Tag Archives: Life

The Grass Has To Be Meaningful

Meaningful_work3047From the tone of the last post you might surmise that not everything is working out perfectly or at least how I dream/imagine in my life. I’m not living my ideal life, or the one I have absorbed from the culture and others. I continue to work full-time in technology for a local school district which means a lot of screen time, sense of meaninglessness, boredom and a salary that qualifies my family of five for government assistance. Yet my life is also very full and filled with things I am thankful for, like my family, my community, chickens, gardens, rainwater and a job.

I recently had two interviews with a local non-profit. It was down to two candidates and I didn’t get the job, a blow to my self-esteem. I’ve also decided to quit my small business, Edible Lawns, after one last project at a local school. The stress of being successful (but not enough to quit my job) while continue to work full time for the last year and a half has taken it’s toll and proved to be too much. We’ve also been at the center of some difficult conversations in our community. All this has come together in the last week.

meaningful-work

So, after realizing that I might not get a dream job, might not be a successful small business owner and could someday not be a part of the intentional community we’re a part of, I have sat with the thought that there is no thing on the horizon, no next thing to work on or work toward. I asked, “What if I just work at my job and go home to my family every day?” Continue reading

Meanwhile…

Well, I am certainly missing the lifestyle we enjoyed in Charagua, Bolivia that allowed me to read and write so prolifically. These days I struggle just to find balance between work, more work, family and community. Welcome home to the United States and North American culture!

I am now working in the technology department for the local school district, exploring my inner geek (which is more and more becoming my outer geek). I am also continuing to try and grow my small business, Edible Lawns, which is as much about education as installing raised bed gardens, compost and rainwater systems.

For a couple months now my third job has been working on buying a house (without a realtor and with extra work getting assistance from the city and a community development corporation). Now that that process is complete life is slowing down slightly. Even though I have a long list of plans to make my lawn more edible, perhaps things have slowed down enough that I might be able to read and write some more.

I have a long list of posts that I started in the last year or so, that I can pick up and I’m still excited about the Food in the Bible series. However, I might spend some time first, processing what we have been going through and dealing with in our own lives first. So, here’s some things you might read about in the near future:

“How to Start a Business When You Don’t Believe in Capitalism” or

“Reconciliation: Something We Do or Something God Does?” or

“Adventures in Avoiding Real Community” or

“The Gospel of Unschooling and Dreadlocks”

Hopefully that whets your appetite and hopefully I will have time to satisfy it with some thoughtful, provocative posts.

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.

Living in Limbo

I’m not unemployed or underemployed like some of the people protesting at various Occupy gatherings across the US, but I am in limbo. When we were deported from Bolivia, I thought our time at home would be a vacation while we visited family and waited to hear from MCC and figure out what to do next. We have visited family and friends all over Texas from Waco to San Antonio, Kingsland and Fredericksburg to San Angelo. It’s been good to see everyone again, especially my new niece which I couldn’t visit for a while because of a case of shingles.

Shingles comes from the chicken pox virus that lies dormant in your spine. It can be triggered by stress and comes out in your nerves which is often very painful. My case was pretty mild, but it definitely got me thinking about stress and how I was really feeling about our situation. Since we’ve had a lot of down time, I’ve also been following the Occupy Wall Street movement pretty closely. Democracy Now! in their coverage of the movement interviewed Dr. Gabor Maté who was at the Wall Street encampment. Maté makes some interesting connections between the protests, economic crisis, stress and our health:

“50 percent of American adults have a chronic medical illness, and much of that has to do with stress. And if you look at the literature on what causes stress, it’s uncertainty and lack of information and loss of control and lack of expression of self. And the uncertainty that has been forced upon the American population by the recent economic crisis, the loss of control as power has flown into the hands of very, very few people, and the absolute powerlessness of the many in the face of all that, and the lack of expression through the ordinary political process, people are totally disempowered and deprived of their voice. This protest addresses all those issues. So I can only say that this is an extraordinarily healthy thing to happen. People who participate here will be healthier for it as a result, and maybe society, in general, as well.”

Uncertainty, lack of information and lack of control describes our lives over the last few months pretty well. It’s hard to thrive in these circumstances. There’s nobody to blame except the Bolivian government for our situation, but it is clear from this experience that we are not meant to live in an extended state of limbo without job, purpose, productive work or direction. In this period we have also lacked the kind of community we enjoy as a part of Hope Fellowship in Waco.

I’ve written before about this tension we feel in our culture between jobs and community defining and ordering our lives (Looking for a Job in the Kingdom). The thing is that while my life is in limbo, community can provide more certainty, stability, purpose and maybe most importantly a place to express myself. We have not been living in that community and that has made life extra stressful. We’ve visited a couple times and it has helped us remember what life in community provides in circumstances like ours.

I have also missed the time that I had in Bolivia to read and write a lot. Last week marked the end of what I wrote while we were in Bolivia. It also marked the end of our time away from our community. We are now back in Waco. I hope that this will be a time of renewed life with our beloved community and also a renewed energy for the writing and reading I have left off in the last few months. If posts are more sporadic and infrequent bear with me as we make yet another transition to some sort of new norm.

My prayer is that you and I find ourselves in a place and with people that will allow us to freely express ourselves in the midst of a sick society. Raise your voice. According to at least one doctor, it’s the healthiest thing you can do. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll start to make a better world.