Returning to “Why,” in Hopes of Getting Off the Consumer Escalator

By Timothy Siburgwhy-1432955_1280-red

Over the past three weeks we have pondered about the ups, downs, and challenges of riding and being on the consumer escalator. We have recounted many reasons why we might want to rethink our spending and the way we steward our time and resources around Christmas and Thanksgiving. In the previous November posts, Marcia, Matt, and John have done a beautiful job of offering alternatives and insight into positive ways to reconsider consumerism.

This week, I want us to dig into the question of “why?” What really matters this time of the year, and how might focusing on that question make for a more faithful response and richer holiday experience?

For a Christian, the why can be found in the heart of the Christmas gospel in Luke 2:1-20, often read every Christmas Eve. Within that rich text, we hear the proclamation from the angel of the Lord,

 nativity-scene-1807602_1280-crop“Do not be afraid, for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
– Luke 2:10-11, NRSV

 It might sound trite to say that this is the “reason for the season.” And I am not exactly trying to say that. But if we remember that this is at the heart of the celebrations, festivities, food, fellowship, and all of the gift giving this time of year; if we remember that it is the fulfillment of the promises of the prophets which guide our journey through the season of Advent to the manger; we might just have a chance to get off the consumer escalator.

I am one who loves to give gifts. My wife Allison and I see that as one of our love languages. We also love to say thank you, which is why Thanksgiving is one of our favorite holidays. But at the heart of our gift giving, joy, and gratitude, is a knowledge that we give gifts because it is one of our joyful responses to the pure gifts and good news of God who we know through Christ Jesus.

We don’t give gifts because we want to earn something in return. We give without the expectation of return. We give, because we can’t help but feel so overjoyed with the good news of a God who comes near, becomes incarnate, walks with us, is given for us, and loves us. In our joy, we can’t help but want to share our joy through the sharing of our stories, time, the giving of gifts, living fully in God’s abundance and love.

envelop-576252_1280 Of course, Allison and I don’t give without a plan. We always sit down and make our Christmas budget each year prior to Thanksgiving. We include plans for our annual Christmas letter and the costs associated with printing and mailing it, as well as our hopes for what we are willing to give to family and friends, our congregation, and other needs, nonprofits, and ministries we feel connected to and passionate about.

So, why do you give? Why do you do what you do this time of year- spending, wrapping, cooking, eating, decorating, gathering with friends, families, and colleagues? What part of the promises of God and the Christmas story motivate you and lead you into the way that you spend your days and evenings this time of year?

However you may answer these questions, I hope and pray that you have a meaningful journey to the manger, and are so caught up in the promises of the good news, that you can’t help but want to share it. And for those of you who feel like you are stuck on the consumer escalator, I hope that by thinking deeply about the “why,” you might feel comfortable and confident in your ability to get off it.

About the Author

timothy headshotTimothy Siburg is the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a Deacon in the ELCA, and is a member of the COMPASS Steering Committee. His wife Allison serves as an ELCA pastor, and together with their cat Buddy, they reside in the greater Omaha area. Timothy can also be found on Twitter, Facebook, and on his blog.

Image credits: pixabay.com

Reconsidering consumerism

By John Withum

It was Christmas Eve 2014, and I was in panic mode.

vrcvr4qdFor a few years, my wife and I set Christmas budgets on what we could spend for each other. We left a little wiggle room, but always tried to stick to it. I had spent my budget, but the pile of presents under the tree seemed unimpressive. She was having a rough year at work, and I felt guilty that I had not put more effort into selecting her gifts. And that explains how I ended up spending almost $100 on last minute gifts at Target.

What in the world caused me to attempt to satisfy an emotional response with inanimate objects? Searching for the answer led me to re-examine the messages consumer capitalism has sold me about my self-worth, particularly around the winter seasonal celebrations.

Beginning almost immediately after the front doors have closed on the last trick-or-treaters, retailers roll out deals and decorations for the variety of celebrations between November 1 and December 26. Interestingly, very few of these sales focus on Thanksgiving, and most of them skip straight to the end of December. Why? No one gives Thanksgiving presents.

