Tag Archives: Conversion

Living With Less in the Land of More

Many are reflecting on the stuff we own and how it owns us in this season of shopping and gift-giving. I read an excellent article recently about one family’s journey with their relationship to their stuff (Stuffed to the gills: How crap took over my life—and how I intend to take it back). So, I thought I would reflect on my family’s journey with our relationship to our stuff. Many of your stories are probably similar in many respects.

The Birth of the Monster
It all began… well, when I was born, but that would take to long. Accumulating stuff really hit an exponential growth curve when we got married. Neither of us had too much stuff after college, but we had both lived on our own long enough to accumulate more than enough. Not only does a wedding combine two people’s stuff, it piles on a whole host of new stuff on top of what you already have. We tried to keep it simple by encouraging people to donate in our name to a charity, but in our culture it doesn’t really count unless you buy something for somebody. So, we filled our registry at various places and people piled up the presents. Even with all the gifts we still had room to spare in our little two bedroom apartment.

Then we made two more decisions that many people make which set us on a trajectory to having more stuff, 1) we bought a house (bigger than our apartment) and 2) we decided to have kids. We bought the house first and people tend to fill the space that they live in. We tried to keep things minimal, but living in an empty house also seems kind of silly. Then we had kids. Between baby showers and grandparents these little 7 to 8 pound bundles of joy come with an incredible amount of stuff for being unable to eat solid foods, walk, sit up or burp without help. They continually acquire new stuff every year for birthdays and new clothes as they grow faster than sea monkeys.

Taming the Monster
While we considered ourselves to be people that tried to live simply and consume less, we found ourselves trying to figure out what to do with a 1600 square foot house full of stuff when we decided to move to the World Hunger Relief, Inc. farm where we had a small two bedroom apartment. There were a lot of craigslist ads and a big yard sale. We tried to think hard about what we needed and what was worth keeping. Still, when moving day came we had to put a lot of boxes into storage (at my mom’s) and managed to fill up the apartment nicely.

Then we accepted a position with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Bolivia. We thought it was silly to put our stuff in storage for three years. So, we got rid of everything. This time we really did. We got rid of all our furniture, chairs, table, futon, beds, dressers…our car…everything. We still had some things stored at my mom’s but even that was picked over and cleaned out. We pared down our material possessions to an absolute minimum. It was a crazy, radical move that tested our faith and resolve to trust God and the Body of Christ.

Yet, when we got to Bolivia our eight suitcases seemed a little excessive in light of the people around us who had so much less. While living there and working with MCC, I wrote about what it means to live simply (What is Simple Living?). Once again our ideas about what was enough, what was simple and what we needed were challenged. Each time we moved and tried to simplify we learned more about what was important and what was not.

Now that we are back in the United States, we are looking to replace some of those items we so happily gave away. We hope to add these things back into our life slowly and be discerning about what we really need. We’ve asked our community to share their excess with us as we shared with them. What we have found is that we continue to have more than we need, because our friends both have more than they need and are willing to share it with us.

Lessons From the Monster
The obvious lesson here is that you should pursue downward mobility by moving every few years to poorer and poorer places in the world, right? As the aforementioned article also points out, moving does provide an opportunity to evaluate what’s worth piling in a moving van. Yet I’ve often talked about the importance of place and putting down roots. So, perhaps the solution is a discipline of seasonal cleaning. We already have this cultural concept of “spring cleaning“, but how many of us practice it? Choose a time of year to give your stuff a good cleaning and share with others out of your abundance.

There’s also trying to cut the monster’s head off from the beginning. We tried an alternative wedding registry for such a purpose, but with little success. I know others have held their ground and been more effective. I found The Scavenger’s Manifesto to be a great resource with more than just tips and tricks for finding free stuff, but a different way of thinking about our stuff.

Patience is the most important and most difficult virtue when considering our shopping. Consumerism is based on impulse buys and tickling our acquisition bone. The longer you can avoid the instant gratification temptation to buy stuff the moment you think of it, the more things will simply filter out over time. Then you’re left with things that were worth the wait to buy. You’ll probably find a good deal, find a cheaper alternative or at least thought more carefully through your purchase.

