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STEWARDSHIP IN 2017: The things you own end up owning you

08/18/2017 | Comments

In 1994, I was 16 and I was sent on a “mission trip” to the Philippines with 20 or so other youth from an evangelical church. We were going to save the Filipinos one city at a time. I remember the plane ride being interminable; no matter how many movies I’d watch or how often I checked the seatback GPS, we never seemed to leave the Pacific Ocean. Finally we arrived to Osaka, a layover before Manila.  As we were privileged and naïve kids from Littleton with a long layover in Japan, and because my buddies and I were all over 6 feet tall, we decided it would be fun to reenact Godzilla throughout the terminal, which it was. Also, it was insensitive.

When we finally got into Manila and bribed the airport police to let the youngest woman in our group into the country, we headed to our lodging. The lodging was a compound in the middle of Manila, complete with guards and fences and security cameras. Watch out Manila, we are here to save you! Before bed, we were asked to use the air conditioning sparingly because it is expensive. We cranked the a/c and went to bed: boys in one room, girls in another. We all must’ve slept for 15 hours. I remember wanting a blanket.

After a few days of hanging around and getting acclimated, we began our mission. We taught classes at a massive public high school. Having been cognizant of the separation of church and state in the U.S., we took full advantage of our ignorance of Filipino law and just taught the Gospel. Math class? 2+2 = Jesus. History? Jesus died on the cross at around 32 A.D. English? Here’s the King James. We also visited an orphanage. Day 1 of missioning: success.

Day two: Outreach to kids addicted to sniffing glue. I remember Manila being a sprawling metropolis straight out of a sci-fi movie. Highways and overpasses passed around skyscrapers, shopping malls and fast-food restaurants. In the many dark corners of city were the vast homeless population, some of whom were addicts who sniffed glue. It was very sad — the fumes from the glue would make the user high but also kill his brain cells. A user of a few years would suffer irreversible brain damage. But no worry — the Littleton kids were there! Also, I was able to score some Filipino cigarettes without our youth leader knowing. Day 2: success.

Day Three: there was a trash dump in Manila called Smokey Mountain. According to Wikipedia, Smokey Mountain contained over 2 million metric tons of waste. We approached Smokey Mountain in a Jeepney, which is a van in the shape of a jeep. The first thing I noticed was the people, thousands of them, scurrying on the massive trash heap. Walking between vents of methane, barefoot men and women, boys and girls, scavenged Smokey Mountain. Where the trash met the river flowing into Manila Bay, children played as if in a water park of sewage.

We drove through Smokey Mountain like tourists gawking at a world wonder. The heat and humidity combined with the stench was overpowering. Some from our group started crying. The Jeepney slowed as a band of children started running after us. They came closer and the Jeepney was forced to slow down. White plastic rosaries rained in from the children who were laughing and yelling hello to us. The silence inside the Jeepney was punctuated by the anxious crying of its inhabitants.  

That evening our group sat around in the living room of our compound. Something changed in each of us that day but we didn’t know what. There was a lot of anxiety. Somebody proposed burning the rosaries because they might be cursed. So we did, and we ended up feeling even worse afterward. Day 3: chaos and darkness.

Writing a few days later in my journal, I tried to articulate what I was feeling.

“The kids who lived in the dump were happy and we’re not. They were generous and yet had nothing. They gave us gifts and we burned them out of fear.” The question I was facing was “what is better: happiness in extreme poverty or a numbness with every material need satisfied?” I was startled because I would never choose to be happy if that meant poverty.

Materialism, like a drug, doesn’t cure the pain; it numbs the pain while increasing the need for more stuff. Many people overdose on materialism as a normal part of life. I contend that this is not normal and that we were created for something different and better.

When I think about the wealth of our country compared with what I saw of the Philippines or places in third world, I often think of how glad I am that I was born an American in the 20th century. But this is not the human story. For millennia, the vast majority of humans scraped by, subsisting off the land and subjected to environmental pressures, the whims of which meant life or death. For millennia, humans have been ruled by warlords, dictators, royalty and others who made it to the top. Human lives could be mercilessly cut short by diseases like the plague or the flu. Morality was articulated by the one with the most power. It was in this world that Christianity developed.

What happens to Christianity when our lives, rather than being deprived of basic human necessities are suddenly flooded by money and the ability to afford cheap food, housing and entertainment? What is the meaning of “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest” when my rest occurs on a $5,000 mattress? What if St. Paul traveled the Road to Damascus in a $75,000 Grand Cherokee? Would he have even noticed Jesus Christ amid the digital glare of his displays and the 42 speaker audio system?

Materialism gets in the way of what really matters in life: the stewardship call. If I have the courage to put down the phone, turn off the TV and listen to my wife, my kids and God, what do I hear? 

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