Consumer capitalism, at least the variety found in the United States, utilises every opportunity it can to earn money on the emotional response to various holidays and special days in cultures. As winter celebrations have continued to evolve in the U.S., consumer capitalism has ensured it has a hand in shaping public formation around two traditions: traditional winter cultural celebrations and the actual Christian holiday of Christmas.

Where did most of what we know as the “holiday season” in the United States originate? The long, dark winters of northern Europe is as good of a place as any to start. Think yule santa-claus-1628845_1280logs, wassail, the various iterations of “Santa Claus” (such as Sinterklaas from the Netherlands, Father Christmas from England, Kris Kringle from Germany), trees, and stockings. There are many, many more to be mentioned, but hopefully this is enough to make the point. It is easy for capitalism to co-opt these winter celebrations because, being cultural, they have developed over long periods of time. They can be further exploited by retail marketing, advertising executives, and businesses who are interested in cashing in on good feelings. Most of these traditions being exploited are from northern Europe, where the lack of daylight in winter months has encouraged celebrations revolving around community, light, warmth, and rebellion against the darkness.

What is surprising is how easily marketers have drawn in classic Christian celebrations of Christmas. The whole message of Christmas, in the words of Christian author Scot christmas-1010749_1280McKnight, is “about a God who entered into the world in a socially shamed family in order to lift the socially shamed to the highest name ever.” It is about Israel’s true king being born into a feed trough while the false king of Israel murdered children. Christmas, situated at the end of Advent, must deal with looking back on the moment when our help in this world arrived and looking forward to the day when justice and righteousness reigns in fullness through Jesus’ return to Earth.

There is a long history—dating back to the late 300s—of Christmas being used to lure followers of Jesus away from the sort of northern European pagan celebrations mentioned earlier. It seems, sadly, that Christmas has a bad reputation for being compromised. For whatever reasons, Christians have constantly been willing to trade the deep, world-shaking message of Christ’s arrival for a more comfortable place in society. It is not insignificant to consider the trade-off of message for comfort began after Constantine imposed the will of the Roman empire on the church by declaring Christianity the official religion in 317 C.E.

And here we are today. We are still trading comfort for our witness in the world. We would still rather tell our children about Santa Claus than have them be outcasts. We continue to drain our wallets and pile up debt in the name of hoping our loved ones feel our love in the weight of the possessions in their hands. We want to go with the flow of society, except on Sunday when it’s time to proclaim and sing the Scriptures of old about the arrival of our Saviour. Jesus Christ, Son of God, forgive us.

fireplace-croppedConsumer capitalism helps all of us to feel better about all of this by appealing to the same sensitivities that gave birth to the aforementioned winter traditions. The sunlight grows short, the darkness grows long, the cold creeps in—so bring us light displays and fireplaces. The change in the season often brings loneliness—so tell us it is time for families and parties at your local chain restaurant. We become thankful for all the people who help us get through the tough seasons of life—so thank them with lots of gifts, purchased online or at your local retailer.

But what if we flipped the script on consumer capitalism and collusion with old pagan traditions? When we realise God is not far from us (Acts 17), we see there could be one thing the winter celebrations have to offer: the focus on light.

Read John 1. Read Isaiah 9. The arrival of Jesus Christ is a light in the darkness. These old winter celebrations are awake to a reality that darkness is difficult to live with, and light is necessary for survival; what they miss is how the light truly arrives and is manifested. God sent his light in the world to illuminate the darkness, and has called followers of Jesus out of the darkness to be witnesses to this light.

When we are confronting the darkness as followers of Jesus the Light, we must be careful not to fall prey to the traditional consumer capitalistic agendas for our world. Splashing the cash on a bunch of gifts is not going to bear witness to the Good News of God being born to rescue the world. There must be a difference between the way we behave towards Christmas—a Christian holy day—and whatever this watered down, consumer capital nonsense is. It begins by asking ourselves what is actually redemptive, especially in the face of what the rest of culture tells us.

