Simple Gifts

Simple Gifts

Last night, Janet and I watched a fairly silly “documentary” entitled “What Would Jesus Buy?”, with a self-styled preacher and his choir traveling to various luxury and “big box” stores around America during the Christmas shopping season, challenging people to “spend less and give more.” Despite the dicey “B-grade” quality of the movie, the movie title’s question remains valid, especially in this season. And while it may have seemed simply “fringe thinking” last year, now with the sudden turn in the economy, the movie may end up being hailed as prophetic.

Janet and I had already decided to give fewer gifts this year, but to invest more of ourselves in each… more presence than presents.

But I sense an unarticulated cultural shift happening, more widespread than one family taking an unmarked detour off the consumer shopping superhighway. Soundbites in the movie depicted shoppers demanding top quality namebrands and saying they are more than willing to go into debt to exceed their children’s gift expectations. The clips seemed not only typically freakish as media interviews often do, but this year seem repugnantly out of place, like crabbing about President Kennedy’s politics a week after his assassination or being anti-American after 9/11.

Worse, they were like a bitter window showing us “the way we were” back “before the Fall.” Because of course we were all caught up in the consumerist mindset, only to greater or lesser degrees.

And this is my point of personal struggle. I find myself squirming regularly at how, until just recently, I was so often discontent with my possessions, entertaining thoughts about “my next car”, how our condo is really too small, remembering how easily I could plunk down a few dollars for a Starbucks drink that didn’t really sound great yet seemed like a way to—just maybe—pamper myself.

I’d love to think these types of thoughts are actually going out of style. All I can say is that they currently seem out of style, because of course anti-Americanism has more recently been on the rise and it’s not inappropriate anymore to complain about Kennedy’s politics.

But I’m hopeful there may be some longer-term correctives taking place. There’s a section in Studs Terkel’s oral history of the Great Depression where interviewees are discussing “flappers”. I thought a flapper was just a dancer, but apparently to those who lived through the Depression, being a flapper was a synonym for those who embraced whole-hock all the excesses of the Roaring Twenties. The label became repugnant after 1929, such that no one interviewed wanted to be associated with it, though of course the excesses were endemic.

And this also is my fear: that we who’ve lived as participating adults through the past decade will be judged just as harshly by history and by our own future offspring as history now judges the 1920’s; that soundbites like those in the movie last night will be played over and over to future generations in black and white to illustrate how we got ourselves into The Great Crash of 2008. True, the clips are caricatures, but only by degree, not by culpability. I’ve asked a couple friends who lived through the Great Depression about my concern that we’ll be similarly judged, and they are convinced of it.

I know a ministry leader who went to prison some years ago for unwittingly participating in an illegal transaction. And that’s the type of ‘guilt’ I’m feeling, the guilt of unwitting participation. Maybe I didn’t realize the consequences that would ensue, but we succumbed to credit card debt, and we would not have been able to buy our condo without “creative financing”… and we thanked God for the provision. In those and in a thousand other ways, I and my fellow citizens have embraced luxury as necessity, lived above our needs—if not above our means, and “bought into” to the feeding frenzy of consumptionism.

Yet this year seems different. I’ve hardly seen any ads such as: “This Christmas, surprise your wife with a new luxury car you’re not even sure she’ll love,” or “When only the best will do…” True, I don’t watch much TV. But luxury-item retailers seem to be laying low… they are in trouble, they are hoping buyers will still want “the best”, but they sense that they will turn off too many others with general-audience ads like this. I honestly feel great compassion for them: they didn’t participate in anything we didn’t all take part in, but now their financial futures are tied to these increasingly-shunned businesses. And in fact, it’s because we all participated in that value system to greater and lesser degrees that they jumped into those previously-lucrative markets… some becoming generous financial supporters of God’s Kingdom efforts with their profits.

So while this seems to be possibly a cleansing/correcting era ahead, at the same moment it’s a sad time as I realize the possible impact that even healthy corrections will have on many good people.

Yet far from fearing that God will abandon us in the fog of economic turmoil, I have a sense he is calling to us through the fog, and now with a few competing siren songs removed, we can begin to hear his voice a bit and perhaps stumble toward him. I hear him calling me now toward the peace of simplicity, and I find myself gingerly making first steps toward the sound of his voice.

December, 2008

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