods to eat during the month. Her friends chose to eat like the poorest nations, with only rice, beans, bread, and oatmeal. Jen talks about how sick she gets of the 7 foods, how people react to her new menu, how grateful she is that the foods are nutritious and doubling her energy, how much money she saves, how little food gets wasted during the fast. She weeps for her children in Ethiopia that she is trying to adopt. They are orphaned by disease, hunger, or poverty and will go to bed with no mother while her American children threw away a pound of food because there was no ketchup. She weeps for her biological children who will battle American complacency and overindulgence for the rest of their lives.
“We didn’t even know what was precious. We threw away things that people would kill for today.” – The Book of Eli
– In our culture intentional reduction is so uncommon people just don’t know what to do with it. Folks are adding, not subtracting. The rise in prosperity is not making people happier or healthier. We are incurring debt and working longer hours to pay for the high-consumption lifestyle; spending less time with family, friends, and community. What happened to don’t gain the world only to forfeit your soul?
– By the 1960’s real food was rapidly disappearing from its shelves, to be replaced by the modern cornucopia of highly processed food-like products. Maybe food simplification is a good idea for all of us. For health, waste reduction, time management, spiritual clarity, and gratefulness. Maybe we should consider avoiding food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, or more than 5 in number. When a loaf of bread traditionally involves flour, yeast, water, and salt, but now contains 20+ ingredients, and lasts a month longer than the homemade version, we might should be wary what we are eating.
– In some supernatural way the abstinence from food was the catalyst for Jesus’ unveiling. After Jesus’ fast, He began healing, rescuing, redeeming. The Spirit filled up the emptiness Jesus created, launching Him into ministry.
Month 2 – Clothes:
– Jen counts her clothing items: 327. She estimates she spent $30 average on each, which equals $9,810. She didn’t include anyone else in her family. She decides to wear 7 articles of clothing for a month. Her friends do a variation of the fast, separating the clothes they wear in a month from the rest to see what percentage actually gets used.
– Unfortunately, Jen didn’t choose a jacket as one of her 7 items and it ends up snowing in Austin, Texas. She talks about the 4,500 homeless people and the lack of shelters in emergency situations; 100+ people died last year from the cold. She layers on her 7 items and gratefully goes to bed in her warm home.
– Scripture describes the people who drew Jesus’ eye: the poor widow, lepers, the lost and hungry, adulterers, the outcast, the sick and dying, the already dead. Finery and opulence never impressed Jesus; quite the opposite. He rebuked religious leaders for their fancy robes, strutting around as if their ceremonial dress had any bearing on the condition of their hearts. There is something noble about an assembly of believers in simple clothes, where the lobby isn’t filled with people saying, ‘You look pretty’ to one another. Perhaps an obsessive occupation with dresses, hair, and shoes detracts us from the point of the gathering: a fixation on Jesus. Maybe our fine dresses keep us from dancing or bowing in worship, or hugging the poor off the streets, or changing a babies diaper; keeping us from connecting in loving ways.
– Host a clothing swap with your friends so you each get something new without spending money. Give away the clothes you don’t use, to help someone in need. Think about what you are buying. Does your child need a $50 smocked dress to run around filthy playgrounds? I hope one day clothes and appearance and everyone else’s assessment doesn’t even occur to me. I would like to be so focused on the valuable that what I am wearing doesn’t even warrant mental space.
– Love your neighbor as yourself. What standard is acceptable for my own life? My own family? This is the benchmark for everyone else, which necessitates a decrease in the definition of necessary (for us) and an increase in the definition of acceptable (for everyone else).
– The average human gets around 25,000 days on earth. We have this one life to offer; we get one shot at living to expand the kingdom, fighting for justice. We’ll have one moment to say, ‘This is how I lived.’ Jen spent enough on clothes to irrevocably change the lives of a 100,000 people. Closets full of clothes we might have worn twice. She said, I imagine being in heaven and having a family look at me who were too poor or sick to raise their babies. I gaze on their helplessness and see them realize the same amount I spent on clothes would have kept their families fed and healthy for 30 years.
