Read an Excerpt
By Jeff Manion
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Jeff Manion
All rights reserved.
Members of the Natomo family sit on the flat roof of their mud house in Mali, Africa, posing for the early morning photograph. Their earthly belongings are arrayed in front of them. Two kettles, plastic water containers, woven baskets, an assortment of agricultural tools, and a fishing net can be identified among the objects. Their village has no electricity, paved roads, or cars, but a battery-operated radio sits at the father's feet, and behind him on the roof is his transportation: a bicycle. The overall impression is scarcity—simplicity driven by shortage.
The portrait of the Wu family from China differs significantly as seven members of the extended family stare into the camera from their perches in a long, narrow boat that floats on the fish pond beside their home. The two adult sons, adorned in hip waders, stand in the shallow water at opposite ends of their vessel. A coffee table sits in the middle of the bobbing boat, a TV precariously balanced upon it. Other household possessions are staged on shore in front of the Wus's home—bicycles, electric fans, a guitar, clothing, a sewing machine, a rice cooker, a table, a sofa, and dinnerware. The image evokes the impression of moderate prosperity achieved through diligence and industry.
I first encountered these captivating portraits while waiting for an international flight in Chicago. The art exhibit featured families from around the world, sitting in front of their homes, surrounded by their possessions. The pictures were part of a project envisioned by photojournalist Peter Menzel, who desired to capture the lifestyles of average families around the globe. His book Material World leads us on a photographic journey into the lives and possessions of families from thirty different countries.
From time to time I thumb through my copy of Menzel's book, fascinated when I think about the stuff we surround ourselves with. Some items are objects of daily use—microwave, coffeemaker, bed, boots. Others are keepsakes that hold sentimental value for one reason or another—family pictures, high school yearbooks, sets of dishes passed down from our grandmothers. But other belongings are neither cherished nor used. You know, the stuff that we bought once upon a time that just sort of sits there, or hangs there, or is piled there—clothing no longer worn, books never read, shoes that haven't seen daylight in years, dusty exercise equipment purchased with lofty intentions.
My suspicion is that, most often, we are unconscious and unreflective of the mass of stuff we somehow managed to accumulate. Then comes a moment of clarity, say moving day, when we are faced with physically lifting and packing hundreds—thousands—of items. Suddenly we come in tactile contact with the sum of our acquisitions. Hours of handling, lifting, sorting, and boxing can prompt a couple to question, "Where did we get all this crap?"
My friend Brian experienced this sensation after a fire left his spacious home in ruins. He sifted through the remnants, cataloging and bagging every item for accurate reporting to the insurance company. Itemizing each and every shirt and shoe, pot and pan, book and blender was a staggering experience for him. I suspect these moments when we are assaulted by the sum of our gathered goods are exceedingly rare. It usually does take an arriving moving van or a departing fire truck to truly reckon with the mountain of possessions we surround ourselves with.
Lightening the Load
Recently I was exposed to my own world of accumulation when I embarked on a project to give things away. Namely, my goal was to rid my life of five items a day for six weeks. That amounted to thirty-five objects a week, a total of 210 items over the six-week experiment—which was prompted by reading Jen Hatmaker's book, 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.
At the outset, I need to emphasize that this project was not an exercise in generosity. To be truly generous, a gift should probably cost you something, and most of the items I relinquished were belongings I never used and wouldn't miss. This was more a mission to de-clutter—a modest attempt to rid my life of some excess baggage. But I found the six-week exercise immensely helpful in identifying previously undetected patterns of acquiring and accumulating. Before I chronicle the six weeks, I need to mention that my wife, Chris, faithfully rids our home of outdated, unworn, and unused stuff. We are not pack rats, and we have a general allergy to clutter. I have no hoarding instincts ... or so I thought.
I venture to the basement and exhume a box of VHS tapes—thirty-five of them in all, coincidently matching the number of items I desire to rid my life of for Week 1. I say good-bye to the Star Wars Trilogy, Little Rascals, Mission Impossible, a boxed set of National Geographic videos, and so on. We no longer have a VHS player, haven't had one for years, yet the tapes have hibernated in a box in the basement storage room. They are now obsolete to our lives. I cart them off to a thrift store that still sells VHS tapes. As I said, this is not generosity, just cleansing.
