Saturday, October 07, 2006

Living in a Land of Excess

In a prior blog I referenced George Carlin’s brilliant routine on Stuff. When I use that essay in one of my classes at the community college where I teach, I frequently get these blank stares when I ask students—why do we have all this “stuff”? It is easy for them to jot down a list of the stuff they own, but they are challenged when it comes to putting forth a reasonable explanation of WHY.

Our present national obsession with more and more acquisition really troubles me. We are no longer satisfied with the type of houses that dominated the housing boom post-World War II. Now, mega-mansions spring up, replacing the 2,000 to 3,000 square foot homes with ones that are 11,000 square feet. Our houses must be bigger, our cars ever expanding (witness the obscene Hummers), and our meals super-sized. It is no surprise that our bodies are expanding, resulting in increased sizing of everything needed to hold us, including eventually caskets! That’s right—there is now a line of larger caskets to hold the super-sized deceased.

Growing up in a church with Anabaptist roots, I came to appreciate the emphasis on simplicity in living. One of the visionary thinkers in this regard was Doris Janzen Longacre, who compiled the book
Living more with less . Published more than 25 years ago, this book is a collection of tips on how to live more frugally and simply. It is also much more than that—in many of the examples, we Americans are challenged by the ways in which people in emerging countries value things we take for granted. One particular example I recall is that of a woman who had lived in a country where people did not throw away envelopes in which the mail came. Rather, they carefully sliced the envelope open, so it would lie flat and provide a new sheet of paper ready to receive whatever needed to be written. I think of that example as I contend with the daily mail we receive, much of it uninvited.

The church I attend (
Market Square Presbyterian Church) houses an international service center. When this work first began, it was founded by Vietnamese refugees who helped their fellow country folk resettle in this country after the close of the Vietnam "conflict." During a recent renovation of our church, their offices were moved. To accomplish the move, the office staff for this center needed to dispose of used electronic equipment that had been donated. The result was a wrenching experience, since having done “without” for so long, they were loathe to part with equipment, even though these machines no longer worked. Contrast this approach to the easy disposable society most of us live in.

Several years ago, I heard the late senator Paul Simon speak at a Presbyterian conference. He challenged attendees to think about producing annual reports that included a Matthew 25 report. Senator Simon thought that every church should be able to report what we had done during any given year to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and imprisoned. When we become so focused on “stuff” that we lose sight of the least of these, then we have surely lost our souls.

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