25 March, 2007

Sabbath 19: Selling Unhappiness

Sabbath 19: Megan's post

This chapter contains a great paragraph:

Sabbath is a time to stop, to refrain from being seduced by our desires. To stop working, stop making money, stop spending money. See what you have. Look around. Listen to your life. Do you really need more than this? Spend a day with your family...sit with your spouse on the couch, hang out--do what they do in the [catalog advertisement] picture without paying for it. Just stop. That is, after all, what they are selling in the picture: people who have stopped. You cannot buy stopped. You simply have to stop.

...then, at the end of the day, where is the desperate yearning to consume, to shop, to buy what we do not need? It dissolves. Little by little, it falls away.

Amen, Wayne!

But the rest of the chapter, unfortunately, is a diatribe against consumerism whose train of thought derails (in my opinion). It makes a little more sense when the previous chapter and this one are combined. Under the umbrella of a section called "the pursuit of happiness," the previous chapter says "money can't buy happiness" and this one says that if you participate in an understanding of the world where you consume to be happy, then your fundamental state has to be unhappiness, so that the things you buy can make you (momentarily, but never completely) happy--until you take Sabbath time to stop and realize that you really do have enough.

I think Tripp has it right--Muller is aiming at simplicity. It's just the whole "thus the free market canonized grasping, conumption, and desire as the essential human impulses" thing that gets under my skin.

The first time I ever encountered the idea of the Sabbath as a break from spending money, it was in conversation with another priest. She was the massively overworked type; I caught her, one day, strung out and exhausted, and asked when the last time it was she took a day off. She explained that today was the Sabbath for her, and the way she kept it was to not spend any money... not even for a diet coke out of the machine. This sounded just a little bizarre to me (and yes, I became the goyim who would buy her sodas from the machine that day), and I thought it missed the point of a day off. But it was an odd enough idea that it stuck with me, and grew on me over time. After thinking about Muller's anti-consumer rhetoric for a couple of weeks, I think he's got a significant point to make for modern society, and I'm going to have to keep ruminating on the idea of non-participation in the wheels of economy as a Sabbath practice.

Muller's suggested exercise this week actually made me laugh out loud when I read it. His suggestion: practice some "slotha yoga," a cute name for staying in bed in the morning when you wake up. Let yourself wake up, Wayne says, and spend the next hour in bed...

My beloved probably said it best (just picture her counting on her fingers, please): This is the advice of (1) a morning person, who has (2) no children at home, (3) no pets, and (4) no job.

I honestly can't recall a stretch two days in a row in my whole life (not since summers in junior high school) when I woke up without an alarm clock of some kind. Wayne might say that my life is seriously out of balance... but the point is, I can't even imagine what his exercise looks like.

I tried a modified version, this Sabbath day (which is why this post is late): I got up, made coffee, walked the dog, took the kid to school, came home, got back into my pyjamas, and lazed around all morning. I even took a morning nap. (this is exactly what would happen if I tried Wayne's exercise as suggested: about three minutes of contemplating restfulness, followed by immediately going back to sleep) I deliberately didn't work on anything, not even (at the risk of losing husband points) fixing the broken upstairs toilet. I played games; picked up our son early from school, and walked the dog. To my surprise, at the end of the day, I felt slightly disgruntled at not having accomplished anything all day!

I guess I'm enough of a people person that trying to 'stop' without having my family and friends around to be stopped with (my Sabbath days are spent alone) defeats the intent of the suggested exercise. Oh well, better luck next week.

18 March, 2007

Sabbath 18: The Gospel of Consumption

Sabbath 18: Meeegan's post, Tripp's post

I think Muller gets to the point he wants to make for this chapter rather towards the end: "Happiness is the single commodity not produced by the free-market economy." He goes on to say that when we are happy, we don't feel the need to buy anything, and that the Sabbath is supposed to be a day of delight, a day of being "at peace with all we have" rather than yearning for more.

Muller points out that the United States (most of his assumed audience) leads the world in consumption, and if the rest of the world followed our example we'd denude the planet in incredibly short order.

