Vol 5, Num 8 :: 2006.04.21 — 2006.05.05
It was like a giant’s junk drawer, the large metal bin that was delivered to my father’s house last week, ready to be filled with a thousand cast-off knick-knacks. Really, it was more like a coffin. Dumpsters as coffins often arrive shortly after their real counterparts have been lowered and hermetically sealed into concrete vaults, after funerary rites that too often hermetically seal in grief. This one, though, was for the death of a dream.
“Everyone should have to fill a dumpster,” my brother remarked, “That would be the opening line I would use.” I had told him that I was thinking about writing an article on wasted capital. And, indeed, everyone should, and preferably at an early age. “Conditioned aversion,” I think, is the technical term for it.
First, though, dumpster-filler-hopefuls should be made aware that no one gets to fill a dumpster for free. No Siree, you get to pay for that privilege. Our week of dumping rights, proscribed by some 20 cubic yards, a two ton weight limit, and a ban on appliances and tires (though, oddly, not on toxic materials) set us back $350, which, from the time-is-money perspective, was really quite a bargain. I could not help thinking, though, of all the ironies we packed into that dumpster along with our trash. And pack it we did. At $350 a pop, the empty-pockets-of-space-are-money perspective also begs to be heard.
And the ironies we packed away were as rich as some of the items we were putting into the dumpster. I shudder to contemplate what percentage of our garbage would have been salvaged and redeemed in any number of developing countries. I am confident, though, that the percentage would begin with a nine. And, yet we threw away with liberality and abandon because it was a necessity for us, for our family to get unstuck. And, so, we performed the privileged calculus, often sadly but determinedly, of crunching the numbers of projected use of an item versus storage space versus ties to the head and pocketbook and heart.
The intimate details of why our family needed a dumpster are neither for public consumption nor are highly relevant, but the reader should know that my father is no wastrel and that his dreams for the house he built as our family’s homestead had love and care and a desire to provide a place of belonging at their heart. As do our desires as sons to have him be freed from the weight of that dream, to exchange it instead for the realness of a life lived, at first close to, then within the home of one of my brothers, in the midst of growing children and laughter and life.
My family’s existential dumpster crisis, however, is a relevant substrate for a consideration of just how we use our resources as believers, of how we use our capital. The Sermon on the Mount, which John Stott insists is a primer for Christian counter cultural living, has some very pointed words on this score:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
There are, of course, a thousand ways to blunt a scriptural passage, and it seems that verses advocating or describing financial austerity are prime candidates for such treatment in the church. Yet, even if blunted by a thousand qualifications these verses still cudgel us with their simplicity.
What not to do: Do not store treasures on earth.
Why not? Moths and rust destroy; thieves steal.
What to do: Do store treasures in heaven.
Why? Moths and rust don’t destroy; no thieves.Perhaps not surprisingly, James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, echoes the exact same imagery of the transience of riches in his warning to rich oppressors: “Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days (James 5:2-3).” And even Paul, whose letters sometimes seem to me to foster a more settled, less activist, though no less radical, tenor to the faith, writes this to Timothy:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (I Timothy 6:6-10)
The New Testament is pretty clear, then, about where our treasure should lie and about the source of true contentment. The application of these truths gets somewhat murkier, though. Perhaps this is only because I want it to, because I want to blunt these passages, because I want to be able to hold on to earthly treasure. But also, perhaps, for some legitimate reasons, stemming from considering areas the Scriptures do not directly cover.
In the West particularly, the list of things to which we feel entitled, that we believe are staples of life, is enormous; health care, insurance, education funds, retirement funds, an entertainment/vacation budget, just to name a few. Can such things fall somewhere under the rubric of “food and clothing?” I think I can make a case that they may, though I wonder where I would begin in making a case for the last item. And in addition to these rather prosaic “necessities,” excepting the entertainment/vacation budget line item, what about spending money on things of beauty and art to celebrate God’s good creation and to enrich our lives?
Granting the rather large assumption that these are, indeed, necessities, the next question becomes, “How much?” How much is permissible? How much is acceptable? How much is necessary? How much is beneficial? Even the way we ask these questions is important. The way we ask, I think, begins to illumine our hearts.