Finally, I mentioned in Wading Into the Pond last week some ideas about how to move from charity to justice in our lives.

  1. Don’t do it alone- Find others to walk with you on the journey.
  2. Learn to talk again- Within relationships of trust, we have to learn how to talk about our finances with others.
  3. The Holy Excise Tax- Find creative ways to hold each other accountable and make your choices more transparent
  4. Saints and Sinners- Show yourself and others grace. The goal is not being more righteous or holy than others, but attempting to follow Jesus into a new way of living.

Wading Into the Pond

The previous post discussed an ethical dilemma presented by Peter Singer concerning the choice between saving some fancy shoes or a drowning child in a shallow pond. The conclusion was that charity is the best we can do within the given social structures, but that justice requires counter-cultural living. The way of following Jesus is not charity, but justice. It requires a radical reorientation of our lives away from token charity to a new kind of Jubilee economics.

So, the question is how to incorporate these ideas into our daily lives. This is really the question with which I wrestle. Singer’s shallow pond dilemma is really more like the dilemma of two oceans and our ever more insular lifestyle. How do we make ourselves aware of how we spend our resources and the choices we make about what to buy? How do we recognize in our daily lives the impact of the choices we make? Finally, how do we attempt to live out something more than charity, embodying something “counter to the ethics of the culture” we’re in?

The Definition of Insanity
The oft quoted saying that, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results” has been attributed to Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Confucius, but more likely came from Narcotics Anonymous literature. If anyone, the addicts would know the truth of this saying. Likewise continuing to try and live counter-culturally as isolated individuals will not work.

The first thing we need to realize is that we cannot do it alone. To try and do it alone as an individual consumer is to continue within the same framework. Our awareness of the reality of the situation is muted by our own isolation from all the other individual consumers with whom we share the world. So, we must find particular people who are willing to walk this road with us. It is the particulars of our shared lives that shed light on our own inconsistencies and inadequacies. These are vulnerable relationships based on trust and shared values. These are the relationships many of us are lacking in North American culture.

We need to break out of our isolation, but we need more than just a book club. Waco just started a time exchange where people can exchange time and skills with each other rather than currency. Tool sharing is another way to build up community as the solution rather than individual consumption. Anything that you can do with other people that promotes community and shares resources moves us beyond the parameters of consumerism.

The Second Rule of Consumerism is… Do NOT Talk About Consumerism
The second thing we need to do is learn how to talk about our finances openly and honestly with others. We have all sorts of justifications built into our lives for the way we live. We have to make ourselves vulnerable to critiques of the choices we make. The prophetic strain of the biblical narrative calls into question anything, any structure, choice or lifestyle, that is complicit or participates in the oppression, exclusion and marginalization of those who bear the image of God as well as the exploitation and domination of God’s creation. Shedding light on those realities in our lives requires the aforementioned relationships of trust, honesty and vulnerability.

One attempt to shed light on our own participation in these systems of domination that I read recently involved agreeing to a corporate tax based on the grades of the corporations from whom we purchase goods and services (A practical, creative tax for a better world).

This “holy excise tax” is designed to 1) disincentivize our demand for unneeded cheap consumer goods and services (mostly bought from companies that grow profit for investors by hiding real costs); and 2) raise revenue to give to organizations that care for our most vulnerable neighbors.

We are using the Better World Shopping Guide, which gives companies from a large variety of categories a grade from A to F, depending on the social consciousness of their business practices, considering human rights, the environment, animal protection, community involvement and social justice. Companies rated B have a 10-cent tax on each receipt, while companies rated C, D and F get a 25-cent tax. In addition, the guide has a list of the top 20 corporate villains, including Exxon Mobil, Walmart, Verizon, Kraft, Nestle and Bank of America. We pay 50 cents each time we support these socio-economic goliaths.

