In the concluding part of our series on escaping consumer culture, we look at finding freedom in an abundant life in Jesus
Four years ago some friends entered me into the Paris marathon. I had run regularly for a number of years without ever attempting the distance, and I was delighted at the chance to give it a go. I had six months to prepare, which should have been fine – but I injured my back and was unable to train for the first four months. By the time I lined up with 16,000 others at the start of the race, just six weeks’ running was all I had in the tank to get me round.
The first hour of the race I felt ok, but then the lack of preparation began to tell. By ten miles I was working hard, and by the half way point I knew that this was going to hurt more than any run I had ever done. I was still determined, though, to not stop running. By 20 miles, I was vaguely aware that while technically still running, I could normally walk faster! By 23 miles, I no longer felt in control of my legs when, first a man with one leg walked past me, then a woman about my mother’s age jogged past talking and finally, an old Parisian gentleman emerged out of the crowd holding a large glass in his hand and said gently, ‘Beaujolais, monsieur?’
My running stopped there, but it was not for lack of determination or effort. What scuppered me that day was not a lack of trying, but a lack of training.
Most Christians are like that too. We do not fail to experience the life God planned for us because we do not try, but because we do not train.
In last month’s article, we considered what effect the prevailing culture of consumerism, and ourselves as consumers, is having on our Christian lives. If we are to live free, if we are to live the life God intended for us and not be seduced by consumerism’s snare, we have to learn to train, practising the rhythms, disciplines and habits that will sustain our life in Christ in what is effectively the enemyoccupied territory of consumer culture. Consumerism never tries to confront what we believe outright, it just tries to skew how we live. If we are to succeed, we have to focus not so much what we believe, but seriously think about how we live.
There is an ancient myth, many thousands of years old, about a sea captain who had to take his ship past an infamous piece of coastline. Many ships had been wrecked on the rocks because wicked people would come to the cliffs on foggy days and dark nights and sing so beautifully that sailors would steer a different course just to listen. The danger was well known, but apparently the singing was so enchanting that even forewarned, many ships met their fate on that stretch of coastline. Some captains had even tried to tie their crew to the mast to stop them changing direction. This captain had a different strategy. For this trip there was a new member of the crew. The sailors moaned because he was a terrible sailor, but as soon as the singing started to be heard across the water, the new crewman brought out a violin and played with such brilliance, passion and feeling that it captivated the men until they were well out of harm’s way.
The point I am trying to make is that we will succumb to the seduction of consumerism unless its attraction is eclipsed and drowned out. Jesus wants us to flourish in his abundant life, not be tied legalistically to an austere one. He wants us to live in loving relationship with him, and know the truth that he is more exciting, more fulfilling, more enriching and edifying than all the treasures of this earth put together.
Rhythms and Habits
Scott Martin was just 20 when he died. For many years he had refused to eat anything other than chips, beans and toast. Scott died because of his habits of consumption. If our habits of consumption are not to kill us spiritually, we need to take action.
The rhythms and habits for daily life in consumer culture start with understanding that Jesus’ love is better than life. What does it take for us to live loved by Jesus on a daily basis? How do we pray and read the Bible, meet with other Christians, practice silence, write a journal and so on so that we can live in a daily meaningful relationship with a God who is always more captivating and enthralling than anything else the world has to offer? Real authentic lasting joy from Jesus is the ultimate answer in a world of marketed products promising a counterfeit, temporary and disillusioning happiness.
Once these basic rhythms are in place in our lives there is a strong foundation for building other disciplines and habits which equip us for living in consumer culture.
Last month, I said that in today’s consumer society, what really characterises us is not an attachment to things, but a detachment from things. Part of the challenge is that we need to practice disciplines that attach us to things, and disciplines that detach us from things at the same time! Confused? Let me try to explain.
We need to practise the disciplines of detachment from material possessions because consumerism wants us to become people who are attached to things in the sense that we find excitement, identity and joy in ‘stuff’ and learn to focus our hopes and dreams on the next product we buy. Jesus was really clear in his conversation with the rich young ruler that detachment from material possessions has to go hand in hand with attachment to him. ‘Go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’(Matthew 19:21). In the parable of the sower, he talks about a life in Christ being choked out by ‘the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things’ (Mark 4:19). Detachment from possessions is rooted ultimately in the idea that everything we have belongs not to us, but God. Generosity is a discipline of detachment. Every time we are generous we learn to give away to others more of what we consider to be ours.