In the kitchen, Chris removes a dish set from a cupboard. Forty pieces in all—large plates, small plates, serving bowl, and mugs. The set is beautiful. We simply never use it. I'm guessing it's been two years since these dishes have shared our table. They nestle in the cupboard, attractive and unused. Chris donates these to Safe Haven Ministries, a nonprofit in our area that provides transitional housing. This donation feels more heartfelt than the VHS tapes I jettisoned last week. We genuinely hope that the meals of a temporarily displaced family will be enriched because of the dinnerware.
I cart off a box with three dozen CDs. Unlike owning VHS tapes with no VHS player, we do still have a CD player, but we use it decreasingly. The music that floods our home generally emits from computer and iPod rather than from our shuffling CDs. I found the CDs sleeping in the same basement storage room that dormed our VHS tapes. I haul them to the same thrift store.
I sift through my clothing, filling a large box with items I never wear or simply don't need. Among the items are shoes, shorts, hats, and coats—but mostly shirts. I have no conscious recollection of making it my ambition to amass printed T-shirts, but they seem to multiply. They follow me home from 5K races, conferences, and events. I frequently wear T-shirts, but I feel I have collected enough to outfit a small village.
And the shoes. I toss nine pair, and I'm not a shoe guy! I don't accessorize. I wear the same boring pair of black dress shoes to church every weekend. But between running, hiking and biking, dress and casual, formal and flip-flops—the shoes have compounded. What I discovered were shoes I'd worn out, yet had not discarded. I wear through a couple of pairs of running shoes a year, yet fail to toss the old ones when I purchase new ones. In the shoe bins, I discover three pairs of old running shoes. Clutter. Out they go. Ditto with biking shoes that have faithfully lived out their effective lifespan and a pair of flip-flops that do nothing but take up space. As I scan my closet, I'm also reintroduced to a pair of brown dress shoes that I haven't worn in at least three years—and am unlikely to don in the next three. I reduce my stockpile, but this reduction is un-heroic. I will not miss any of these things. They are simply excess baggage.
Week 5 comes after the Christmas holidays. In addition to our gathering a pile of old Christmas CDs and a moderate stack of books from my library, Chris culls an assortment of Christmas objects—think here of hot-chocolate-Santa-mug-type items. All of these will go to the same thrift store we have visited in recent weeks.
But among the discarded items is one object I trust will have a good home: a new, expensive, unopened, leather-bound study Bible that I received as a gift but has been sitting on a shelf, still sheathed in its original box. Apparently, the rightful owner of this sacred volume is not me. I transfer custody of the Bible to a dear friend, whom I suspect might love and use it.
In my final week, it's time to hit the garage. Among the items evicted from my life are my older pair of cross-country skis, a tennis racket, a couple of random golf clubs, a thermos, extension cords, and a hockey stick. I have no idea why this hockey stick has collected dust in my garage for the past eight years—there is not a hockey player among us, unless my wife silently sneaks out to covertly play in a midnight league, for which I would give low odds.
Six weeks, a couple hundred items, and a few insights gleaned from the experience.
Impression: Like emerging from a healthy weight-loss program, I feel 210 items lighter. I feel freer. The reduction feels liberating. Ironically, I feel richer for owning less.
Impression: I'm jarred by the time gap that exists between obsolescence and cleansing. It appears that I stop using something long before I chuck it. If we moved to southern Florida, how long would I retain my snow shovel before confessing that perhaps we don't need one anymore?
Impression: I will not miss any of the belongings I carried from my home. If a burglar had stealthily entered our house and swiped these objects, weeks would have passed before their absence was detected.
Impression: I wonder how many more weeks of effort could remove thirty-five items from my house every seven days and still not dip into those objects that I really enjoy, use, or truly need. I have a feeling that simplicity is a long way off. Materially, I still feel heavy.
All this has me thinking about what we accumulate and why. In the midst of amassing far more than I need or could ever use, I'm unnerved by these convicting words on the contented life.
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (1 Timothy 6:6–8)
I suspect that most of us reading these sentences about contentment could confess that we have drifted far from the mark. These powerful statements were penned by the apostle Paul to his protégé Timothy, while the younger pastor was leading the Jesus community in Ephesus. While we may concede that this guidance is highly relevant to our consumer-driven, commercial-saturated culture, it might come as a bit of a surprise that it was badly needed in the early church.
