I felt like I was preparing to punish myself for the month of March, the focus of which is “Jesus the Ascetic” during My Jesus Project, my year-long effort to more deeply understand what we really mean when we talk about following Jesus. I’ve consulted with a dietician, talked with my mentor, Reba Riley (author of “Post Traumatic Church Syndrome,”) and bought a trunk full of raw produce for my liquid-only, mostly raw food, and all vegan (save for some yogurt in my smoothies for the probiotics) diet for the next thirty-one days.
Oh, and while trying to do that and practice a new spiritual discipline each week of the month, I’m also taking inventory of all of my personal possessions and giving half of it away, or selling/auctioning it off to give the money to charity.
Yes, I know Jesus wasn’t a juicing freak. He didn’t have a dietician. And he sure as hell didn’t eat kelp, quinoa, or some other hippie stuff I can’t even pronounce. At least not that I know of. So what’s the point?
I’m convinced that we in the post-industrial western world are drowning in a culture of normalized excess. This “we” includes “me,” of course. When I think about how much I consume – be it food, material possessions, media or whatever – it’s almost overwhelming how often I’m taking so much that I want, with no particular regard for what I need. It becomes a pattern, a habit, until it’s just an assumed way of life.
There are plenty of times in the Gospels when Jesus starts a statement with “Behold.” It’s not a word we use much today, but what it means is, “Pay attention.” Stop and look around, wake up from your self-destructive, distractive, excessive ways of living and be mindful. It’s not unlike the brilliant Louis C.K. bit commonly known as “Everything is amazing, and no one is happy.” Here’s a quote from him on a Conan O’Brien appearance:
I was on an airplane and there was high-speed internet on the airplane – that’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go “open up your laptop, you can go on the internet.” And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips – it’s amazing – I’m in an airplane!” And then it breaks down, and they apologize the internet’s not working. The guy next to me goes “phff – this is bullshit!” Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed ten seconds ago.
We’re often driven by these cravings and desires, and when we finally get the thing – whatever is is – that we’re convinced will make us happy and (surprise!) it doesn’t, we move quickly on to the next thing we’re sure will finally do the trick. And the capitalist system that profits greatly from our unhappiness, and the pursuit of hopeless, endless remedies, is more than happy to play right along.
Part of the practice of asceticism is making room, taking intentional time to stop and really pay attention. What the hell am I doing? What am I putting in my body? What am I surrounding myself with? What am I spending so much of my time, energy and money chasing? And how many times has it failed me?
As the old twelve-step saying goes: How’s that all working out for you?
Ironically, despite the sense that I’m denying myself of so much during this fasting month, it will undoubtedly be the first time that I’m giving my body all of the nutritional fuel it needs to work the way it’s supposed to. So while I’m giving up a lot of things I want, I’m working consciously to give myself what I need in place of the want.
Funny that I would fight fulfillment of my own needs, sacrificing them instead for wants that never have done the trick before.
In addition, I’m going through all of my personal possessions (I’ve assured my kids and wife that joint property is off limits) and getting rid of half of it. For starters, the clutter is ridiculous. I have boxes of stuff in the garage I haven’t even opened since my last move. As another prophetic comedian, George Carlin, once said, we’re addicted to our stuff. When we fill up all the space we have with stuff, we just rent a space so we can put more stuff in there, rather than getting rid of some of the stuff.
Both the food and stuff addictions in our lives remind me of a quote attributed both to Einstein and Ben Franklin at one time or another, that the definition of “insanity” is repeating the same behavior over and over, while expecting a different result. Maybe the problem isn’t that I don’t have enough stuff, or the right stuff, or the food/gadget/job/whatever that I think I want; maybe I’ve lost sight of the ability simply to appreciate what I already have, to release the power that my stuff has over my happiness, and the ability even to distinguish the difference between what I want and what I actually need.
So I’m giving up a lot this month during My Jesus Project, and though I’m wary and even slightly panicked from time to time, I have the sense that I’ll gain a lot more from the experience than I’ll ever lose. I might not live in a cave in burlap underwear, living off of locusts and honey, but I’m stepping out with the faith that if I really behold – stop, look around and pay attention – some of the fog will lift and I’ll learn at least a little more about what Jesus kept talking about when he said the opportunity to live abundantly is right in front of us.
And maybe it’s available to all of us. Sounds like good news to me. Sounds like Gospel.