Friday, May 28, 2010

Some Space Required

I have been living in Burundi for a year now. This has become a space for me to try some new things, learn some lessons and even confront some personal unpleasantries, to be candid. As I've shared previously, one thing that has changed rather naturally here is my diet. We began last year with a family routine that included meat on the dinner table about 4 times a week. But then last summer the electricity in the city started to be off more than on, and this presented some challenges for preserving meat and ensuring its freshness. So we ended up eating less meat - none at home and even little elsewhere. We also had a change in house help, and the new person cannot cook tender beef, but he can cook succulent fish. So we began eating fish a few times a week instead. Here we are a year later, and we now are pretty much a meatless household. It just happened in this context, and I am learning that I can eat less meat and still feel healthy and even happy! This space has given me the chance to try something new and learn that it fits me.

I was thinking this week about space, and how you cannot underestimate the unexpected things that can happen when given a bit of undefined space. Last summer we had a couple of friends living with us here in Bujumbura. Here, of all places, they decided to start learning Spanish together. Not Kirundi or French, which are in operation here, but Spanish for their return to Arizona. Every night they would be hold up in their room making flash cards, conjugating verbs and working toward an authentic accent. What happened in that bedroom in Burundi that sparked their interest to learn Spanish with such dedication? I still do not really know. But I can say that they have continued in their linguistic efforts and will be living in Spain this year. Something happened when they had this space to explore something new and try it on. And as a result of taking advantage of that space, they are onto a new adventure!

Another friend came to Burundi and found space to exhale from a toxic relationship, to find space to imagine a life lived differently, to muster enough courage to make a decision and find a bit of healing in the process. We had no expectation for her visit, other to enjoy her presence. But in a place with little expectation there seemed to be an abundance of freedom to explore new possibilities for a new future.

So this has me thinking about space...

I recall, without academic clarity, an image from my seminary days. My Hebrew professor was exegeting an Old Testament text about intercessory prayer. And the concrete image the Hebrew language employed to describe intercessory prayer was one of creating physical space. The picture, she explained, was of a person hemmed in on every side by trouble and hardship, a person with no room to move. The action of intercession, according to the Hebraic language, was making space around the person, pushing back the things that constricted the supplicant, so that there was room to move, to breathe, to exhale. So when we intercede for others, we are asking God to create space around them, to give them space to move free from external pressures. Maybe it is a prayer that allows them just enough space to reach out to God. But while I cannot recall the text or actual word, I have never forgotten that powerful image. When we pray for another, we are making space for them.

And what I am discovering about space is that it is a creative, constructive and cathartic place. Somehow there is space where things within you can unfold. Maybe the space allows new potential to surface, to emerge like green buds sprouting from the dark soil of life. Maybe, as it has been for me, space allows you to try some new habits and see if it fits. There is a non-judgmental place where you can experiment, discover and investigate things you might never try at home. I don't know... I just know that I seem to need lots of space and I definitely benefit from it!

Friends have told Claude and I that we have a way of 'creating space.' We have no idea how we do it, really. We just show up and invite others to do the same. We set a table, put out some food, and are often surprised at what happens when we gather.

So is space a zone we inhabit or a gift we give to others? Is it both? It seems to be hard to define and yet so crucial for those of us longing for transformation. We need space to move, to explore, to try new things and heal from old hurts. Maybe we need to go somewhere for such space, maybe we need to find someone to be that space for us. But I don't think I am the only one who needs space in my life!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Diet & Discipleship

I've been thinking these days about changing my diet. Not because of weight issues or personal heath issues, though that should also warrant consideration in my process. But I am thinking of altering my diet as a matter of discipleship.

Recently I have been reflecting on creation theology, and how our understanding of creation impacts our view of the natural world as well as the implications of creation care for not only the environment, but the poor. I have come to realize, more than ever, that God still loves the cosmos, the world He created and entrusted to us. I now believe that there is a deep connection between humanity and all of creation, and that together we embrace salvation, restoration and even a shared destiny. (Call me a tree-hugger... I now believe the affection is a biblical mandate!) But maybe the more revelatory aspect of my study of creation, and its connection to humanity, is how it affects the most vulnerable people on the planet - the poor. When the natural world starts showing signs of wear and tear (deforestation, contaminated rivers, polluted air, climate change that alters rain patterns, etc.) - the poorest among us feel it first. These changes on the planet change their daily reality in ways I am only beginning to realize.

And so... as a follower of Jesus, I am thinking about changing the way I eat out of love for the planet and the poor, as God is deeply committed to both.

Why my diet? What about my diet is unloving? How can the food I eat be a matter of spiritual consequence? How can I put diet and discipleship in the same sentence? I am learning that the way I eat affects others in ways I never knew before.

I am a hardcore carnivore, I always have been. I love meat, especially beef and pork. I enjoy marinading a tri tip steak and roasting it to perfection. I massage a spice blend of cardamom and cinnamon on pork chops before grilling them. I make some of the best varieties of meatballs, sometimes flavored with fennel and orange, other times with the more classic thyme, rosemary, parsley and garlic... sometimes even with chipotle and mint! I often glaze a pork tenderloin with balsamic vinegar or a mustard glaze and serve with homemade apple sauce. Such pleasure I derive from preparing and eating meat!

