How to Fix the American Christian – Lightening the Load


At a time of the year when Americans lose their collective minds and buy throwaway gifts for senseless reasons, the Scriptures say this:

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
—Matthew 19:16-24

At the risk of being accused of blasphemy, I’m going to say that the above passage is a nonstarter for most Christians, especially in America. The closet of American excessWe’ve heard it so often that it simply drains out of ears before it reaches our souls. We don’t think we’re rich, nor do we believe that our possessions own us. And we certainly don’t ponder for one moment that Jesus is speaking to us in his address to the rich, young ruler.

Despite the fact that there’s probably not a person reading this post who is not among the world’s top 5 percent in wealth, most of us don’t consider ourselves rich. The inequitable percentage of the world’s goods that Americans consume compared to the size of our population is just another example of damnable statistics. We read Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and though it tugs at our heartstrings, we feel it would best challenge someone richer than you or I.

Fine. I realize this issue is a nonstarter.

But the Bible says this, too:

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak….”
—Matthew 24:14-18

Any warning from Jesus is worth heeding. His words are truth and life.

Now I’m sure the preterists out there will take issue with any contemporary usage I attempt to draw from this passage, but I’m ignoring them. When I read this passage out of Matthew I see an underlying truth: Jesus wants us to live lightly. In other words, you and I need to be nimble.

But when I look at most Christians today, we are anything but nimble. We’re the slowpokes in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, dragging out of Egypt an oxless oxcart cart bulging with every last good we own, even as the Red Sea threatens to collapse on Pharaoh’s army nipping at our heels.

The average Christian household today is a massive burden. And it is so because we bury ourselves under stuff. We live in too-big houses filled to the rafters with ten of everything. (Even as I type, a basket near my desk overflows with a dozen highlighters. Don’t ask me why.)

And it’s not just simple stuff like highlighters, but racks and racks of clothing and shoes. We buy bookcase after bookcase to store books we no longer read or reference. Stuff accumulates to the point that we can’t find room to live amidst it all. We created the storage industry so that even in a tiny town like mine, they keep building more and more places to store people’s stuff. {Insert classic George Carlin standup routine here.}

That tendency to keep our overflow stored in larger and larger spaces was addressed by Jesus:

And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
—Luke 12:15-21

If the state of the American Church is any indicator, we are rich in stuff and not rich toward God. Yes, God was the one who gave that rich man all that bounty. It’s what the man did with it that condemned him. We must never forget this.

For this series, I started with this issue rather than saying we must seek Jesus first because sometimes you have to clear the room of the giant pink-polka-dotted elephant before one can see anything else. And our excess in America is one honkin’ big pachyderm. I heard on NPR this weekend that sales of goods to WalMart alone accounts for 15 percent of China’s entire GNP. Whether that figure is true or not, it’s scary because we all know that it may very well be true.

This year has been a time of God telling me that we have got to lighten the load. In truth, you and I are beholden to what we own. We cannot live in the nimble way demanded by the Gospel. We are not prepared to get up and go when God tells us to. Because we live in America, our hearts are divided between the Lord and our possessions, no matter how much we protest.

If we want to fix Christianity in America, we Christians MUST lighten our loads.

A baker’s dozen practical actions to consider:

1. Stop buying more stuff. Just stop. You and I don’t need more stuff, period. Especially electronic gizmos. I am constantly amazed at the Christians online who have gone through multiple generations of cellphones, iPods, and laptops. Why? The number of Christian blogs where the blogger comments, “I just replaced my old _______ with the latest one,” is staggering. What’s more staggering is that the thing replaced is often only a couple years old. And nine times out of ten, the thing replaced is not something anyone needs to live. Yet somehow that thing just had to be replaced. Our parents got by without cellphones, so why do our kids each need one? You grew up okay, right? Let the Bible dictate how we live, not a Verizon commercial.

2. Use items till they wear out. The shoes I’m wearing are eight years old. My best dress shoes are 22 years old. My favorite pair of slacks was 15 years old before the vacuum cleaner accidentally ate them. I’d say the average age of items in my closet is 11 years old. And in my garage sits the soon-to-be 17-year-old truck. Meanwhile, I’m writing this on an 8-year-old computer—yeah, ancient.

