My kids and wife hardly give me stuff anymore, regardless of the occasion. They once paid close attention around Christmas, birthdays and Father’s Day to the perpetual gross list I’d stick on the refrigerator: “Two of everything.” (A Mennonite friend calls that my “Noah List.” But I never wanted even one cat.)
Reforming the Christmas list
To make their searches for perfect gifts specific and sometimes affordable, I’d highlight certain must-haves: dog, sweatbands, squash balls, dog, DeWalt table saw, Milwaukee Tools laser-guided 12-inch dual bevel sliding compound miter 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 squash balls, but someone suggested I didn’t really need the miter saw, because Joe Gottfred next door said I could borrow his whenever. Bummer.
I attribute part of the sea-change to conversations during long bike rides with my brother-in-law Cal. Both of us belonged to groups that regularly battled our own willy-nilly consumerism; you could call them “CA,” I suppose (Consumers Anonymous), but we rarely got beyond Step three of 12. Still, many discussions resulted in conscious group decisions: eat in community more often and in restaurants less often; donate dollar amounts equivalent to or exceeding our “needless crap” acquisitions to relief and development organizations, environmental causes, missions and church organizations; vow to reduce our crap hoards.
Once Cal summed up our conversations: “Every time I read Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, it costs me 1,500 bucks.” My response: “Astonishingly, not only can we afford that – we hardly feel it if we’re a little careful about buying the needless crap.”
Personal consumption dilemma
To put it bluntly, I wonder whom we’re really hurting by how we live, despite our small steps to cut personal consumption. For example, Rose and I still own two cars, even after retirement. For 10 years no public transportation could get to her work in Burlington in under two hours. While working as a full-time pastor, I couldn’t visit at least half of my congregation without driving between 10 and 40 kilometres one way. Sure, Rose did carpool for those years; I biked to visit people when possible and continue to ride to church now and again and other places. (Ok – in good weather, at least.)
Still, in our retirements we are blessedly healthy, each living full lives that require car travel. For my part-time work with Resonate Global Mission I go to Burlington occasionally. Rose drives to Waterloo monthly for her spiritual direction vocation. We both participate in church and community activities occupying at least two nights weekly. And who dares ride on St. Catharines’ roads at night without full neon armour, a searchlight up front and a blinking, blinding red laser in back?
So, no matter our best intentions, we always take half-measures in buying, in giving, in living. Sure, I did borrow Joe’s mitre-saw, even though it wasn’t laser-guided. But couldn’t I kid myself into buying at least the nifty DeWalt table saw to help support workers in tool development, production, marketing, sales and transportation sectors? They need work too, right? Even if most of the workers who produce my covet/Noah list probably work in appalling conditions overseas?
Some freedom from consumerist slavery
But Romans 6:23 oddly helps: “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 or Christmas season text, but here’s how it fits. By the way, I hardly ever use the word “Christmas” anymore, preferring to “put the X back in Christmas,” X being the first Greek letter for Christ.
Where was I? Right: Romans 6:23, forgiven sin and eternal life, the best ever Xmas gifts and lifestyle. With decades-long help from books, friends and the Scriptures, I continue to recognize how thoughtless consumerism is daily paying us ever more mini-deaths.
How long can God’s world survive our consumerism? Though we attend worship weekly and pray daily, we often seem to worship what we do to buy the stuff we want. Materialism – the quest for wealth and personal or national security – separates us from different cultures, nations, faiths and even friends and family. We are killing relationships personally, nationally, internationally. Was I killing Joe Gottfred just a little by coveting my own saw and not borrowing his?
From killing consumerism to hints of resurrection life
In an article years ago in Christianity Today, 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.
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 and Xmas Xians 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 concluding 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 dear late dog, Dakota, 13 years ago and shared nine and a half years with the lovely German short-haired pointer with a common birthday; we were both 63 on February 14, 2011.) For years now, Rose and I have given acres of rainforest, herds of goats and 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 his people.’”
Jesus’ gift of himself reminds me of the debt he paid. It also urged me to give one significant gift to our children one Christmas – Margaret Atwood’s splendid 2008 Massey Lectures, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. In the world’s, our nation’s and our personal current debt and credit crises, 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.