Generosity is not so much an action, but a mindset. ‘Freely you have received, freely give’ (Matthew 10:8). God has blessed us with incredible generosity, so we seek to bless others with generosity too. Generosity finds expression in words and actions and relationships as well as in standing orders, gifts and direct debits. If year on year we are not becoming more generous people, we can’t in any meaningful sense be understood to be growing in Christ. Until you have gone through the process of giving something you really like (and still want!) away to someone else, you have never experienced the freedom that generosity can bring.
Simplicity is another discipline of detachment where we impose upon ourselves voluntary ceilings on the amount of stuff we own; actively resisting the seduction that satisfaction is always a little bit more.
Fasting is another foundational discipline in detachment. In fasting we stop consuming an essential for physical life and remind ourselves as Jesus did when he fasted that ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4).
On the other hand, we need also to practise the disciplines of attachment. This is because we have become far too removed from the realities of what it takes to grow the food we eat and make the products we buy. We have to attach ourselves to reality again. We need disciplines of attachment because, as we saw last month, we treat all our choices as disposable, never content with what we have, and make temporary choices before quickly moving on to something else.
The disciplines of attachment start with learning to deeply appreciate everything we already have. Becoming more grateful for everything is essential in this. Like all these disciplines, constantly expressing gratitude over time ‘wires up’ the neurological pathways in our brains to think in a certain way. Instead of always wanting something else like the adverts train us to, we become more content with what we already have. Closely associated with this train of thought is to minimise waste. The old saints called it thrift – being careful stewards of everything we own. If you never recycle anything it’s a sure sign that consumerism’s detachment has you in a vice-like grip. It might sound strange at first, but the discipline of patience is also helpful here. Whether it’s with an irritable child, or a delayed flight, exercising patience trains our soul to be resolved with reality and not hankering after the next thing. It is about saying ‘Grace’ at every meal; it can be about fun events like clothes’ swaps and bartering parties. It is about buying classic designs of clothes that are less likely to date quickly and of sufficient quality so that they last. It includes choosing a favourite food and doing our research about where and how it is produced. And, of course, it is about buying Fairtrade where we can. All these things can be spiritual disciplines of attachment.
Another great spiritual discipline is to start making things. It doesn’t really matter what we make. It can be cards or cakes, quilts or jam. It all has value in that it reconnects us with the realities of production and the value of labour. Growing things has the same value. One of my friends says that anyone who wants to follow Jesus ought to have a vegetable patch in the garden, because it teaches you so much.
Thinking about vegetables, this is where the church can develop an exciting role in making society fairer and more just. Instead of complaining about injustices, we can together create a more free market. Organisations such as Tearfund already do this with marketing their developing world partner’s products, but what if a local congregation linked up with a market gardener in the locality? Such a partnership could see the church opening up a truly free market to its community.
The Place of the Church
The most counterculture thing you can do in a consumer society is to be passionate about the inseparability of faith and Church. Church is where Christians train. It’s where we practise loving people and worshipping God, praying and learning, serving and giving, and the costly inconvenience of not having everything our own way.
Church is just about the only place left in society that is able to show us that all our efforts to drive the best car we can and be as successful as we can, interferes with our intention to be a good friend and neighbour. Church radically confronts our understanding about my space, my possessions, my time, my comfort and my convenience.
As soon as we formally join a congregation and embrace its inconvenience to our schedule, as soon as we start giving regularly and sacrificially, whenever we start using our gifts and serve in the church, consumerism’s grip on our lives is weakened. Today when we are always being tempted to experience something new, there is no more radically counterculture act for a Christian than taking a vow of stability like the Benedictine monks used to – in other words, committing themselves to a particular community for the longterm.
It is interesting that right at the heart of Christian worship is an act of consumption. When Jesus first broke bread with his disciples, he said that they were to take and eat in memory of him. Then he took a cup of wine and said they should drink in memory of him. At the Communion service, we consume to remember. At the same time we consume to become. There is something more going on than just remembering. ‘This is my body, this is my blood,’ Jesus said. In some mysterious way, the Communion elements bring us into contact with the risen Jesus. That in turn means that through its celebration of Communion, the Church comes into being as the body of Christ, his continuing presence on earth.
For each of us involved in this meal, the implications are profound. At the very moment we consume the elements of Communion we are also being consumed. We are at one and the same time taking Christ into ourselves and being taken into Christ. Not only that, but when we become one with Christ we become one with everyone throughout the world and history who are also part of the body of Christ.
Perhaps Communion is a window into how God always intended us to consume? Totally connected to the reality of what it cost, establishing our identity through the choice we make, connected with all who make the same choice, and joyfully in our consumption asking the creator of all things to consume us. A mutual selfgiving and receiving. Recognition that we are all one.