To get there, though, he goes in a direction I just can't follow. He says that we now follow a gospel of mass consumption, as in, consumption will make you happy. He hints that there's some kind of huge dark big-brother conspiracy among manufacturers to promote this gospel (either that, or he anthropomorphizes "the market" and says that the market has made greed the essential human impulse).

Um... no.

Basically, this week's chapter sounded like a warning against conspicuous consumption (and I happen to agree with him on that, by the way) that Muller has force-fit into the ongoing theme of Sabbath rest.

I also disagree with his basic premise in this chapter: that money can't buy happiness. Yes, it can! Maybe I should draw a distinction between two situations: poverty, or a paycheck-to-paycheck existence, versus a certain financial stability. I know of nobody who has come from the first to the second who isn't far happier in the latter condition. But to draw the distinction between comfortable and rich... Muller might have a point there.

If we say that money can't buy happiness, then are we saying that global poverty means that most of the people in the world are happy, and we should leave them alone? Of course not!

* * * * * * *

Muller's suggested exercise this week sounded interesting: go to a favorite store, one where you particularly enjoy shopping. Walk around for an hour in that store, but do it knowing you're not going to buy anything. Pay attention to how you feel. Let yourself feel the tug of buying. Listen to the things tell you "you want me, you would be happier if you had me." Walk away, hopefully free of the impulse to buy things, feeling a sense of sufficiency.

Okay, this sounded interesting in principle. But, I'll admit ahead of time, I haven't done it yet. We've had multiple house guests for the last week, and I haven't spent an hour on his exercise. I'll try to do it, but I'm not sure how much help it's going to be for me, because I don't really enjoy shopping in the first place. I don't wander and look at random things. I'm not even sure what store I should go to for the exercise. (A bookstore, probably) I'm also skeptical that the exercise would make me more frustrated rather than more rested. We'll see how Megan and Tripp do with it.

12 March, 2007

Sabbath 17: The pursuit of happiness

Sabbath 17: Tripp's post, Meeegan's post.

This week, we enter a new section in Muller's text, this one titled "Happiness."

His main point in the chapter, as I see it, is to draw a distinction between the gratification of desire and the state of happiness. Gratification fades. Gratification, in fact, can become an insatiable monster. Happiness, Wayne says, is more about being enjoying what you have than about the acquisition of more or better things.

Jesus taught his disciples (and teaches us) that God's desire for us is that we live in happiness and peace. Muller says, "finding happiness in life is universally perceived as an essential human endeavor." He references several other philosophers and religious leaders who have similar messages.

Side note: I'd always understood Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" to mean, not the chase of happiness, but the occupation of happiness... meaning that it is a right of humanity to choose one's life work, rather than having it determined by someone else, and to do something that you find happiness in.

I've been gently disagreeing with Muller for much of the book, when he tries to draw distinctions between "work" as a draining activity and "rest" as an energizing activity. A good bit of what I do that could be called work is actually energizing for me. Not all, of course. Some of it is exhausting.

Muller says that when we look for happiness in a market-driven world (my words, not his) that we tend to look to consume, to buy our happiness. But this is a trap--to consume is merely to gratify desire. In an echo, or a deliberate recall of his last section, he says that happiness only grows in the soil of time.

So, he says, as the sabbath exercise, be grateful this week. Recognize the blessed nature of your life. Count your blessings, name them one by one...

Okay, can do. It's a simple exercise, almost cliche if you're not careful, but one with rich rewards. Give it a shot for a day if you've never tried it. If thanking God for the things that bless you is too hard, try it this way: I'm grateful for this food. I'm grateful for a roof over my head. I'm grateful for my friends...

07 March, 2007

5 fabulous things about Megan

here are five fabulous things about Meeegan, in no particular order:

* she has the best posture, carriage, and personal presence of anyone I know.
* she sings! And makes time in a crazy busy schedule to go make the world a little more beautiful with the gift of her beautiful voice.
* she's fiercely loyal to Clan Monaghan.
* she came from hither and/or yon to stand up with me at my wedding. Yikes, that was eleven years ago!
* her vocation is the encouragement and development of art. Huzzah!

