Living simply

When I was ordained in June, a member of the bishop’s cabinet handed me a book on guided prayer written and compiled by Reuben Job. It includes psalms and other scripture assignments, devotional readings, and an outline for prayer, including daily petitions for “our world, its people and leaders.”

I understand praying for the president and other political leaders—people with names and faces dealing with particular kinds of challenges. But how do we pray for something as large and nebulous as our world?

So far, my prayers have centered on three general petitions. First, I’ve prayed for a swift end to our two wars in the Middle East, safety for our troops, peace and justice in that troubled region in the world. I’ve prayed that the Spirit would guide very smart men and women to figure out how to stop the oil leak in the Gulf and that we would, as Americans, be better stewards of the natural resources God has given us.

Closer to home, I’ve prayed that God would teach us something through this economic downturn that has gripped our nation for most of the past 10 years (with perhaps no end in sight?). I’ve prayed that we could repent of our rampant consumerism and materialism; that we could learn that people are more important than possessions; that we could stop taking for granted the good gifts that God gives us; that we could better learn to trust in God for what we need, instead of trusting in material things.

An article in today’s New York Times suggests that this is happening. The article says that many Americans are learning—surprise, surprise—that things do not make us happy. They’re downsizing their homes, cars, and possessions. They’re spending less and saving more. In fact, one objective sign of progress is the national savings rate: 6.4 percent! When I was in business school in the late-’80s, it was a given, according to textbooks and professors, that Americans—unlike their thriftier Western industrialized allies—don’t save. They won’t save! Fortunately, that’s changed.

On the bright side, the practices that consumers have adopted in response to the economic crisis ultimately could — as a raft of new research suggests — make them happier. New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses.

Sadly, as is often the case in journalism, a religious angle is completely missing—didn’t Jesus say something about these issues in the Sermon on the Mount? What’s happening in the spiritual lives of the people interviewed for the article who’ve given away possessions, simplified their lives, and learned to value relationships more than things? Suffice it to say, the idea that possessions don’t make us happy or that simplifying our lives is a good idea wasn’t discovered on some blog yesterday; it reflects ancient wisdom.

The article also spends a disproportionate amount of space describing how corporations are responding to this trend—how do marketers sell us stuff when we’re more reluctant than ever to buy? So even as Americans are learning that money isn’t the answer, the article implies, it all comes back to money. Naturally!

My professional path from my engineering career into ministry has forced my family to make drastic changes in lifestyle and consumption—often against my will. I pray that God would continually teach me not to be greedy and materialistic.

I have a long way to go!

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