Saturday, March 30, 2013

“I Bought a Book on Minimalism” and Other Ironies

Sometimes I like to imagine an alternate reality in which I am a lighthouse watchman and my wife and I life in a small cabin with few possessions.  It’s not so much the profession that I’m drawn to as it is the simplicity inherent in this kind of lifestyle.  And though I could live this way in the place that I am at now, I have found that it is such a great struggle to let go of my possessions.

More and more I am drawn to the concept of minimalism and what it might look like in my life.  Several weeks ago, my wife, some friends and I participated in a “possessions fast” as a part of our Lenten experiment to give up excess.  My job for that week was simple:  to get rid of 42 items, 7 each day of the week.  I had been looking forward to this for a while and am pleased to say that not only was I able to give up 42 of my “toys,” but that since then I have potentially doubled (maybe tripled?) that number.  There’s something invigorating about letting go of things; every item given away (or trashed or sold) is another burden or obligation lifted off of my shoulder.  I no longer have to use or make time to use that item, and I am freer to enjoy the simpler pleasures. 
Since this time I have been reading the blogs Becoming Minimalist and The Minimalists which, while also giving guides to de-cluttering different parts of your life (because minimalism isn’t just about things, it also involves our time commitments as well as other areas of our lives), offers helpful articles on different aspects of a minimalist lifestyle and provides links to other bloggers and articles.

Along with that, while at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference, I had the chance of running across Joshua Becker’s book Living with Less: An Unexpected Key to Happiness.  I was excited to lay my hands on this short primer on the Biblical impetus and benefits of reducing our possessions.  Becker, the author of the Becoming Minimalist blog, wrote this book specifically as a guide for teenagers, but I really have found it be a great starting point for anyone interested in beginning this journey. 

In the introduction to his book, Becker writes:
"Nobody really believes it.  Nobody really believes possessions equal joy.  In fact, if specifically    asked the question, nobody in their right mind would ever say the secret to a joyful, meaningful       life is to own a lot of stuff.  Deep down in their heart, nobody really thinks it’s true.  Yet almost all of us live like it is.” (pg. 1)

Becker spends part one of the book examining Jesus’ story for our lives, a story that is much richer than the riches we are promised will bring us happiness.  He explores several Gospel passages in which Jesus deals with the issues of money and possessions.  I appreciate his take on the parable of the rich young ruler from Luke 18:18-23.  He criticizes the common pastoral response to Jesus’ command for the young man to sell all his possessions and give to the poor, saying that when we make this a broad application to deal with whatever holds us the most captive from following God, we miss the deep and convicting truth that just maybe Jesus was really talking about money.  (pgs. 20-22)  Personally, I think Jesus had a definite purpose in that command; He himself modeled a life of poverty and simplicity, if we expect to follow after Jesus, shouldn’t this also be a part of that following? 
In part two, Becker shares his journey towards minimalism.  He first began considering this “movement” when one Saturday, he was unable to play ball with his son because he was too busy attempting to clean up and clean out the garage.  His neighbor, noticing the situation, began a conversation with him that ended up with her sharing about how her daughter is a minimalist.  (p. 31)

I wonder, in my own life, how often I have been so consumed with cleaning, organizing and even using my “stuff” that I have missed out on some important time spent with my family.  I say “I wonder,” but of course deep down, I know the answer.  Absolutely I have allowed the use and upkeep of possessions to interfere with the more enriching family moments.  I have been too “tired” to take a walk with my wife and dogs, but not so tired that I don’t end up watching six episodes of “Psych” in a row.  I have spent Saturday after Saturday trying to make a dent in the mess that becomes my room upstairs (I have a separate room for my books, music, and desk) when I could have been outside.  And, though I fantasize about being a famous author and blogger, the truth is that sometimes I would rather just play video games.  So no, I don’t really wonder. 
In this section too, Becker defines what minimalism means to his family.  He breaks it down into four statements:

          1)  We will intentionally promote the things we most value. (p. 38)
         2)  We will remove all “clutter” from our lives. (p. 38)
          3)  We will use our money for things more valuable than physical possessions. (p. 39) 

*(As a side note, I have been considering what this might look like in my life.  I am wondering if, rather than expending money on “things,” I should buy tickets to several Dave Matthews Band concerts in our area this summer.  He is one of my favorite artists, and the concerts have been pretty euphoric experiences for me.  If you would be interested in a two day stint in Indianapolis, let me know!)

         4)  We will live a countercultural life that is attractive to others. (p.40)

As I look over this list, I notice that only one of the four deals intentionally with the reduction of possessions.  The rest address the way in which we will prioritize our time.  Will we allow ourselves to be consumed by consumerism, or will we strive to get the most out of the short time that we have been given? 

In part three, Becker looks at “OUR STORY” and how intentionally living with less could impact our lives.  In “Chapter 7:  The Heart Impact of Choosing Less,” he lists six “desirable qualities of life” that we could greater embrace. (p. 70).  These include contentment, gratitude, generosity, control, honest and encouragement.  Now who would not love to live a life defined by these characteristics?  I would love for others to see my life and say, “Now that is a content person,” or “Alex has always been exceedingly generous.”  I can tell you now that that has not always been the case.  Becker writes that minimalism does not guarantee that if you de-clutter, your life will suddenly exude these qualities.  Rather, “I do believe with all my heart that intentionally living with less does allow greater opportunity for these positive heart habits to emerge.  What you do with that opportunity is up to you.”(p. 73)

In the final section, Becker looks at the intersection between our stories and Jesus’ story.  This part of the book is unique because within each chapter he includes multiple action steps, or ways in which we can begin to apply some of these principles in our own lives.  Thankfully, they are nothing earth shattering and could be good introductions into the greater impact of the movement on your life.  For instance, before we decide to purchase something, let’s take time to consider the costs it will have on our lives, beyond just the monetary cost.  If it is a movie, how many times should we watch it before we have gotten our money’s worth?  How many hours of our life would that take up?  If it’s a new clothing item, how often will we wear it?  How much space will it take up in our closets?  How long will it take us to wash, dry, fold and put it away?  Considering these questions may help us to consider the true cost of gathering more for ourselves. (p. 92)

Becker concludes the book with “Chapter 11:  Your Life is Too Valuable to Spend Chasing Possessions.”  (p. 101) I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard that message phrased in that way before.  In fact, I think that the message we typically receive is:  The value of your life is in direct proportion to the value of your possessions.   In this chapter he includes several statements affirming that we are more than our things.  Our lives are…short, unique, significant, designed to inspire, important, deserve better.  (pp. 102-103)

If you would get nothing else from this short volume, one could leaving feeling empowered and assured that as God’s creation, we are made to be special and deserve to experience the best that God can give us.  Unfortunately, we live in a fallen reality that tells us that we have to earn any ounce of specialness, and some of us are created more special than others, and oh yea, if you would like to be special like them, then we have to overcome our flaws by surrounding ourselves with important possessions.
Thank you Joshua Becker for exposing us to these lies and reinforcing the image of God within us all. 

As for me, I continue to consider what minimalism means in my life.  I have been giving up things that were very important to me in the past, which has been difficult.  But I can’t get past the thought that I don’t want my possessions to possess me; I want to be different and I want my life to be defined differently.  I will continue to update you as the adventure unfolds, and I look forward to hearing from any of you that may be entering into this same sort of adventure. 

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