Shopping in Ephesus
I fell in love with maps as a child in church. The congregations my father pastored were small with no children's classes offered during the adult ser vices. So I sat through his sermons, sometimes listening and sometimes killing time. Often I would open a Bible to the colorful maps in the back and trace ancient journeys across foreign landscapes and distant seas. The biblical cities of Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, and Laodicea were merely dots on a map evoking nothing to distinguish these locations from one another. As a child sitting on a wooden pew and thumbing through the colorful pages as I waited for the sermon to end, I had no clue that I would one day be privileged to travel extensively to these sites.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of exploring Ephesus on a number of occasions. On my first visit I was stunned as I walked the wide marble streets, ascended the steps of the massive theater, and marveled at the opulence of the terrace houses. Suddenly Ephesus sprang to life, becoming a three-dimensional home to architects, builders, politicians, sailors, wholesalers, and retailers.
In the first century, Ephesus was the fourth most populous city in the Roman world, surpassed only by Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch in Syria. Ephesus dominated trade along the Aegean coastline. Its harbor hosted ships from throughout the Mediterranean, and roads connected the metropolis to manufacturing and agricultural centers to the East. The city had enormous wealth and a near endless variety of objects for people to acquire. In today's terms, Ephesus would compare to Hong Kong or New York.
Visit the ancient marketplace—or agora—of Ephesus with me. Just up the street from the sprawling, twenty-five-thousands-eat theater, we pass through an ornate, triple-arched gateway and enter the expansive retail space. (It's roughly the area of two football fields side by side.) A wide, covered walkway runs around the perimeter of the central, open-air courtyard, providing shade from the summer sun and protection from winter rains. The walkway connects the spacious courtyard in the middle with approximately a hundred shops that line the square. In this shopping area you can buy almost anything imaginable: the latest clothing fashions from Rome, Egyptian jewelry, purple cloth from Thyatira, or exotic spices from the East.
The agora of Ephesus was truly an international shopping center. I think a visit to this marketplace would feel similar to the congested pedestrian traffic I experience when walking the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue in Chicago with its seemingly endless options in a long stretch of stores.
Timothy was serving in an epicenter of buying and selling, a hub of trade and commerce. The city had great wealth and no shortage of items to buy. From the standpoint of consumer opportunity, their world was not that different from ours. It is in this prosperous climate that Paul encouraged contentment. His words had huge relevance to that young pastor in Ephesus, but they can also profoundly affect our attitudes toward what we have, what we need, and what we want.
The Freedom of Contentment
Godliness with contentment is great gain.
(1 Timothy 6:6)
When Paul extolled the life of contentment, he was describing an inner fullness that was not contingent on material comfort. In his own case, he had experienced contentment even in highly uncomfortable conditions. A partial listing of what he encountered during his adventures includes shipwreck, flogging, mugging, treacherous river crossings, nights without sleep, and hunger (see 2 Corinthians 11:23–27), yet he was able to testify, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances" (Philippians 4:11).
Contentment is the cultivation of a satisfied heart. It is the discipline of being fully alive to God and to others whatever our material circumstances. Contentment is not achieved through getting everything we want but by training the heart to experience full joy and deep peace even when we don't have what we want.
Cradle to Grave
Even when we get what we desire, when we find something we really like and purchase it, we should be conscious that this new possession is only ours temporarily. I may think it is "mine," but it is really only "mine for now."
When Paul challenged Timothy to a lifestyle of contentment, he drew upon the logic of transience—not simply that our stuff will come and go but that we come and go. He reminds him, "For we brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it" (1 Timothy 6:7).
Paul was not the original biblical author of this proverb. It first comes to us from one of the earliest stories in the Bible—the story of Job, the man of great wealth who gets financially wrecked in a single day. When Job learns that he has lost everything, he exclaims, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised" (1:21). Job's comment about entering the world with nothing and leaving with nothing became a common Jewish saying that Paul borrows as he reasons with Timothy about the contented life.
"Timothy," he is saying, "remember this. Remember that we were birthed into this world naked, bringing absolutely nothing with us. And we will exit this life taking absolutely nothing with us. Remember this, Timothy, as you reflect on what you think you need. We enter the world with nothing. We leave with nothing." Feel the weight of this pronouncement. Its gravity is intended to sober us as we measure the time and energy spent accumulating stuff.
From time to time I realize that the things I buy wear out and get old. But the sobering reminder here is that I will wear out and get old. And when my body totally gives out and my family buries me, none of the dear objects in my garage, my closets, and my basement will travel with me. My wonderful house, my car, my treasured bike, my many books, my backpacking paraphernalia—these are only temporarily in my custody. If they don't wear out and leave me, I will wear out and leave them.
Excerpted from Satisfied by Jeff Manion. Copyright © 2013 Jeff Manion. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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