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ELCA World Hunger

Underdeveloped or cutting edge?

A few weeks ago I wondered whether the yellow water bucket that we associate with poverty might actually symbolize respect for a limited resource.

Today I’m wondering whether places that lack “conveniences” are actually better off than we are. What begins as convenience ends up as infrastructure, like the one that locks us into using too much water every single day. So many interests are invested in this system that changing it is very, very difficult.

In the yellow bucket world, infrastructure is scarce and innovation is abundant. Greenfield is an emerging term for a place with little infrastructure. Says Wikipedia, “the analogy is to that of construction on greenfield land where there is no need to remodel or demolish an existing structure.”

In mobile technology, the African continent was a greenfield.  With few telephone poles and landlines, African countries quickly adapted cell phone technology, and today lead the world in mobile commerce. In places like Uganda, you can do all kinds of cool things on a phone—transfer cash, check the market price for your fish, text money to your family—without signing up for a pricey two-year contract!

In mobile commerce, African countries have leapfrogged many developed nations.

Leapfrogging is the process through which developing countries can actually develop faster, notes Wikipedia, “by skipping inferior, less efficient, more expensive or more polluting technologies and industries and move directly to more advanced ones… avoid environmentally harmful stages of development and [without needing to] follow the polluting development trajectory of industrialized countries.”

In other words, our “less developed” companions in ministry are poised to leapfrog, from their greenfields, right over us and our well-entrenched, wasteful, polluting ways!

So, who advises whom? Do we go on raising money to “fix problems” in other places, or do we start confessing that we’re stuck in a system that consumes too much of absolutely everything, and open ourselves to learning from—and celebrating—the leapfroggers? I’ve been feeling pretty pleased about the new, high-tech solartube in my roof, designed to brighten a dark hallway with daylight instead of a lightbulb. Looking around for examples for this post, I discovered that a plastic water bottle would have been just as effective, and cheaper. Wow!

Wouldn’t it be nice if, every time we launched a faith-based “development project,” we started by searching for leapfrog technologies to see what we could learn? Instead of raising money for 100 wells in African countries by actually wasting water (dunk tanks, throwing water balloons), could our next campaign give equal time to–or even showcase–the wisdom of companions on how to replace systems and habits that waste water  with something more efficient and respectful?

Yesterday, the New York Times posted a blog post called “What We Can Learn from Third World Healthcare.”  The theme is the same. We spend billions on medical bells and whistles, yet our health metrics are simply terrible. Concludes the blog’s author: “In other words, we have yet to deploy what could prove to be the most powerful weapon in the fight to contain costs and improve the quality of health care: our own humility.”

The world is telling us we’re not so very wise. Instead of being defensive about our way of life, shall we smile and join the leapfrog game?


Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

From simple to sustainable on the homefront

Like typewriter or answering machine, the phrase simple living sounds a little quaint. Have you noticed how many faith-based and secular organizations devoted to scaling back lifestyles have called it quits? And how energy and attention have been gradually shifting from frugality towards creating sustainable lifestyles?

My life has been following this path, too. The Tightwad Gazette and Your Money or Your Life launched me along the journey described in Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal.  Those years of simple living culminated in the great paring down of 2009 described here and here.

Capturing rainwater for gardens is part of a sustainable NW home. The ReStore in Bellingham uses containers from a food processing plant to catch and store 800 gallons of water.

My early simple life unfolded in a city—a complex system with an infrastructure and buildings shaped around assumptions from a hundred years ago. There wasn’t much I could change about my urban environment (or so I thought), so I focused on decluttering my home and calendar; lowering my expenses; seeing what, personally, my son and I could live without; and organizing our lives around people and personal interests rather than mass market dictates.

All that changed when I moved closer to family in the northwest. Surrounded by fields, hills and rivers instead of brick and mortar, I wondered about the systems around me.  Where did my water, electricity, and propane come from? Where did my garbage go? How did my septic system work? What were my farmer neighbors growing, and who ate it? How could I ride a bicycle in the rain?

