On Monday, we looked at a Statement of Conscience from the 2001 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly about “responsible consumption” as an introduction to the holiday shopping season.
Today’s selection, a sermon from my good friend the Rev. Chip Roush (PDF), serving the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse in Traverse City, Michigan, examines consumerism in direct relationship to the holidays, and brings to to think about what these winter holidays, and our lives, are really for. This service was celebrated November 26, 2006.
For consideration: What is a meaningful gift, to you? How do you cope with the chaos that can be December?
Big Is More
by the Rev. Chip Roush
How many of you have ever made, with your own hands, a gift for someone you love? How many of you have made a gift within the last year? How many make more gifts than you purchase?
The year I finished college, I was in dire financial straits. I graduated with a degree in philosophy, which explains part of the problem. I did not have a job, so I moved home while I looked for work. As gifts that year, instead of buying things, I wrote out some of my favorite memories with the person to whom the gift was intended. For example, I wrote to my grandmother about the taste of her hot chocolate, still the best I’ve ever tasted, and about the night I spent at her house, laughing with her about something on the television. As I remember, the program itself wasn’t particularly amusing, but we were in the right mood to be silly, and gales of laughter swept through us.
Writing up that memory, as a gift to her years later, we were able to relive that moment, and strengthen our familial bond together— and it didn’t cost a penny.
Years later, I rediscovered the “simple living” concept, as I searched for a community to which to belong. I visited a co-housing development in Illinois where the residents had their own school, their own wind power generators, and they even had their own telephone system. I visited a commune in Texas that kept horses and made a local-access television program, and a group in southwestern Ohio that grew virtually all their own vegetables, even in the winter, and designed a sophisticated water-treatment system to re-use virtually every drop. My favorite commune was in the Ozarks, 800 acres with their own livestock and their own cheesemaking facilities.
The reason I was attracted to these various intentional communities was that they presented an alternative to the status quo of the corporate, consumerist culture of our United States of America.
The reason I ultimately rejected all these communities is that they, too, lacked what I perceived to be lacking in our larger culture: a firm foundation in human spirituality. They didn’t come together, weekly— or monthly or even annually— to talk about their most important values.
When they made decisions, they didn’t explicitly refer to a shared agreement, saying who they were and why they were together. Instead, like the rest of our culture, they too often chose what was least expensive, or easiest, or what would earn them favor with whomever they wanted to impress.
In other words, they behaved like virtually every other human being in the world, including me: they allowed themselves to be distracted from the larger, more important issues, while they pursued smaller, more mundane targets.
I’ll say that again: *We* allow ourselves to be distracted. Instead of pursuing right relationships with our families and friends and neighbors, we pursue the right clothing labels and car models and other status symbols. Whoever heard of someone, lying on her deathbed, gasping out, “I wish I’d owned a better car!” Does anyone, when holding a newborn infant for the first time, wish for him a designer-label wardrobe? No, we all know that good relationships, and our health and wellbeing, are what make for a good life. But we get caught up in commercials that promise us happiness and we believe them, at least until we buy their products, which is all they wanted in the first place.
I once went to a move theater and bought some popcorn and a soda, and the drink came in a cup that read, “big is more!” I was so astonished by the message, that I took the cup home, and washed it out and kept it in my office for years. It was surely created by a marketing genius: the phrase does not actually say anything— “big is more” you cannot really argue with that— and yet it somehow implies that we should want more, and so we should buy “big” in order to get “more.” I couldn’t disagree with the facts of the statement, but I hated the implication. “Bigger, better, faster, more” is not a sustainable lifestyle. We are already using up our resources at a breakneck pace, destroying our planet in our haste to have the latest thing.
The “Buy Nothing Day” press release from which our first reading was excerpted goes on to list two recent disaster warnings: “a global warming report by economist Sir Nicholas Stern predicted that climate change will lead to the most massive and widest-ranging market failure the world has ever seen. [And] a major study published in the journal Science forecast the near-total collapse of global fisheries within 40 years.”
40 years is two generations. Unless we do something soon, our children and grandchildren that are already living may know a world radically different than ours.
