Monthly Archives: November 2009

Black Friday, Consumerism, Christ

Every year around this time I start to think about black friday and the stampede in Walmart which crushed a person to death a couple years back:   In my ethics class this week we’ve been talking about advertising, and its effects on culture and society. One of the articles we read compares advertising to poetry. Theodore Levitt says “As with art, the purpose is to influence the audience by creating illusions, symbols, and implications that promise more than pure functionality.” In the same way that a love poem is meant to ‘seduce’ and create desire, so to an advertisement is meant to attract the consumer’s attention and give them hopes of something better. And just as love poems make promises and raise expectations in ways which are clearly unobtainable (many poets have promised their woman the moon, but no one, so far, has delivered on that promise) still we don’t consider them lies per se. We all know that they aren’t necessarily meant to be taken literally, and they aren’t lies. They are embellishments made to attract attention. We don’t consider mascara, lipstip or pantyhose to be untruthful, any more than a toupee is a lie, even though these things are in some sense masking a more real reality. Levit actually says that advertising helps us escape our otherwise dull lives when it gives us hope: “Advertisements are the symbols of man’s aspirations” We not only expect this of advertising, we demand it: “We in effect expect and demand that advertising create theses symbols for us to show us what life might be, to bring the possibilities that we cannot see before our eyes and screen out the stark reality in which we must live.”

 This is a defense of advertising based based on on the existential condition of humanity: “As every eager lover has ever known, the consummation seldom equals the promises which produced the chase. To forestall and suppress the visceral expectation of disappointment that life has taught us must inevitably come, we use art, architecture, literature, and the rest, and advertising as well, to shield ourselves, in advance of experience, from the stark and plain reality in which we are fated to live. I agree that we wish for unobtainable unrealities, “dream castles.” But why promise ourselves reality, which we already possess? What we want is what we do not possess!” Advertising helps endow inanimate goods with a sense of hope, and these goods and symbols can take on a substantial role in the meaning of our lives.

We have natural desires, like a desire to be happy, to be successful, to be safe, to not be thirsty or hungry, to have friends and community, etc. What advertising often does is it tries to associate a marketable product (like diamonds) with a non-market desire (like love). Money can’t buy love, but it can buy diamonds, and as the marketing campaign has taught us, “diamonds are forever”. Now this associative advertising is not necessarily deceitful or harmful always. Dr. Pepper does quench my thirst and makes me happy, as the comercials say it will. But what advertising can do is it can make us think that our lives require consumer-behavior. For example, you can list out all the major holidays as we did in class today (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Valentines Day, Halloween) and then consider what types of goods you purchase to celebrate them– christmas trees and lights and presents, chocolates and flowers, fireworks, birthday cards– a whole corncopia of products.

Around Christmas, it is sometimes hard to see much of Christ, because of all the consumer culture which surrounds Christmas.  This can be hard on parents and kids– parents feel the pressure to provide their kids as much as other kids get, and kids can have expectations based on what other kids are getting.  When our consumer spending shows our love for our loved ones (how big was the diamond?  What did you get for Christmas?  etc) even our interpersonal relations have become infected with the messages of advertising.

We as Christians live in culture and we are affected by it unless we live in isolation from our society. But we know that it is unbiblical to not be in the world– we are to be in the world but not of it according to Paul… We live in a consumer culture, obviously, but then the question is how should we live in it? We can always find someone who consumes more than we do– someone with a more expensive car or watch or clothes, etc. But that isn’t even necessarily the point of the discussion. Are we in some ways less human insofar as we live as consumers? My girlsfriend makes cards.   She takes time to make cards instead of buying them, which takes more time. But those cards she gives have part of her in them. She also makes small purses and bags out of chip bags.   These take forever, and it would be more efficient to simply buy one probably. But if I had my option, I’d rather have a personally made card or bag from Steph every time. Its more human somehow. When I think about this human element, I also think about restaraunts. When I go out to eat with friends, I have a great time and I am happy for those times. But when I go to a friends house for supper, it means a lot more somehow. When I buy a sandwish at McDonalds, someone else makes it, but when a friend makes you a sandwich, there is something involved in that which is lost buying it from a store. I’m not advocating home spun clothes and barel churned butter, but we as Christians should be thoughtful about how we buy into consumer culture, and how we might live more simply.  