This is just one example of a creative attempt to help reveal the realities hidden in our credit card statements. There are others as well. No matter how you try to learn to talk about our hidden financial realities this last point is essential to making it successful and healthy.

Misery Loves Company
The last thing that I think the church has uniquely to offer in this area is a theology of grace and love alongside the prophetic. Some Christians that have tried to radically live out biblical economics through a common purse or other methods have found themselves right back in the waters of domination and oppression as they create new forms of legalism and oppression. So, recognizing that none of us is completely able to live somehow outside the system is essential.

The goal is not in fact to live outside the system. In order to live counter-culturally you have to continue struggling from within the dominant culture. I have lived and worked closely with Christians that have a long history of attempting to live outside the system in isolated colonies. The unspoken reality is that they are much more a part of the world than they would ever admit, because they interact daily with people outside the colony and are the primary economic drivers in the region.

The question then is not “How do extricate myself from the systems of domination?” but instead “How do I begin to organize my life with others such that our existence challenges the status quo both within ourselves and the broader culture?” It is only as members of the culture and web of domination that we pose a threat or challenge to the system. (Why are the relatively small numbers of people involved in Occupy protests across the country such a threat to the Powers that they are willing to spend inordinate amounts of money to have the police and authorities attempt to forcibly remove them?)

This means that there is no one righteous, no not one. No one is able to say that they are embodying the reality we hope for. What we need is a confessing movement. Then we can take steps together to live out this new way of living that we have glimpsed in Jesus, not out of self-righteousness or guilt, but in the grace and love of the Prince of Shalom.

Born Against: The Way of Jesus as Protest

A.J. Swoboda recently wrote a very thoughtful piece on how the Christian faith relates to the occupy protest movement. I want to make sure at the outset that I acknowledge the article said many positive things about the movement including,

Protest isn’t new. The prophets protested endlessly against evil, injustice, and at times the institution in the Hebrew Scriptures…Jesus protested too. His entire existence was a protest against death, sin, and evil.

However, Swoboda also says, “We are not born against. We are born again. We are born for.” While this was written as a critique of protest movements, I think it fundamentally misunderstands this particular movement. In some ways it may also misunderstand something fundamental about the Christian narrative.

I previously wrote about why the Occupy movement’s position is not primarily (or only) against something (Occupy This Blog?!). Certainly there are some basic grievances that the movement has made clear. However, Douglas Rushkoff has said that the Occupy protests are a “beta test for a new way of living”, not just a way to be against something.

If we take seriously the idea that the Exodus narrative is at the very core of the biblical narrative, fundamental to the identity of the Israelites and paradigmatic for understanding the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus (the Last Supper was after all a Passover meal), then we must wrestle with the basic character of this narrative. The Exodus narrative does not begin with a vision for the future. It begins with a movement of protest.

First, comes the creative resistance of the Hebrew midwives rescuing the Hebrew babies that Pharaoh tried to kill. Moses is born and left to die, but his sister manipulates his rescue into the hands of the powerful. As a man torn between his position of power and Hebrew roots, he lashes out in violence at the injustice of oppression murdering an Egyptian. But this violent resistance will not be the way of YHWH. His own people condemn his actions and Pharaoh puts him on his watch list (there were no airplanes so he couldn’t yet be on the no-fly list). Then Moses disappears. As we know, he will be a reluctant leader. It is not his charisma that sparks this movement of liberation. It is the people crying out against.

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Exodus 2: 23-25 ESV)

God acts on behalf of the Hebrews, not by giving them a vision of what they should be for, but because God is inherently against the injustice and oppression they suffer. The ensuing plagues ultimately demonstrate, not what God is for, but that God is fundamentally against, Pharaoh. Certainly the wilderness is a liminal space in which God begins to unfold God’s vision for an economy of gift, grace and abundance (think manna and quail). Yet, even then the people grumble about the circumstances and long for the “good life” they had under Pharaoh. Forgetting what they are against leads them to romanticize their own oppression, because after all liberation is hard work. A new way of living requires sacrifice and letting go of our previous life, even though there was some stability and certainty (even if false) in the old order of things.