– In a culture that elevates beauty and style, the Christian community is at genuine risk for distraction, even deception. Are we no different from the secular population, drawn to charisma and style above substance and integrity? I hope not. I want to belong to a Christian community known for a different kind of beauty, the kind that heals and inspires. I can’t help but remember Jesus, and how God made sure to mention He was plain by human standards: ‘He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’ – Is. 53.
Month 3 – Possessions:
– I could point a finger at culture for pressuring me into having nicer things. I might implicate modern parenting, which encourages endless purchases for the kids, ensuring they aren’t the ‘have-nots’ in a sea of ‘haves’. Jen gets rid of 7 things a day for a month.
– The great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor. I truly believe that when the poor meet the rich, riches will have no meaning. And when the rich meet the poor, we will see poverty come to an end.
Unfortunately, in the southern bible belt, we care so much about clothing, appearance, and pride that some people kick out the poor that step into their churches. Such was the case in a church I once attended. The south needs to awaken their hearts and focus on the ministry of reconciliation instead of selfish gain and conceit.
– Jen gives away her clothes. The clothes that gave her confidence when she was terrified and uncertain during her first women’s conference, brunches, and weddings. Getting rid of them is like a farewell to our old life. I thought about how my lovely clothes propped up the outside while my inside was struggling to find its way. I smile to think of a broken, abused woman slipping these pretty things on and propping up the outside a bit during her healing process. I pray they will remind her that she is beautiful, she is valuable, she is worth it.
– We went in for the Easter service and saw a homeless-looking guy with weird hair, wearing what appeared to be a burlap sack in the shape of pants and a tunic. This was, of course, Shane. He’s been ‘escorted out’ of several churches before they realized he was their guest speaker… As we were about to take communion, Shane said, ‘You are under no coercion, but if you want to, you can leave your shoes at the altar when you take communion. We’ll wash them and deliver them all to the homeless community in San Antonio tomorrow. We were both wearing our brand new boots; the most prized and expensive shoes we’d ever owned. At the close of the service, I watched all these smiling people gladly walk barefooted out into the cold. When God told us to give, I suspect He had spiritual formation in mind as much as meeting needs. ‘If we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.’ We want the life part without being united in the death part, but that version of Christianity doesn’t exist – that is a false gospel, void of sacrifice or love. The fertile soil of death is where the gospel forms roots and actually bears fruit.
Matt. 6:19-21 – Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal… where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
– In a typical year the US spends about $16 billion in foreign aid and $276 billion on advertising. What do we do with our riches? Money is the most frequent theme in scripture; perhaps the secret to happiness is right under our noses. Maybe we don’t recognize satisfaction because it is disguised as radical generosity, a strange misnomer in a consumer culture.
Month 4 – Media:
– One month without tv, gaming, social media, radio, internet, apps, or excessive/useless texting. Take something away and your habits become clear. We had to start cooking together, walking after dinner, having friends over, doing crafts, actually calling people, reading books, and fall in love with new hobbies. It’s wild what will emerge out of the black hole of media. Media stole energy from my home and family, substituting face-to-face time with screens.
Sorry if that’s a short description of this chapter, but I don’t have cable and just joined the smart phone era this month, so I’m already protecting myself here. Pinterest might be my downfall in this category, so I included it in my version of the fast. Maybe I should add excessive texting too. I would challenge anyone to try Jen’s challenge for a month. It’s peaceful and helps you focus on what is important in life.
Month 5 – Waste:
– Does ‘creation’ have anything to do with God whom I call ‘Creator’? Surely God isn’t worried about how we handle His creation that He created. Jen takes on 7 habits for a greener life this month: gardening, composting, conserving energy and water, recycling, driving one car, second-hand shopping/thrifting, buying only local.
“Today is Earth Day, or as evangelicals call it, Thursday.” Ouch.