To create a life that complemented or enhanced those natural systems, I would need to learn a whole new set of skills around gardening, composting, and reducing and generating energy. That’s why this spring my simple life is way, way over budget. I’m rehabbing a 40-year old, single-story family home into a green, energy-efficient dwelling with the tiniest possible footprint. Everything I’ve read about green building is turning into practice as the rehab team tightens the building envelope, increases ventilation, and adds high-efficiency heating, a 50-year roof, low-flow everything, compact fluorescent and LED lighting and low-VOC or recycled paint. All while reusing, recycling or composting as much construction debris as possible.

In Chicago I did the laundry in a corner of the basement under a single 60-watt light bulb. Now I have daily discussions about ambient versus task lighting for a dedicated bathroom/utility room, dual- versus single-flush toilets, and radiant heat versus heat pumps. A basement washing machine under a dim light feels pretty Lutheran and pretty simple. It’s modest, straightforward, and leaves lots of time for loving your neighbor. Sifting through lighting choices feels scandalously self-centered, self-indulgent, and not Lutheran at all! Is this really me???

Decisions, decisions, decisions!

When pesky building specs overwhelm me, I remember: Changing any life habit takes time and attention. Someday, all of us will live in homes that consume few resources and even produce their own power—in the country and the city. We’ll have made our existing homes greener, and green building practices will be standard. But we’re not there yet. Contractors and customers still face a steep learning curve. Dissecting lighting (xenon, LED, solar tubes?), I hope, speeds it up a little.

Eventually, my house will stop being a full-time project and just be my home. Insides its sustainable envelope I can resume my regular simple life. I can get back to being Lutheran and loving neighbors I don’t know. But for the next nine weeks, the carpenters, the plumber, the electrician, the heating contractor, the roofer, and the insulation/air sealing guy are the neighbors I’m called to respect and listen to with patience as we tackle a million details and create a green home.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Food loss vs food waste: which one is our struggle?

Just last week in my local high school’s cafeteria, eager young volunteers stationed themselves with scales in front of garbage cans. Weighing and examining every item about to be thrown away, they came up with a gross tonnage of discards and determined that only 5% of the “garbage” needed to go to the landfill. The other 95% could be recycled or composted.

While some of the compostable items were napkins and paper plates, most of it was food.

Food tossed into the cafeteria garbage can is considered food waste— food wasted at the level of consumption, that we prepare and eat in our homes, stores, and high schools, the ELCA Churchwide Office, our congregations, offices, and countless other  institutions.

Food loss, on the other hand, takes place at the level of production. Failed crops are a good example. So are shortages triggered by hurricanes, typhoons, droughts, war and violence, and diseases like potato blight or wheat rust.

Through ELCA World Hunger, we’re all committed to addressing food loss. But the food waste that takes place in our own kitchens? Invisible, unchallenged, it’s our dirty little secret. Some might defend it as a privilege of our prosperity! Food loss happens everywhere. Food waste happens in high-income regions. Although this chart is a little hard to see, just look at the proportion of red to blue. Blue is food loss. Red is food waste. We North Americans have the biggest red chunk. (To see a larger chart, go to a cool blog called Discard Studies: Exploring Throw-Away Culture, also my source for the food loss/food waste distinction.)

So, fellow hunger advocates. What’s the plan for making our food waste as visible—and as reprehensible—as the world’s food loss?

For including our own shame in campaigns that focus on the world’s shame?

For adding a photo of our excess to the gallery of photos of other people’s lack?

For including our own practices in the hunger equation?

For looking at ourselves?

I can’t wait to hear.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Get ready for the economy of sharing

I used to wish for a giant returns counter where I could exchange stuff I didn’t need  for stuff I did need. Behind the counter would be a system for redistributing, reusing, or recycling goods, so that no “returns” were ever junked. We’d all get what we needed, less perfectly good stuff would sit idle in closets and garages, and a lot less new stuff would have to be made.

My dream is coming true. It’s called “collaborative consumption” – a trendy new term for the timeworn habit of sharing.