Christians are called to be frugal and wise, not the leaders in fashion. We’re not supposed to listen to the world’s siren call. If our stuff is old, that’s fine. If that means people don’t like us because we’re not hip, that’s their problem. (And no crying about having to be hip to evangelize people, either. The Holy Spirit is the same yesterday, today, and forever, so He doesn’t need your Prada bag to reach your girlfriends.) God looks on the heart, not the label of your brand new Armani jacket.

3. Reevaluate what items we truly need to live. Start asking why we need this or that “essential” item. Instead of always plotting what we might gain from purchasing an item, let’s consider what we might lose instead. Honestly, with all too many “essentials” today, the loss is greater than the gain. We end up working longer and harder to afford the essentials billed to us “timesavers.” How stupid! And often, the item we think of as essential interferes with building community between ourselves and other people. In the end, the item we can’t do without may very well drag us down

4. Find other ways to access desirable items without buying them and holding on to them. For instance, must we buy the latest Christian book? Or can we order any book we want to read from our local libraries through interlibrary loans? I know that my little rural library has pulled books for me to read from seminaries and Bible colleges all over the country. I read them, absorb what I can, and then I put into practice what I can. If I can’t put into practice what I read right after I read it, why would I think that having it on my bookshelf (a bookshelf I had to buy, mind you) would make any difference?

Can a highly desirable item be shared with others outside our immediate family? It bothers me that so few Christians entertain that thought—or reject it as “socialism” or an impediment to their right to consume whatever they wish whenever they wish it. If we did learn how to share better, all of us would be beholden to a lot less stuff. We could work less (since we wouldn’t need to make as much money), devote more time to the Lord’s work, learn lessons in Christian community, and enjoy simpler lives.

5. Say no to redundancy. We own duplicates of so many things. It’s as if we’re always in Plan B mode, afraid that God won’t provide for us should our only set or lone item go on the fritz. I know one Christian blog that discusses Bibles, where readers often show off their massive stacks of leather Bibles, each costing $50 or more. I don’t understand why, especially when believers around the world are crying for Bibles yet cannot afford to own one. (I know this is especially true in China.) I know that we own four different sets of plates. Some of those were inherited, but it still does not make much sense to own that many. When some people have none, why do we have multiples?

Our tendency toward redundancy also means that we are more likely to buy a number of cheap items that will not last rather than one of an expensive item that will. We need to reward quality, even it means owning less of a quality item. (See also #7.)

6. Learn generosity. The generous person cannot be owned by things. Period.

7. When we divest, give to the genuinely poor in a way that builds the Kingdom. Jesus asked the rich young ruler to divest himself of most everything he owned and give the money to the poor. If we sold just our excess alone, I think it would go a long way. That’s how rich we are.

When we choose to sell our excess or to donate items, we should find ways to invest it in the Kingdom. Rather than simply dump items at the Goodwill or the Salvation Army stores, I believe it would be more Kingdom-minded if we were to find on our own a family in need that we could support, and in more ways than just handing over money or our excess goods. We should instead befriend the folks in that family and work to help them get out of the poverty trap. We should make certain they know about Jesus, and not just by sharing the Gospel in words. Growing up, I remember that many churches adopted Vietnamese refugee families, but today we do little of that same work for the poor among us. That needs to improve.

8. When we must buy, choose high-quality items from local craftsmen. I am wholly convinced that living simply is not just living with less but owning items that are better built and crafted. So little of what we own today will ever be classified as antiques because it won’t survive. It’s artless, cheap junk. I purchased what I thought were quality oak chairs a few years ago to replace the broken chairs at our kitchen table, only later to realize the new chairs came from China. Ten years later, none survive intact. Contrast this with the Ethan Allen chair I’m sitting on as I write this. My parents bought it for me when I was 11.

While I am certain everyone reading this will provide an exception, I believe that local craftsmen are more likely to produce goods that last than the garbage coming out of China that we so readily consider “a deal.” In addition, buying locally made goods supports the local community and allows us the blessing of knowing the very people who make the goods we own, building relationships. It keeps money local, too, and resists the multinationals, who drive consumption, greed, fear, and envy.

