” And yet what is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of the essential unity among soul and body and community and world? These are all the works of God and it is therefore the work of virtue to make or restore harmony among them” Wendell Barry
“This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” – Paul the Apostle
I’ll never forget an experience I had years ago when someone visiting the area where I was living found out that I was pastor and sought me out in order to talk with him. His story was one of moving up financially, socially, vocationally, only to realize as he approached the summit that he’d either climbed the wrong mountain, or worse… that up was actually down. Along the way, you see, he’d lost his spouse, his relationship with his children, and by the time he met with me he felt as if he might be losing his sanity. It wasn’t, according both he and his doctor, some sort of physiological depression in need of a pharmacy. It was borne out of philosophical disillusionment.
“I was making more money than I could possibly spend in a lifetime. We’d gather with our friends, deep in the redwood forest, to take our clothes off, smoke weed, drink wine, and talk philosophy as we slowly slipped into orgiastic recreation. Money. Sex. Power – and the enjoyment of all of it among the beautiful people. It was every person’s dream – at least every person I knew.”
Somehow though, in the midst of it, his wife left him, preferring to frolic with a couple of the other forest dwellers in a commitment free zone, rather than build an old school life on a fossil concept like fidelity. Then the pleasures began losing their punch, and shortly after that the money also disappeared. And now, here he was, visiting his family and wanting to chat with me because he’d met someone who said I seemed “happy and grounded”, even though I was a Christian.
We talked several times and I enjoyed our times together. Of the hours we spent in conversation, there’s one exchange I’ll never forget. I told him that contentment was a real possibility for humans, and he said that he didn’t believe me. I then read this passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity ; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
He began visibly shaking and said, “that’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted… the only thing I’ll ever need – contentment!” And then, “is that still possible?”
What a great question! Yes, of course, but only in concert with some other C’s
Creation – “The earth is the Lord’s” is how the Bible puts it, which means that all the species matter to God, from the microbes in the soil to giant whales of the sea. If we believed this, we’d also believe that the environments in which these creatures live matter, because the truth is that we live robust and vibrant lives only in proportion to the robustness and vitality of our air, soil, rivers, oceans, and purity of our water tables. No species has the power to destroy all this save us – and we’re headed there at break neck speed. As a result of this, species extinction (“no Chestnut on Chestnut Lane, no Pines in Pineville, no Buffalo in Buffalo, etc.” is how one author put it), the poisoning of water tables, the loss healthy topsoil, and destruction of streams due to runoff and silt are all undeniable realities. In addition to the undeniable stuff there’s also growing evidence that increases in cancer and autoimmune diseases find their roots in environmental destruction.
Consumer Culture- There are systems, of course, that encourage this, but this horrific downward spiral only works because we, each of us, empower and affirm the systems through our choices. We are, after all, called to “tend and keep” the earth, and God gave us some clear guidance on such matters in God’s directives regarding Sabbath, care for animals, and the values foster earth stewardship. If I take this seriously, I’ll remember that every food, transportation, and consumer choice either fattens up the destructive systems, or starves them. Our responsibility begins with recognizing that these systems and the “thy kingdom come” kingdom, which we mention in our daily prayers, are utterly at odds. Our calling is live into our identity as citizens of God’s life giving kingdom, and this means taking up my role as a steward of creation.
Christ – For many of us, the first two C’s are nothing new, and yet we still continue, all of us, to make choices that are bad for creation, and hence bad for our own health and well being, along with all the species of our interdependent planet. In spite of all our knowledge, we often continue to buy into the lies of consumer culture that it’s OK to consume 30% of the world’s energy even though we, as Americans, are only 6% of the world’s population. We NEED our stuff, or so we believe. We NEED to drive as much as we do, or so we believe. We NEED a food system that provides blueberries in the dead of winter through the high energy use strategies of freezing and shipping. The life we live is the life we want, the life we choose. But we tell ourselves it’s the life we NEED, and that’s a lie.
What we really need is Christ, and if we actually enjoy intimacy with him, we find ourselves both caring more about our consumer choices, and needing/wanting to consume less stuff; to be able to enjoy lovingly prepared food, untainted by pesticides, and eaten in peace with friends and family; to be able to choose a walk, a sunrise or sunset, candlelight conversation, wearing a sweater indoors, riding a bike to work – these are the things that make for contentment. Such a lifestyle is subversive because it says to the consumer culture, “I won’t bow down to your gods and goddesses of consumption, upward mobility, individualism, and waste. I’m choosing life instead!” The life we’re choosing, of course, is the life for which we were created – a life of contentment born out of intimacy with Jesus.
Though its challenging to get there, I can safely say I’ve never spoken with anyone who’s taken this aspect of discipleship seriously who didn’t also find a life on the far side of their changes that was richer, healthier, and more life giving in every way (emotionally, socially, body/soul/spirit) Of course. When Jesus said he came to give us life, he wasn’t talking about later. His kind of life starts now. Today. And it includes your next choice born out of either contentment or consumerism.