Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Americans and Our Stuff

"Possession is nine-tenths of the problem" (Dr. Winston O'Boogie, aka John Lennon)

I agree with my son who, when linking to this piece from becoming minimalist over on Facebook, said that the greatest threat to Americans, spiritually and in every other way, is our materialism.

In 21 Surprising Statistics That Reveal How Much Stuff We Actually Own, Joshua Becker catalogs some bracing facts, some that really might surprise or even shock you.

A sampling:
1. There are 300,000 items in the average American home (LA Times). [I worked for an inventory service when I was in college, counting by hand, items in grocery, discount, drug, and hardware stores from Columbus to Portsmouth, Lancaster to Nelsonville. It was tedious. But I have a feeling that counting items with the same techniques we used before the advent of bar codes and scanners would be more daunting in my own condo than counting the merchandise in those stores was.]

5. The United States has upward of 50,000 storage facilities, more than five times the number of Starbucks. Currently, there is 7.3 square feet of self storage space for every man, woman and child in the nation. Thus, it is physically possible that every American could stand—all at the same time—under the total canopy of self storage roofing (SSA). [I find myself chuckling almost every time I see the signs for self-storage facilities, imagining people walking into the units to store themselves overnight.]

7. 3.1% of the world’s children live in America, but they own 40% of the toys consumed globally (UCLA). [No mention is made here of how many children spend hours playing with the boxes in which their toys have been packaged.]

15. Americans donate 1.9% of their income to charitable causes (NCCS/IRS). While 6 billion people worldwide live on less than $13,000/year (National Geographic). [We ignore Jesus' words, I think, to our own eternal peril: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked" (Luke 12:48).]

19. Over the course of our lifetime, we will spend a total of 3,680 hours or 153 days searching for misplaced items.The research found we lose up to nine items every day—or 198,743 in a lifetime. Phones, keys, sunglasses, and paperwork top the list (The Daily Mail). [I threw this one in because I so identify with it. It's frustrating, but it really is one indicator of having too much stuff, I suppose.]
Becker writes:
The numbers paint a jarring picture of excessive consumption and unnecessary accumulation. Fortunately, the solution is not difficult. The invitation to own less is an invitation to freedom, intentionality, and passion.* And it can be discovered at your nearest drop-off center.
I think that he's right. In the past few years, I've been flushing lots of my possessions, taking some to places like Goodwill, Volunteers of America, and Salvation Army, while taking books and some recordings to Half Price Books, more for the privilege of divestiture than for money, because Half Price doesn't hand out a lot of that. I've also enjoyed giving a lot of my classic vinyl records from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, to my kids.

Possessions and all that goes with them can hold us down. My seminary professor and mentor, Pastor Bruce Schein, used to tell us to never have so much or be so rooted in a place that we weren't ready to move on a day's notice. Schein was warning us, in part, against identifying our lives too much by our stuff, houses, neighborhoods, and such.

This wasn't just advice of practical expedience for future pastors. For all of us, being so tied to what we own that we're not able to respond to what God may be calling us to do at any given time can destroy our eternal souls.

Jesus once told a man, "Follow Me." The man evidently was drawn to Jesus, but said in reply: "Lord, first let me go and bury my father” (Luke 9:59-60). What's interesting about this exchange is that we don't know if the man's father was dead, or even sick, yet. The man was tied to a place, to a way of life, maybe to his stuff, and so, asked if he could hold off following Jesus for a while.

The man was looking for the right time. But the right time to follow Jesus is now, no matter how inconvenient or hard as it can be to do so.

I do often wonder these days whether the times I've left one place to go to another was really done at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. (I'm serving the fourth church I've pastored in thirty-two years.)A recent unexpected encounter at the Cincinnati airport with members of the second church I served has only added to questioning my motives for moving to the next church.

For all my uncertainty on that score though, I am sure that the unwillingness to move when Jesus says, "Follow" is wrong and often prompted mostly by both our natural difficulty with change and our revulsion at the prospect of moving our stuff.** Sometimes, we have reason to wonder, I think, if we own our stuff or if our stuff owns us.

And that is precisely the issue Jesus confronts the disciples (both first- and twenty-first century varieties) with when He says: "...it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24).

There's nothing inherently wrong with wealth. Nothing intrinsically evil about stuff.

But they both present a strong challenge to our souls in that they can become the means by which we identify ourselves and the definition we put on what it means to live.

Possessions allow us to insulate ourselves from the realities that most people in the world for most of history have had to deal with, to, in a sense, become gods unto ourselves. All of our stuff makes it harder for the truth about human sin (our sin), our need of God, and our accountability to God and to our neighbor, to penetrate our minds, consciences, and wills.

Jesus once told a rich man who earnestly sought Jesus out that in order to be free--in order to grasp the outstretched hand of God that offers to change us from God's enemies to God's friends for eternity--he needed to sell all his possessions, give to the poor, and follow Jesus.

Had Jesus been approached by a poor man, He likely wouldn't have given the same prescription. To be sure, Jesus still would have told the poor man to follow Him, whether that meant hitting the road or following Jesus right where he already lived. But, it's likely that the poor man would have other things of which his soul and his life would need divesting in order to allow him to take hold of Jesus.

But, as a member of the US middle class, I do stew about the power of stuff over my life and I stew about the power of materialism over our culture.

Materialism is a belief system, a religion that worships a false idol whose only desire is to appeal to our human egos and love of creature comforts.

As such, it drives a wedge between the God/Man Jesus Who came to save us from our sins--from our desire to "be like God" which materialism represents--and us, between life with God and us, between authenticity and us, and between eternity and us.

I think it's time for me to repent (again) of my materialism, to follow Jesus, and to clean out my closet for a trip to the local thrift store.

*I notice, with satisfaction, that Becker uses the Oxford comma.

**I wrote a song about the challenge of living with the possibility of God calling us away from places where we've grown comfortable and happy, especially with the friends we've made. It starts out:
Feeling fine
Drinking wine
Spending time with my friends
Love exchanged
Evil tamed
I thought it would never end
But when you're talking with the Holy Spirit
He may give you a call and you'd better hear it
Following Jesus is a Jenga game
He's going to tear down your bricks
You won't be the same
(c) 2016, Mark Daniels

[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]


Tracy Wood said...

Oxford comma! ha! Seriously, great post - gave me pause....

Leslie Sholly said...

I wrote on the same topic from the same jumping off point last year: https://lifeineverylimb.com/2015/11/07/too-much-stuff-an-all-american-problem/

It was my most popular post of all time so I think this topic really resonates with people, yet we continue to collect more stuff. I agree with everything you've written (including the use of the Oxford comma!).

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you, Tracy and Leslie.

Leslie, I read your post a short time ago. Very good. That Becker article was provocative. From the comments you received, I can see that your post also provoked a good deal of thought.