For more details, watch this fabulous TED talk or read this Sunset magazine article on the economy of sharing. But the bottom line is, a world with too much stuff is an opportunity for people to share, swap or pool instead of buying more and more. We are born and bred to share and cooperate, says Rachel Botsman, the young economist leading the TED talk. Hyperconsumption interrupted that pattern, but the internet is bringing it back in a big way in three new forms:

  1. “Redistribution markets” that are moving used or pre-owned items from where they aren’t used to where they will be used. Think Craig’s List or, whose slogan is “turn what you have into what you want.” (The 3 Rs are now five: reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose and—implementing my returns counter—redistribute!).
  2. “Collaborative lifestyles,” in which people work, live, and stay intentionally. Are you familiar with coworking, where independent workers share an office space and creativity? Couch surfing, which matches budget travelers and homeowners with rooms or couches to spare? Landsharing, which matches gardeners and small farmers with underused yards and acreage? They are fast becoming household terms!
  3. “Product service systems” like car sharing that let people pay for the benefit of a product without having to own it  outright—a great option for things with “high idling capacity” like cars and power tools. The typical homeowner will use a power drill for 13 minutes in its entire lifetime. Says Botsman, “You need the hole, not the drill!”  So why not rent it from or to someone else?

Collaborative consumption built this community cooker in a Nairobi slum

Does this trend benefit only rich folks with video games to spare? No. Collaborative consumption relies on trust and has always been practiced in communities rich in trust and relationship. Check out this trash-burning community cooker developed in a Nairobi slum, and think about the state of our trust, relationships, and communities.

Collaborative consumption sounds like a basic Christian practice. It’s our job to give away our extra coats and sponsor food pantries. But I wonder whether all that giving keeps us locked in paternalism: I have something, you don’t, you can have mine and I’ll feel good. Collaborative consumption invites us into a more mutual model: I’ve got something, you’ve got something, let’s trade. We’re equally gifted: let’s share.

On the ground, hunger programs are brought to life less by money than by people’s dignity, resourcefulness, and willingness to work hard. Their assets contribute to a process you could call “collaborative construction.” But it’s funny how other people’s gifts vanish when we talk about hunger in congregations. We stick to the same old trope, contrasting our abundance with other people’s lack. We have money, they don’t; therefore they are needy and you should write a check.

I’ve got something, you’ve got something, let’s trade  or I’ve got something, you’ve got something, let’s create something new together frees us to see new, more collaborative ministries. Collaboration is harder. It takes a lot more time than writing a check. It changes the relationships between the people involved. It also changes the stories we tell about one another. (David explored this in his post contrasting two videos—one focused on a little boy playing in the dirt with a bleach bottle, and one in which “underprivileged” Native American teens named their strengths.) And it changes us.

The collaborative consumption concept is changing my vision of the giant returns counter. Now I see that showing up with a toaster I don’t need is just the first step. I have to be able to vouch for the condition of my toaster. I have to trust the person offering whatever I swap it for, be it a working radio, five pounds of green beans, or an hour of sewing. If I choose the hour of sewing, I might have to get to know someone new. And it will be slower than buying in the drive-through lane or pulling $20 from an ATM machine….but I think it will be a whole lot more satisfying.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A  Journal

Solving the last-mile challenge

After 10 car-free years, I am a car owner once again.

Shedding my car meant mastering new ways of moving around the world. The alternatives come naturally now, which is why so many of my posts try to encourage—hector, even—readers to take up their carbon-dependent, gas-guzzling beds and walk, ride a bike, or take the bus.

But for a year now I have suffered from what transportation planners call the “last mile” problem. My wonderful local transit hub can get me around and between towns from Canada to Portland, Oregon. But only a handful of buses can get me the three miles to the Skagit Station—all before 6 pm, and never on Sundays. Bicycling is a great option for good weather and daylight savings time, but from November to April my biking day ends by 5 pm—and snow, ice, showers, or 40-mile-per-hour gusts can keep it from starting at all.

My new challenge is to own a car without lapsing back into blind dependence on it. To stay committed to biking, walking, and taking buses FIRST instead of lazily letting the convenience of my car gradually eclipse the other options. To continue to SEE the options and to start figuring out how to overcome that last-mile—or last-three-mile—problem.

Fortunately, trends are going my way. Google Transit is taking the mystery out of planning a public transit trip. Cities like New York and Mexico City declare some areas car-free on weekends. More than half a million members share almost 8000 cars in car-sharing programs across the U.S. (Find the closest to you here) General Motors itself is a partner in the new RelayRides program in San Francisco, a system through which private car owners profit by sharing (for a fee) their cars with neighbors who have been vetted and screened.