And its not about buying expensive stuff.  I mean, I go cheap on lots of things– I own a $700 car, I never pay for haircuts, and I shop at goodwill but I LIKE to buy STUFF.  I buy a lot of JUNK I DON’T NEED at goodwill.  I own THREE cars (with a combined worth of under 3,000– but still– why does a single guy need 3 cars??)   I love to go out for a nice meal or appetizer at good restaraunts and blow 15-20 fairly easily. 

But my greatest weakness when it comes to consumerism is real estate– I also buy a lot of buildings and houses.  Some people buy expensive cars.  I buy cheap apartment buildings.  Now mind you, they are usually cheap and a good deal, but I buy a lot of stuff like that and I have to constantly think through WHY am I buying this stuff and is it really good stewardship?  Personally, I have come to a decision to try to not buy properties unless I feel like in buying and renovating them we will be making a substantial improvement to the community.  This leads me to tend to buy properties that are not very deisrable to most, and some which end up being near lost causes, but the goal is to try to transform the neighborhoods for the better.  I have decided to generally forego buying property simply in an attempt to make money.  (Of course I have to make sure I can fulfill my obligations to the banks who lend me money for these properties, so they have to be sound investments– but while that is a baseline concern, it is not a sufficient condition for me to consider a property).   This is my attempt to put some self-restrictions on how I spend my money in this area. 

So we all have our consumeristic tendencies.  For some it may be boots and handbags, for others it may be concert or sports tickets, for others it may be makeup and manicures, for others it may be cars, and for still others it might be goodwill crap or old houses.  Whatever our achilles consumeristic heel, I think its fruitful especially at this time of year to consider what we are thankful for, to reconsider our values and spending habits, and to make sure that we are faithful with what God has given us.  May God have mercy on us all.

                    -Andy Gustafson


15 Months later

asm_IMG_1201Simple Free Church started in September of 2008 with 4 guys meeting in a basement studying the bible together, doing a liturgy from the Anglican prayerbook, singing, praying for each other, and keeping each other accountable. Pretty soon there were 6. Then one left the state. From September 08 until the spring of 09 things were steady that way.

Spring of 09 a few new people started coming, and that continued through the summer. Now there are a few more than 15 total, and its really great.  IT has happened very organically.

For many of us, Tuesday night together is a key focus point of the week. I know I anticipate it and look forward to it. And we keep in touch throughout the week as well, especially with accountability.  It really feels like community.

We’ve also brought in some interesting local community leaders and activists to share their visions with us.  We’ve done some specific projects and some very directed giving towards local people and community needs.  We are about to take on support of a couple of different groups and people who serve needs.  We’ve become much more gender-balanced 🙂 and in that process we are gradually developing a good group of women who are getting to know each other and thinking through what accountability looks like for them.  We have done study groups on Christian views of gender roles, and also eldership, and soon will begin our group on Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism as church movements in the 20th century.  Its all been fun and encouraging.

With this growth, comes new decisions and needs.  Last weekend, after again feeding the needy at neighbors united, a project of local churches to serve food each Saturday on Park Avenue, we had a little meeting to discuss leadership of simple free.

We are a pretty mellow bunch, and there are a lot of natural leaders in the group. We tend to find easy consensous, and since we don’t have a pastor, there is no one person ‘running’ things. Now we are at a point where we are trying to decide if and how we should structure leadership, and its been kind of fun to think through.