However, I discovered recently that my demand for meat is unhealthy. Maybe not unhealthy for my own body (now they say it is processed meats like bacon that really are the culinary villains), but ill advised for the well being of the planet and the poor. Eating so much meat actually harms the ecosystem and threatens those most dependent on it. It is meat production that requires the use of 30% of the ice-free land in the world - and that meat is feeding the west for the most part. (Though reports show that Indian and China are increasing their consumption as they gain wealth, which will increase demand and threaten more land.) It is meat production that is one of the leading causes of water pollution, generation of greenhouse gases, consumption of mass amounts of energy and deforestation. As a matter of fact, the meat industry produced abut one-fifth of all greenhouse gases world-wide... more than transportation! So here is an industry that I regularly support with my consumption habits, and it is doing harm to the environment on a massive scale. And I can do something about it - I can eat less meat and lower a bit of the demand.

As of 2008, 800 million people suffer from hunger or malnutrition. (It is not far-fetched to imagine that many of them surround me here, on the African continent.) Yet, more soy and corn is grown to feed animals than to feed people. So this meat consumption and production does hurt people, it almost takes the food right out of their mouth. The cost of feed for animals is also on the rise, which means prices for grains for people gets higher, and the poor can afford less and less of what they need in their diet. So now my diet, heavy on savory meats, is a cause of a severe lack in their diets... basic grains for their children.

My diet affects the diets of the poor - those that God loves - now this has become a discipleship issue for me. Now my own diet choices become laden with values. What do I value more - my nightly steak, Sunday pot roast, pork chops and apple sauce? Or those who live off the land and need it to hold together, those who cannot feed their family if food prices increase again, those who will loose access to clean water (and the fish in those waters) if meat production continues to contaminate their water source? Is it right for me to have more than my fair share of the food, the land, the environmental resources? Should I consider consuming less (literally) so that others can have more - so that many can have enough? Does what I eat become a matter of justice, even? I am coming to an answer... yes.

This is not an easy thing for me, as I love meat. But I love Jesus more deeply than my own food preferences. I want to follow Him and submit more and more of my life to Him and the world He so loves. And recently, it means changing my diet to be a better disciple. It means eating in a manner that is seasoned with love for the other over my own gluttony.

You are what you eat... so I want to eat in a way that does not deprive others, deplete the earth or diminish the ecosystem we have been entrusted. This is a huge change for me... but following Jesus demands nothing less than a willingness to repent, to rethink our view and embrace His in every aspect of life. So I will eat much less meat, eat more plants and pray there is enough at the table for all of my brothers and sisters around the world.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Another Spiritual Discipline?

I have been a terrible blogger lately. Well, I never have seen myself as a blogger. First, I see myself as someone who writes and occasionally posts on a blog or two. Second, to be a blogger would require regularity, treating a blog like a journal or a watch that are part of my daily routine. So, a blogger I am not.

But all this is beside the point. I am a serial journal writer, I have been since college. I have boxes and boxes of journals (uniform composition books, actually) in storage. I always have a journal on my nightstand, it travels with me in my carry-on when I am in transit, it is always with me where ever I go. The routine of writing is soothing, clarifying and, sometimes, enlightening. I have often said that the habit of writing in my journal is, for me, a spiritual discipline. There is a daily routine, safe place to explore internal realities, pray on paper, listen to what comes as the pen spills ink across each page. Of all the disciplines - and I know Richard Foster and Dallas Willard have lists - writing in my journal has been the most enduring for me. The most nourishing. The one I return to, even after a lapse in discipline from season to season.

But maybe blogging is a new spiritual discipline. If so, it is one that thwarts me in different ways. Journaling is about the writing - the words poured onto the page, the pen in hand, motion of creating a personal font as your thoughts materialize in ink. There is a simplicity about it. But I find translating writing to a blog layered with a bit more complexity. Beyond pen and paper... instead of pen and paper... there are websites, blog warehouses like Word Press, Typepade and Blogspot. Other things are necessary like electricity, bandwidth, formating, knowing how to navigate the sites and add media. As formats on various platforms change - you have to keep up and adapt.

So I can write, even habitually. But I get hung up with posting and all the related pitfalls. Once I get a thought out there... that should be it. But posting on a blog from Burundi never seems to be that easy. I trip over changing formats and having to learn them (again). And so my time is tripled because I have to tangle with technicalities, most of which I don't understand. And then there are the contingencies I cannot control - inadequate bandwidth to maneuver the necessary sites or upload posts, or maybe electricity is out altogether and I am shut down. I get easily frustrated by the set backs, the inability to solve technical or formatting problems. I get thrown by bandwidth and electricity... my blogging attempts dashed. So I tend to not post to avoid the irritations, required adjustments and the things I cannot control. Picking up my journal is so much easier... and more private.

But spiritual disciplines are meant to challenge us, to press upon us and produce a person more fully formed, more ready to engage with God in His world. Maybe approaching blogging from Burundi is a way to learn patience, the reality of limits, surrendering to what I don't know, gaining the fortitude to keep trying and learning amid a changing landscape. Maybe instead of avoiding blogs (to avoid frustrations) I should engage the work as a discipline that can teach me something. Maybe this is a new practice that can push me toward fresh personal growth. One thing is certain - blogging from Burundi will be a discipline, something that will require effort and a degree of perseverance.

Dare I try again?