9. Leave the Joneses to the Joneses. Keeping up with them will only keep us away from the Kingdom of God. They’re building their own worldly kingdoms that will perish. Our aim as Christians is to build an imperishable one. So don’t just give that ideal lip service; live it. If people think less of us for failing to keep up, that’s their problem. If we are still trying to please men, then we should not be servants of Christ. Because in the end, Christ’s view of us is all that matters.

10. Don’t judge other people by their possessions. Those who attempt to live simply err when we  judge others for what they own. This traps so many Christians. But we must remember that simplicity takes many forms, and just because someone drives a BMW tells you nothing about how they acquired it or how long they expect to drive it. If a $50,000 car lasts for 25 years while a $25,000 car lasts for only 10, then the pricier car may be worth it. My own closet is filled with clothing from L.L. Bean, not a cheap retailer, but I acquired it mostly through gift certificates gained through promotional programs, meaning I paid about $75 for what amounts to $1,000+ of clothing. The designer dress the fashion plate at church wears may have been purchased from a consignment shop or from the racks of Goodwill. We just don’t know.

As Christians, we are to mind our own households and let others mind theirs. So rather than peeking over the fence at the next guy’s fancy stuff, let us ensure that we are doing all we can to live simply ourselves. God will certainly deal with the other guy in His own way and time.

11. Consider downsizing the house. Our houses are too big. Because nature abhors a vacuum, and so do we, we proceed to fill those homes with all manner of stuff we don’t really need. Stuff that costs money to repair and maintain. Stuff that ultimately drains us and imprisons us.

Some are learning in this economy that they overbought their house. That’s a hard lesson that no one wants to learn. Truth is, we all may. I suspect that most of us live in houses that are more than we can afford or maintain. We must remember that choosing to be being downwardly mobile is not a negative, especially if it makes us more like Jesus.

12. Get in the prayer closet and get real with God about this issue. Ask God for insights by the Spirit as to what is won or lost by the possessions we own or intend to buy. Ask God for a discerning mind that will not cave to Madison Avenue. Ask to be made poorer in goods so that we may be richer in spirit. Ask for an attitude of gratitude. Ask for humility. Ask for a heart that is undivided. Ask to be made more like Jesus.

Most of all, we must pray for our children. They are the ones most easily enslaved by the world’s idea of wealth. Any plan of simplicity we undertake as families will be least understood by our children, as it means they will have less than their peers. I guarantee, even if they are born again, children will not grasp the benefits of simplicity if it means they must do without the latest hot item that their peers, even their church peers, own. We must also prepare for the incidentals of simplicity with our children. Case in point, a child without a cellphone will suffer socially if his or her peers all own one. The ramifications of simplicity and its impact on our children is one of the greatest battles we will fight to keep from being owned by the world’s systems. The promise is that a child raised in the way of simplicity will better cope with loss (and gain), will more greatly appreciate Christian community, and will find the narrow path that avoids the world’s highway to destruction.

13. Be grateful to God and rely on His provision alone. The bedrock underlying consumerism in the United States consists of greed, fear, and envy. See any positives in those three?

As Christians, those three sins must become increasingly foreign to us. Yet we work so hard to ensure that the very spiritual transformation God desires of us when it comes to those sins is thwarted by our confidence in our own selves to provide.

If anything, this economic collapse must teach us that none of us is that innately powerful to keep the entire world at bay by creating our own home fortress. Even the most controlling people suffer loss. Better that we learn gratefulness for even the smallest thing. Better that we learn to pray “give us this day our daily bread.” Grateful people who lean on God for His provision can never truly suffer loss.

More than ever, the call to Christians everywhere is to learn to live with less, to be more generous to the poor, to consider how living with less builds community with other believers, and to rely on God alone for our provision.

May we do more than listen.

No Good Reason


Not mine, but not too much different...Back a half a year ago or so, a small earthquake in southern Illinois radiated far enough east to successfully remove the overloaded “clothing management system” from the wall on my side of our master bedroom walk-in closet. As it took five months for me to locate the replacement wall connectors to reattach the system, and I have been too busy to deal with them once I bought them,  the system remains unattached.

