The Popular Side of Divine Spirituality
This is the time of year I tend to love studying the Best Buy ads, the Apple Store manifestos, the Amazon, GroupOn, Living Social deals piling up in my Inbox. There’s simply so much I’d love to have that I know would make my life more effective and efficient and enjoyable. Right?
After all, this is the season especially synonymous with abundance, even extravagance. It’s what we like about Christmas–the picture of God giving the most extravagant Gift possible in the form of the divine son of God. Heaven poured out the very best and highest priced offering to the human race. God held nothing back–the sign of immeasurable love and compassion.
So at Christmastime, we take our cues from that Sacred modeling and give valuable gifts to those we love. We break open our piggy banks and spend to show our love.
And of course Madison Avenue, with it’s own extravagant advertising budgets, continually reminds us that abundance is the order of the day–and naturally they have just what we need to buy from them to give evidence of our extravagant love to our friends and families. This time of year pays homage to this multiple-billion dollar industry and its success.
But ironically, there is an equally significant dimension to the Advent story that often gets ignored or downplayed. For sure Madison Avenue doesn’t want this concept trumpeted this time of year. Yet this dimension is also at the epicenter of true spirituality and an accurate picture of what God values.
It first appears in the Advent story in the personage and the place God chooses for the Royal Divine Son to be born. Of all the “qualified” people on planet earth to be chosen as the surrogate parents for God’s Son, God chooses a very young, humble, uneducated, poor teenage girl and an equally humble, peasant class working man who lives off the sweat of his brow to provide for his family.
And of all the birthing sites available on earth for this divine Son to make his grand entrance, God chooses a dank, dark cave where the farm animals are kept. Even Motel 6 is bypassed.
What’s up with these divine choices? Is there a message and modeling of godly spirituality here? What’s this other side of the “extravagance” coin for God?
The Less Popular Side of Divine Spirituality
This part of the Incarnation story hints at a word that we don’t always associate with spirituality much less this time of year: frugality. Now this is an intriguing word in this context. But don’t be fooled–this is not describing an attitude and approach similar to the miserly Scrooge in the other Christmas story who goes around grunting, “Bah, humbug!” as he pinches his pennies, refusing to give any more than he absolutely has to.
No. According to one author, “Frugality is founded on the principle that all riches have limits.” (Burke). Frugality is simply stewarding the resources we have in a way that acknowledges their limits. “You can’t buy happiness is” one of the adages stemming from this paradigm.
I’m challenged by the way Elise Boulding puts it: “Frugality is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language, and yet one that we are culturally cut off from understanding and enjoying. The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things.”
Jesus’ Countercultural Model
Jesus gets conceived by a poor, simple couple and birthed in a starkly frugal environment. For his early years he lives as an immigrant and refugee with his parents in Egypt. He’s home schooled by his mother. He ends up taking over his dad’s simple business as a carpenter and stone mason. And then when he finally begins his ministry-calling as an itinerant rabbi/preacher he doesn’t even have a home to call his own, choosing to live with others along the paths of his travels.
Jesus’ lifestyle wouldn’t exactly be described today as extravagant by any means. He grew up in the midst of a profound frugality so he never developed an attitude of entitlement. He learned the happiness of not having things.
He was never encumbered by possessions–so much so that the only thing he ever really owned was a garment that was the most valuable thing the soldiers could find of his to roll the dice and bet each other for as he hung dying on the cross at the end of his life. No physical assets other than the clothes on his back to include in a will after he died.
And yet he was happy as a human being. He laughed with his friends. He went to parties. Children loved being around him–which they don’t tend to do with Scrooges. He sang songs, told stories, worked miracles. He found his greatest joy in surprising people with love and grace.
Frugality. He manifested it in a profound way by showing that riches have their limits and by teaching the happiness of not having things but choosing to live extravagantly in giving love to others.
Pay Attention To Both Sides of the Divine Coin
It’s so easy to get seduced by the popular paradigms of our culture–that happiness comes most from what we possess, from an increase in our physical assets, from the gadgets and toys we have, the nice clothes we can wear. This time of year we long for what so many advertisers hold in front of our eyes as those tools to possessing a better life.
But perhaps this Advent Season I would do well to remember both sides of the spirituality coin–not just extravagance but also frugality–the willingness to live life with an open hand, not grasping at things to hoard but giving and letting go, moving from a physical assets mentality to a relational assets mindset. This is, like Jesus modeled, a very countercultural way to live. I’m learning that spiritual transformation and effectiveness involve both divine values, extravagance and frugality.