It began with two simple questions.
Fifteen years ago, my husband was a well-respected physician at the top of his career. He loved taking care of patients, and I loved caring for our two children, Clark and Emma. But something was missing. We had all the nice things that were supposed to make us happy, yet we still felt empty inside.
Then, while on a family vacation, just after putting our kids to bed, I asked two questions that would change our lives forever.
“What do you think is the biggest problem facing the world today?”
Matthew offered a reply that I was not expecting: “The world is dying.”
We cared about the future. So I followed with a second, more difficult question: “If the planet is dying, what are we going to do about it?”
My husband did not have a ready answer. But a couple of months later, he finally did get back to me — with an answer I wasn’t prepared to hear:
“I’ll quit my job,” he said, “and we’ll spend the rest of our lives serving God and helping to save the planet.”
My reply: “Are you sure we need to do that much?”
The thought terrified me. I understood why recycling and picking up litter were important. But giving up a career that my husband loved, as well as the steady income and security that came along with it, to “serve God and save the planet”?
My stomach turned inside out just thinking about what we might lose — our home, our vacations or our status in the community. The selfish part of me began to whine: What about the 10 years of school and residency we had gone through?
Wouldn’t he be wasting all that training?
Then there were the practical concerns: The kids were approaching their teen years. College was just around the corner. How would we possibly save enough money to pay for their education if our income dropped suddenly to zero? How, for that matter, would we put food on the table?
What followed was a tense time, full of anxiety and conflicting desires. Walking in faith may sound good — when it happens to other people and everything turns out OK in the end — but I was terrified to take even the first step.
People ask us if we had any arguments. Of course, we did! I’d be lying if I said that there were no raised voices or sleepless nights. But gradually I came, if not to peace, at least to acceptance of the new direction our life would take. The transition — as much emotional and spiritual as physical — took a couple of years.
One of the very first things we did was to take a measure of our ecological footprint. We had always thought of ourselves as good stewards. But when we actually calculated our total use of resources, we found ourselves exactly average for Americans, and using six times more energy than our neighbors around the world.
So we took Jesus’ advice about removing the log from our own eye first (Matthew 7:3–5, Luke 6:41–42) and began cleaning up our household before worrying about cleaning up the rest of the world. Over the next couple of years, we downsized our lifestyle, getting rid of half of our possessions — making donations by the truckload, finding new homes for sentimental family heirlooms and giving away most of our books to libraries destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Like any weight-loss program, not gaining it all back — and then some — is the real test of success, so we took our names off catalog mailing lists. We avoided malls. And, most importantly, we began keeping a weekly stop day, a Sabbath.
Sabbath does not just happen; you have to prepare for it. On Saturdays, the kids helped us clean the house and got their homework done. On Sundays, we walked to church and then spent time reading, napping, praying and playing outdoors in God’s creation. We unplugged, played Scrabble and talked. Perhaps more than any other change, this biblical, 24/6 rhythm of life reduced our impact on the planet by helping us become content.
Eventually, we sold the big house and moved to a home the size of our old garage. We planted two-thirds of an acre of wildflowers instead of grass. We hung a clothesline and ditched the dryer. Our garden doubled, then tripled in size; we canned vegetables and grew enough potatoes and onions for the winter. We collected rainwater off the roof and installed low-flow showerheads. Our energy use dropped by more than two-thirds and our trash production by nine-tenths. Along the way, our family’s faith life and way of life became one. The more we “gave up,” the richer we became.
It’s been interesting to see how our now-grown children have embraced creation care, in many ways even more deeply than us. Clark married his Asbury University sweetheart; because they are both preparing to serve in the medical missions field, he and Valerie live very simply — no TV or whiz-bang gadgets, electricity usage even less than ours. Clark bikes to work. They often hang their clothes on the line to dry. With their eyes on God, they have intentionally steered clear of the typical physician’s lifestyle. I have never met anyone who loves trees more than Clark.
Emma works for our nonprofit, Blessed Earth. With her husband in seminary, she has become an expert at saving green while going green. Emma has canned thousands of quarts of produce grown in their garden. But most of their savings come from simply opting out of the American consumerist culture — no Internet means no impulsive online purchases; no expensive vacations or hobbies means more time for family, friends and God. A far more patient baker than her teacher (me), Emma makes a perfect loaf of Communion bread for church each week with a cross baked into the crust.