There is a wide spectrum of leadership patterns in churches. Catholic churches are pretty top-down, in that the clergy make basically all the decisions. Catholics generally don’t vote on a lot of things, and in that sense its not congregational. But there are protestant churches which are similar, in which the pastors basically make most of the decisions, and the congregation just follows, without voting. Then there is the other extreme, where there is only congregational voting, on nearly everything. In the middle there is a wide spectrum as well, some of which have elders which are voted on, some of which have lifetime elders who essentially run things. Others have elected leadership teams which help guide the church and direct it.

Some feel that God commands a specific form of Church government. For example, some think a church must have elders (and call them elders) because thats what the early church did. Others think congregational rule is best because the Holy Spirit inhabits believers and todays churches are much more likely to have mature believers in the congregation– while as the early church was basically full of a bunch of ‘new’ believers who didn’t know anything yet.

In our meeting last week, and from our discussions prior to that, Simple Free people didn’t think that we had to have elders per se, although from our study of eldership the previous week we did think that leaders, whoever they are and whatever we called them– should be people who fit the characteristics that seemed to be laid out by Paul in the Bible. We also tend to be congregational, and decided we would vote for leaders. We decided to have and odd number, and settled on 3.

I asked what people thought that the leaders should do and we came up with this list:
-Keep us in motion
-Keep us focused on what we are about
-Make sure we have Spiritual Development, including making sure we have good teaching
-Oversee financial decisions
-Provide strategy for dealing with changes
-Help to delegate tasks and also to facilitate decision making
-Church discipline, and making sure we stay on track theologically

Our first leadership team will just be in place a year to help establish some basic principles and guidelines. Really at Simple Free the leaders will provide suggestions and help facilitate the decision making process by the congregation in more cases than not. The leader is the servant of the people, although in being a servant the leaders sometimes have to make tough decisions on behalf of the congregation.

It was really encouraging to have that meeting go smoothly and to see a lot of unity of spirit as we move in this direction to help Simple solidify as a community. Its something that should happen in the natural life of an organic group like ours who have grown and continue to grow together as we live our lives close to each other.

I think about where we were 15 months ago– just 4 guys in a dark cavelike basement.  Its been really great so far.  I am definitely thankful for Simple Free and God’s grace to me through it.  May God bless us all.  –Andy

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God, Bless My Mistakes as I stumble along…

family reunion 008My dad and mom got married over 63 years ago. I doubt that they expected to have 43 descendents, but they do.   We all get along well.  Like two weeks ago, when we thought dad was going to die when he went off medical support after going through 3 proceedures to stop his internal bleeding without success– everyone showed up and hung out at dads room to celebrate his life.  My siblings, theirs kids, their kids kids.  And we all had a wonderful time together, being with dad and mom.  Then after 5 days it turned out that dad, with a hemoglobin level of 4.7, was still doing relatively well, and stopped bleeding on his own, and so he got some more blood, and 5 days later he was home walking. 

When dad was really healthy, he counted it as a blessing.  When he was sick in the hospital, he talked about what a blessing it was to have his family and friends who came to visit (he averaged 50 visitors per day).  And people like to be around dad, because he lives with an optimism that is powered by his faith.  His way of life is deceptively simple– he doesn’t try to know what is coming, he has instead focused on how to respond to whatever comes.

His kids and family have unity, there are no divorces, and generally we are trying to live our lives in love for Christ.  And people ask mom and dad what their child rearing secrets were– what authors he’d read (dad never read a book on raising a child) or what his secret was.  And dads response is, “well, we did have family devotions (where you read the bible and pray together) each morning, but really we didn’t know what we were doing– we just asked God to bless our mistakes.”  This, I think, could become a prayer for a lifetime: “God, please bless my mistakes…”   

The week dad was in the hospital I was talking with him, and he said to me that he was just amazed at how his life had turned out– what a family he had, and all of his friends– but, he said, “I feel as though I just stumbled along and just asked God to bless my mistakes.”  Again, this way of living, this way of looking at the world, and not trying to know everything, but focusing instead on submitting ones ways to God, in humility. 

When I look at my fathers life– his family, his friends, his satisfaction with his work, his outlook– I think that his is an enviable life.  But not because of one or two brilliant decisions, or some profound secret insight.  His life is what it is because of a simple steady faithfulness– a striving to submit his life to God and to say, in effect, “not my will, but Thine”.  One verse he talked about during our time together was “Be still and know that I am God” or his favorite version: “Cease striving, and know that I am God”.    This releasing his will to God and essentially leaving the results to God while doing what he could, from his limited human perspective. 

There is no secret or hard to understand knowledge in this way of living.  But it is hard to do– day in and day out– consistently like the sun.  Dad is the first to admit he is far from perfect, but his honest authentic consistent trying to live his life for God and the humility and love and concern for others which sprung from that are an example of life as I want to live it. 

I am so thankful that dad is still here.  The last few weeks have helped me once again be especially thankful for him and his life.


downtown from porchTonight one of my guys Mike showed up on my porch. His girlfriend locked him out a week ago, and its been a rough week. He said he wanted to talk because he was lonely and had no human beings to talk with. He constantly apologized, and I could smell he’d been drinking a bit. He said he wanted to tell me that he wanted to stop drinking. “I’ve tried to make people think I’m not a drunk, but I am. When I come home from work what I want is to go to the alcohol store and drink til I pass out– I work, and I drink.”

He said he appreciated my help the last few years, and said I was one person he could rely on and I’d helped him a lot.   However, he said “I think you actually enable us to continue to get our drink on. I know you are trying to help us, giving us work and money, but it enables us to keep drinking.”

It was only tonight that I came to learn that Mike used to be in AA– in fact a leader of AA. But then he fell back into drinking. He said, “I’m smart– I could have made something of myself. And I try to think, why did I turn out like this and you the way you did? I guess it was because we had different parents or something…but I want to be like you. My dream, actually, is to be like you.” What mike wants is to be free of his desire for alcohol, and to be able to be himself, instead of a slave to alcohol.

I brought him to my girlfriends sisters house to sand floors yesterday. Tonight Mike talked about his experience there and said, “Those people were so nice! She and her husband, and your girlfriend. I thought, ‘these are the kind of people I want to associate with– these people are so kind and at peace'”

Mike said to me, “I want to get to a point where I want to do what is right– where I don’t want to drink. I want to drink, but I see that it has ruined my life.” I’ve seen mike come off alcohol before, even with the shakes and all. It is very difficult for him. But it is so easy for him to go back to it. But right now he is so alone that he is desperate to change. He met a guy, Don, when he was raking one of my houses the other day, and Don invited Mike to an AA meeting, and Mike plans to go. Mike said, “Don was really stern with me. He said I have to make my own decision, and stick with it, and that if I plan to come there will be stict expectations. But I am ready for that. Before, I didn’t want to change, because I liked to drink so much. But now I am so lonely, and I see where I am compared to where I once was.” What Mike said he needs is something to keep him busy, so he doesn’t drink. He also said he didn’t know how he was going to get to sleep without alcohol.

I think what mike really needed was for me to listen to him and let him know someone cared. I gave mike 3 tylenol PMs and two movies to watch– he said he’d watched his video the Godfather 20 times and was getting bored with it…When he left, he gave me a big bearhug. He said he hoped we would always be friends.

Its hard for me to know how to help people. Its hard to know what they want, what they need, and what the difference is. I’m not a social worker. I don’t have training in alcohol abuse. I do see that my guys struggle with it a lot, and that alcoholism seems to be a key factor in what makes them unreliable and also alcohol seems to be a root cause of their troubles. Its enough to help me understand why some people are tetotalers– forgoing alcohol absoultely. Its habitual abuse has destroyed lives like Mikes, and its so hard to break.

So I don’t know what else to do except to try to help him by helping distract him through work, helping him take some pride in that work, and maybe giving him some hope so that he won’t fall into the depression that brings on his alcohol abuse. That, and praying for him…one thing I pray is that the desperation that led him to feel the way he did tonight turns into real long term commitment to make substantial changes. If you think of it, pray for mike…

andy g