The press release concludes, “Our headlong plunge into ecological collapse requires a profound shift in the way we see things. Driving hybrid cars and limiting industrial emissions is great, but they are band-aid solutions if we don’t address the core problem: we have to consume less.”
Just this last week, as I was contemplating this sermon, I stopped for a meal at an Arby’s restaurant. This time, the cup read,
“Happiness is just a curly fry away.” It’s nice when the universe gives you a clear sign, isn’t it?
“Happiness is just a curly fry away.” There are so many things wrong with that statement, that I hardly know where to begin. First, the amount of fat in that curly fry is demonstrably unhealthy for the majority of people on this earth. And in my experience thus far, my physical health is far more conducive to real happiness than is the momentary dance of flavor on my tongue.
Second, and even more damaging, is the implication that happiness is a commodity. According to this marketing abomination, not only is happiness something you can trade, it is so cheap that you can get it for a curly fry. Finally, the worst part of the sentence, the root of all addictions: just…one…more. I could have already eaten fifty curly fries, but my happiness depends on the *next* one.
I do not believe that capitalism is, by its nature, evil. I believe that individuals should be able to profit by their labor. I think buying and selling and trading material goods is a fine thing. But when you try to convince people that they can trade material goods for emotional states, I begin to get concerned. And when people believe that buying and consuming are the only ways to achieve happiness, then that is no longer capitalism, it is consumerism.
There is research that suggests, the more consumer goods you have, the more you think you need, to make you happy. That is addiction.
And the worst part is, we are teaching it to our children. Much like so-called “crack babies” who come out of the womb, addicted to the same substance on which their poor mothers were hooked, we are passing on this sickness to our children.
An article in Friday’s Los Angeles Times says that young people from 8 to 12 years old are demanding designer fashions. According to the story, 9% of all teenaged clothing purchases are from luxury retailers. The article includes the quotation, “Having a Gucci scarf is part of being a kid today.” It says that young people “have grown up confident that they will have lucrative careers, so they feel entitled to own luxury brands.”
We are teaching our children that money *can* buy happiness, as long as it has the correct label, and you watch for a really good sale.
And we do this, knowing that the more they have, the more that they will want, and the more likely it is that they will never be satisfied or happy.
We do this because, in order to tell them the truth, we would have to face it ourselves. And it is too difficult to admit that we are addicted to possessing “one more thing” so we take our children along with us and let them push the little cart with the flag that says, “shopper in training.”
As you can probably tell, I have some anger about this situation. I am angry, and I am disappointed, but mostly, I am sorrowful.
I am full of sorrow for myself and my fellow human beings, because we have so little *real* joy in our lives that we’ll accept such pale substitutes as curly fries and Gucci scarves.
We are the most complex and the most beautiful creatures on this planet. We have developed cures for many different diseases, we’ve sent people into space, we have painted pictures and composed music that are so spectacular, they will take your breath away. And still, we haven’t figured out how to love each other, sufficiently.
It breaks my heart.
Richard Paul Evans asked, in our second reading, if his daughter feels a “shared commonality with her fellow” humans. I wonder if *we* feel a shared commonality.
He also asks, “Is there enough awe in my child, enough magic left, to save a world?” That’s where I begin to feel hopeful again, because I do believe there is enough awe in us to yet save our world.
There is enough creativity, there is enough hope, there is enough capital-L Life, moving in and among and through us, that we can kick our shop-oholism, and heal our collective wounds and, at the same time, develop a sustainable relationship with our planet home.
How many of you have heard the phrase, “put the Christ back in Christmas”? It may surprise you, but I agree with some of the people who say that. I do not agree with the paranoid talk radio hosts who use it as a litmus test to determine if you are a right-thinking person or not. I do not agree with those who would put Christ in Christmas, but not allow the Buddha, or the Goddess, or the ever-present, pulsing, Spirit of Life, to attend Jesus’ birthday party.
I think we need all the help we can get, and God is much bigger than any one particular name, so let’s invite everybody! Mostly, I disagree with the people who make a big deal about putting the Christ back into Christmas, and then don’t say a word about infusing the other 364 days of the year.
I think we need to put Christ back into Monday, and Krishna into Tuesday, and Great Grandmother Spirit into Wednesday, and whoever will help us get through the day, in our disconnected, dis-Spirited, current brokenness into every hour and minute and second that we can.