I see my car ownership as temporary, a sort of bridge to the world I have been trying to create by not owning one. Perhaps I’ll persuade more people to take my country bus line so we can extend its hours. Perhaps I’ll organize a small car-sharing group among my country neighbors. I have lots of allies, especially among the young.  A recent New York Times article noted that 46 percent of people 18 to 24 would choose access to the Internet over access to their own car. Only 15 percent of their baby-boom parents felt that way. “The iphone is the Ford Mustang of today,” quipped an automotive analyst.

Even more exciting, car ownership is declining among the young. In 1978, 50 percent of 16-year-old Americans obtained their first driver’s license. In 2008, only 30 percent did. My son was over 18 when he got his first license, and at 24, he still has no car. Those with licenses drive less, said the Times:  21- to 30-year-olds now drive eight percent fewer miles than they did in 1995.

Life without a car takes ingenuity, creativity, and commitment. It also costs a lot less. (Buying, registering, insuring, fixing, and fueling a 14-year-old-car in the last six weeks of the year boosted my 2011 expenses by 11 percent.) And it’s getting easier.

My 2012 resolution is to own a car that stays off the road as much as possible. Here’s where I get back to hectoring. Won’t you join me? Get to know your local bus system. Walk to the store. Set up a carpool. Urge your mayor to declare a popular part of town car-free for an afternoon. Dust off your bike. Keep your car, but drive it less. Broaden your transportation strategy to include some more active choices. Together we can figure out the last-mile problem.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Planet Earth — megastore or garden?

I have been thinking a lot about the food production and distribution systems in the United States, and was so happy to read Anne’s recent post on our national food culture here.  It’s always comforting to know that others are wrestling with similar issues and ideas — after all, isn’t that one of the reasons we have this blog?

One of the aspects of food production I reflect on is how disconnected we are from the “roots” of our food, and how we can best rebuilt that connection and help those suffering from hunger and poverty.  Both my husband and I come from a long line of small town/suburban backyard gardeners (and some farmers), and I honestly never thought too much about this as being “different”.  When we settled down and bought our first house in a Chicago neighborhood, we were on auto-pilot as we planted a garden and started a compost bin.  We had a tiny yard, but enough room for a few tomato and pepper plants.  Many of our neighbors did too.

As more of our friends also bought first homes and settled in, I began to notice that not everyone planted a garden.  Call me non-observant or naive, but I hadn’t really noticed this before.  Hmmmm.  One of my suburban-raised friends confessed that although she does feed her kids fresh vegetables, she hadn’t grown up eating them and certainly not growing them.  The affordability of purchasing fresh vegetables is a topic for another blog post, but this was not the issue for my friend.

Growing vegetables can be very cost-effective, and doesn’t require vast parcels of land.  One way that domestic hunger can be relieved is through more home gardening — both through donations of fresh produce to food pantries, and through knowledge transfer from experienced gardeners to others — some of whom may be suffering from hunger and poverty.

I recently found this fascinating article “For God So Loved the Dirt . . . by Norman Wirzba in the April 2011 issue of Sojourners Magazine that I wanted to share (you’ll first need to complete the Sojourners online registration process, but it will be worth it).  The author discusses the theology of “God’s garden” as described in various passages in the Bible and how it contrasts with a resource utilization/consumer view of the Earth.  I love the imagery of God as a farmer in overalls, digging in the dirt — does God have dirty fingernails like I sometimes do?

Wirzba’s assertion that local economies enable us to see how our actions may help or harm others is really interesting.  I don’t believe that most people intend to hurt other people, but it’s hard to gauge your impact on someone you never see.  In our global economy, I don’t have to look my farmer in the eye — even if my purchasing decisions might be harming his/her family.  I’m not suggesting that local food is the only “answer”, just that it forces us to really see the other person.

The author concludes with a vision of religious institutions moving away from seeing the Earth as a megastore where you might find a good deal, and instead building the connections between God’s garden and his/her people by transforming parking lots and lawns into gardens.  Although he doesn’t explicitly discuss it, I imagine the author may agree that donating some of that produce to a local food pantry might be nice too.