Matthew and I now live downtown in an 18-foot-wide townhouse, which means less upkeep and even greater freedom to answer God’s call. Through our nonprofit, we teach and write about simplicity, sustainability and Sabbath. Our children, office, grocery store, haircutter, dentist, library and pretty much everything else are within easy walking distance of us. Every week, we get together for family Friday night dinners, (literally) opening our table for friends, old and new.
Years ago, two questions — prompted by God — launched our family on this journey.
Today, when making any choice, purchase or decision, we ask ourselves two new questions: Does this bring me closer to God? And does this help me love my neighbor?
The answers always lead us down the right path. Practical Tips for a Slower, Simpler, Saner Christmas The first step toward celebrating Christmas in a way that respects creation and honors the Creator is changing your mindset. Yes, advertisers want you to believe that a true Christmas celebration requires a mountain of gifts under an ornately decorated tree. Even friends and family may pressure you to indulge in holiday excess just because that’s what you have always done.
If you’re like me, you have experienced Christmas stress firsthand — braving the malls to find the perfect gift, jumping from party to party, and cringing at the January credit-card bills. Studies show that the “season to be jolly” has become the most depressing time of year for some people.
To get back to the heart of Christmas, start by simplifying. Sit down with your family before the holiday craziness begins and discuss what kind of Christmas celebration would truly capture the meaning of the holiday. Which activities have meant the most in years past? Who helps you experience Christ’s love around Christmas time? Instead of creating a Christmas gift wish list, think of ways you can reach out to others. Your goal should be to end the holiday with deeper relationships rather than mounds of wrapping paper, ribbons and bows. You will spend less money, create less waste and have more stories to share in the future.
Experiencing Christmas in a new way, however, doesn’t mean you have to drop all of the traditions that have made the holiday so meaningful. Scaling back, prioritizing and eliminating some of the excess is the key.
Below are a few practical suggestions to help you get started:
Initiate a family conversation about Christmas giving. One family decided that each person would receive three gifts each year to symbolize the gold, frankincense and myrrh the wise men gave Jesus. They each received one thing they needed, one thing they wanted and one small surprise.
Pick names out of a hat for extended family, so each adult only gets one special Christmas gift. Or opt for giving presents to children only.
Spend less. It takes an average of six months for a credit card user to pay off holiday debt.
Buy local. Check your area for locally made items. Your gift will cut back on emissions involved in shipping, support local artisans and provide a memorable story.
Give to those in need. Ask your pastor if there is a family that will be struggling to pay the heating bills this winter. Fill a shoebox through Operation Christmas Child. Take an angel off a giving tree. Listen for stories about someone losing a job or facing mounting medical bills and send an anonymous gift.
Give to ministries. Select a ministry that is important to each family member, and give a card saying that a contribution was made in his or her honor. In many families, this is the most anticipated gift of Christmas. It’s wonderfully gratifying when someone notices what mission is closest to your heart.
Skip paper Christmas cards. If everyone sent just one less card per year, we could save 50,000 cubic yards of paper.
Reduce the trimmings. If every family reused just 2 feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet.
Wrap in reusable material, such as cloth bags or reusable gift bags. If every household in America wrapped just three presents in reused materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.
Celebrate close to home. If each family in America consumed one less gallon of gasoline this holiday season (cutting out about 20 miles of travel), we’d reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1 million tons.
Consider purchasing a live tree from a local nursery and replanting it after the holiday. Or purchase an artificial tree and save gas on annual trips to a tree farm; also artificial trees do not require pesticides.
Instead of adding new ornaments this year, opt for edible or compostable items like stringed popcorn or cranberries for garland. Making Christmas decorations can also be a fun family activity.
Switch to LED holiday lights. They use up to 100 times less energy and will last about 10 years or 100,000 hours when used indoors.
Give purposeful gifts. Many people appreciate homemade, personalized gifts more than store-bought options. Another idea is to give an “environmental starter kit” filled with items such as high efficiency lightbulbs, a battery recharger, refillable bottles, canvas shopping bags, etc.
Combine shopping trips to use less gas. And remember to bring your reusable shopping bags.
Give an act of service. Shovel a snow-covered driveway. Offer to babysit for a young couple that needs a night out. Give coupons to mow a yard when spring and summer arrive. Prepare and deliver a meal or a loaf of fresh bread.
Nancy Sleeth of Lexington, Kentucky, is the author of “Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life” (fmchr.ch/amishns) and the co-founder of Blessed Earth, a Christian environmental nonprofit. Newsweek and Christianity Today have named her one of 50 evangelical “Women to Watch.”3