(or ‘The joys of a naked cucumber’)
Naomi and her husband Luke took up the challenge to go ‘plastic-free’ during Lent. Here, Naomi reflects on what might happen next.
Since Lent began, nothing in our kitchen has been quite what it seems. Cake tins are stuffed with fusilli, jam jars are filled to the brim with raisins and nuts, and anyone prying open a tube of Pringles might be surprised to find themselves confronted with spaghetti.
Lent has, for us, been full of surprises and new discoveries. We soon discovered the challenge of trying to buy plastic-free cheese, yoghurt, cucumbers, chocolate, cleaning products, cereal and shampoo. But we also discovered how easy it is to go plastic-free at our local greengrocer, the joy of solid bars of shampoo and conditioner – and how to clean the toilet with bicarbonate of soda and lemon juice!
Early on, I began to worry about how ‘spiritual’ my chosen Lenten discipline really was. Traditionally, of course, Lent has been a time when Christians prepare to remember Jesus’ death and resurrection through a season of penitence and self-denial. In the past, when I’ve given up something for Lent, I’ve tried to give the money I’ve saved to charity and the time or mental energy I’ve saved to God, through Bible study or prayer. But giving up single-use plastics took up more of my time, as I found myself cycling round a wider range of shops in search of plastic-free rice and conditioner. Plus, there was the vexed question of Sundays – a day when Christians traditionally set aside their Lenten discipline, in celebration of the fact that Christ is risen (alleluia!). But it seemed perverse to celebrate God’s good works by, say, wrapping myself in clingfilm every Sunday.
So, what lessons have I learned? How might I live differently from Easter Day onwards?
First, I found a perverse enjoyment in not always being able to have what I wanted, when I wanted it. We switched to having milk delivered in glass bottles on certain days, rather than buying it in plastic cartons when we were running low. This meant that we occasionally ran out of milk and had to wait for the next delivery. Buying snacks on the go (other than fruit) was also near-impossible, and sugar cravings often went unsatisfied until we had time to bake a batch of cookies or flapjacks. I was reminded of the time I spent Shabbat with a Jewish family and saw the ways they observed the commandment to rest and to keep the day holy. What seemed at first, to me, to be frustratingly restrictive rules (not being able to cook, for instance, or retrieve something from a locked car) were experienced by the family as a source of liberation. They found it healthy to be reminded that we are not entirely in control and that the world is not entirely dependent on us; that God is sovereign, and will one day renew heaven and earth, whether or not we’ve ordered the right number of bottles of milk. Being reminded of my own limitations was a healthy reality check – and waiting that little bit longer made my next milky cup of tea, or sugary snack, all the more delicious. Many of us care deeply about the environment, but might feel uncomfortable (for whatever reason) taking part in the current ‘Extinction Rebellion’ protests. But we can all rebel, in small ways, against a culture of instant gratification. Waiting, or going without, can be an act of holy protest.
During Lent, I have been struck by our calling to love the Lord our God with all our mind, as well as our heart and soul (Matthew 22:37). I have been tempted, on many occasions, to accept what feels like the right answer without interrogating it in any depth. But making environmentally-friendly decisions can be complex. Plastic has many disadvantages, but it also prevents a huge amount of food waste. Glass bottles and tin cans also take energy to produce. Which is better overall – plant-based yoghurt bought from a shop in a recyclable plastic container, or dairy yoghurt delivered to my doorstep in a reusable glass jar? Such decisions also have financial implications which, for an increasing number of families in the UK, make ethical decision-making all the more fraught. (Interestingly, we found that although some items – like soap – became more expensive, the cost of our shopping decreased overall, as our options became more limited and we cooked more recipes from scratch, majoring on items that were readily available without plastic, such as vegetables and grains.) Loving God with our minds means wrestling with decisions in all their complexity and taking the time (where our resources allow it) to weigh up the pros and cons of each option, and not simply to take the easiest (or most attractive!) path.
But as well as thinking critically, Lent has also served as a reminder to me that there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a gap between faith and the physical ‘stuff’ of life. What we do, how we travel, what we eat, and where we shop doesn’t just reflect what we think about God and God’s creation – it shapes it. In the words of Richard Rohr: ‘we do not think ourselves into new ways of living. We live ourselves into new ways of thinking.’ As I’ve found myself shopping in new places, meeting new people, cooking more from scratch, and thinking more intentionally about what containers I should carry with me – I’ve felt these ways of living shaping my mind-set. In God, we live and move and have our being (not just our thinking).
Finally, I have been reminded that the personal is political – that our actions as individuals, however small, have an impact, especially when businesses begin to respond to consumer trends and politicians to what matters to voters. By changing our patterns as individuals, we can be salt and yeast in our communities.
We’re still in the process of working out what changes will continue after Easter Day. Some – like our milk deliveries – have already become a part of our weekly routine, while others – like the absence of halloumi! – we’re more eager to leave behind. But I hope that the mindset of living more slowly, intentionally, and with greater appreciation of the gifts of God’s creation, will continue.
Naomi Oates is a Methodist minister in training and a member of the Living Lent community. She worships in the Teddington and Richmond & Hounslow Circuits, trains at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham, and works for the Connexional Team. From September (assuming the Conference agrees!), she will be stationed to the North Kent Circuit as a probationer. She enjoys baking, swimming and hiking (but not all at the same time).