This means the majority of my clothing is in plastic bins sitting on our bedroom floor.

Over time, the amount of clothing seemed to pile up, and I went from two bins to five. Annoyed that my clothing should occupy so many bins and so little drawer space, etc., I decided to consolidate.

In sorting through this clothing, the realization that I throw away just about nothing hit home. If anyone needs clothing for extras in the next Night of the Living Dead sequel, call me. I don’t know what it is about me that I have no qualms about wearing jeans that look like they were savaged by a pack of rabid wolves, but there you go. I guess when you do farmwork, any excuse for work clothes will suffice.

At least that’s what I tell myself. It’s the other clothing I can’t explain.

Truthfully, I’m not sure I can come up for a reason for the following:

2 suits

2 sportjackets

7 pairs of dress pants

8 long-sleeved dress shirts

8 long-sleeved casual shirts

11 pairs of casual pants or jeans

3 sweatpants/sweatshirt combos

3 cardigans

5 pullover sweaters

3 turtlenecks

20 T-shirts

12 pairs of short pants

9 short-sleeved Polo shirts

I could go on. I’m sure most of you could, too, if you did the same inventory.

And sure, some of my stuff has seen its better day, as in “not fit for Goodwill.” But still. I want to come up with an explanation, but I can’t except to say that even a cheapskate like me who hasn’t bought more clothing in the last two years than two pair of “Sunday go t’ meetin'” pants is still beholden to consuming.

As simply as I try to live, I still have too much stuff. And when I try to tell people I don’t really need them to buy me more stuff, they do anyway. My in-laws were concerned that our home was devoid of stuff that screams Christmas, so they asked if they could remedy the situation so that our son didn’t miss out on the atmosphere of the season. So they bought us outdoor lights and some garland. We put them up this weekend and they look nice. I very much appreciate my in-laws’ generosity.

Still, it’s more stuff.

I keep trying to find ways to give away stuff, but it never seems to work.

I lie awake at night because I realize that I may have to explain myself someday to my Creator and I’ll have no good reason for all my stuff. When I think of whose expense that stuff may have come by, I sleep even less.

Something about building even bigger barns troubles me.

The Rescue of Moonbase Asimov – The Real Story


If you didn’t read yesterday’s post, the story of Christian ethicist and professor Tom Killian and his presidential meeting to decide the fate of Moonbase Asimov, read it first and then come back to this post.

So, what did Tom Killian tell the president’s advisory committee? As a Christian, his worldview gave him a good reply. You may have your own ideas, but I’ll tell you what I think his reply would have been.

Clearly, the economics involved in maintaining the moonbase made for problems, the biggest of which was that the moonbase could not sustain itself without a series of expensive transports routinely bringing in food. The price spike in food that resulted led to rioting at the moonbase that had to be quelled through military intervention.

From a strictly rational viewpoint, sustainability is the 800-lb. gorilla in the room. In truth, sustainability is ALWAYS a primary consideration for any human endeavor. Want to climb Mount Everest? You can’t do it dressed for the beach, with only a handful of granola bars in your pocket. Want to have a moonbase that houses multiple thousands of people? Then you must find a way to address the very simple requirements of food and water. If you can’t, then you either watch the denizens of the moonbase die or you keep shoveling good money after bad to support an enterprise that has no future.

Many spiritually sensitive people would employ the tactic of Dahlia Winters, the leader of the Phos cult. While it is a laudable idea to minister to the needs of the people at the moonbase, adding more people only decreases sustainability further. Such thinking runs counter to common sense, only accelerating the moonbase’s problems.

Sending counselors to the moonbase is especially ill advised when other options exist. Evacuating large portions of the moonbase’s population until it reaches some level of sustainability makes the most sense. If at that point a religious group should desire to minister to the remnant, then fine. The religious group would have just as many options to minister to the evacuees, too. Better to meet their needs in a sustainable environment than in a nonviable one.

Does this make sense? It should. Yet many Christian leaders aren’t tracking with that kind of sense.