So, perhaps the idea that the Edenic narratives in Genesis provide a blueprint for how God intended the world to be is less helpful than the very clear reality that God’s mission in the world begins fundamentally by being against certain things. This is true also in the patriarchal narratives, where God is against Cain and later the rest of humanity in the Noah story because of their propensity for violence (Genesis 6-9). There are certainly glimpses of what God is for, the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 is an idealistic vision that qualifies. The prophets sometimes hint at this other way of living, but more often than not they were first against the Pharaoh-like actions of Israel’s own rulers.

Clearly these are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, how can one be against something without some vision for the way the world should be? The prophets’ outcry against injustice was certainly motivated in some way by a vision for how God intended Israel to live. My point here is not to say that we should not discover what we are for and what God is for. The point is that God does not begin with the same starting point that Swoboda and others seem to require of ourselves. In many ways I think that we are uncomfortable being against things, because it is that prophetic stance that gets people killed and inspired the violence of Empires throughout history.

The way to be for a different order of life is to begin to live it out together, as Occupy Wall Street is attempting. What makes us squirm is the way that living out the way of Jesus inevitably forces us to be against some things and the actions of some people. As liberation theology points out, the God of justice is necessarily against the wealthy for their own liberation and salvation. God cannot be just without being against those causing the people to cry out for help. If we could be for the kingdom of God without having to be against the injustices ad systems of oppression, we could have liberation without any struggle or need to deal with the reality of the world we have created. It would be like the question Julie Clawson recently posed, “When does speaking of liberation actually enable oppression?” on her blog. Real liberation involves being against the order of this world and hopefully embodying what we are for in our churches and communities which inevitably makes the Powers (and often ourselves) nervous.

The Peace of Wild Things

This is a well known poem of Wendell Berry’s. I have wanted to avoid some of his more well known works, but they are still so full of meaning and poignance for me that I cannot ignore them. This one is short. So, I will quote the whole thing.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

This poem in particular gives me a lot of comfort. As an activist, environmentalist, follower of Jesus, father, husband and someone who cares about the world we live in, it can be easy find myself where the poem begins, in despair. It seems that those who want to make the world a better place often begin by trying to overwhelm us with fear and guilt about the state of the world. I have certainly felt that in order to make change I needed to shock people out of complacency with pictures, statistics, stories and a narrative about how the world is so completely messed up. So, we begin our task of repairing the world by creating as much discomfort, anxiety, guilt and fear possible.

This strategy has the benefit of working, at least for a while. People become fearful and guilty about what the world has become and their role in it. Then they reach despair, the beginning of this poem, but people can only stay there so long before turning suicidal or mentally ill. Many people choose then to opt-out of any resistance and try to get the most they can out of the status quo. They recycle and do little things that reflect their deeper values, but they have despaired of greater change and left behind any radical dreams of a better world. That grieves me. Have we not learned that people motivated by fear or guilt tend not to do the things that make the world better?

Perhaps Berry feels the weight of despair from this disaster narrative that haunts our global society. Regardless of where his despair comes from initially, he places his fears in their proper place, future generations. This is what should motivate us, not guilt and fear, but a rootedness in this place called earth, and our own particular places that causes us to contemplate the future of this place and these people. This is the place to which the rest of the poem brings us.

Berry has often been contrasted with another poet, Mary Oliver; he, the poet of farm and field and she, the poet of wilderness. Yet Berry often lingers on the edges of fields, more than he rides the tractor. He also often contrasts forest and field, wilderness and cultivated land. They are deeply intertwined in his work. This is because, as he demonstrates in this poem, there is an an underlying “grace of the world” his sense of what farming is and what it means. In another poem, “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”, Berry says

I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing and reaped as I knew by luck and heaven’s favor in spite of the best advice.

