Jun 27, 2007

The Stuff of Life

Across the street from our hotel in Minneapolis is the Mall of America – the “largest mall in America” for those who don’t know. Sometimes when I am driving past, I notice visitors standing outside the mall taking pictures next to the giant sign; it turns out, it is THE tourist destination in the area. According to statistics within the mall, it is the state’s largest tax revenue-generating tourist attraction! The building is truly massive, and even more amazing is the cottage industry that has sprung up around it – hotels offering “Build A Bear” Packages, shuttles to and from the mall at all hours, stores (yes that is plural) within the Mall of America that solely sell merchandise emblazoned with the Mall of America logo. When acquaintances from home hear that we’ve been living in Minneapolis the last few months, one of the first questions they ask is, “Have you been to the Mall of America?”

The answer is yes. I’ve gone to the movies, to the bookstore, to eat lunch, and – lest you think I am trying to proclaim that I never give into the guilty pleasure of “shopping” as a form of entertainment – to wander around its stores in an afternoon when the hotel walls were closing in. But, being so close to this symbol of one of our culture’s main national hobbies (men have televised sporting events, women have shopping) has caused me to think about our habits… the more I think, the sadder I become.

The acquisition of “more stuff” has become a national obsession – as our appetites have grown, so has our debt and so have our houses so that we could store all of it. We’ve lost a lot of time, as we have more stuff to dust, shuffle, and sort. Signs of this are everywhere… on a beautiful spring afternoon last week I was sitting in the park. A little girl of about 9 walked past me, trailing her mother and obviously pouting. “I’d much rather be shopping,” she said, as she glumly wrapped her arms around her chest.

I’m not writing this from an arrogant “I’m-so-glad-I-don’t-live-that-way/shame-on-them” perspective; I desire the latest gizmo, gadget, and gotta-have-it shirt of the season as much as the next person, but I am starting to see the madness of this life style, and I’m starting to question the Christian-ness of it. The second statement could raise the most eyebrows, so I’ll comment on it first. I’m not suggesting that God wants us to live ascetic lifestyles, denying ourselves of modern comforts and refusing to avail ourselves of modern technologies. I’m simply suggesting that if we are to be “little Christs,” and imitate our leader (Jesus), then I don’t see much of a precedent for amassing all we can get. Christ was a man of no possessions; He traveled through this life lightly, which made him much freer to serve the Father and other people. He was not emotionally attached to things; He was emotionally attached to people. (If you are like me, we are quick to assume that we are not emotionally attached to things; but contemplate giving all your possessions away to the poor, and you’ll quickly see how attached you might be.) When I mentioned madness, I am speaking of the fact that so often we become enslaved to our possessions. It literally becomes an addiction, for we are never satisfied – we always need to upgrade, improve, or replace. We use the word “need” in place of the word “want.” Let’s be honest: as Americans living in the 21st century, what do we really need? (For a while now, Jacob and I have been very cautious about using these two words. When one of us says we “need” something that the other knows is truly just a “want,” we call each other out on it. When we began to really observe our speech, it was surprising how often we used the wrong word; still do it, actually. You should try it sometime! What’s that saying… out of the mouth comes the desire of the heart? Something like that?)

You get the general idea of where my thoughts are going…

I mentioned in an earlier post that Jacob and I have tried to live over the last few years in a way that would enable us to up and move to China (or wherever else we were called) if God began to open the doors. What I didn’t mention is that one of the side-benefits of moving, and perhaps even one of the reasons we want to go, is that it will put us in an environment where we can truly internalize this fundamental lifestyle change. We know we want to live in such a way that we see our possessions as tools to build God’s kingdom and not as ways to express our individuality and personality, and we’re working on growing in that area. (We also know that temptation will always exist.) But, quitting our jobs and moving to a place where our creature-comforts are a little less accessible and where we are surrounded by people who don’t have the option of enjoying those creature comforts will hopefully put us one step closer towards actually changing our character to reflect who we want to be and who we think God wants us to be. At least that’s our prayer. We want God to work this change in our hearts, and we know it might hurt a bit! I’m not saying we can’t be materialistic in China. I know we could be. And, we could probably “change our character” here in the States, but it would be a lot harder given our environment and the pressures to conform. Mostly I know that when we enter into true and meaningful community with people who make less than $100 a month, it will become harder and harder to fathom dropping twice that on the latest digital camera when our older one is still taking good pictures. And that’s a good thing.

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What do you think about this topic? We’re excited about what we’re learning in this area, and we’d love to talk with you about it! If you are interested, I can share some books that have been helpful to us on this topic. Post a comment if you have some thoughts!

2 comments:

The Byrd Family said...

Wow! I couldn't have said it any better. What you are saying has to be in the back of most Christian's minds. My husband and I have been discussing things like, "Do we really need satellite TV?" and "Can we get by with just one car?". We are seriously praying, contemplating and thinking about these same things that you are and I think once again you actually have to go to a country like China or Guatemala or somewhere where they live on absolutely nothing and see how much "extra" we really have here. Let's face it....we are spoiled rotten American children! Yes, we work hard but so do they! What really surprised me while in China was that they wanted to much to be like Americans. My husband led a woman who owned a shop in Guangzhou to Christ and one of her workers was a teenager and asked our teenage daughter how many cars we had. Elisabeth and I both looked at each other feeling so guilty but knew we couldn't lie. We answered, "Four". Her jaw literally hit the concrete! I don't know the answer but it is definately something on our hearts and minds in the Byrd home also.

Sally said...

Thanks for having the courage to share what you're learning on this topic. It is encouraging and comforting to me as I strive to achieve a debt-free life. The desire to become debt-free requires me to forgo things that I do not want to forgo and which others do not have to forgo, but your post reminded me encouraged me to let my lifestyle reflect the desires of my heart. Stretching my finances beyond what they can tolerate - just to keep up with others to avoid feeling inferior - is merely misrepresenting the desires of my heart. Thanks for the reminder, even though you perhaps did not intend for it to be a reminder. Keep sharing on this topic. Thanks! Sally Dunbar

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