The most intriguing discussion of these questions I have read is not in a Christian tome, but rather is by Nick Hornby, a novelist who covers themes of individualism, community, and belonging that Christians should be addressing. In How to be Good, the novel’s protagonist, Kate, and her misanthropic husband, David, are on the verge of divorce when he suddenly has a conversion of sorts, becomes a much nicer human being, and wants to give away all their worldly goods of which they have duplicates or an excess. Both his niceness and his extreme philanthropy become a challenge for Kate. Ultimately, David’s zeal fizzles and he returns to earth and Kate brings the family back into line with more normal levels of middle class charity. She also arrives at a balance of just what is involved for her to be good, which includes purchasing things which enrich her soul:
Maybe I can’t live a rich and beautiful life, but there are rich and beautiful things for sale all around me, even on the Holloway Road, and they are not an extravagance because if I buy some of them then I think I might be able to get by, and if I don’t then I think I might go under. I need a Discman and some CDs and half a dozen novels urgently, total cost maybe three hundred pounds — and I could shave even that pitiful amount down. I could go to the library, and I could borrow the CDs — but I need the Discman — I want to be able to block out every last trace of the world I inhabit, even if it is just for half an hour a day. And yes, yes: just think how many cataract operations or bags of rice could be bought for three hundred pounds. And just think how long it would take a twelve-year old Asian girl to earn that in her sweatshop. Can I be a good person and spend that much money on overpriced consumer goods? I don?t know. But I do know this: I’d be no good without them.
Of course, on one level, the items Kate considers in her calculus are very superficial, and Christians have a very different answer of “how to be good.” Yet, her wrestling is of a type in which far too few Christians engage, I fear, even at this superficial level. We should be engaged in far deeper levels of examination of our perceived need for things. Even more tellingly, completely ignoring our birthright, we too so often look to superficialities for our contentment. Instead of examining how the Spirit of God is ensconcing that God shaped hole in my spirit, instead of asking how He is infusing and stretching my spirit, sometimes I completely miss that He is even there and try to fill space and time with trivialities, which too often require the use of my debit card.
And that, my friends, relentlessly leads us back to the dumpster inside which this piece began. In dribs and drabs or in a wholesale dumping, all our worldly goods will end up there. Some will have been well used, some not. Some will have been necessities, many not. However, for each piece that goes into our respective dumpsters, we will have made, inadvertently or consciously, decisions about how to use our capital; for each piece that tumbles in, some of our capital — financial, temporal, emotional — will have been expended. And, in a sort of parallel to the law of the conservation of mass and energy, our choices to purchase, say, the mass of a Specialized bicycle or the energy of a U2 concert, mean that those bits of mass and energy are spoken for. They cannot at once remain as they are and, say, purchase the mass of a cow for an indigent farmer through the Heifer Project or underwrite the energy of a dinnertime discussion at L’Abri. A dumpster affords the clarity of seeing some of these choices in retrospect. The trick is to become more cognizant of them as we live our life going forward.
The issue of economics, societal or personal, and Christianity is huge and complex. I do not have the knowledge to begin to discuss free markets versus socialism and which aligns better with Christianity. I am in a perpetual struggle to not judge believers who are wealthy, some of whom who have a crystal clear understanding of these issues, live lives of blessed frugality, and immensely bless the church, a combination of traits which I am convinced must require a spiritual gifting every bit as real as the gifting of teaching or tongues. I am still sorting out for myself the issues of just how much I need to tide me over till we get a new earth. And that is about all I have on this issue just now, an urging to live life more thoughtfully vis a vis our capital, which even if you are a “poor college student,” is staggering compared to the rest of the world. As to the daily decisions of how to do this, sometimes they may seem as confusing and muddled as so much garbage in a dumpster.
Just east of St. Louis, two earthen mounds abut Interstate 70. On the South, Cahokia Mounds rises, the last remnant of an ancient Mesoamerican civilization. On the North, a monument to our own civilization perpetually grows, long since eclipsing its ancient cousin. Blazing methane vents dot its mass, like tiki torches illuminating some pagan mountain. And it is there that truck after truck after truck, brings drywall and carpet and Doris Day records and exotic Pakistani rugs and paint cans and textbooks to further raise up the high places.