Berry’s way of living with the land, rather than off it or from it, is centered in the world of living things “who do not tax their lives with forethought”. The natural world is not planning out how to survive, or how to win the battle against encroaching civilization. There is no conspiracy of beavers and bears plotting how to protect their homes. I believe it was David Quinn who said that the point at which human beings departed from other creatures was our ability to tell the future from the past, to look at a set of tracks and say that someone or something came from this direction and went that way. Perhaps the point at which we began to “tell time” in the modern sense is when we domesticated ourselves, no longer living among wild things without forethought.

The “presence of still water” obviously calls to mind the 23rd Psalm, but it is almost as if the poet wants us to look again at this well known phrase in a new context. In the context of the Psalm it evokes the comfort of God in difficult times, but we don’t think much about the actual still water. It is incredible to me that even our faith tradition can get in the way of our seeing and reading the Bible. In this poem the still water evokes the fact that it has not been disturbed. Think about how long you have to sit and watch a pond or lake reach that glassy equilibrium. In the poem the peace of that water just sits there waiting, just like the stars, obscured by the sun’s light.

Finally, there is a freedom in this kind of wild peace that is exponentially more than the negative freedoms we have come to associate with that word. Plants grow and bear fruit, animals mate and die, rivers flow, the rains come and it all happens beyond all our machinations and our control. We have used science to understand a lot about the world, but it continues to be beyond our control. I still believe that our attempts to control it are the definition of hubris and a lack of true understanding. It is as if we have equated freedom with control, where we are the ones in charge. Yet real freedom lies in the world beyond our control, that continues without us and continues to support us in spite of our best efforts to manipulate, exploit and destroy. It is not freedom for the heron or wood drake to try and become like us and live in air conditioned houses. Their freedom is their ability to be what they were meant to be, to exist as they were created to exist, apart from our care or exploitation, but beside us in the grand dance of ecology.

To return to the despair in the beginning, this kind of freedom and peace puts the activist, the radical, the follower of Jesus, those who want to make the world better in a completely different frame of mind for their work. Using fear and guilt to make change is another way of manipulation, exploitation and control. How would we work toward change if our thoughts and actions grew out of the peace of wild things and the freedom of the world beyond our control?

School for Conversion

I have not been practicing the spiritual discipline of blogging for a while. This means I’ve thought about a lot of things, but haven’t written much down or processed it. So, pardon any rambling or incoherence.

Starting Edible Lawns has been a wonderful adventure. I’ve learned a lot about what’s possible and what it means to make a living and a life. I’m really really lucky to be faced with choices that involve multiple things that I would love and none involving cubicles or desks. Although nothing is official yet, Edible Lawns may be on hiatus soon while we take off on other adventures. That dream will not be dead, but waiting for our return.

This past weekend I helped lead and participate in a School for Conversion hosted by our community, Hope Fellowship. It was a good time to wrestle with tough questions about living the way of Jesus with others. I reflected on my own conversions, times my mind has been changed, paradigms shifted and assumptions challenged. Here’s some of my thoughts from the weekend and the accumulated life I’ve not been processing therapeutically out loud for the masses.

One of my pet peeves about new monasticism is the mark of “Relocation to Abandoned Places of Empire.” I’ve written about that before. The thought came up again this weekend. We even did a thought experiment trying to figure out what it would look like to embody the radical way of Jesus in the suburbs. That was fun.

I’m working on a post about our session on “Resisting the Powers” and reorienting our lives around embodying kingdom values. Resistance is not absent but a byproduct of our life together. More on that soon…

The implications of privilege on our theology and thinking is a messy and complicated thing. It’s not that I, as a white american protestant, have no right to an opinion or even a need to practice my faith and do good theology. The problem is that my privilege is an ongoing stumbling block in my own efforts to do theology and live the way of Jesus. Recognizing this is difficult and frustrating. It requires some humble submission to the other. Still struggling through that one. Probably should write something.

I have some interesting reflections on the nature of mission that concern our next adventure. I’ll write about that when it’s official. Meanwhile experience your own conversion while watching this wonderful video of the treasure that is Bill Mallonee singing Resplendent with the ineffable Emmy Lou Harris .