28 December 2010

Stressed Out? Could it Be Christmas Clutter?

(The following is an excerpt from ESPN's TMQ column...)

On Christmas Eve, The Wall Street Journal advised readers to give chocolates or wine for the holidays because they will be consumed and "won't contribute to your recipient's household clutter. Laura Leist, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, says dealing with extraneous gifts is one of her clients' biggest organizing challenges. People often don't have the space to store gift items but feel too guilty to give them away."

This statement threw me for a loop on several levels. The minor level is economic. Economists maintain cash is the ideal gift, because it causes no waste, either of resources or money value. If I spend $50 to give you a battery powered nose massager, and to you that gift merely becomes clutter in the back of the closet, then $50 has been wasted. If I give you $50 cash, you will spend it on something you value as worth $50.

What hit me over the head, though, was that in a nation where one person in eight lives in poverty -- in a world where 900 million people live on $1.25 or less a day -- "dealing with extraneous gifts" is such a problem for many Americans that a trade association exists to help them cope with this dreadful burden. While many suffer, others complain of receiving gifts they lack room to store. This is deeply messed up.

Practically everyone believes Christmas has become excessively materialistic -- too much focus on piles of junk recipients don't even want, much less need, coupled with (for Christians) hardly any mention of the original spiritual significance of the day, and (for those who celebrate secular Christmas) hardly any mention of the less fortunate.

Cash gifts solve the economic objection, but flunk on sentimental value. If family gift-giving consisted of everyone exchanging boxes containing $50, economic efficiency would rise, but the gift ritual would seem a waste of time.

So here is TMQ's suggestion for the 2011 holidays -- give the gift of receipts for charitable donations. Give money in your recipient's name to any charity, school or arts organization. Wrap the receipt in pretty foil paper. You're not wasting dollars on some hunk of junk your aunt doesn't even want, you are doing something good for the world. You can feel good, and the gift recipient can feel good.

18 December 2010

Fight or Flight? How About Hijack?

In nature, when one is confronted with a threat, there are two possible responses. Fight or flight. Stand one's ground or run as fast as one can.

I've been considering this as I think about the latent debate in churches about participating in (and therefore implicitly endorsing) mainstream culture.

There are folks in Christianity who fight culture vociferously. They hold placards and signs denouncing whatever segment of the larger culture they have they have deemed to be Hell-worthy for that season. This is most obviously seen in examples like Westboro, where fringe lunatics pick a fight with culture and things get ugly quickly.

There is also the flight group. These folks aggressively run from culture. Listening to "non-Christian" music is not even a consideration, watching "secular" movies is taboo, and exposing kids to anything that could be construed as cultural in origin in strongly looked down upon. As opposed to the Westboro folks, this group wants no part of the fight, preferring instead to try to find more insulation for their Christian bubble whenever possible.

Might I suggest we employ the Latin concept of "Tertium Quid"? Translated, the "third way" is a common refrain with a few friends. It is a way to end the polarizing debate that seems deadlocked or the ideation session that has gotten stale. Whenever there are two sides to an issue (or, in this case, to dominant norms) it is a good time to pull out and utilize TQ.

So, rather than fight or flight, what would happen if we hijacked culture? Literally used culture for the purpose of God? What would that look like?

It might look like this past weekend at Grace Point Church. Knowing that I was about to preach against the consumerism and consumptionism rampant in the American church, I asked the band to play "Bittersweet Symphony" by The Verve as the opener to the service. We didn't show the words of the song or make some cheesy pseudo-Christian video with slightly augmented lyrics. We just played it straight, let it set the tone, and let it speak for itself.

The line that hooked me, "We're a slave to money then we die..."

Sounds a lot like Solomon's wisdom from Ecclesiastes 5:
Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them?
Hijacked, a pop song lent cultural credibility to something we all know to be true. Money doesn't buy happiness and love of money can buy a whole lot of trouble.

We didn't run to our bubble or draw our swords. We embraced the creative beauty of culture, used it for our designs, and then let the day rest. And, if I might add, we enjoyed how great it sounded to allow a bit of pop brilliance into God's house.

13 December 2010

Gray, Gloomy, Beautiful December

The winter has an allure.

It is shades of grays and melancholy. It is hot tea and cramped quarters, stories of yesterday extricated by the sheer force of time and proximity.

It is sweaters and blankets and secrets, short days and long looks, cabin fever and the upcoming hope of spring. The warming of the earth is still only potential and yet that very potential drives the season and its inhabitants onward into the growling darkness of frigidity.

I often think that summer is the repository for memories in a quantitative sense. Every day contains traces of the day before it and the lingering sun leaves a hint that more is always possible. Summer is bubblegum and swimming pools, barbeque and fireworks. It is satisfying, but fleeting, a victim of its own longevity.

Winter, then, is the qualitative answer to summer. Memories of winter seem to sink deeper, take longer to unpack, and leave a more satisfying draft. They are made around campfires and Christmas trees, places of requisite intimacy.

So while many hope that the spring arrives soon, I hope for another long December. I hope for more gray, more mist, more cold, more darkness. In that low light, close to those we love, some of the best memories surely wait to be made.

Here's to a long December...

07 December 2010

Hunger Strike? What Would So Stir You Up?

That is Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, the 7th largest city in the richest, most powerful country in the world.

He has just asked protesters who are on Day 27 of a hunger strike to eat. He tells them they have made their point, they have shown how passionate they are, and they are now risking their health.

Please eat, he says.

No, they reply. Not until Congress acts on our request.

What they are striking for isn't important. So as not to distract, I won't even include it here. What is important is that these people are passionate enough about their cause that they would sacrifice significantly to make their position known.

What stirs up that passion in you? What would you go on a hunger strike to illuminate? What so desperately needs action that you would potentially harm yourself to see others helped?

06 December 2010

Hunger Strike? Stirring Old Thoughts Anew

In doing some sermon prep for the upcoming Sunday, my Pandora station stumbled across Temple of the Dog and the song "Hunger Strike".

It had been awhile, but the song hooked my brand new. Maybe it was partly some sort of sentimental journey to a more idealistic me, but the line that captured me was this:

"I can't feed on the powerless when my cup's already overfilled...."

The premise is that we're overfilled, awash in abundance ,and all sorts of rich. In light of this, who are we to break the backs of those around the world (either through exploitation or indifference) on whom we build our wealth?

And what is the difference between exploitation and indifference?

Active versus passive disobedience?

It's worth thinking about. Isn't it?