– Until now, my produce originated from the same place where it is all in season, all the time: the grocery store. Whether it is a hot-weather vegetable or a fruit that requires sandy soil, I haven’t a clue. It doesn’t matter because it can be prematurely picked, artificially ripened, and shipped from anywhere on earth if I need it for my cobbler that day. By subsidizing large-scale agriculture with government handouts, we: a) expedite the extinction of small farmers and diversified crops, b) facilitate agriculture that is destroying and polluting our soils and water, weakening our communities by concentrating wealth and power into a few hands. Only .18/dollar goes to the grower when buying at the supermarket. Farmers markets enable farmers to keep .80/dollar spent by the consumer. When you buy from an independent, locally owned business, twice the money recirculates through the community, doubling the positive impact on the local economy. Nonprofit organizations receive on average 250% more support from smaller business owners than they do from large businesses.
– Since we are recycling this month, we have zero trash. Americans 251 million tons of trash per year. Trash in a landfill will stay there for a really long time; with little oxygen and moisture, trash doesn’t decompose rapidly. Landfills aren’t meant to break it down, only bury it. Sites have to be monitored 30+ years because of contamination threats. Who knows what percentage of chemicals gets into our groundwater. What if we changed our label from ‘consumers’ to ‘stewards’? There are a limited number of resources in the world, and when we take more than we need, simply put, we are stealing from others. By pillaging the earth for more than our share, we break the 8th commandment. I was stealing from people, present and future. Turns out I constantly steal from my kids (and yours). I’m snatching up goodies like clean air and water while millions of families clamor for a drink and struggle with disease. I’m throwing away excess paper and packaging while rain forests disappear.
– I keep thinking about our obsession with health. God gave us spectacular bodies, and we value them. But as certainly as God created man in His image, He first created the earth. With the same care He designed 60,000 miles of blood vessels in the human body, He also crafted hydrangeas and freshwater rapids and hummingbirds. The details He included while designing the earth are so extraordinary, it is no wonder He spent 5 days of the 6 days of creation on it. So, why don’t we care for the earth anywhere near to the degree we do our bodies?
Ps. 42:1-2 – The earth is the Lords, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the water.
– We should fulfill our calling to be caretakers of the earth regardless of whether global warming is real or there are holes in the ozone layer or three nonhuman species become extinct each day. Our vocation is not contingent on results or the state of the planet. Our calling simply depends on our identity as God’s response-able human image-bearers.
Month 6 – Spending
– Staying true to our generation, we dug a deep, dark debt hole to purchase the lifestyle we couldn’t afford but for some reason felt entitled to. Unwilling to live within our means. This month Jen buys from only 7 vendors: farmers market, gas station, online bill pay, kids school, travel fund, emergency medical, and target. That a big cut from the 66 vendors a month, not counting repeat visits. She cut down on a lot of excessive purchases.
– Let’s address the original objection, ‘But I tithe.’ This basic obedience exempts the rest of our spending, assuaging our consciences and checking the stewardship box. But you know Jesus, with the quick retort:
Luke 11:37-42 (MSG) – When he finished that talk, a Pharisee asked him to dinner. He entered his house and sat right down at the table. The Pharisee was shocked and somewhat offended when he saw that Jesus didn’t wash up before the meal. But the Master said to him, “I know you Pharisees burnish the surface of your cups and plates so they sparkle in the sun, but I also know your insides are maggoty with greed and secret evil. Stupid Pharisees! Didn’t the One who made the outside also make the inside? Turn both your pockets and your hearts inside out and give generously to the poor; then your lives will be clean, not just your dishes and your hands. 42“I’ve had it with you! You’re hopeless, you Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but manage to find loopholes for getting around basic matters of justice and God’s love. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required.