Most of us, at this time of year, have calendars full of events and activities. What if we reconsidered which of those were actually important? Colossians 4:5 (NLT) tells us to “Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity.” Carefully consider what is occupying so much of your precious time. Which social events will be enhanced by your presence and allow you to spread the light? Which events are merely obligations and only require you to “make an appearance”? Your presence and absence is a message to others, and we are poor stewards of our time if we say yes to every gathering.

If our time matters, then it makes little sense to spend our time in stores (or online shopping!) when that time could be used to remind your starbanner-boxloved ones, children, etc. that they are actually a priority in your life. Use the opportunity to rest and recharge (which is absolutely a biblical response to free time) or to find a way to increase the light of Jesus in your neighbourhood, community, or family. Again, if how we spend our time makes a statement, it will make a statement to our families if we are spending time with them rather than being elsewhere.

What about the thorny business of gift-giving? We can fairly thoroughly dismantle lots of the persuasions of consumer capitalism, but since childhood, we have been taught to expect we will give and receive gifts at this time of the year. Our desire to please our loved ones is not intrinsically bad; our desire to quantify our love with possessions is. We have a choice of whether to buy presents for a few people who we truly love and care about, or a lot of people we feel obligated to give a gift to. When we pare down the list, we can reduce the time and potential financial damage due to guilt, and we can increase how much the gift means to us. My uncle regularly travels throughout the country, and takes beautiful pictures everywhere he goes. One year for Christmas, he combined some of his photographs with my mother’s favourite hymn out of an ornate older hymnal and presented it to her in a beautiful frame. It was very thoughtful, and it hangs on her wall to this day.

This is also an excellent time to teach our children new expectations when it comes to gifts. I grew up making lists of desired toys from adverts in the newspaper, then eagerly storming the living room on Christmas morning to see the piles of presents I expected. No matter what the haul was, I always felt empty by Christmas evening. The presents were opened, the meals were eaten, and there was no longer anything to look forward to. If we teach our children early about the good news of Christmas, and tell them in their terms about our priorities for Christmas, we create an opportunity to form their lives around the Gospel rather than consumer capitalistic desires. Consider the “Want, Need, Wear, Read” approach. It involves buying one thing your child wants, one thing she is in need of, one thing to wear, and a new book to read. This allows children to see gifts as purposeful, meaningful, and that there is more to Christmas than wrapping paper.

Reconsidering our behaviour towards Christmas is not nearly as tidy as tweaking a few shopping habits or taking back our calendars. These long-held consumeristic patterns are tied up with our emotions and, often times, can mingle with our fears of hurting someone’s feelings or disappointing our children if we change these ways. To be sure, toes will be stepped on and boundaries must be created and enforced.northern-lights-984120_1280

Since the fateful trip to Target two years ago, my wife and I have slowly taken back Christmas’s meaning in our lives. We started a Christmas morning pancake breakfast and service at our church for anyone who needs a warm, bright, inviting place to be. We have tamed the number of people we buy gifts for, and focus on gifts that involve spending time with the ones we love. And this year, rather than giving each other gifts, we are scratching an item off our bucket list and going to Minnesota to see the northern lights.

Reclaiming Christmas is hardly easy, but it is worth it.

About the author

Processed with VSCOcam with kk1 presetJohn Withum is the associate pastor of the First Baptist Church of Aurora, Illinois. He also serves as the recess supervisor at a local elementary school. He has an MDiv from Northern Seminary of Lombard, Illinois and a BA in Journalism from Marshall University of Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Katie, live in Northern Illinois with their dog, Bacon.

Image credits: pixabay.com

Happier Holidays: Getting Off the Consumer Escalator

By Marcia Shetlerautumn-19672_1280

During the last week of October, I was running errands. At the grocery store, I noticed snowmen statues scattered among the baskets of fall mums. At the home improvement center, Halloween and Christmas decorations were competing for space on crowded shelves. The holiday shopping season seems to begin earlier and earlier each year, giving us more and more time to plan our shopping strategy to make ourselves and others happy—or so we think.

