Saturday, July 31, 2010
The Challenge of Kingdom Living in a Big Box Store World
I remember when the cardboard box was the method for storing and transporting things. Twenty five years ago I went to the State Store and got empty liquor bottle boxes to pack for college. The past couple of weeks, I’ve been helping our older daughter prepare for her freshman year and we’ve been doing the necessary shopping. Fortunately there are plenty of stores ready to not only sell us what she needs, but what she needs to store what she needs. Stores like Target, Walmart, and Home Depot are called “big box stores” because of what they look like when they are built, but it also describes our shopping in them as well as we leave with lots of big boxes. As Catherine and I shopped we’ve had conversations about whether you “need” your own microwave when there is one in the dorm kitchen. If you “bunk” your beds you have more room for stuff, resolving who gets the space under the lower bunk. Do you each need your own trash can? Do you need a personal safe to store your cell phone and ID? And those storage containers? Thank God we’ve been able to find them in turquoise and lime green, the agreed upon colors. These are all issues that people of abundance discuss. Even in this economy, there is abundance.
My daughter’s room is 11x 17 which seems about right to me, but on the tour many people felt it was too small. Some feel that way about their houses as well- leading to a rise in “satellite storage” facilities- those storage unit complexes we see lots of places now, often built upon farmland. We as a culture are a people in search of the bigger barn today, just like the man in the gospel. We too are rich toward our possessions, taking a lot of time and energy and attention getting, keeping and caring for our stuff. The question is, at what point does it control our lives and take away our perspective? And what does our stuff give us? In the midst of our abundance a number one complaint today is that people feel a sense of a loss of community. Things seem out of whack but we’re not sure what that is about.
The rich landowner gains abundance, and he begins thinking about what he will do with HIS good fortune. Already showing a lack of perspective- if we look more closely we see that it is the "land" of the rich man that "brought forth plentifully." It wasn’t because the rich man was such a great farmer. It was a good crop year in that area, a factor beyond the man’s control- a factor that speaks about God. Because of the abundance many were needed to bring the crop in. He was able to reap the harvest not because of his labor, but because of the many others he employed. But what about when it comes time to enjoy that abundance?
The man thinks only of how HE’s set- surplus goods laid up for many years, and he can "rest, eat, drink, be merry. " And if he plays his cards right he can control the availability of all that grain and make more money from those who need it. It’s OK to rest, eat , drink and be merry. We hear this in Ecclesiastes - Life is hard. Enjoy yourself when you can. But God, however, calls the man a "fool." Not because he's enjoying himself, but because of his lack of perspective. He's finally got his storage solution perfected and finds out he’s going to die in just a few hours--"this night your life is demanded from you." He has forgotten his relationships with God and others. All that stockpiling suggests he is not satisfied with God’s providing and that he lacks trust in God. He’s forgotten that not only did God give the abundance, God gave the man life in the first place, and God can "require all of it back." And that for all his self-centered strategizing, the man doesn't run his own life after all. Too busy tending, thinking he’s free, but actually owned by stuff! Stuff he can’t take with him. He has disregarded God, but this is not the only problem.
In Luke’s world 90% of the people lived at the level of bare subsistence. By tearing down the barn and building a bigger one, the man is taking land out of farming, land probably supporting those workers. Land that now will never produce future crops. He used his power to take away what little land they had, driving them into destitution and homelessness, while facing those higher prices. Sounds kind of like our economy today.
There is crisis all around, but in the midst of this, the rich man talks only to himself, and thinks only of himself. And he makes no consideration for his neighbors, nearly all of whom are poor. In disregarding his neighbors, he again disregards God. We hear that we should not seek a life that isolates us from others and from God. And by the way, how merry can you be when you’re partying by yourself? These are the ways that the man is not being rich toward God. So are we today who are blessed, living richly toward God? It is more complicated than it might seem.
This was on my mind as I read the news this week about the events in Arizona. As you may know Arizona is stressed by the volume of illegal immigrants which have flooded their area. The large numbers have overloaded the budgets for schools and social services. Others complain that the immigrants are taking “American jobs.” The Arizona law required anyone who “looks” illegal to prove they are not. This effort toward self-preservation is not totally without merit. Yet, every day outside the Home Depots in Arizona there is a lineup, of people who hope to be picked as “day laborers.” Many of them “look” illegal. When the federal judge struck down the law, a newspaper article reported that a man came out to the line of people and said, “Good news, guys! Today you can work!” Because the provision overturned included the requirement upon employers and contractors must check id’s. Now no one would have to check their id’s. We should be troubled by this. Not just because potentially illegal immigrants are being given a “free pass.” What is troubling is the connection to our complicated world of stuff.
The day laborers aren’t being given real jobs, with fair pay and benefits. Not at Home Depot, or Walmart, or any of the other “marts.” If they were, American citizens would want these jobs. Yet if Home Depot paid fair wages, it would eat into their profit margin. And one of two things would happen- prices would have to go up or profits go down. If profits go down, many of our retirement plans would have less money-many plans own this stock. And we would not be as rich. If prices went up, we would not be very merry because we could not buy as much stuff. So the truth is we need those illegal immigrant day laborers willing to live on what we consider subsistence pay. We also need cheap labor in other countries and we need those petroleum wells in the Gulf to produce the plastics we need for all those storage bins for our stuff. We can’t worry too much about immigration, fair trade, human rights, or the environment. Because if we did we can’t have our bigger barn. What does God have to say to this issue? Instead of talking about numbers and stuff and worries, what the landowner does, maybe we need to talk to God.
Kingdom living is just as challenging today. Rather than give answers it leaves lots of questions. Can we be satisfied with the beauty of creation and relationships God gives? Can we consider living in trust that God will provide “enough?” Can we be honest about our ways of business and their ripple effect? How might God be calling us to ask what it means that our neighboring country is so poor that risking a border crossing in hope of even a day’s labor is better than home? Every price rollback comes on someone’s back.
God wants to provide abundance for us, but also for others. To discern when to focus on self-advancement, or the needs of neighbors, our best guidance comes from our relationship with God.