Look, for all my ranting, I am not against shopping. If going out at dawn, on the day after Thanksgiving, and bursting through the mall doors, as soon as they open, brings you joy, then by all means, do it. Let others celebrate Buy Nothing Day, and you find some other way to create compassion and creativity and human dignity in our world.
I think we need to put John Lennon back into Christmas: like when he sang, “whatever gets you through the night, is alright.” If it brings you joy, and if it opens a way for you to connect with the Spirit of Life, in yourself and in other human beings, then it’s alright.
The real message of the Jewish prophet Yeshua ben Joseph was that we are *all* of us saviors, that we must all connect with each other, and heal each other and challenge our leaders and our governments when they try to reduce us to demographics and mere consumers instead of the glorious manifestations of divine Life that we are.
Jesus said to follow the admonition of the Spirit, not the breathless commands of commercials. Let us therefore reject the gospel of Madison Avenue, cease seeking for wholeness through consumption and instead create real joy in human interaction.
The song we heard complained that “Christmas comes but once a year—and goes on for two months.” I think it needs to go on for twelve months.
We’ve all heard stories like the trucker who left a big tip for a single-mother waitress, so her children could have Christmas after all, or how a person’s coworkers all pulled together, and delivered a tree and decorations and food and, of course, wrapped presents, to their home on Christmas Eve.
Those are marvelous stories, and I celebrate the spirit of compassion and sacrifice that such tales display. *And* we need to tell such stories— and we need to do such deeds— every day, year round.
What if we gave a Christmas gift to somebody in the world, every single day? What if we went out of our way to make somebody’s day better, each and every day of the year?
Not only would their lives feel better, I daresay so would ours. We talk a lot about the “interconnected web of life.” What if we took it upon ourselves to repair one node of the web, reconnect with one person whose strand of the web has begun to fray, or disconnect? How would our lives feel, because of that work?
And what if we worked on our own strand, of our interconnected web?
I invite us to take a moment now, close our eyes, and imagine what might make our relationships more whole.
True joy is not a curly fry away, but it is, possibly, one real Encounter away. Imagine being absolutely real with someone important to you. Just for this moment, believe that they would be receptive to whatever you have to say.
Imagine that she or he or they would listen respectfully to whatever you had to say, as you made the relationship *real* again.
What would you say?
Would you tell them about your pain? Or how much you love them, or how angry you are at them?
Would you say, “I’m sorry”?
Would you say, “Stop.”?
And if you would really listen what would they say?
I will end with a slightly adapted version of the 10 Christmas Commandments of Reverend Billy and the Stop-Shopping Gospel Choir:
Thou Shalt Not Shop Till You Drop. Thou Shalt Not Go so Deep In Debt that You’re Paying the Banks next Summer. Thou Shalt Stop Pretending that this is NORMAL. The Buy-As-Much-As-You-Can Christmas was Invented by Retailers. Stop Shopping and Start Giving. We All Know What a Good Gift Feels Like. It’s Not About What You Buy. Save Your Soul from the Axis Of Consumer Evil: 1) Big Boxes and Chain Stores 2) Child Slave Labor and 3) Sexual Abuse at the Foot of 3-Story High Supermodels… Thou Shalt Have No False Idols: Playstation 3 is Not As Good as Real Life. Thou Shalt Not Trample Thy Neighbor For Sale Items. Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Motorized Ashtrays or Shopping Channel Zircon Chandeliers. Remember: You Don’t have to Buy a Gift to Give a Gift. Let’s Save Christmas from the Shopocalypse! Let us not Shop Ourselves to Death!
Let the congregation say, “amen!”
Our words and our rituals can unite us in a shared commonality with our fellow humans. We can heal ourselves, and each other of our cynical world, and inspire hopes of something better.
There is enough awe in us, there is enough Spirit with us to save our world.
So may we be.
Source: “Big is More” (PDF), by the Rev. Chip Roush, serving the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse in Traverse City, Michigan, preached November 26, 2006, released under Creative Commons.Tags: awe, Chip Roush, consumerism, deepening, gifts, simplicity