In North America, shopping has become enmeshed with celebrating the holidays. We can name when Black Friday, Cyber Monday—and in Canada, Boxing Day—take place as easily as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And not only do we know these days, we participate. gift-1420830_1280In their online Holiday Headquarters, the US National Retail Federation’s recent survey found that US consumers plan to spend an average of $935.58 during the holiday shopping season this year. Nearly six in 10 plan to buy for themselves, spending an average $139.61, up 4 percent from last year and marking the second-highest level of personal spending in the survey’s 13-year history. The Royal Bank of Canada reports that the number of Canadians who are spending more than they expect to each holiday season continues to grow, reaching the highest point in five years in December 2015.

The title of this month’s COMPASS Initiative topic may feel a bit dated, as US consumers report a three-way tie for their holiday shopping destinations: department stores, online, and discount stores. And Statista reports that although in North America the United States is by far the largest national market for e-commerce, Canada is slowly but surely catching up, with online retail sales expected to reach almost 50 billion Canadian dollars by 2019. But the escalator imagery is a good one as we consider what happens, unfortunately, to many holiday shoppers, as their expenses and their debt go up and up. According to In Charge Debt Solutions, one survey after the 2015 holiday shopping season revealed that US consumers added nearly $1,000 to their credit card debt balances. While similar Canadian statistics are harder to find, HIBUSINESS reports that Canadian consumer debt reached an all-time high this spring.

So during November, we’ll explore how we can get off the stressful up escalator and on the down escalator toward a more meaningful holiday season. Each week new articles here on the COMPASS blog will provide practical ideas, personal reflections, and spiritual insights. Follow our Twitter feed and join us on Facebook all month long for great curated content on the topic. And learn about resources on the COMPASS web page that you can use for further in-depth study.

Finally, our monthly Live Chat on Wednesday, london-692137_1280-mallNovember 16, 8 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Central, 6 p.m. Mountain, 5 p.m. Pacific, features Darryl Dahlhemier, Program Director for LSS Financial Counseling. During this Chat, expect to be inspired with examples of ways to capture the spirit and personal meaning of holiday celebrations. We’ll discuss ways to transform older traditions into new rituals that prioritize connection with family and friends, as well as “Talking Back to Advertising” and getting away from more and bigger material focus. Want to imagine the holidays with no extra financial stress and no “debt hangover” in the new year? Join us at the Chat!

The COMPASS Steering Committee and I look forward to journeying with you this month as we meet each other on Facebook, Twitter, and at our Live Chat, to gain new insights into having Happier Holidays!

About the Author

marcia shetlerMarcia Shetler became the Executive Director/CEO of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center in March 2011. She holds an MA in philanthropy and development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, a BS in business administration from Indiana Wesleyan University, and a Bible Certificate from Eastern Mennonite University. She formerly served as administrative staff in two middle judicatories of the Church of the Brethren, and as director of communications and public relations for Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana, an administrative faculty position. Marcia’s vocational, spiritual, and family experiences have shaped her vision and passion for faithful stewardship ministry that recognizes and celebrates the diversity of Christ’s church and the common call to all disciples to the sacred practice of stewardship. She enjoys connecting, inspiring, and equipping Christian steward leaders to transform church communities.

This blog is a component of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center’s COMPASS initiative to engage young adults in conversations about faith and finances. Like what you see and want to know/do more? Visit the COMPASS web page, follow us on Twitter, and join the COMPASS community on Facebook.

Image credits: pixabay.com

Enough Already!

By Marcia Shetler
websters-dictionary-enough

Enough is an interesting word. Sometimes we use it to express a sense of satisfaction, and other times to declare our annoyance. In North America, though, when it comes to money, sometimes we find it hard to say “enough.” Our consumeristic culture entices us to always want more, and we get caught in financial traps that leave us with more obligations than resources to pay for them. How do we find our enough? That’s the question the COMPASS Initiative is exploring this month.