Looking through the archives, I found that I blogged about this last year here, and that some congregations are already started to dig up their lawns and grow food.  I really like the concept of faith congregations building community around gardening — sharing food, building bridges, and teaching each other.  Are there more congregations doing this since last year?  I hope so.  Could this idea work in your congregation?  Does this article challenge some of your assumptions?  I look forward to your thoughts.

Erin Cummisford

Only connect

Throwing my two cents into the David-Erin-Bob/Uncle Billy discussion, I’d like to post these musings:

When we buy a car, we carefully research everything except our basic assumption: that we need one. Is there another way to move around the world that might be less damaging, like keeping the car we have and biking more and taking public transit, or sharing a car with a neighbor, or carpooling, or walking?

Of course, as “consumers” we are rewarded for making our personal buying decisions our most pressing concerns. How about we just stop calling ourselves consumers? Let’s not even be Christian consumers. Let’s be Christian citizens. Christian community members. Anything that helps lift the spell that traps us in “take-make-waste” so we can start discerning needs from wants, asking where our stuff comes from and who or what was harmed in its production, and understanding how our greed is connected to—or may even cause—other people’s need.

This is where charity becomes justice. That old saying about giving a man a fish? Sure, teach a man to fish—but don’t forget to ask who owns the pond. The world is full of competent people who know how to fish and farm but can’t access land or water—or whose land and water has been fouled by a multinational factory farm, mining operation, or Coca-Cola plant whose products are shipped to … Christian consumers.

The due diligence we need to be doing about hunger is about our own system. I say, start asking why. Why do I need this? Why was this product produced so cheaply? What hidden environmental or social costs are being paid by the people who made it? How’s their garden?  Unlike buying a car, the goal of questions like these isn’t to make us feel good about our own purchases. These questions lead us from consumerism to collective advocacy, because when a small why is amplified by other individuals, groups, or law-making bodies, it can change a system.

The bottom line why for Christians is: Why does so much of our “good life” come at the cost of other people’s welfare? Our system blinds us to these consequences. It’s time to ask our way out of this trance, to let the power of why open our eyes and start drawing the lines to world hunger that begin in our own backyards.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Where does it come from? Where does it go?

In blizzards like this week’s, basic services matter. When snow fell in Chicago, I was always grateful that my heat, water, and light almost never quit.

Where those resources came from mattered less. But connecting to services in my new home in Washington State, I’m asking: where does it come from? Where does it go?  And what is its environmental impact?

Electricity was first. In Chicago, my carbon footprint was high even though I had no car, because so much electricity is generated from coal. Naively, I assumed that Puget Sound Energy electricity would come from hydropower in the mountains and the manure-to-power plant down the road. What a surprise to learn that 56 percent of PSE power comes from coal and natural gas. A big chunk comes from the Colstrip plant in Montana—the second-largest coal power plant west of the Mississippi!  On the plus side, by signing up for Green Power, I can help boost the proportion of biomass and wind power in the overall PSE power mix. Consider it done.

Next, cooking gas. For the first time, I have a propane tank. Checking into this, I’ve learned that more than 80 million barrels of this byproduct of natural gas and petroleum processing are stored in giant salt caverns in Texas, Kansas, and Alberta. Factoring in extracting, processing and delivering, propane produces slightly more greenhouse gas emissions than natural gas but much, much less than electricity, which “looks” clean when it is used, but, once you add in emissions released as it is produced, stored, and transported, is the dirtiest of all fuels. (Something to keep in mind if you are excited about owning an electric car.)

Water, supplied by the county, comes from a mountain watershed, is stored in a reservoir, treated, and then piped to homes like mine. But I’m not connected to the sewer system; my waste water goes into the septic system out back. The science of septic tanks is something else I’ll be reading up on.

My landlords take their garbage and recycling to the local transfer station themselves. With no car and no outdoor storage shed, this is not an option for me. But the most recent Skagit County Solid Waste Management Plan recommended that local scavengers support recycling and composting by offering every-other-week pickup of one trash can. Bingo! I signed up for that paradigm-shifting service. When my garbage leaves the transfer station, it will be sent by train to a landfill in Klickitat County, where electricity is generated from methane. My compost will go in the garden and the dry recyclables will be stored until I can join someone else’s recycling run.

