admin December 1st, 2013
This post is actually a sermon I gave on 11/24/13 to a Church of the Brethren congregation which had a mixture of folks who were raised as Brethren with a traditional understanding of simple living, along with many people not raised in this tradition. I tried to tie together several facets of simple living with our modern, digital consumer culture and celebrating Christmas more simply and more thoughtfully.
Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news: Christmas is coming!
That’s both the good and bad news.
Christmas is my favorite time of year – and it also causes me a tremendous amount of anxiety. It makes me anxious for a number of reasons, some of which I’m sure you all share with me. But this past week I’ve been worrying about whether I should celebrate a 21st Century American Christmas, or actually be a Christian!
See, here’s the thing:
I think that the notion of Christian simplicity is one of the most valuable things the Brethren have had to offer the world. It’s in the church’s tag line: “Simply, peacefully, together.”
And, as we all know, Brethren simplicity starts with Paul telling us that we are not to be conformed to this world. He says in Romans 12 “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”
Now, when Paul tells us not to conform to this world, he’s saying “don’t do what 21st Century consumer society wants us to do. We shouldn’t live our lives by the same corrupt values that the big banks, and the multinational corporations like Walmart, McDonald’s, and Amazon.com, and consumer society in general (values that have sometimes created horrendous injustice and suffering particularly in the Third World… as well as right here at home) so that we can live pretty comfortably.
Now, to be honest, I pretty much conformed to consumer society for a lot of years, in spite of what Paul asked us to do. I’ve had to admit that my wants and wishes had been pretty much out of control…
And so now I’m telling you: I am, a consumer addict! And I’m not joking! For most of my life I’ve loved to buy stuff… and when I could, I liked to buy expensive stuff. It gave me a thrill to buy a new cell phone, a camera, even a new bicycle chain! Let’s not even talk about buying a car!
But I was stunned one Sunday morning some years ago, reading the Story of Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler in church back in Maryland.
That story is in Luke 18. You all know the story, but here’s the key line that struck me:
Jesus says to the rich young ruler, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
It was at that point, reading this passage, and then having to preach on it, that it shamed me… because I knew I didn’t live like that. I had to admit right then, that I was a consumer addict. And just like alcoholics, consumer addicts are never cured of that, but you can recover from it and that’s where I am now – trying to recover from being a ‘consumer’.
So I’ve spent the last few years working my own personal consumer 12-step program, trying to regain some of that old Anabaptist/Church of the Brethren sanity; trying to walk Jesus’ talk a little better.
Now, that’s always a hard job because it means making a lot of difficult personal changes, and change is always hard… if it’s meaningful change – diabetics, people with heart disease, and alcoholics and drug addicts – we all know that… right??
But it’s worth the trouble because it means having more control over our egos – our wants and desires – and focusing more on the needs of others.
But what makes it even harder now is that we’re living in the 21st Century. and that’s not your grandfather’s simplicity anymore.
In the late 20th and 21st Centuries we have all become… consumers!
You know, of course, that’s now our role in life… to consume. For many Fortune 500 executives, that’s all that we are. Our job, as far as they’re concerned, is now to consume… to make money for the corporations, to generate tax revenues for the government, and to increase the Gross National Product. That’s our job description now in consumer America. Or at least that’s what the world thinks we are, or thinks we should be.
I can’t think of anything more demeaning than to be labeled a Consumer and having that be my identity. The sum-total of my life – someone who just consumes – uses up stuff… Is that who you want to be?
Especially since the Recession hit in 2008 we’ve been told by government, industry, and economists that we had to spend our way out of the recession… spend our way to prosperity, and make the economy grow, and then we were to keep on spending as much as we could even after the recession was over. We’re supposed to buy, and buy… and oh, by the way, stay out of debt while buying all that stuff… although the Bank of America and the other big banks would love for us to stay in debt so they can make more money on our interest payments.
So if I’m not conforming to this consumer world as Paul taught me NOT to do, then I guess… I’m unpatriotic, because I’m not helping spend our way to personal and national prosperity!
Well… that kind of puts us all between a rock and a hard place! Do we please the bankers and big box stores… or Jesus? Remember, He said “sell all that you have…” not “buy as much as you can.”