In his book Simple Money: A No-Nonsense Guide to Personal Finance, author Tim Maurer points out that our values greatly influence how we manage our money and how we find our enough. He says that values are simply:

  • “. . .the stuff in life that we want to be about.
  • That which we want to define us.
  • The guideposts that we want to live by.”

anchor-1023439_1920He goes on to say, “Values are critical as anchors for our goals and boundaries for the actions we take to achieve them. But most of all, they make the hardest decisions in life much easier by helping us prioritize what truly is the most important. Understanding what you value most will help simplify even the most complex financial decisions.”

Maurer introduces his readers to George Kinder, an expert in studying the intersection of money and life. in Kinder’s book The Seven Stages of Money Maturity, he invites imagining that you are financially secure—that you’ve reached your enough—and answering these questions:

  • How would you live your life?
  • What would you do with the money?
  • What would you change?

As followers of Jesus, our values are influenced by what we read in Scripture, what we learn bible-983105_1920from others in our faith community, and how we are led by God’s Spirit through our relationship with our Creator. This month, this blog and other COMPASS resources will provide you with many opportunities to consider how you can find your enough from a Christian perspective. Each week new articles here on the COMPASS blog will provide practical ideas, personal reflections, and spiritual insights. Follow our Twitter feed and join us on Facebook all month long for great curated content on the topic. And learn about resources on the COMPASS web page that you can use for further in-depth study.

Finally, join us in a Live Chat with Shane Claiborne on Wednesday, October 19, 8 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Central, 6 p.m. Mountain, 5 p.m. Pacific. Shane is a founder and board member of The Simple Way, a faith community in inner city Philadelphia that has helped birth and connect radical faith communities around the world. He writes and travels extensively speaking about peacemaking, social justice, and Jesus. Shane’s books include Jesus for President; Common Prayer; Follow Me to Freedom; Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers; and his classic The Irresistible Revolution. He has been featured in a number of films including “Another World Is Possible” and “Ordinary Radicals.” Shane’s adventures have taken him from the streets of Calcutta where he worked with Mother Teresa to the wealthy suburbs of Chicago where he served at the influential mega-church Willow Creek, and to some of the most troubled regions of the world such as Rwanda, the West Bank, Afghanistan, and Iraq. You won’t want to miss this energizing and engaging Chat! Register today at stewardshipresources.org/compass-live-chats. People of all ages are welcome!

The COMPASS Steering Committee and I look forward to journeying with you this month as we meet each other on Facebook, Twitter, and at our Live Chat, to gain new insights into Finding Your Enough!

About the Author

marcia shetlerMarcia Shetler became the Executive Director/CEO of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center in March 2011. She holds an MA in philanthropy and development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, a BS in business administration from Indiana Wesleyan University, and a Bible Certificate from Eastern Mennonite University. She formerly served as administrative staff in two middle judicatories of the Church of the Brethren, and as director of communications and public relations for Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana, an administrative faculty position. Marcia’s vocational, spiritual, and family experiences have shaped her vision and passion for faithful stewardship ministry that recognizes and celebrates the diversity of Christ’s church and the common call to all disciples to the sacred practice of stewardship. She enjoys connecting, inspiring, and equipping Christian steward leaders to transform church communities.

This blog is a component of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center’s COMPASS initiative to engage young adults in conversations about faith and finances. Like what you see and want to know/do more? Visit the COMPASS web page, follow us on Twitter, and join the COMPASS community on Facebook.

Image credits: pixabay.com

A Thankful Heart is a Happy Heart

During November the COMPASS Blog is sharing reflections about Thanksgiving and digging more deeply into why we give thanks. Today we welcome back regular contributor Nicole Brennan who ponders the question for herself in sharing some pictures of what and who she is thankful for and in writing that “A Thankful Heart is a Happy Heart.”

Family Party. “I am thankful for the wonderful people in my family and for our crazy traditions. This is “Misfit Christmas” where anyone who doesn’t have a place to go on Christmas is always welcome.”

Family Party.
“I am thankful for the wonderful people in my family and for our crazy traditions. This is “Misfit Christmas” where anyone who doesn’t have a place to go on Christmas is always welcome.”

