Luke, Chapter 12 (NRSV)
The middle section of this chapter has Jesus' teaching about our proper relationship to our material possessions. It's not terribly comfortable to read for those of us living in houses with full closets, stuffed basements and packed garages. Even if we try to live as "lightly" as possible, we still tend to accumulate more than we need. Why is that?
Whenever I travel abroad - whether it is in Europe, Latin America or Africa - I am struck by the lack of material possessions that people think of as normal when compared to my experience here in the U.S. In northern Europe, where the standard of living is at least as high as ours here in the U.S., people still don't seem to have acquired as much as we have. They live in smaller spaces and are more thoughtful about what they fill those smaller spaces with. Perhaps its the density of population, perhaps it's a leftover from a nearly a century of cold and hot wars - but whatever - it's quite striking when compared with our big box stores filled with inexpensive things that we really don't need but buy anyhow. I recall when I was in my Physics graduate program and my office mate from Turkey scolded me because I only used one side of the paper I was taking notes on. He just couldn't imagine wasting an entire blank side of paper because it was too much trouble to flip the pad over instead of flipping the page up. I had frankly not noticed that I was doing that.
But I'm more than struck, I'm convicted of my own unconscious hoarding behavior when I visit Africa or places of great poverty in Latin America. I remember learning in Swaziland that a single ball point pen was considered a generous gift - and how the recipient would carefully use the gift until the pen went dry. Which is something I never managed to do because I thoughtlessly misplace the pens I use after only a few days of use. I don't even get that angry at myself - they're so inexpensive and so common that I just grab a new one.
When I traveled to Swaziland on behalf of my parish in Bethlehem PA, I carried a few thousand pens with me in my baggage to give as thank you gifts for people I met while I was working there. I didn't manage to give as many of them away as I thought I would. At the end of my trip I gave the bulk of them to the bishop of the diocese to give away as he saw fit. He was so grateful. I was ashamed that I was giving them away mostly because I didn't want to carry them home in my luggage. I didn't have enough room after buying things for people back in the U.S. He was grateful for something that I was giving him because it was an inconvenience to me.
How odd to me that it was that experience in Swaziland that has kept bothering me, and not the much more overwhelming effects of poverty that I also saw on my visit. Perhaps the small issue surrounding the wasteful consumption of a pen was something I could manage to understand. I certainly saw many things much more deeply troubling. The fact that it's the pens that bother me still are a reminder of how far I have to go before I'm able to see the economic inequality of the world we live in with the same sort of horror that God must view it.
It was that time in Swaziland in particular that changed the way I look at the things I posses. I've not managed to fully keep my things in proper perspective, but I'm at least regularly wrestling with them. I keep hearing God's voice in my ear: "Fool. This very night your life is required of you. And the things you have prepared, who's will they be?" We carry nothing with us on our journey home except our souls.
How have I prepared the one thing I will be keeping with me on that final journey?
How have you?