My kids and wife hardly give me stuff anymore, regardless of the occasion. Around Christmas, birthdays, and Father’s Day, they once paid close attention to the perpetual gross list I’d stick over family pictures disguising the refrigerator: “Two of everything.” (A Mennonite friend calls that my “Noah List”—but I never wanted even one cat.)
To make their searches for perfect gifts specific and sometimes affordable, I’d highlight certain must-haves: dog, sweatbands, squashballs, DOG, laser-guided mitre saw, DOG, 1962 Jaguar XKE, simple cabin on a private lake on the Canadian Shield, a book or ten, DOG.
How things change. It all started when, in a thoughtless burst of self-control, I cut my gross list in half. And people responded. Sure, I’d get sweatbands and squashballs, but someone suggested I didn’t really need the mitre saw because Joe Gottfred next door said I could borrow his whenever.
I attribute part of the sea-change to conversations with my brother-in-law Cal during long bike rides (on fairly high-end bikes; I’m not completely cured). Both of us belonged to groups that regularly battled our own willy-nilly consumerism. Many discussions resulted in conscious group decisions: eat together, donate dollar amounts of “needless stuff” reduction to development or environmental organizations.
Once Cal summed up our conversations: “Every time I read Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, it costs me 1500 bucks.” My response: “Astonishingly, not only can we afford that—we hardly feel it if we’re a little careful about buying needless stuff.”
To put it bluntly—I wonder whom we’re really hurting by how we live, even considering our small steps cutting personal consumption. For example, Rose and I still own two cars; public transportation will not get her to work or me to people in my congregation. She carpools; I bike when possible. We always take half-measures in buying, in giving, in living.
Then there’s the maddening complication that my coveted mitre-saw would pay workers in development, production, marketing, sales and transportation sectors—though in differing degrees. They need work too.
But Romans 6:23 oddly helps: “Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God…. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Maybe it doesn’t sound like an Advent text, but here’s how it fits.
With decades-long help from books, friends, and the Scriptures, I am realizing that thoughtless consumerism is daily paying us ever more mini-deaths. How long can God’s world survive our consumerist acquisitiveness? Though we attend worship weekly and pray daily, we often seem to worship what we do and stuff we buy or make. Materialism—the quest for wealth and personal or national security—separates us from different cultures, nations, faiths. We are killing relationships personally, nationally, internationally. Was I killing Joe Gottfred just a little by coveting my own saw and not borrowing his?
In an on-line article, Scot McKnight discusses what Emergent Church thinker Brian McLaren calls the “‘suicide machine’ that threatens the existence of the world—the prosperity system, the security system, and the equity system. Each has its own characteristic dysfunction: unhindered economic growth, unredemptive violence, and the rich/poor conflict. They are part of the reigning secular framing story—one that Western Christians subconsciously believe.” (“McLaren Emerging.” Christianity Today Weekly 26 September 2008.)
Whom have I killed a little besides Joe Gottfred and myself by wanting even only one of everything? I’m guessing the list reaches to family members, to people I don’t know, living in places I’ve never been.
Advent Christians prepare personally and communally for Jesus’ return. Romans 6:23 gives us the bad news about the slavery of our ambient sin—buying or wanting things that end up killing people and God’s world. Blessedly, though, the good news outweighs the bad: People who believe and live because Jesus gave himself no longer kill ourselves or others with stuff. We can live for Jesus, a bit like Jesus till he returns.
My recent Christmas lists have not been so gross: hand-knit socks from one daughter, pictures of grandchildren from other daughters, a book or two. (I got my dog four years ago.) Rose and I have given acres of rain forest, herds of goats, semi-trucks of guinea pigs to people all over on behalf of our mothers and children. We can still more than afford it. We hardly feel it. Should we?
I pray I’ve killed less of myself and others lately. Moreover, I’ve learned some of what Paul describes in Ephesians 4:7-8: “To each of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.’"
Jesus’ gift of himself reminds me of the debt he paid. It also urges me to give one significant gift to our children this Christmas--Margaret Atwood’s 2008 Massey Lectures, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (House of Anansi Press). In the current debt and credit crisis, we’re only reaping the deaths we’ve sown as a world. Turning all our stuff and selves over to Christ will reduce deaths until Jesus returns.