I had no idea that when Timothy posed the question, “Why do you give thanks?” it would be such a difficult question to answer. It feels like the answer is “Because… I do.” It feels natural and right to say “thank you.” I don’t think it’s just my Midwest upbringing or my Christian faith. I hope it’s instinctive in humanity to be grateful. As I reflect on it more, I guess it isn’t a “natural” trait to be grateful since it seems we have to learn it.

As a young child, I remember learning about being grateful. Like any good Christian kid of the 90s/2000s, I have watched nearly every VeggieTales episode repeatedly. One of my favorites is “Madame Blueberry.” I can sing you all the songs, including the “Love Songs with Mr. Lunt.” (For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, watch it now!) It perfectly encapsulates the reason we are not grateful (materialism), the reasons we should be (God’s goodness), and how to achieve it (being grateful)- by singing the “Thankfulness Song”:

I thank God for this day,
For the sun in the sky,
For my mom and my dad,
For my piece of apple pie!
For our home on the ground,
For His love that’s all around,
That’s why I say thanks every day!
Because a thankful heart is a happy heart
I’m glad for what I have,
That’s an easy way to start!
For the love that He shares,
‘Cause He listens to my prayers,
That’s why I say thanks every day!

As an adult, I’m still learning about gratitude. Last year at this time, I wrote about the importance of gratitude and four simple ways to practice it. I’m very blessed to have a job in a place that emphasizes stewardship and generosity. In the course of my work there, I have read several books about gratitude, generosity, materialism, and contentment.

Roommates at trivia. “I have been blessed with a great home, surrounded by caring roommates… who also love trivia as much as me! We just placed first!”

Roommates at trivia.
“I have been blessed with a great home, surrounded by caring roommates… who also love trivia as much as me! We just placed first!”

I recently read a book, “Enough,” that I want to draw your attention to. One particular chapter stuck with me- about how rich I am. I haven’t always considered myself “rich,” especially when I was living on donations during my year of service, but I always had enough. And by having “enough,” I was rich. The beauty of simplicity first got ahold of me then, and it’s a value I constantly strive for, but haven’t quite mastered. From all  I’ve read and witnessed—especially this time of year—many people realize they are rich, too. But we all just forget in the haze of more stuff. There is an overwhelming craving in our society (perhaps humanity) to “need more.” We need more clothes, toys, affection, attention, and approval. But we already have more than enough. We are inundated with stuff and rich with blessings.

Catherine and I eating sandwiches in Florence. “My beautiful (inside and out!) friends are a blessing for which I’m eternally grateful. Here is my friend, Catherine, who I have magnificent adventures with! We are eating the biggest, and most delicious paninis in Florence, Italy.”

Catherine and I eating sandwiches in Florence.
“My beautiful (inside and out!) friends are a blessing for which I’m eternally grateful. Here is my friend, Catherine, who I have magnificent adventures with! We are eating the biggest, and most delicious paninis in Florence, Italy.”

This brings me back to the reason why I give thanks- because I appreciate the numerous blessings of God. We are blessed beyond riches to be alive, to be able to think, and to have a functioning body. There are numerous immaterial reasons to be thankful: my family, my friends, the people I encounter, and the places I get to see. Regardless of my material wealth, I am always grateful that I have enough.

About the Author, Nicole Brennan: Hello there! I’m passionate about living a stewardly lifestyle, while being adventurous and frugal. I currently live in community with six other 20-somethings in downtown Chicago and work as a Marketing Assistant at Barnabas Foundation, a partner of ESC and COMPASS. In my off hours, you can find me volunteering at a nearby homeless shelter, enjoying live music with friends, or watching reruns of Parks and Rec. Email me at nicoletbrennan@gmail.com or tweet me at @BarnabasFdn.

This blog is a component of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center’s COMPASS initiative to engage young adults in conversations about faith and finances. Like what you see and want to know/do more? Visit the COMPASS web page and join the COMPASS community on Facebook.