The big bankers and retail executives want us to become addicts because… they want our money… every day, and only addicts can do that. On the other hand, to be honest, we want much of the stuff they’re selling! Because, we’re told by our culture, that we are entitled to it, or that we should all want to have everything we can possibly get!
But to make my recovery from consumerism even harder, the late 20th and 21st Centuries have brought us “the digital revolution” with its computers, cell phones, smart phones, laptops, note pads, GPS navigation systems, and … the true savior of mankind… the Internet.
With the Web and all of our devices, we are now capable of, and often actually do, buy anything, anywhere, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all holidays included – without laying out a dime of actual money! Now compare that to the world our Brethren ancestors and our grandparents had to contend with in the horse and buggy days with the good old country store!
Living in our environment, today is the same thing as an alcoholic who is living and working in a bar with an unlimited tab: it’s the kiss of death for living simply… having a simpler Christmas! And our multinational, digital universe is history’s biggest and most ruthless bar… We think their whisky is pretty great stuff!
Yeah, I could blame it all on the corporations and Wall Street, but the fact is, I’m responsible for my own behavior. I’m responsible for my own walk with Jesus… along side of Paul. It’s my addiction that pushes me away from Jesus, deafening me to His voice. Making me not walk his walk, and nothing could be more tragic than that!
Then there’s the huge factor of the amount of damage we do to others “down stream” from us – ‘Down stream’ means… all those people who either have to make the stuff we buy, or have to deal with the consequences of what we do with it all.
By “buying into consumer culture” instead of “not conforming” to it… we do a lot of damage. A lot of un-loving things, for instance:
… and we all know this, but we forget it when we walk into a store or go online…
Extremely low wage workers in 3rd world countries make much of what we buy and sometimes that work is done in sweatshops, and even sometimes it’s forced labor. How many more factories in India, China, or Bangladesh have to burn down, killing hundred’s of people so that we can have stuff… cheap enough, so we can afford to buy… a lot of it… so we can have it all?
If it was expensive, we wouldn’t buy as much would we? Hmmm…
And virtually all of those factories create tremendous amounts of pollution in the process of manufacturing this stuff.
To make matters worse, the mining of many of the metals that go into our gadgets, particularly our electronics (and now the electronics are even in our Christmas cards) and the drilling and refining of oil to make the plastic cases the stuff goes in, here and around the world, denudes thousands of square miles of God’s earth and causes enormous amounts of pollution that sickens folks and shortens their life spans.
Then, of course there’s the recycling issue. Much of what we consume and throw away is not recycled. It ends up leaching away in garbage dumps, further polluting and sickening still more people.
Last… I’ll give you just one statistic about our use of our, now billions of electronic gadgets: You know that Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Facebook, and virtually all large web-based business rely on “server farms” – data centers – huge warehouses filled with computers – to store all the information… including your Facebook data, emails, and credit card numbers!
Today those server farms use around 10 billion watts of electricity a year. That is equivalent to the output of about 10 nuclear power plants! … just so we can surf the web, update our Facebook pages, and send email to our friends, and of course, buy stuff! You can decide if this makes any sense or not… to Jesus or to Paul.
I don’t want to over-simplify what are some extremely complicated and difficult issues, but the bottom line is that…
This is not any way to show our love for people, or for ourselves.
So Merry Christmas!… well, Merry Christmas to us anyway.
The question is, Why do we do this? Why do we so happily ignore what Paul told us to do? Why do we reject living simply in these modern, hyper-digital times. Why do we continue to abuse those people for our own gratification… people we’re supposed to love?
Science has some news for us about that:
Our ‘standard of living’, our life style as Westerners and Americans, is actually… here it comes… a physical addition. There is now good research that shows that the same chemistry is at work in our brains when we shop and buy things as when a person drinks or uses drugs. Even when we just think about buying something we want, the chemical, dopamine, kicks into our brains and we suddenly start feeling really good about it. The dopamine tricks our brains into thinking that buying this stuff is wonderful and that we should do more and more of it. It’s exactly the same thing as having a drink of alcohol… and then craving more.
