I’ve been a Baptist for all but 18 of the 870 months of my life.
Those non-Baptist months were at the very beginning, ending when my parents abandoned the small Presbyterian church near our home and looked for the church with the best Christian education program for their long awaited and only child.
The largest Baptist church in town fit that bill.
I’m figuring that being a Baptist for so long accounts for my less-than-enthusiastic observance of Lent over the years. Until now.
Let me explain.
The Baptist church my parents joined didn’t pay attention to the penitential seasons of the Christian liturgical year.
It was Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. Sometimes Palm Sunday, too, but certainly not Maundy Thursday, to say nothing of Advent and Lent.
Lent was especially taboo. With its denial of certain edibles, it smacked too much of Roman Catholicism and its meatless Fridays so regularly practiced in our small South Dakota city.
It didn’t matter that some of the Protestant churches around us observed Lent. This only revealed that they remained tied to the practices of the Roman Catholics.
Later, when I became more serious about my own Christian faith and its central teaching about not only loving God but also caring for others as much as, if not more than, myself, I reckoned that Lent was too self-focused.
All the practices of denial seemed to be self-absorbed. These were acts of personal piety that bordered on the pharisaic – a self-righteousness in which people could take satisfaction in how much they were giving up for God and displaying that to others.
As I became more ecumenical in my outlook, I participated in the Lenten disciplines myself.
And as a pastor I followed the Lenten lectionary readings for my preaching, encouraged members to use Lenten devotional resources and developed Lenten study programs.
When, almost 40 years ago, my doctors insisted that I give up meat, eggs and dairy products for health reasons, there were still more religious warrants to back up my own growing self-righteousness in being a vegan.
Yet I never fully escaped the inner sense that my denials, during Lent and otherwise, were, in the end, really all about me, not God and others. But like I said earlier, “until now.”
A recent op-ed in the New York Times made, implicitly, the case for observing some traditional forms of Lent – and for doing so throughout the year.
James McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, concentrated on the current drought in California – a state that produces “nearly half of the fruit and vegetables in the United States” – and its implications, therefore, for the rest of the nation.
The author’s revelation of how much water it takes to produce the food we eat was stunning – “5.4 gallons to produce a head of broccoli, or 3.3 gallons to grow a single tomato,” for example.
When it comes to the use of so-called “blue water” – water from lakes, rivers and underground reserves – the numbers are even more staggering.
“Vegetables use about 11,300 gallons per ton of blue water; starchy roots, about 4,200 gallons per ton; and fruit, about 38,000 gallons per ton,” McWilliams reported.
But all of that pales in comparison to the water needed to feed the animals most of us eat. “Pork consumes 121,000 gallons of blue water per ton of meat produced; beef, about 145,000 gallons per ton,” while butter requires 122,000 per ton.
Alfalfa – which isn’t usually consumed directly by humans, but produced to feed cattle – requires the most water to produce.
Factory-grown cows, most often used to produce dairy products, have alfalfa as a primary source of feed.
And strange as it may seem, California alfalfa producers are sending huge amounts of their harvest to Asia because “it’s more profitable to ship alfalfa from California to China than from the Imperial Valley to the Central Valley.”
Because Asians are developing the typical American diet, “alfalfa growers are now exporting 100 billion (that’s with a “b”) gallons of water a year from this drought-ridden region to the other side of the world in the form of alfalfa.”
McWilliams urges the following response: “There’s a clear and accessible action most citizens can take: reducing or, ideally, eliminating the consumption of animal products. Changing one’s diet to replace 50 percent of animal products with edible plants like legumes, nuts and tubers results in a 30 percent reduction in an individual’s food-related water footprint. Going vegetarian, a better option in many respects, reduces that water footprint by almost 60 percent.”
I’d say I’ve found a way, at last, to make Lent feel less like a period of self-absorption. I think we’ve all found a way to make Lent, ideally observed year-round, a religious practice for the common good.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.