This morning’s time of prayer got me thinking about contentment and discontentment in the light of how our economy might change American habits. There has been a lot of talk about how the spending and saving habits of Americans have been permanently changed by the recession. No longer will we be driven by obsessive consumerism, and isn’t that a good thing. I think it is and I hope it’s true, but I have my doubts.
A permanent change like that would require a national ethos of contentment. Americans would have to learn not simply to be content with a simpler, less frantic lifestyle that did not require the compulsive acquisition of material goods as symbols of well being; Americans would have to learn to truly appreciate such a lifestyle as a deliberate and joy filled preference. Can we do that?
If we can, can we do that without letting contentment become complacency? That’s a problem also. Contentment too easily becomes complacency because we have been so thoroughly taught that we are either winners or losers in life, and unless we remain competitive we might as well just role over and be satisfied to be the losers that we are.
We are certainly not a contented people now, nor has there been a period of national contentment for a long, long time. We are in an “age of discontent.” It’s a familiar phrase isn’t it? It’s familiar because it’s been around awhile. The author and historian James Joyce used it back in 1891 to explain the turmoil in Europe and the forces that drive a people either to self destruction or self improvement. Thousands of years earlier, the psalmist understood that kind of human discontent and had something to say about it. Consider a portion of Psalm 78 as translated in the Book of Common Prayer: “So they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved. But they did not stop their craving, though the food was still in their mouths.”
The age of discontent appears to have started in the Garden of Eden and has continued unabated to this very day – unabated but not unchallenged. God in Christ Jesus challenged it. He gave, and Paul amplified, more than a little instruction about living a life of contentment that was not complacent. James wrote that if we would truly experience life under the law of freedom (which I understand as the law of love), we would be doers of those words and not just hearers. It makes for great sermon material and some very dramatic and well received preaching.
Can those words, well preached, lead us to any kind of permanent change? I don’t know, but we do have a moment of great opportunity to boldly proclaim the good news of God in Christ to a people who are more ready to actually listen now than they have been in years. Our obsessive consumerism has not worked. It has been one of the chief causes of our current situation. The people know that, if somewhat begrudgingly. They would like a better way. There is a better way and Christ has already forged that path. If we are serious about God being God, and not just some handy higher power myth, then now is the time to throw as much light on that path as possible. And if you are unsure about what that path is, I suggest Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians as good places to start.