What do electricity, gas, water, sewage, and garbage services have to do with hunger? Severing these resources from their context and system makes it easy to waste or denigrate them. Knowing where our resources come from can change our behavior. (Maybe I should rely more on propane and less on electricity that turns out to come from a Montana coal mine!) Understanding who delivers these services also builds respect in a climate marked by griping about taxes. (Thanks, Skagit County, for designing a system that will treat everything from construction waste to agricultural waste to the cans and bottles of people like me. Thanks, Skagit PUD, for the clean water.)

Wherever we work on hunger issues, it makes sense to identify and understand existing systems before pursuing individual projects. How many of us well-building Lutherans know about the context of Water Supply and Sanitation in Tanzania?  A little due diligence might persuade us to invest water funds in strengthening an existing water delivery system instead of building “our own” well from scratch.

We live out our days inside systems. Most of them are transparent. Can you see yours?!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal

Stuff and Nonsense?

I love the voices on this blog: Lana eating snow and shopping for a GMO-free meal; David probing our call to social justice; ELCA camp directors talking about the carrots and lettuce their campers are growing, eating, and giving away.

And then there’s me, carrying on about public transportation, old socks and shoes, and how, while we profess our belief in God, we act as if The Market is at the center of our lives.

“Maybe,” Nancy suggested gently the other day, “it’s time to remind blog readers what your topics have to do with World Hunger.”

What a good idea! Even I forget, sometimes, when I get carried away. So, here goes.

Most of my 33 posts since April 2009 focus on stuff: buying and selling stuff, storing stuff, having too much stuff, recycling stuff, giving stuff away, disposing of stuff, and transporting ourselves and our stuff. Recently I’ve looked at our notions about our economy—the role it plays in our lives; the assumptions we make about it; the possibility that the Market, not God, is the deity we really serve.

Figuring out how to reuse or recycle several hundred unmatched socks at Holden Village was my September stuff preoccupation.

My corner of the hunger discussion is our North American lifestyle. It’s about how our overstuffed lives keep us from walking our anti-hunger talk—and sometimes completely contradict the beliefs we profess to hold.

Consider this: Statistics show under our present system, a child born in North America will consume, waste and pollute in his or her lifetime as much as 50 children in developing countries. This good-sized tendril of the root causes of hunger starts in our own backyard.

We Lutherans love to cooperate in starting and supporting water projects in other countries. We rejoice that in Chiapas, Mexico, our support is helping an indigenous community irrigate its fields. Meanwhile, speaking of consuming 50 times more than everybody else, at home we treat our water with little respect. We run our faucets while we brush our teeth, take 10-minute showers, and insist on bright green lawns no matter what the climate. It took three liters of water to make our 1-liter plastic water bottle? 70.5 pounds of water to manufacture (in Asia, probably) a 2-gram, 32-megabyte memory chip and its plastic package? Not our problem!

It’s odd to me that our passion for water in Chiapas doesn’t inspire us to connect the dots between green lawns and the fact that, for example, the United States consumes 95 percent of the Colorado River’s water.  The paltry 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado water we give to Mexico is about what farmers in Sonora used in 1922. They can’t farm; the indigenous living along the Sea of Cortez, where the Colorado once emptied, can’t fish. And how are the farmers down the road from that thirsty computer microchip plant faring? All we know is that we can get a computer for a song at Best Buy, and when it wears out, we can recycle it. We don’t want to know streams, groundwater, and children will be poisoned when an offshore e-waste recycler sends it back to Guiyu, China—increasing the very poverty, hunger and environmental degradation we claim to oppose.

My little blog posts fall under the World Hunger program objective, “to encourage members of this church to practice responsible stewardship of their lives and their financial resources toward the prevention and alleviation of hunger.” To me, responsible stewardship means making sure our left hand knows how the plastic water bottle it plunks  down at the cash register aggravates a situation the World Hunger dollars in our right hand hope to alleviate.

As consumers we are discouraged from connecting the dots between our stuff and its consequences. As Christians, we’re obliged to. Convenience and personal comfort at the expense of others are not gospel values. The opposite is true: the gospel exhorts us always to act with our brothers and sisters in mind.

