Tuesday, September 02, 2008

How much is too much?

13Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, 15as it is written: "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little."
(2 Corinthians 8:13-15)

Right now I'm supposed to be reading stuff for this project. I started to, I did; however, the next chapter in the book I'm currently reading started off with these three verses, and it struck me so much I wanted to write about it NOW.

In the years I've had to think about stewardship - at least that of the financial variety - I've wondered if there's ever a point at which someone could give too much. Obviously, that point is when giving becomes a financial hardship on you and your family, but I don't know many people like that. Quite often, Believers don't give enough money, either to the Church, the poor, or the hungry.

This desire to understand the fine line comes out of trying to reconcile what I see in others and myself and not being able to do so. I have pastor friends who drive expensive cars and live in expensive houses. I have Christian friends who are staunch advocates of the prosperity gospel. In my own life, I like things - on a message board I frequent, I'm the self-professed shower gel Queen, and as a group we talk about makeup and shopping. I'm not a clothes horse or a shoe afficianado, but I like things that smell good.

In the past, I've tried to defend the pastors (not the prosperity gospel proponents though, that just makes me want to rant at the person advocating it - personally, I don't think God CARES if you're rich!) who drive nice cars and live in nice homes. Most of them tithe to their church, give to special offerings in their church, and also help those in their communities who are in need. If they do all these things, then what harm is it if one of them decides to drive a Lexus or a Mercedes? And after all, as a member of that church (in several cases), I gave my own tithe to that church knowing that part of it would be going to support the pastors and staff.

Of course, I was helping to rationalize my own consumer-driven behavior as well, because I liked to horde shower gels and shampoo (OK, I still have that tendency, but I'm getting better). But then a time came when I couldn't even afford to tithe, much less horde personal care items, and I became resentful that not one of those pastors (who knew we could barely afford groceries) asked if they could help us out. Not one.

Circumstances tend to change perspectives, don't they?

As I've tried to move into a "total steward" mindset, I've tried to correct my drive and desire to be the consumer that the world wants me to be, which has supported the resentment I feel towards those who have plenty and can't even help their friends. On an environmental note, everyone can recite the three R's: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. As consumers, we're really caught up in Recycle mode, but forget that the true key to being environmentally friendly is Reduction and Re-use. Reduction is, in my opinion, the key to being a better total steward. When you spend less money on stuff, you have more money to take care of your family and those in need.

And now I need to let you in on a not-well-kept secret about me: I feel guilty about everything. So now that I've adopted more of the "consume less" mindset, I feel guilty buying anything. Let's take my shower gel obsession for example. Five years ago, when I had a full time job, no child, and some expendable income, I tithed, paid my bills, then shopped. I liked to buy shower gels that you can't get just anywhere, so I bought stuff from Nordstrom and Sephora to support my obsession. Two years ago, when I was broke, working part time, and now paying for child care, I bought one shower gel for $3.50 and used it until I ran out. I was quite happy with it actually. But this is also about the time I was becoming more environmentally friendly, and this shower gel is full of chemicals and surfactants that can't even spell "biodegradable." So when I started this full time job last year and finally had more fun money, I switched to shower gels that you can't buy just anywhere AND were environmentally friendly! Yippee! They're also expensive! BOO!

Where do you draw the line? In my effort to be a better all around steward, I have to balance economics and the environment (and after last semester's environmental economics class, I never thought I'd utter those two words in the same sentence again - hush, Eric!). There's a reason cheap shower gel is cheap: it uses lots of chemicals and detergents that are harmful to the planet. But when you want and need to be better about controlling your finances, it sometimes seems like you don't have a choice.

This leads to my guilt problem. If I do better about my finances, I feel bad about endangering the environment. If I buy items that are better for the environment, I feel like I haven't been a good steward of my money. Do you see the problem? Do you see how I (or anyone) could go round and round for eternity and never really solve the problem?

For this year's Earth Day, we had a a guest speaker at school who commented on this. She explained that our job was to do what we could. Some people are willing to really change their lives by moving to the country and living off grid, but for the rest of us, all that's necessary is to do what we feel we can do. For some people, that means eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, while others might switch to organic and sustainably grown meat and produce. Some people might try to reduce their use of electricity while others switch to cleaners that are ecofriendly. The point is that you can only do what you feel you need to do, and you don't have to do everything. Your life should be enjoyable, and you should take pleasure in the good you're doing. It's hard to do that when the good you're doing becomes a burden.

And with that, I move to the Scripture posted above. I firmly believe in a God who wants to have fun, and created us to experience joy, happiness, pleasure, and fulfillment, but I don't often internalize that belief. But here's what 2 Cor. 8:13 says: Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. So God doesn't want us to sacrifice for the good of others if it becomes a burden to us. This is freeing for me, and it should be freeing for all of you who have a desire to be better stewards. In the previous verses, Paul praises the Corinthians for being willing and excited givers, and encourages them in that continued state. Here, I think Paul is trying to tell them that they don't have to give so hard that they bleed. If the measure of stewardship is equality, then maybe it really is alright to have some nice things for yourself if you've helped take care of someone else first. God doesn't expect any one person to do everything to save the world, but he expects all of us to do our part. And I think that leaves room for me not to feel guilty when I want to buy my ecofriendly $30 shower gels (only one or two, because while I need to be clean, I do not need to overconsume), and it leaves room for you to not feel guilty when you've helped feed the family down the street and then want to buy a bag of cheetos for yourself.

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