Moonbase Asimov is not that far-fetched actually. In many ways, we on planet Earth have our own unsustainable “moonbases.” We call them cities. And some well-known Christian leaders are telling us we can’t be good Christians unless we consider the plight of the city.

In truth, they are absolutely correct. We must consider the plight of our cities. And we should have a Christian response to that plight. Unfortunately, the most Christian response bears little resemblance to the one being advocated by those Christian leaders.

Our cities today are like Moonbase Asimov because they cannot sustain themselves. They are bastions of consumption that fail to produce the most basic element necessary for human survival: food. Is it any surprise then that major cities across the world are seeing riots over the unavailability of food? You can’t bring millions of people into an area and eliminate all its food-producing acreage then expect people to have access to food. That’s insanity. Yet that is what we have done in large cities around the globe.

Our entire world is changing. No longer will people be able to afford food trucked into a region from vast distances. Prices of food are skyrocketing. Much of that skyrocketing comes from our dependence on factory farms displaced into regions far outside population centers. Those industrialized farms rely on massive amounts of costly energy to raise their crops and even more to ship them to distant cities.

While some would claim this to have been a successful model for years (though I would argue against that notion), we cannot sustain that model. The model of the modern city is failing and its failure will be epic.

To send Christians into the heart of an unsustainable model is akin to asking them to board a sinking ship, comfort the occupants, and then go down with the ship. Only a madman would endorse such a plan.

The wiser plan of action would see the Christians board the foundering vessel and get as many people off that ship as possible before it sinks beneath the waves. During the rescue and its aftermath, they can still provide succor, but the end goal is different because it is sustainable. Thousands of survivors beats thousand of people serving as chum for sharks.

One reality we must all face is that our food must be locally grown. In an age of skyrocketing energy costs, we can no longer afford to truck in our food. It must come from nearby sources. Unfortunately, the modern city has all but destroyed farming within or near its borders.

In Bible times and for long afterwards, civilization’s answer was to build walled cities for protection while ensuring the area immediately outside the wall stayed farmland. That made sieges hell as you were cut off from your food supply, but in normal times the food was right outside the wall. A farmer might live inside the city during the perilous nighttimes when robbers and raiders were about, but he could still walk outside the gate of the city and step onto his pasture land. While that kind of city was not perfect, it could still function.

However, today’s cities have no nearby ring of farmland and none inside its incorporation zones. Productive acreage has largely been relegated to far-off outposts hundreds or thousands of miles away from the cities. You simply can’t walk to the gate of the city and step outside it into farmland. And that’s a serious problem. A Moonbase Asimov kind of problem.

I firmly believe the answer to the unsustainability of the modern city is for us to rethink the small family farm. I also think that rather than sending Christians into the city to live, Christians should be helping city-dwellers get out of our unsustainable cities. It only makes for further stress on the system if Christians add to the unsustainability of the city model by moving into it rather than living elsewhere and helping others get out of the cities.

Helping people transition out of our cities rather than moving Christians into them has no negative effect on our ability as Christians to minister to those people’s souls and to share the Gospel with them. If anything, it helps: We show the foresight and desire to “rescue those being led away to death” by offering a radical response to a very real and quite terrifying problem. As many people ministering to those in the city know, city-dwellers are facing enormous pressure on their incomes when it comes to food. Again, riots are breaking out in major cities all over the globe due to this issue. And the problem of food prices and availability will get far worse before it gets better (and that’s IF it gets better).

I believe it is possible to find ways to improve the sustainability of cities, but the entire concept of the city and how it is laid-out for food production will have to be rethought. And that will take decades, time many in the city may not have if the course of our world continues as it is. Sadly, wise urban planners of the past who attempted to build-in food production greenspace were often shouted-down. In this case, though, no one wins when those insightful planners are vindicated.

One famous Christian leader (who shares his initials with Tom Killian) has repeatedly bashed those who believe that a return to agrarianism is our best solution. I would contend that it’s not only our best solution, it may be our only solution in short order. In fact, it’s the only solution that epitomizes the Gospel’s desire to lift people up out of their dilemma into a life of abundance.

Because it’s very hard to be spiritually-minded when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.