For the month of November, Ginger and I are writing down everything we spend so we can get a good picture of where our money goes. (All of a sudden, all I can hear in my head is Robert Palmer singing, “She’s so fine, there’s no telling where the money went.”)

    It was her suggestion, brought on by her reading of Your Money or Your Life in preparation for an adult education class we are doing at church based on the PBS show, “Affluenza”:

    Af-flu-en-za n. 1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream. 3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.

    I haven’t been to class yet, but I can self-diagnose: I’ve got it. I’m not a daily visitor at the mall, but I’ve got lots of stuff I don’t need and would gladly invest any amount of money in CDs – the kind you play, not the ones you get at the bank.

    Today I spent $54.72 on groceries and $2.10 on a cup of coffee while I was doing some reading and writing, which turned into a bit of web surfing after looking at the Affluenza site. My friend Doug bought my lunch at our Pastoral Spouse Support Group meeting today. While I was drinking my coffee, I came upon a wonderful web site called AfriGadet, which says it’s “solving everyday problems with African ingenuity.”

    The first story was about a man in Ethiopia who builds coffee makers out of old mortar shells from the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

    “These shells have all been used.” says Azmeraw Zeleke, the creator of these wonderful things. “We all need peace and we don’t want war but once these shells have been used, we should use our skills to do something with them. Sometimes I think about the fact they were used for war but I want to change them to do something good. They could be a symbol of war but I am doing something good out of the bad.”

    Mr. Zeleke is still surrounded by war. Ethiopia is bordered by Somalia on one side, which has been a failed state for fifteen years, and Sudan on the other, which is not a viable nation these days either. His own country languishes in poverty and corruption, yet he is making coffee makers, something that promotes community and hope. According to the BBC story, “After meals, the traditional coffee ceremony allows family and friends to get together to share news and discuss the issues of the day.”

    Ethiopia also shares a border with Kenya, which a little more stable but also quite poor. Afrigadet linked to a YouTube video about two handicapped guys in Kenya who make a living by turning their wheelchairs into mobile phone booths.

    Massachusetts is one of the top three wealthiest states per capita in the country. When it comes to charitable giving, we fall to about forty-eighth on the list. Many of our churches struggle to make their budgets not because we are too poor to give, but because aren’t particularly generous. I’m talking about Massachusetts because that’s where I live. not because it’s some sort of exception. Though it’s true that Mississippi, who comes in at the bottom end of the wealth scale is the top giver, nobody’s really knocking it out of the park. Things get tight for most of us financially because we’ve been raised to want more stuff, not because we have to live on a dollar a day like most of the world.

    My point is not to hand out boarding passes for a guilt trip. I’m writing out loud in hopes of figuring out what sort of chemotherapy my soul needs to cure my affluenza. I want to learn to live within my means. I don’t want to buy into the lie that my Mastercard is what makes moments priceless anymore. Beyond being out from under financial pressure, I want to learn how to share what I have – what we have – with people who have to make coffee makers out of bomb shells and strap phones to their wheelchairs.

    On Randy Newman’s prophetic record, Land of Dreams(1988), he sings:

    Of all of the people that I used to know Most never adjusted to the great big world I see them lurking in book stores Working for the Public Radio Carrying their babies around in a sack on their back Moving careful and slow It’s money that matters Hear what I say It’s money that matters In the USA

    The verse that kills me is the last one:

    Then I talked to a man lived up on the county line I was washing his car with a friend of mine He was a little fat guy in a red jumpsuit I said “You look kind of funny” He said “I know that I do” “But I got a great big house on the hill here And a great big blonde wife inside it And a great big pool in my backyard and another great big pool beside it Sonny it’s money that matters, hear what I say It’s money that matters in the USA It’s money that matters Now you know that it’s true It’s money that matters whatever you do”

    Five days before midterm elections, Newman’s satire bites hard. As disenfranchised as I feel, sitting somewhere in the middle class, I’m far from being one of those who is worst hit and hit over and over and over. We, as Americans, have convinced ourselves that being rich and being smart are the same thing. We’re wrong.

    If we were smart, we would have learned long ago that money is not the root of all evil, but our affluenza is. One of my favorite stories of Jesus’ healing is at the pool of Bethesda when he asks the man who has been poolside for thirty-eight years, “Do you want to get well?”

    I’m trying hard to learn how to answer, “Yes.”



    1. It’s all about the money. Ask any free-agent pro athlete.

      Paradoxically, given that we’re a go-go country, our toleration and acceptance of every religion under the sun is first-rate. Most of us are financially-skewed little heathens though. I just don’t think most of us realize it yet.

      A member of our congregation has said that ‘money is fungible’ (“being of such nature or kind as to be freely exchangeable or replaceable, in whole or in part, for another of like nature or kind”) but I wonder, does anyone know what money looks like anymore? Maybe it’s just that plastic card with the VISA logo on it. You text-message your bank to move some ‘money’ from this account to that account and you get to keep your card for your next trip to the mall.

      It’s out of hand. It IS an illness. And it will come home to roost.

    2. My favorite line “I’m writing out loud in hopes of figuring out what sort of chemotherapy my soul needs to cure my affluenza.” I’m not sure, but I think for me, part of the chemo is turning my focus away from myself…towards God and towards others to whom I may be able to lend a hand.

      Amen and amen! Thanks for another great post, Milton.

    3. I wonder if “Living within our means” has been the wrong way to look at this, because as our means grow, our lifestyles grow to fit. We then become in a state of flux and adaptation directly related to our income level. And no one ever wants to go backwards.

      I am most likely at my greatest earning potential now. I may go to more restaurants but I don’t really feel my money is any better spent than I did 20 years ago living in a one room apartment and hitchhiking to work every day.

      Perhaps I should re-think my way of living, and then decide what means are necessary instead of the reverse.

      Great food for thought,


    4. Two moments of sheer joy this weekend that didn’t cost a thing. Fallen red and orange leaves from Oklahoma Bradford Pears around my feet walking into work this morning. Taking a nap with my five year old boy and wrestling like puppies when we woke up.

    5. It’s another symptom that we have more ways to communicate than at any time in human history, and we have so little of any substance to say.

      And of course Fight Club was on just the other night: “The liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perceptions… Reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions!”

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