Jodi Cole Meyer recently read the book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess (B & H Books) by Jen Hatmaker. In the book, Hatmaker describes how she and her family took seven months to consider the excess of North American affluence, examining a different area of excess each month with some sort of response to each area. Jodi has begun to work through these experiments in her own life. She is the Director of Arts and Outreach at EverGreen Ministries in Hudsonville, Mich., where she lives with her husband, Rick. They have three daughters—two married and one attending college in Grand Rapids.
After this initial interview, I plan to check in with her monthly to find out how things are going. I invite you to follow along in her journey.
Q. What drew you to this book in the first place?
A. A couple of months ago, a friend told me about a book that had been recommended to her and that had just grabbed her, compelling her to read the entire thing in a weekend. She said it was entertainingly written, but what really got her was how it touched on things we had been talking about—how “things” seemed to be taking over our lives. We were talking about raising our kids in an era of indulgence, but hadn’t really thought about our self-indulgence, and that is a part of what this book addresses. I also loved the title—the insouciance of an “experimental mutiny” made me smile.
Q. The book addresses seven areas of excess in our lives: food, clothing, spending, media, possessions, waste, and stress. What response did the author create for each area—what actions did she take?
A. The basic form of her response was to create seven “fasts”—a time of dramatically limiting her options in certain areas. Each of the fasts lasted a month, and then she took a couple of weeks off before the next fast. In each of the fasts, she limited her options to seven things: seven foods, seven items of clothing, seven places to spend money, and the like. An important component of this exercise was repentance from the mindless and excessive behaviors we fall into in this culture.
Q. Which of these techniques have you taken up in your own life? What have you learned from them?
A. This month I have been eating seven foods: turkey, eggs, sweet potatoes, spinach, onions, bread, and berries. This is my first month, so I can’t compare to other fasts (other than those I’ve done during Lent), but it hasn’t taught me the things I had expected to learn as much as shining a light on what food means in my life and identity that I didn’t realize. As a child of God, I assume that my identity rests in him, but limiting what I eat—and almost more importantly, what I cook (I love cooking!)—has made me aware that I actually find my identity in large part in what my relationship with food looks like to other people. I don’t mind eating my simple fare in private, but I am bothered by what people must think when I am eating a plain turkey and bread sandwich, or pass on the fascinating exotic offering in favor of a sweet potato.
Q. Have you been going through this experiment on your own, or is your whole family on board? If other family members are involved, how has their experience differed from your own?
A. I am doing this one without my family, but with a group of friends that are also reading the book. We are each doing our month in a different way because of different life situations. One of my friends already has a severely limited diet because of serious health issues, one is pregnant, and one is moving to a brand-new community this month. Since this sort of exercise often puts demands on the people around us as well, we tried to figure out how to respond to what we felt was God’s call on us to reflect on the self-indulgence we exhibit in how we eat, and not necessarily a call to the same limits that Jen Hatmaker had devised. We each found ways to do that: one family is eating only from their cupboards until they’re empty, others are concentrating on foods that have a lower impact on our environment (pesticides, travel, packaging), and they have each set up structures for their particular experiences.
What has been important is getting input from these women when faced with temptations or dilemmas: what to do when invited to a celebration? When is it better to go along with what's offered? How much do we explain what we’re doing without getting caught up in another opportunity to shine a light on ourselves and what we’re doing? It's interesting that each of the fasts scares us differently—some of us have little difficulty imagining a life limited to seven places to spend money but can’t fathom how to get by with seven items of clothing, and others have the opposite reaction.
Q. What did you expect to learn from the book? And did you learn that? What did you get from it that you didn't expect to learn from it?
A. What has surprised me is the general spiritual softening that I am experiencing, along with as much awareness of the breadth of my self-indulgence as the specific area that I am concentrating on for the month. For instance, although it is food that I am limiting in June, I have been very hesitant to purchase clothing, and I am spending less time surfing for interesting political articles everywhere on the web. I also had to remind myself a week and a half into the experiment that this shouldn’t just be another project that I am trying to accomplish, but that it is a form of repentance, and that although I will joyfully eat other foods in a couple of days (9, to be exact), I have to be aware that how I eat affects my relationship with God, my relationship with his creation, and how other people eat. I want to be able to truly and profoundly enjoy the gift of food without making it my idol and with mindfulness.
Q. Do you feel like you have to explain to others why your restaurant order is kind of strange, or why you are bringing the same lunch every day? If you do explain it, how do people react?
A. One of the things we decided as a group was to try not to talk about what we were doing, noting that it’s easy to use this as another way to shape our identities to other people, rather than a true spiritual exercise. That being said, there are times you have to explain to your friends why you will be bringing your own food to their house when they’ve invited you over to share a meal. Or to the waitress why you'd like her to take everything off the sandwich other than the turkey, but if they could add spinach, that would be great. Often the assumption is that it’s a crazy diet of some kind (which I guess it kind of is), and my family in that case is eager to correct them. Telling people close enough to pray for me has been helpful and has invited good conversation. But also an eye roll or two. . . .
Q. When I try to imagine a month of only seven food items, I think I would probably pick things I really like—red peppers or avocados, for instance—and then I’d be afraid that I’d be unable to stomach them again for a long time. Do you think it will be hard to face those foods again after a month of constant use?
A. I chose things that would be flexible, and that I liked enough to eat consistently, but I didn’t love (like avocados). I also “cheated” a little, by making berries one of my seven, rather than, say, raspberries. I am not so much sick of the foods I’m eating, though, as I am eager to mix them with other foods. We’ll see how soon I make boiled eggs in July.
Q. How should we balance gratitude for the beauty and abundance of gifts that God showers on us with the recognition that we are prone to overindulge and that not everyone has the same material abundance?
A. That’s honestly what I'm trying to figure out. I think the first step is mindfulness—remembering that most people in this world would be stunned with the variety and availability of nearly every resource that we take for granted is important in a culture that loudly proclaims “You're worth it” to thousands of daily indulgences. I don’t necessarily think the beauty and abundance are the problem. I think the idea that I deserve it is. I am beginning to realize that we don’t even enjoy the variety because we often take no notice of it. We live in a land of more, and “more” can never be satisfied. As I think about this question right after answering the last one, I think I may actually like my seven foods more now than I did, because I can focus on them, rather than on everything, and I think it would be a great blessing to love what we have a bit more, rather than only loving what we're hoping to get.
Q. Any suggestions for people who would like to try it themselves?
A. Get a group of folks to go through it with—it is important to debrief, to make sure that you don’t make it an exercise in will rather than in devotion. And pay attention to what changes, without expecting to have the same revelations that the author did. I think God uses these times of spiritual tenderness to teach us profound things, but not always the same things. Third, pray your way through, and stay saturated in Scripture—7 is good, but it’s not the whole gospel.