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...

05 March, 2007

Sabbath 16: A Deeper Wealth

Sabbath 16: Megan's post, Tripp's post

In this chapter, the end of the section titled "time," Muller's makes two main points:
(1) in a free market economy, we financially reward some people far, far out of proportion to what they produce, and those whose primary work involves the investment of time tend to hardly get any financial reward at all. Money's not a good way to keep score if you're trying to measure the value of vocation.
(2) he then goes on to share stories about how Bread for the Journey, the organization that Wayne founded, seeks out "people in impoverished communities who measure their wealth in terms of the time they have to give to their community." They make grants of small amounts of money with which to start programs, and those communities have been impacted far more by the expenditure of time than of money. (by the way, there's a picture of Wayne Muller here.)

Wayne ends the chapter by saying that "during Sabbath, we specifically honor those precious things--courage, creativity, wisdom, peace, kindness, and delight--that grow only in the soil of time." His suggested exercise is called 'the wealth of companionship.' Wayne points out that when we are lost or afraid we tend to isolate from each other, and he encourages us to seek out those when we lose our way, so that we might be a place of refuge for each other.

I read his suggested exercise, and wanted to change it to seek out other people, period. We are a society living in crazy isolation. (In fact, it was part of the impetus to get me to start doing this blog-writing reflection exercise. See this post.) To make friends, and to be friends, requires intentionality, practice, and patience.

At my home parish, a small-ish group of us has begun to gather to do just that. We're (mostly) parents of small children, and we only meet for a short time (too short, really). But we're beginning to see the fruit of deeper relationship, or to use Wayne's terms, see the early returns on an investment of time. We have an agreement among us not to share each other's stories, so you won't see me talking or writing anything more about the group than the fact that we meet together. But it's good stuff we're doing. If you're in the area and you're thirsty for authentic human relationship, come see what we're up to.

03 March, 2007

Principle: I am my brother's keeper

One of the stories in the "prologue" section of Genesis (i.e., Genesis 1-11), is the story of Cain and Abel.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"

The LORD said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground..."
--Genesis 4:2-10, NIV

Am I my brother's keeper?

It's been said that the rest of the Bible is an attempt to answer that question.

This is dangerous ground in America. Our legal system is based on the principle that the rights of the individual are sacrosanct. I'm not supposed to care about you too much. I'm supposed to leave you alone. I'm not supposed to presume to know what's good for you.

I got a tremendous chewing-out during the course of my chaplaincy training, merely for using one high-voltage word in conversation with a patient: should. As in, "Well, maybe you should [take a certain action]." I disagreed with the instructor about whether I was imposing my own stuff onto the patient, but what was communicated to me was that the nature of the offense was not about the specific patient, but that I had violated a cardinal rule of pastoral care--never, never, never say "ought" or "should." What right do you have?

Am I my brother's keeper?
  • One in five people around the world survives on less than $1US per day, with few opportunities to earn more.
  • More than 38 million people around the world are infected by HIV/AIDS, 25 million in Africa alone.
  • One person in seven has no access to clean water for drinking, cooking or washing.
  • Around the world, 104 million children do not go to grade school, because their parents cannot afford fees, books or uniforms for all their children.
  • every day, somewhere in the world, approximately twenty thousand children starve to death.
Am I my brother's keeper, or is this somebody else's problem?

02 March, 2007

Principle: Jesus is the savior of the world

This is how far God loves me--God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. You've probably heard that story before; if not, go read the gospel according to Mark and the letter to the Romans.

At the time, God's people didn't understand. How could we? There's a sense in which I don't understand it (exactly what does it mean for Jesus to be God incarnate?), and I have the wosdom of centuries of faithful people to help me. Though I have seen the Holy Spirit working in the midst of God's people, I didn't, y'know, eat lunch in Galilee in 27 a.d. with this guy named Yeshua.

Anyway, Jesus came, and tried to tell us about the reign of God. About God's will for creation. We misunderstood. And when we understood, we got scared. Or selfish. Or mad. Or all three.

