Join the “Just Giving Challenge”

Black Friday greetings to everyone!  Today is the day when millions of Americans go shopping, the media reports on Americans going shopping, and I begin my annual ritual of whining about how consumeristic Christmas has become.  I moan about the spiritually-stupefying reminders of “X shopping days until Christmas” for us to buy stuff for “someone who has everything.” I complain that the contemporary celebration of Christmas was invented by advertisers seeking to boost profits (Harvard historian L.E. Schmidt in his book Consumer Rites backs me up :)).   In my more excessive moments I even suggest that if you rearrange just one letter in “SANTA” you get . . . .  wait for it . . . . SATAN. (Just kidding—mostly.)

Even if you are not as extreme as I am, perhaps you are also troubled—at least a little—by the paradox of celebrating the birth of Jesus by exchanging luxury goods with other middle and upper-class people.  Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with reciprocal gift exchanges—every culture in the world has them, and they can certainly be fun.  It’s just that it’s not distinctively Christian, which would seem important in celebrating the birth of the religion’s founder.  Many of us long for a Christmas season that has a genuine spiritual center.

So this year, instead of just complaining impotently, we decided to do something about it together.  One of our core beliefs at Simple Living for Just Giving is that the spiritual gift of giving is best developed together, in groups, in movements, in community.  So the editors of this blog would like to invite you to join us for the Just Giving Challenge. Here’s what we propose:

  • This year, let’s match our spending on Christmas presents with giving to the poor. In other words, we challenge you to join us in making a matching grant on Christmas Day to a charity of your choice that equals your total holiday spending.  Since Jesus cares so much about giving to the poor, this seemed to us like a good way to celebrate His coming.
  • As extra incentive, we will donate $100 for the first 100 people who join us.  For example, if 72 people sign up, that’s $7200 extra going to benefit those in poverty this Christmas!
  • Not sure where to give? In the next four weeks we will publish on this blog reviews of four organizations that we think are doing effective work in serving the poor–and the editors’ gift will go to the organization you vote for in our online poll!
  • Looking for spiritual sustenance this Christmas season? Every Sunday we will be publishing Advent reflections on just giving that help nudge us towards a distinctively Christian celebration of the holidays this year.

So are you in?  If you’d like to join us, all you need to do is leave a comment with your name and first initial on this post. That’s it!  Together, we can look forward to a Christmas season that’s more than “just shopping.”

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Guns and other stuff: think before you buy

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In many U.S. states, there is a mandated waiting period before you can purchase a gun.  For Jodi and me, living in Costa Rica, we have a mandated waiting period before we buy just about anything.  Here’s how this reality has helped us make progress in living simply:

In Costa Rica, most consumer goods are readily available, but usually for 50% to 100% more than in the States.  Just a few random examples:  Converse shoes are $60-80 instead of $13-20 on Slickdeals; laptops are easily double, as are just about all kids’ toys.

This extreme price difference means that we still buy most of our stuff from the U.S.—we make our purchases online and send them to the next visitor who’s kind enough to schlep them to Costa Rica in their luggage (thanks mom, bapa & nana, LKVP, D/CD, G/CB, KH, MS, SK, NN, SL, J/EC)!

Thus, just like buying a gun, nearly every sizable acquisition carries with it a significant waiting period—often several months—from when we first want something to when we actually buy it.  We’ve found that this time gap is an excellent mechanism for thinking twice about whether we really need more stuff.  It gives us space to prayerfully discern whether a particular item is a necessity or a luxury, whether it is a tool or a toy, whether it is part of the life of economic discipleship to which God calls us.  As Richard Foster says,

one clear advantage to this approach is that it effectively ends all impulse buying. It gives time for reflection so that God can teach us if the desire [for more stuff] is unnecessary.

For Jodi and I, our “waiting period” spiritual discipline has become an integrated part of our lifestyle , no matter where we end up living in the long term, and we’d like to urge you to consider it as well.  I close with some provocative discernment questions, adapted from Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline, that we’ve found helpful in guiding our prayers during our “waiting periods”:

  • Am I buying this for its usefulness or for the social status it will give me?
  • Could this purchase produce an unhealthy addiction for me?
  • Could this purchase blur my spiritual focus or distract me from pursuing God?
  • Do I need to buy a new product, or would a used or borrowed one work just as well?
  • If I buy this, will I still be able to meet my goals for giving to the poor and to God’s Kingdom work?

Reflection on Lazarus at the Gate

When Gary and I had our first Lazarus at the Gate meeting, with its tagline of “simplicity for the sake of generosity in community”, one of the most important steps we needed to take was to focus on small steps.  If I cut my own hair for the next 50 years of my life, I will save at least $10 per month, or $120 year, or $6000 over the next 50 years!  A bunch of small steps could add up quickly.

Those small steps were internal as well as external.  When we heard how much each person made, rather than give in to feelings of jealousy, pride, shame, or fear, we cheered for each other as each of us took a small or big challenge towards simplifying our lives in order to give more generously.  The larger goal of giving to the poor was more important than my petty feelings – feelings which were almost always tied up in my sinful confusion that money measures my identity.

In other words, we decided to develop the spiritual gift of giving.  Giving, like evangelism or bible teaching, is not only a command from Jesus but also a spiritual muscle we need to develop.  Paul lists it as a gift in Romans 12:8.  But where can you go to develop the gift of giving?  Not seminaries:  Seminaries train teaching, evangelism, pastoral, and leadership gifts, but not the gift of giving.  Not Christian books and financial workshops:  All of the ones that we knew about did not prioritize giving to the poor more and more, but simply rational money management.  Not churches:  Most churches only teach about tithing to the church, not giving to the poor, when it’s time to discuss the church’s annual budget.  Not church small groups:  Money is such a private matter in American culture(s) and other cultures that we have effectively removed our financial decisions from Christian accountability.  We have hidden them in dark caves far from the light of day.  All that is unacceptable.

So we started learning what it meant to bring out this delicate, judgmental, comparison-oriented, anxiety-ridden place in our hearts, before Jesus and before each other.  We did it for the sake of giving more to the poor.  It was well worth it.  I think you’d find it to be true as well.