See? My blogs are not stuff and nonsense, but stuff and challenge. Thank you, Hunger Rumblings. I’m grateful for this space and everyone blogging along with it.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Resolved: to Celebrate Sabbath Every Sabbath

Did you take a few days off during the holidays, or fill every “free” moment with something to do?

Could you use a few more vacation days, or are you under the gun to use them up because you have “too many”?

Whenever I facilitate sessions around time, people get emotional right away. Crazy schedules; expectations that can’t be met at home or at work; fears of being fired for refusing overtime; pressures imposed by software that tracks when you arrive, when you leave, how long your phone calls last, and how long you took for lunch—intense stuff gets shared. These stories reveal a political and cultural system of time that is getting steadily more oppressive.

This system is not outside of but within us. As we live and breathe it, we internalize and try to meet its expectations. Our expectations as consumers, for 2:00 am pizza and round-the-clock customer service, also feed its demands.

Trying to use our time more effectively is a fruitless adaptation. To really free ourselves, we have to ask basic questions, like why?  Lucky for us, we have Sabbath on our side.

God commands us to rest, yes. But not many people are listening. In part that’s due to  Sabbath’s gloomy reputation after long centuries of legalistic, government or church-body enforcement. Few want to embrace rules that keep us from doing what we want to do.

Our incessant busyness is also to blame. Author Wayne Muller says we Americans have no thermostat – no ability to know when to stop. Even worse, says Muller, “In spite of any compelling physical or spiritual benefits, we fear we have no authentic, trustworthy permission to stop. If we do stop to rest without some very good reason or some verifiable catastrophe, we feel guilty, we worry about getting in trouble, we feel we are just lazy, not carrying our weight, not a team player, or will be left behind. If we just put our nose to the grindstone, give it our all, do our best, give 110 percent, really put our mind to it, never give up, and work more efficiently, then we can, and should, be able to get absolutely everything on our desk, on our to-do list, on our calendars, finished, on deadline, without any mistakes, perfectly, every time. Then, we can rest.”

What a fix: no permission to rest, and a Sabbath that sounds boring and restrictive! That’s why I’m resolving to become, in 2011, a radical Sabbatarian, and try to relearn how to accept God’s permission to rest, and rest creatively.

Today, I almost succeeded. After church, I dawdled for several hours with family and friends over coffee, tea, soup, and leftover Christmas cookies. But now I’m sitting at my computer writing this post. So ends the first Sunday of the year; come Sunday two, I’ll try again. My sitting-around skills could use the practice.

In our rest-averse society, this kind of Sabbath is counter-cultural. To me, it has three radical aspects.

First,  “look Ma, no hands”: when we take our hands off the handlebars, the bike keeps going. While we rest, rain falls. Seeds sprout. The world turns, thanks to God. Sabbath can lessen our illusions of self-importance by reminding us who’s really in charge.

Second, by interrupting the “gotta do gotta do gotta do” tape that pounds inside our heads, Sabbath reminds us we are living things who need rest. We don’t have to keep going. We DO have permission to rest. Permission from God.

Third, it affirms our value as human beings. Says Barbara Brown Taylor, about Sabbath: “Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce—that even if you spent one whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight.”

Could anything more strongly contradict an economy that confines our meaning to a long dance of producing and procuring?

If we truly devoted Sundays to enjoying our doing-nothing selves, whose interests would be threatened? If we truly stopped, and didn’t spend our time “off” shopping or running from place to place, filling up calendars because being busy means being important, what would happen? How might our economy change? How might we change?

Viewed this way, Sabbath is not a bunch of rules that restrict activity but a powerful, radical tool for combating systems, powers and principalities that damage humans – that refuse to respect humans unless they are working, earning, and spending. And for combating the point of view that the world is ours to exploit, all the time. Sabbath means rest for the earth!

I try to define myself as for things instead of against things. I’m for active transportation rather than against cars, for example. In this post I’ve framed Sabbath as against the extreme demands of our system of time and our economy. But Sabbath is also for something. By asking us to rest, what is God trying to create more of? As a radical Sabbatarian, I hope to find out.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity