Wineskins Archive

February 11, 2014

Parting With My Old Dressing Gown (Jul-Aug 2002)

Filed under: — @ 5:57 pm and

by Dan Miller
July – August, 2002

“Give me just enough to satisfy my needs. For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’. And if I am too poor, I may steal, and thus insult God’s holy name.”–Proverbs 30:8-9 New Living Translation

I was raised in a Mennonite farming household in central Ohio.

We planted the crops, milked the cows, gathered eggs from the chickens, harvested an abundant garden, and maintained the buildings year after year. Christmas would bring me a new pair of blue jeans, as last year’s pants would be relegated to farm use. Cars, televisions, cell phones, faxes, microwaves and expensive college education were seen as unnecessary and probable tools to take the young people away from the tenets of the faith. My dad pastored the tiny Mennonite church in our community and our family activities centered around the Sunday and Wednesday meetings at the simple structure located two miles from our farm. Trips to a grocery store were rare. Eating at a restaurant was reserved for my parents’ annual wedding anniversary when we would find the Friday night closest to that date for the Howard Johnson’s fish special. Limited travel was always accommodated by staying with other Mennonite families along the way, rather than by the extravagance of public hotels.

Stewardship was taken seriously. We had a coffee cup in the kitchen cabinet for the Lord’s money: one tenth of any funds that came into our house. But equally important as the meager funds found there, were the tithes of our time and other resources. Food was generously given to anyone in need. Barnraisings were a common occurrence and I was “shared” frequently with other families in need of an extra farm hand. There was a certain security and comfort in the sameness and simplicity of that environment. Today, many years after leaving that culture, there is a calmness and perceived safety in those separated and safe surroundings.

The modern world we live in stands in stark contrast to my background and that of most contemporary Christians. As a nation our garbage disposals eat better than many poor nations in the world eat. We use one-third of the oil, one-third of the gas, almost half the coal, and most of the atomic energy in the world. We import enormous quantities of diminishing resources. As consumers, we fight the politics of Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia yet pander to them because of our insatiable consumption of their oil. There is an explicit irony in going after “terrorists” when we cannot afford to offend those upon whom we are so dependent. Our family cars often represent a debt load equaling annual income and our houses are more status symbols than functional habitats. Excessive television watching accelerates the “see, want, borrow, buy” pattern, according to Harvard economist Juliet Schor. As she puts it, “television lets everyone see what the upper-income folks have and allows viewers to want it in concrete, product-specific ways.”

Even as Christians, we succumb to the ripple effect described by 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot. In an essay entitled “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” he wrote about receiving a beautiful scarlet dressing gown as a gift. But with the beautiful new gown, he began to sense that his surroundings appeared rather shabby and unworthy of the grandeur exuded by the new gown, and he became disenchanted with his house. He grew dissatisfied with his study, with its threadbare curtains, his old desk, his chair, and even with his bookshelves. One by one, the familiar but well-worn furnishings were replaced with elegant new pieces to compliment his new gown.

In the end, Diderot found himself seated uncomfortably in the stylish formality of his new “stuff,” regretting the insidious effect of the “scarlet robe that forced everything else to conform with its own elegant tone.” Unfortunately, “the Diderot effect” continues to be lived out today. Watch the young Christian couple who have a $25,000 wedding followed by a honeymoon trip to the Caribbean. They return home with a mortgage that requires two full-time incomes. The remote control opens the door to a world of glass, plastic, fabrics and metal requiring secondary packaging and preparation. Garage sale furniture would look out of place in this home and fine china is required to compliment the new furniture. Neighborhood conformity sets the stage for a golf club membership and attendance at the right social functions. Children in this neighborhood attend the best private schools and vacations, complete with plane tickets, hotels and rental cars are the norm. We plead with God to bless us, expecting to win the lottery. Our prayer is often like Linus, who explains to Charlie Brown, “to be rich and famous and handsome – and humble.”

Is there really a model for Christian stewardship in today’s affluent lifestyle? Where do we draw the line on consumption if we can in fact afford anything we want? Our American lifestyle depends heavily on the long hours of labor and low wages of workers in the poor countries of the world. Running shoes may be creating wealth for a few owners and stockholders while the laborers making them receive very low wages. If the standard of living were to rise in the countries where we buy aluminum, electronics, coffee or sugar, then our lifestyle would be severely threatened. Our consumption has grown to depend on keeping a vast difference between our wages and theirs. While people in Costa Rica may still work for a dollar day, we gamble with stock options in an attempt to make millions in that same day. Our talk about helping developing countries is tempered with the reality that it’s a noble but unrealistic dream. The United States comprises only six percent of the world’s population. If only fourteen percent of the rest of the world joined us in our current rate of consumption, there would be absolutely nothing left of the world’s known resources for the other eighty percent to use in their development. Our foreign aid often disempowers the local farmers because they cannot afford to produce food for themselves at the low price at which it arrives from overseas. Their fields often go barren or are forced to grow “cash crops” like rubber, sugar or coffee for the wealthy Americans.

The idea of simplicity, good stewardship, control of consumption and Godly sacrificial living has appeared and reappeared throughout American history, although the motivations have differed dramatically. Yes, the Puritans, the Quakers, the Amish and the Mennonites aspired to simplicity for its religious virtue. Early American republicans like Samuel Adams lived frugally as a way of reducing dependence on British goods. Emerson, Thoreau and other philosophers shunned luxury to better focus on spiritual and moral truths. Thomas Merton and many others chose monastic life to “be” rather than to “have.” The amazing affluence of our country today, again has forced the emergence of issues that go beyond mere survival. Most anyone can make money today, but not everyone can control his or her impulses to buy. The current quest for “simplicity” is fueled by the rapid acceleration of the speed of life and the frequent accompanying angst of being able to have it all. A growing body of psychological and theological research suggests that mental health and spiritual well-being are negatively associated with the accumulation of material goods. In most cases, the more we own the greater the stress. In contrast, the more emphasis placed on intrinsic goals – personal relationships, peace of mind, community service, and spiritual growth – the greater the likelihood that a person will sense a high degree of satisfaction with life.

We live in a society that embraces indulgent consumption as a visible status symbol. Jesus did not encourage tightfisted stinginess or affluent self-indulgence. Simplicity is a skill of moderation to be developed in a lifestyle for effectively reaching the world for Jesus. Are you spending your money on temporal things or are you investing it in ways that have eternal impact? Look around you. Which products used in your home or office come from local primary environments? How many require secondary packaging and preparation? What products are you dependent on that require low level wages in a poor country? How many square feet of living space do you really need? Are there ways you could reduce your electricity, gas and water consumption? What are some simple ways you could reduce your expenses by ten percent?

We learned years ago that homemade gifts are more appreciated than store bought plastic and chrome at Christmas time. Auctions and wholesale markets keep us provided with the exotic cars that I enjoy so much.

I left the farm to go to college, graduate school and more in my own search for broader horizons. I value the traditions of my Amish/Mennonite heritage but also the many opportunities not embraced in that culture. Recently, my wife and I returned to Ohio along with our children and grandchildren. We visited the Amish neighbors and got eggs from real barnyard chickens. We loaded up in a horse and buggy for a tour of a country farm. These are always refreshing times to remind us to teach our children the simple pleasures of caring for each other, our communities, our neighbors and our world. We were protected from faxes, cell phones, television and e-mail. We played games, sat on the front porch and watched the moon come up over the hill. We ate home made jams, stewed tomatoes and garden fresh beans. We spent two days picking forty-seven bushels of apples, making apple pies and taking the dropped apples to be made into cider. Yes, this is a process that could be automated. However, the trip was not about picking apples quickly, but about making memories slowly.

The positive changes we seek may alter circumstances and applications, but memories, relationships and personal connections are not to be altered. These are the anchors in the sea of change and threats to simplicity. Change should not wipe the slate clean. Rather, it should build on and preserve the very foundation of Christian stewardship.

[for more on how to reduce your consumption of energy, see Marge Wood’s article in this issue, “What Does My Electric Bill Have to do With My Yaith?”]

New Wineskins

Dan Miller specializes in creative thinking for personal and business development. He helps individuals redirect careers, evaluate new income sources and achieve balanced living. As a life coach, speaker and frequent radio and television guest, Dan shares his process for developing a focused, balanced and truly successful life. Dan’s principles have been clarified in his two popular workbook and audio tape sets, 48 Days To The Work You Love and 48 Days To Creative Income and the soon to be released, Eagle Hearts in a Chicken World. Dan and his wife of thirty-four years, Joanne, have three grown children, and three grandchildren who all live in Franklin, Tennessee. For eight years, Dan and Joanne have been teaching a weekly community seminar called “Career Compass,” designed to provide resources and encouragement to those making life transitions. See their web site:

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