The problem is that the dopamine… wears off, just like alcohol or heroin, and later, we don’t care about it so much anymore, or worse, we might even have “buyer’s remorse” – “Oh, now I wish I really hadn’t spent all that money on that!”… It’s a hangover! It is true physical addiction. And I don’t remember that Jesus was real big on addictions.
But our egos also play a big role in our buying habits too.
Our egos, like I’ve said before – but it bears repeating – are just little emotional ‘shells’ that our minds create to protect us and make us feel safer and more worthwhile. And they’re always a little (and sometimes a lot) fearful that we might not be quite good enough… not as good as our sisters or brothers, or not as good as Mom or Dad wanted us to be, not as good as our boss wants us to be… so our egos create endless stories and arguments in our minds to overcome these imagined shortcomings.
The stories go like, “if I just buy this new car, I’ll feel like a million bucks!” But , our tricky little egos know that we’re not supposed to think like that, especially in church, so it makes up another story that goes something like “Well, you know, the tires on the car are pretty worn out; the oil needs to be changed; oh, and there’s a scratch on the left side; and I almost forgot… the timing belt probably needs to be replaced… well, it’ll just gonna be cheaper in the long run to… just buy a new car to replace my… oh my god, three year old car!”
Same thing for clothing, furniture, TV’s, smart phones and don’t get me started on kids toys at Christmas.
And it really doesn’t matter if we’re Rich or poor, whether we make a little money or a lot of money. In this country and in Western countries in general, we all tend to think the same way about having money, and having ‘stuff.’ If we have more money, we buy more, bigger things. If we have less money, we buy fewer, smaller things. But the common denominator is that we all want ‘more.’
But… here’s the key… Our egos, that want us to buy all this stuff so we can feel better, are NOT who we are, either!
Who we are, is in our souls, and our souls can be ‘in charge’ instead of our egos, because our souls are what connects us with God, and Jesus, and Paul, not our fragile little egos.
I know… you’re thinking, “Wow! What a way to kill the Christmas spirit!”
But it actually can boost our Christmas spirit because… it frees us to focus on what Christmas is really about.
Christmas is about celebrating Jesus’ birthday and giving him the kind of present he wants. I believe he wants us to love other people, the strangers from around the world, not just the family and friends in our living rooms on Christmas morning.
He would want us to work for economic and social justice for the poor – the people who sweat and scrape to make it possible for us to have most of our gadgets and bling.
He would want us to pay those folks fairly for what we buy from them… even if it means paying (Oh, my god!) substantially higher prices so they can earn enough to live decent lives… rather than our just going along with the rest of consumer society and participating in Walmart’s, Kmart’s, and Amazon’s race to the bottom – their cheap deals that keep those people in poverty.
That makes me joyful… getting my head and my heart right with Jesus and doing what He would want, especially for His birthday.
Well, it’s easy to say – and a lot harder to do.
So how do we do it?
First, we can meditate on our egos and our consumerism… and pray long and hard that God will strengthen us, and transform our consumer addiction.
Second we can think deeply and carefully about each thing we want to buy.
Each time we’re in a store and see something we want to buy, whether it’s for us or someone else, we should pick it up or get real close to it, look deeply into it, and see and hear the people who made it, who put into it the blood, sweat, and tears, and who sometimes suffered to make it… merely for our satisfaction.
We should think about the woman in Bangladesh with no education supporting 6 children, living in a falling-down hovel, who doesn’t make enough money to have electricity, plumbing, or even a bed, and who will never be able to afford that item for herself.
Can we think of her and love her like The Virgin Mary?
Or the 10 year old boy digging in a mine with no possible future. Can we love him like we love The Baby Jesus?
Do you really need to buy that item and, in buying it, support their continued poverty and powerlessness? Or can we send a message to Walmart, Amazon, and JP Morgan, that we aren’t conforming to their sad view of the world, and of people.
Then we should think, instead of buying this thing, maybe I should buy less stuff, and invest some time, effort, and the money saved, in alleviating the practices, policies, and greed that lead to the conditions these people have to work under by giving it to the church or another organization that operates out of love rather than the profit motive.
Then we could celebrate a simpler, more joyous Christmas with ‘lowered expectations’ for our Christmas giving and receiving –with less – don’t worry, not with nothin… just with less) so we can actually invite Jesus and Paul to the birthday party with us.