(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on June 12, 2015)
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.
To understand, than to be understood.
To love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life” (Prayer of St Francis).
There is a remark so familiar it’s cliché: “I’ve never seen a U-Haul following a hearse.” We all know what that means. None of us get to take our possessions with us into the afterlife, so make sure you don’t spend the precious years of your life obsessed with accumulating stuff. That’s great wisdom. But I have a question. Does saying pithy things like this to people actually work? Have you ever remarked about the absence of U-Hauls behind caskets and then seen someone respond by selling all they had, giving the money to the poor and spending more time with family? Neither have I.
And why is this? Well, while the observation that you cannot take your possessions with you when you die is certainly true enough, is not necessarily a great argument against materialism on this side of death.
Here’s a better one: by practicing the idolatry of materialism, you are being used. Used by strangers who couldn’t care less about you in order to make money. Used to keep an unsustainable economy going that is dependent on people consuming beyond their need and ability, even if it means going into massive debt. Used to wreck the environment. Used to keep the world’s most vulnerable people in extreme poverty while producing our goods and picking our food. Of course, it is never suggested that we are being used. We are sold on the idea that we are “free.” Free to choose from hundreds of brands of toothpaste, free to choose Coke or Pepsi. Free to accumulate as much stuff and experience as we can in the short time we are on earth. And we are being used by nefarious powers far greater than any of us to the degree that this lie is effective. But if we were fully aware of the human cost of consumerism, we would see that the illusion of “freedom” defined as choice, comes at a cost that keeps billions in chains. We would be disgusted. We often aren’t disgusted, because all of this happens behind a veil of slick marketing and ideology that instructs us that owning a lot of the best stuff is what defines the good life. But that is not the good life. The faithful life is the good life.
But the faithful life is not a life of unlimited free choice. And it is not even freedom from being used. The faithful life means that we are still being used, but we are being used by God. In fact, the only choice we have in this regard is whether we are to be used by God or by evil. If we think otherwise, we misunderstand the interconnected nature of human existence and we underestimate the power of evil.
In the Prayer of St Francis, printed above, the author (who was likely not the actual St Francis of the 13th century) asks that he be used as an instrument in the hand of God. He asks that he be an instrument of God’s peace: that wherever there is hatred, doubt, despair and sadness, he may be used to bring love, faith, hope and joy. And he sees that it is better to bring love, comfort and understanding. Which is important to recognize, because oftentimes you will not be loved, comforted or understood when you become an instrument of God’s peace. God’s peace threatens the worldly powers that attempt to seize God’s authority. And they will not go down without a fight. But as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “there comes a time when a true follower of Jesus Christ must take a stand that’s neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take that stand because it is right.” To renounce one’s allegiance to a violent and greedy world because she or he is a citizen of the Kingdom of God will bring opposition, but it is still the right thing to do as a disciple of Jesus.
I pray that you have the good life. I pray that God uses you. Not so that we can enjoy a houseful of glittery, temporary things, but so that God’s peace, justice, mercy, forgiveness and love might flow into the world through you until the Kingdom comes, until God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven.