Zero-waste Lent

Seeing the Unseen

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Last year during Lent, I watched through Facebook as my friend Ann gracefully and creatively practised “zero-waste” with her family. For 40 days, the Andree Wiebe family avoided using or creating garbage. They brought their own jars to the bulk store, eschewed take-out and ready-made meals, brought their own wraps to buy cheese at the farmers market, and made their own bread. In her Facebook posts, Ann reflected on using cloth diapers, shopping at thrift stores, demonstrating at climate change protests, and participating in the local co-op store. The majority of garbage they disposed of was litter they collected from the neighbourhood. I was amazed and inspired by their intentionality, especially as she had three children under the age of 5, with two still in diapers.

Growing up, I didn’t know about the ancient tradition of fasting during Lent. Perhaps our Reformed tradition didn’t encourage these customs for fear of promoting a works-based faith. It wasn’t until I attended a Reformed university that I was introduced to the concept of Lenten fasting. There people would ask each other, “What are you giving up for Lent?” and we would answer with things like television, meat, or chocolate.

Some say the act of cutting out something we enjoy or take for granted gives us a small taste of Christ’s sacrifice, an opportunity to empathize with his experience. But such reasoning might make light of Jesus’ life and death, as my giving up sweets or Netflix for a month and a half can’t really be compared to Christ’s coming to the earth and laying down his earthly life. Others argue that fasting provides an opportunity to relinquish fleshly desires and, in denying bodily cravings, to strengthen the spirit. However this rationale perpetuates a dichotomy between the body and soul and pits the good gifts God has given us against true spiritual development, an incompatibility that need not exist so long as our enjoyment of things isn’t coming between us and God’s will for us.

I see the discipline of Lenten fasting more as an opportunity to refocus our values, a regular reminder of our spiritual callings through giving up something we take for granted. The intentionality of letting something go allows us to replace that time or attention with a spiritual practice, such as prayer, meditation or giving.

So how can a “zero-waste” commitment be used as a Lenten practice? As my friend Ann explains, “We live in a world where everything is quick and easy. This convenience is really handy, but often at the expense of our earth. Trying to imagine doing differently, in a way that cares for creation a bit better, helped our family live out healing ways of homemaking together. It meant saying no to buying very convenient (or tasty!) things sometimes, but we all enjoyed the challenge of figuring out alternatives or simply going without. And that “going without” aspect of zero-waste sure felt like a fast.”

There is a strong biblical precedent not only for individual fasting but also collective fasting. The Ann and her husband Lydell’s zero-waste fast became a Lenten practice they could observe with their children, teaching them about the world Christ has died to restore and helping little ones to learn tactile ways they can take part in the process of redemption. Ann reflects, “Lent helps orient you to God in a different sort of way than regular, everyday life. And I think zero-waste Lent did help our family grow spiritually. Every day, our kids talk about “taking care of God’s creation.” They understand that God has called us to care. And we continue to look for ways to live out God’s dream to be “caring and sharing, loving and laughing” (from the Desmond Tutu Children’s Storybook Bible). For kids especially, it’s been such a practical way to make God’s dream for his world happen.”

Ann acknowledges that, “zero-waste or less-waste looks different for different people in different places. For example, I happened to be on maternity leave and could focus on home-making without juggling a job outside the home too. Also, we happen to live in a city with lots of zero-waste options.” In a world where so much is constant disposal is the norm, zero-waste might be impossible for some, and a low-waste or low-spending option might be more feasible.

Consumerism and capitalism may be the biggest idols of our time. There is so much we take for granted in terms of the waste we create due to these systems. Taking a month and a half to be intentional about the ways we are spending, discarding and consuming can provide a thoughtful spiritual practise. It creates the opportunity to care more deeply for the world we’ve been instructed to steward. It allows us to reconsider where we find our meaning and purpose in life. It is an exercise in becoming attentive to the subtle messages of consumerism our culture feeds us and instead becoming more attuned to Christ’s countercultural call.

Small acts of discipline like this are only a start in bringing healing to a creation wounded by human selfishness. But they can be a significant step in self-sacrifice that moves us towards an intentional lifestyle. In caring for this earth that has been entrusted to us, we need to continue to advocate for large-scale change at the political and corporate level. As Colin Conrad’s article reminds us, we don’t observe spiritual practices like this to become better people, but rather to serve our creator, to recognize our brokenness, and to follow our Savior in seeking to be agents renewal in this world.

About the Author

Melissa Kuipers writes fiction and non-fiction. She is also director of discipleship ministries at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, Ont

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Melissa Kuipers considers the discipline of Lenten fasting an opportunity to refocus our values and remind us of our spiritual calling. That's her concept of fasting however, I don't need a calendar period of self denial to express my gratitude for God's calling. It's a year-round thanksgiving. One more thing. That Kuipers calls on us to "continue to advocate for large-scale change at the political and corporate level" hints of a political agenda.     

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