Mel Gibson, director of The Passion of the Christ, revealed in an interview that in the shot where Jesus is nailed to the cross, it is Gibson's hands that are shown wielding the spike and mallet. When asked why, he replied, "It was me that put him on the cross. It was my sins."

"I put Jesus on the cross." what he might have been reaching for is something of a universal truth for humanity: when we encounter the Kingdom of God, we reject it, over and over. When faced with the decision to make a covenantal choice or not, we often choose not. That's just the reality of sin. Jesus came, and reminded us of God's desire, that we bless the world instead of grabbing power and control for ourselves, and we killed him. And God raised him to life.

Jesus called to the world, the way God has always called to the world, to live into the kingdom of God.
the whole world.
no exceptions.

Principle: I am blessed to be a blessing

This is a foundational text for me:

The LORD said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.

--Genesis 12: 1-4

This is the beginning of the calling of God's people. This is where the story really begins (more about the Genesis 1-11 prologue some other time). And the story begins like this: God desires to bein covenant relationship with humanity. And God picks one person to start the particular story we find ourselves in, and God says: you are blessed, you and all your heirs, for a purpose. And that purpose is to be a blessing to the world.

All too often we get it backward. We'd rather say that God blesses us so that we'll feel good, or that God will bless us so that we get ahead financially, or that we'll be safe, or that we'll be unafraid, or that we won't get sick... we tend, in short, to be inwardly focused. But God's mission has always been outward, not inward.

I, personally, have been blessed almost beyond my ability to write it down. I'm (mostly) healthy, I have a loving family, I live in an embarrassingly large house, I've earned three (!) university degrees, and I'm among the top 0.33% of the richest people in the world. And I could go on and on.

That blessing has a purpose: I am supposed to be a blessing to the world.

01 March, 2007

Principle: I am part of the story of God's people

This one is eluding a short little blurb description for the moment; I may pin it down later. It has to do with identity, which I need far more room to talk about than I have time for today, but here's a start.

I once sat around in a friend's apartment with a group of fellow college students. Somebody asked the question "who are you?" and I tried to answer in terms of who I currently was, i.e., I'm a student, I'm an engineer, I'm a dancer, I'm a musician, I'm a Christian, I'm courting this woman who lives in New Orleans right now... Most of the rest of the room responded to that question by starting, "I'm from [Gopherbutt, Tennessee], and I have three brothers and two sisters..." and going on with a historical account of themselves.

Where we come from is an important part of our identity. (It's not causal for everything we do, ala Skinner's rats, but it is important.) Our story places us in the world, tells us where we've been, and tells us (to a certain extent) where we're going. For God's people, a part of our story begins with, "My father was a wandering Aramean." This is a quotation from a section of Deuteronomy in which a festival of thanksgiving is described, where the people bring the first fruits of their harvest to the temple, and recite their place in the story, beginning with the quote above, as a way of acknowledging all that God had done for them.

One of the pillars of my faith is the collection of books that are, together, called the Bible. The Bible tells the story of God's people, from the calling of the first Hebrew to the establishment of the early church, and covers some two thousand years in the process. The writings that have been included in the Bible were inspired by God, and written by an unknown number of human hands through the centuries.

It is a story that bears the marks of revision, of adapting to the times and places we find ourselves in. It is a story that points toward an unfinished future. But it is more than story. It "breathes." It touches us in ways that other literature doesn't. And because I am one of God's people, I am in the story. Somewhere.

One of my guiding principles is that the story of God's people is not somebody else's story. It is my story. I am a Christian because many people (I could name a few prominent ones, and so could most Christians) showed me the transforming love of Christ Jesus at work in their lives, and I wanted the same thing for my life. I am a Christian because Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and a host of others were faithful. I am a Christian because Moses led the people out of Egypt. I am a Christian because of the faithfulness of David, Ezra, Nehemiah, John the Baptizer, Athanasius, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, and thousands of others.

My story is not wholly my own. I am part of a much greater story, the ongoing story of God's people.

A related principle tomorrow.