They never missed a penny of tithing, but shamelessly neglected justice and totally missed the point. Jesus remedy: Give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. What if we gave new meaning to the verse ‘love your neighbor as yourself’, and gave 50% of our earnings to them, making them our equals? What if we gave 80% away? What if wealth and indulgence are creating a polished people rotting from the inside out, without even knowing it? Jesus never utters a positive word about the wealthy, only tons of parables with this observation: It is terribly hard for us to receive His kingdom. If this is true, then more than fearing poverty or simplicity, we should fear prosperity. If tithing the minimum and consuming the rest is okay, then we can dismiss Jesus’ ideas and act obsessed about other stuff He said. Annually the US spends $8billion on cosmetics, $12billion on perfume, $17billion on pet food, and only $6billion on global child education, $9billion on clean water for global citizens.
– What if our goal became nonconsumption? If you think of something you want, wait a month and see if you still need it. What if we redirected all that saved money to save people? What if we became wiser consumers? It’s simple to find out if a business has integrity or if they are building from the backs of slaves and children.
– We don’t see the New Testament church hoarding the feast for themselves; more Bible studies, more sermons, more programs, classes, training, conferences, information, more feasting for us. We are addicted to the buffet, skillfully discarding the costly discipleship required after consuming. The Phillippians send Paul money in spite of their own poverty.
– The pagan satirist Lucian (130-200 ce) mocked Christian kindness: “The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end. Their first lawgiver put it into their heads that they were all brethren.” Emperor Julian, who attempted to lead the Roman Empire back to paganism famously declared: “The impious Galileans relieve both their own poor and ours… It is shameful that ours should be so destitute of our assistance.” Would the early church look on us in disbelief seeing that Christians outnumber orphans 7 to 1? Would they see our wasteful spending and notice 25,000 people die every day from starvation? How will they judge us on the final day? With a 6th of the world population claiming to be Christian, I don’t think they could reconcile the suffering happening on our watch while we live in excess. If we were following God’s principles we wouldn’t have to coax people into our sanctuaries. The local church would be the heartbeat of the city, undeniable by our staunchest critics. Instead the American church is dying. We made it acceptable for people to do nothing and still call themselves Christians. Last year, 94% of churches reported loss or no growth. 4,000 churches are closing annually. We are losing 3 million people annually. The church the Bible describes was wrought with sacrifice. It cost believers everything, and they still came.
Month 7 – Stress:
– This month Jen observed Sabbath, and prays 7 times a day everyday. We have too much going on. We are short fused, stressed out, overextended, and unrested. This pace is not sustainable. Not living in the moment; I’m just getting it done while thinking about what’s left. We race from one activity to another, teaching our children to max out and stress out. Nice legacy. Perhaps God designed Sabbath as a gift, not an obligation. What if God understood our tendency to overwork and underrest, so He made it mandatory to breathe, pause, pray, and relax every week? God ordained the Sabbath for us, not just another requirement from us.
Mark 2:27 – The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath
– Everyday we are summoned to be creators of the present moment. Artists know the value of white space. Sometimes what isn’t there enables us to see what is. Perhaps you are being called to the spiritual practice of bringing a little of the white space into your workday by setting pauses on the hours, to stop and pray. Constant prayer interrupts our ego trips and disrupts our toxic trajectories.
– God sent the prince of peace. Self-deprecation is a cruel response to Jesus, who died to make us righteous. Guilt is not Jesus’ medium. He is battling for global redemption right now; His objective hardly includes huddling in the corner with us, rehashing our shame again. He finished that discussion on the cross. We’re so conditioned to being a problem that we’ve forgotten we’re actually the answer. God is not angry with you; how could he be? You’re on the team. Don’t imagine He is sitting us down for a lecture. Rather, He’s staging a rally, gathering the troops. He is staging a massive movement to bind up thebroken hearted and proclaim freedom to the captives. The trumpet is blowing. The Bride is awakening. I don’t want to base my life on what I’m against; that’s not inspiring enough motivation. May we embrace unity over infighting, bravery over comfort, us over me, people over principles, and God’s glory over our own. Together, let’s become repairers of broken walls and restorers.
Some questions to help you figure out what to fast:
1. What in my life, if taken away, would alter my value or identity?
2. What causes an unhealthy change of attitude, personality, or focus when ‘it’ becomes threatened?
3. What is the thing outside of God that you put everything else on hold for?