How often I underestimate the power of a story to bring about change.
One inspiring book has me thinking that I can do things different this time of year—that Jesus and worship and spiritual disciplines and the fruit of the Spirit can make a recognizable difference in how I live. This season I owe the anticipation of having an abundant Christmas with less to the Rev. Dr. Craig Goodwin for his book Year of Plenty (Sparkhouse Press, 2011). It features the inspiring account of one suburban family’s choice to revamp their spending habits for 365 days according to the following rules: local, used, homegrown, homemade, and products (coffee!) from Thailand.
Not about Christmas per se, the book details how their idea to consume items only from local, used, homegrown, homemade, and Thai sources germinated shortly after Christmas of 2007. Familiar post-Christmas feelings of regret and exhaustion had set in as Pastors Craig and Nancy sat in a Seattle-based Thai restaurant. Wanting things to be different, they moved their conversation to a Starbucks to begin exploring the idea of living the next year in such a way that, unbeknownst to them, would connect them with local farmers, local dairy and wheat factories, local businesses, local artisans. At the end of the 365 days they would take a family trip to Thailand.
Little did the Goodwins know at the start they would discover a universal take away of balancing consumption and stewardship of the earth. For the first time they were about to experience first hand the impact of their buying and consuming on the environment. Further, that to segregate environmental concerns to the political realm or certain religious groups is to deny humanity’s interdependence with nature.
Other invaluable lessons abounded for the Goodwin family. Besides gaining awareness of the origins of the meat, vegetables, wheat, and many other things they consumed from local sources, they learned the value of turning their suburban yard into a vegetable garden and small chicken farm. They discovered the importance of time together. Walking the girls to school on an unfamiliar path through trees, or the adventure of finding a birthday gift forty minutes away, or making a piñata, or adjusting to one vehicle—these proved unforgettable moments of making due, building memories, bonding, imagining, thinking before spending, and relying on creativity.
The book raises some unsettling questions. Who supplies the food I buy and eat? What was life like for the animal whose meat I prepare? Why does a local farmer’s squash go to waste in a barn as supermarkets fill their bins with squash from Mexico? How connected am I to the people who make, grow and raise the things I purchase and consume? How many of us can relate to the post-Christmas let down that the Goodwins experienced?
This brings me to the propensity that I have to keep going, to over spend and over consume. I ramp up rather than slow down, curiously, during one of the holiest times of the year. I see no way around everything to do in a few short weeks—send cards, spend money, save money on great deals, bake, shop, wrap, cookie exchanges, another frustrating trip to an overcrowded post office, bizarres, clean, decorate, travel, parties, concerts...
With the rush here I wonder how many employees on Black Friday were forced to put in long hours at a time meant for loved ones and giving thanks for their daily bread. Regardless of where each of us falls on the income scale, we know that consumerism drives American culture and that it is meant for the well being of our economy. What it does to our spiritual well being, however, is an entirely different matter.
Years ago at church one Sunday morning, a woman was shocked to hear that I’d never taken part in the biggest shopping day of the year. She boasted of precisely plotted routes that led her home only when her SUV could not hold anymore stuff. Do my memories of Black Friday count as experiences, I thought? Memories in stories? Stories of protesting employees? Stories of people camping out in frigid temperatures, of getting up in the middle of night to get the best deals? Stories of people getting pepper sprayed or trampled to death? How often a story fails to bring about change.
Something else is at stake with the rituals this time of year. Rituals that involve Christians and non-Christians alike, leaving no distinction between believers and non-believers in our culture of Christmas. I live largely unaware of the extent to which advertisements and pressures influence my holiday preparations. The total amount of money spent on advertising in the US each year reaches over 1,000 billion dollars, alluring me to acquire more, more, more. Despite this embarrassing figure comes a simple answer as to why advertising is so popular: it works. Ads tap something in the human psyche. Perhaps it's my vulnerability. If only I had this advertised thing, then I would be worth something. I would look good. I would be accepted. I would matter.
A question follows: if my rituals leading up to Christmas fail to distinguish me as a Christ-follower in the world, then what? There's a season in the life of the church that remains unparalleled in the world. It's called Advent. What makes Advent so powerful is its story—a nearly 2,000 year-old story of a baby coming to transform and leave me in a different place from where I've been. A story that offers the peace I seek. How often I underestimate the power of a story to bring about change.
Year of Plenty is a story of such transformation. It's a call to pay attention. Pay attention to what I buy. Pay attention to what I eat and consume. Pay attention to the folks who raise, grow, make, and supply these things. Goodwin’s book has also led me to reflect on cultivating a life of simplicity. It is challenging to do so, especially with the time and effort it takes to create beauty and transparency in cluttered spaces. I’ve taken some preliminary steps, starting with experiencing this Christmas from a place of contentment rather than consumption.
In reading Year of Plenty, I have begun to reflect on how to make this Christmas less hectic and more fulfilling, less expensive and more about people than stuff. With friends, the plan is to forego gift giving and just spend time together. While inflated snowmen and decorated faux trees began appearing in the big-box stores weeks ago, some of my family members agreed to a new ritual of drawing one name and shopping for just that one person at a cap of $25.00. It replaces the custom I grew up with, an expensive one, of buying several unnecessary or unwanted gifts for each family member. I feel guilty that the 'Chef’s Envy' vegetable-slicing tool set received last Christmas remains in the cupboard unopened. Out of guilt, I get this urge to dig it out, dust it off, and display it whenever my mom comes to visit.
Can I have what the Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells wished for in his 2010 Christmas Eve address, for people to experience Emmanuel in being with instead of doing for? Can a story really reshape my thinking and habits? If so, then Year of Plenty calls to mind parts of Scripture that speak of unforgettable gifts. Stories of God’s ‘sufficient’ grace, of being ‘fulfilled’ in God’s love, of having 'enough' for this day.