Thursday, December 13, 2012

Conspicuous Consumption and What We Owe Our Neighbors

 About twelve years ago I had the privilege to get acquainted with a Russian psychologist and professor at the university in Samara, Russia.  She was in the United States courtesy of Dr. Doug Dickens, who had been conducting clinical training with her students on the clinical pastoral education model (CPE).  

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Yes, you read that right.  Doug spent a significant amount of time in Samara educating Russian clinical psychologists on the model of education that we use here in the U.S. to train chaplains and other pastors.

His Russian colleague was so impressed with the CPE model that he succeeded in convincing her to take a trip to Dallas and work for one unit with Clinical Pastoral Education students in our CPE education center at Baylor University Medical Center.

For BHCS' faculty and students it was an unrepeatable experience.  

On the one hand, Doug's colleague fulfilled every cold war stereotype of Russians that I grew up with as a child of the sixties and seventies.  

She was a committed atheist and a Marxist. She was thoroughly versed in what is known as depth or analytical psychology, and she approached us from a rather brusque, no-nonsense point of view.  I had to regularly check my temptation to deal with her as a caricature rather than as a real person.  

On the other hand, my encounter with our visiting Russian professor taught me two profound lessons.  

The first lesson had to do with the experience of being taught what it means to be in serious dialogue with someone who came from directly opposing religious and political convictions.  Our Russian friend immersed herself in the spiritual, pastoral and thoroughly Western Christian atmosphere of CPE.  She managed to do so with sincerity, integrity and a commitment to avoid imposing her values on our students.  

The result was an unusual educational and spiritual opportunity for our faculty and students to learn how we might establish meaningful and healing relationships with people who have no religious frame of reference.

The second lesson occurred at a deeply emotional level.  It happened on the first occasion when we took her to lunch.  We sat down in the restaurant, and after some explanation of items on the menu, we ordered our meals.  

I noticed our friend openly staring at the plates of food that were being brought to other customers in the restaurant.  When our orders arrived, the storm cloud that seemed to be building on her face broke.

"This is obscene," she said angrily. "I cannot eat this."  We fairly tripped over one another inquiring as to her difficulty with the food.  She responded by saying, "There is too much here.  I could never eat all of this, not even if I made three meals of it.  How much of this food will be thrown out today?"

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Her outburst reminded me of a similar incident in which I was touring a visiting Kazakhstani businessman, also an atheist, taking him through a small shopping mall in Lycoming county, Pennsylvania.  That gentleman literally broke down and wept as he looked at aisle after aisle of goods.  

"If I took you to a store like this in my country, you would find most of the shelves empty," he told me through his tears.

I've never gotten beyond that second lesson.  While my life continues to be riddled with inconsistencies and failures, a great many of the decisions I have made since then have been influenced directly by those two conversations.

When you put it in plain language the personal challenge has been just this: as a follower of Jesus I feel compelled to waste less, consume less, share more and share more wisely.  

I don't want to face Jesus when he comes back and explain how I wasted so much of the abundance that was given to me while my neighbors did without.

Here are just a few facts to consider: 
Here is one prophetic warning from Jesus to consider: 
"As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”  Mark 12:38-40
Now we have several choices about what we can do with the facts above. We can dismiss them as part of the grand socialist conspiracy. We can laugh uncomfortably and defiantly refuse to be "guilted" into better behavior.  We may even point indignantly to the left-over spoilage we share from our collective table even as we studiously ignore the tons of food and other goods that continue to pile up in our landfills. 

Whatever we may do to dismiss the issues, however, will not change the facts.  It will not change the facts that demonstrate the massive amount of finite resources that we in the U.S. take from the world and that we literally and shamelessly waste. 

Nor will it change the fact of what Jesus said to us about our personal and collective responsibilities as his followers.  It won't change what Jesus clearly said about the consequences that we will reap on account of our gluttonous over consumption and waste of the resources that have been given us by God.

You see, I don't think that the U.S. has become a weaker nation on account of the drop in church attendance or because of the godless behavior of people who have ceased to believe in the traditional church.  

In fact, I am convinced that church attendance is dropping almost exclusively due to the godless behavior of people who call themselves Christian and who refuse to follow Jesus' teachings- prominently among them, his teachings about loving our neighbors as ourselves.

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