Saturday, April 11, 2015


How much is enough? The question has been rolling around in my head since teaching a book study to our students a few weeks ago. The book is More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity by Jeff Shinabarger.

Here is the idea: Ask yourself, how much is "enough" in each area of my life? And what do I have that is in excess of "enough"? The issue that everyone thinks of first is their excess of clothing, and it is not a bad example (though it is the easiest). There are clothes in my closet and in my drawers I just never use anymore. I can bag them up, and determine that what remains is reasonably "enough" for me.

Next, what will I do with the excess? Easy! Drop off the bag of clothes off at the local thrift store. Someone will want the clothes I don't need, right? But who will actually get them? Did you know that only 10 to 30% of the clothing you drop off is sold over the counter in that store? Most of the rest is shipped back overseas to less developed countries and sold there - sometimes to the very people who made them in the first place. Think about the livelihood of the local garment makers in those countries who can't compete with our cheap cast-offs. The solution is not so simple.

However, you get the idea: Decide in each area of life what is enough for you, then take a look at the excess and decide how to bless other people with it. You can live more simply, you will avoid accumulation, and (if done wisely) you can help correct some of the inequalities in our world.

Here are some areas of life addressed in the book:
  • Money - Obviously. How do you define "disposable income"? A myth? Do you really need everything you buy? What could you do with that "extra" instead of spending it on yourself?
  • Food - How long could you go, using only the food that is currently in your house? Having more storage space = food sitting unused for a long time.
  • Social image - You will never have enough if you don't think you are enough. How real and how important to you is the personal image you portray?
  • Clothing - The easy one. The global definition of wealth is the ability to wake up and choose what you will wear that day.
  • Gifts - A gift is not really a gift if you expect a gift in return. You and your family and friends really don't need those "gifts of obligation." Millions of others in the world do.
  • Transportation - Too often our view of convenience determines what we think is enough, or even necessary. 
  • Time - We all know that social media is robbing us of the present, as we exist in the Neverland of the personal screen. What could you do with the extra time if you drew a line of "enough media"?
  • Access - What excess opportunities do you have that you could open up to people with less options?
  • Gift cards - Given as an example of an "Enough Experiment," the author started a charity that asks people for their unused gift cards ($10-20 billion dollars worth are never used each year) which he turns over to other charities.
But what to do with our excess? It is tricky, because people are naturally greedy and it is hard to know if our donations really go to people in need. The other day, I realized that one of the best ways for me to use my excess is to reduce it.

What did I just say? Work out this riddle with me - I think you will find it worthwhile. Reduce my excess? How would I do that? Well, by spending more of course! Huh? Doesn't that miss the whole point of Jeff's book?

I don't think so. One of the primary ways that I daily perpetuate a system of inequality and unfairness in the world is my constant quest for a bargain. Cheapest price. Big sale. Best deal.

Did you know that stores like Walmart place excessive pressure on their suppliers to provide them with the same product for a lower and lower cost each year? How do suppliers respond? They find ways of producing more cheaply. Move production offshore. Pay workers less and demand more of them. Move production to an even cheaper country. Reduce quality and the safety of equipment and materials.

My quest to "Save money, live better" means that someone down the line is getting less and living worse.

What it means is that the first way for me to use my excess is to spend more money and make other people's lives better.

Will that really work? Does democracy work? Not perfectly, but better than most systems we have come up with. The right to vote for our choice of representative is considered an amazing privilege. So think about this: Every time you buy an item at a store or online or at a farmers market, you place a vote in the economic ballot box. Companies may ignore nasty letters and protests, but they will always pay attention to the votes of their customers. Or loss thereof.

Spend more money. Use some of your excess - that part of your income that is more than what you have determined is "enough" - to buy products that cost more but are ethically sourced. Direct fair trade. Local markets. Products that advertise a benefit to those in need rather than those that exploit them. The guy in your neighborhood who charges more but with whom you can develop a relationship. Avoid the stores that have a bad reputation for the way they treat employees, suppliers and the little girl who will sew the same line of stitches on the same garment for the next miserable 30 years of her life. Tip your waitress lavishly. When you bag up your clothes to give away, include at least one item that you actually like. Give wisely, and as directly as you can.

Jesus told a parable about a guy who did that sort of thing. He was about to lose his job, so he used his master's money to buy off a few friends for himself who might take care of him later. And his boss commended him for his shrewdness! What's the point? Jesus explained, "I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings" (‭Luke‬ ‭16‬:‭9‬ NIV).

I need to spend more money. Reduce my excess to do it.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it for a while. Your comments are welcome.

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sins of Omission

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Whatever may be your view of hell, we would all agree that even the best of intentions are rather useless without action.

This week I taught a short course on Sustainable Lifestyle. It has been an extra challenge because I have been sick for a month and this week it took a turn for the worse. But what I found most challenging is the question brought to us by a documentary we just watched, Living On One Dollar. After 56 days of living on a dollar a day in rural Guatemala, four young guys were left with the question: What can I do to help?

I have many good intentions, and I don't mind telling people about them. I have been intending to post something on this blog for the past year or so. I started a young adult novel that I hope to finish some day. I have some quality ideas for improving the House or getting some more art on the walls. I feel a burden to connect a great ministry with the opportunities at a local Christian retreat centre. I have a book on camp leadership that I want to see go somewhere.

But it's mostly intention, very little action. These things have been sitting on my "do" list for so long they are gathering digital dust. Should I simply delete them? Will I ever get around to doing something about them?

"So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin" (‭James‬ ‭4‬:‭17‬). I am not a spectacular sinner in the things that I do; my speciality is the sin of omission. I know the good things I ought to do. I regularly watch opportunity drift by. But often, I do nothing.

Those who know me might find that a little extreme. We live with a dozen students and an assistant in Auxano House and are daily involved in their development and discipleship. You might say that this alone is sufficient, and that we can't be expected to do everything. True enough. So should I simply delete everything else on my "Do Good" list and forget about them? That doesn't seem to be an option in James' statement.

I think what I need is better discernment. Paul prayed for the church "that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God" (Philippians 1:9-11).

Love will motivate me to act, but love needs to be informed and insightful or it may prove to not be love after all. For example, billions of dollars are poured annually into foreign aid, but some of it does more harm than good. The intentions are great, but sometimes the results are questionable. Greater discernment is needed.

The same is true with me. It has been a frustrating week because I have been sick, and there is much more I want to do than I am able. But maybe my desire to pour into these students lacks discernment. My intentions are good, but the results can be disappointing. I need to rethink what love looks like. I need more knowledge and depth of insight in my love.

I can't do everything, but by the grace of God I can learn to do the right thing.

And that is definitely better than feeling overwhelmed and doing nothing.

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" - Edmund Burke