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Money can’t buy meaning

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.

The symptoms include stress and dissatisfaction. The worst cases, some say, can lead to depression, bankruptcy, even divorce.

Affluenza – a social disease first diagnosed by a 1997 PBS documentary – has become a topic of discussion for churches, religious groups and others who worry about the impact of materialism on their families and spiritual lives.

Driven by a desire for meaning, many people of faith have turned to God and each other as they strive to spend less, give more to the poor and live a more simplified life.

“Our lives tend to be so cluttered with stuff,” said the Rev. Robin Garvin, associate pastor of Hamblen Park Presbyterian Church in Spokane. “We are so busy. We are so driven. Then we transmit it all to our over-programmed kids. …

“All this noise and clutter keep us from connecting with God and with each other.”

Nationwide, thousands of congregations including Hamblen Park Presbyterian have organized classes and discussion groups on the topic of overconsumption.

Some have based their conversations on “Curing Affluenza,” a video series featuring nationally known Christian author and sociologist Tony Campolo. Based on Scripture, the six-part program examines a number of issues including money (“How poor does Jesus want us to be?”); time (“How much do I have to give away?”); and stuff (“How much can I have?”).

His message, essentially, is this: In order to live a fuller, more meaningful life, people must simplify.

About 10 percent of the roughly 800 members at Hamblen Park have taken the six-session course. The classes also established a church tradition of serving meals to homeless teens at Cup of Cool Water, a ministry downtown.

“People of faith feel a real discomfort with the dominant values of the culture that teaches people to acquire more and more,” said Garvin. “That’s not exactly the Gospel as Jesus presented it.”

The Bible contains more than 2,350 verses about money, possession and stewardship, according to Mike O’Connor, regional director for Crown Financial Ministries, a nonprofit that provides a Christian perspective on debt management, budgeting guides and other money-related issues.

“The Bible teaches us that God owns everything,” said O’Connor, a Spokane resident and member of Rock of Ages Christian Fellowship. “He calls us to stewardship, to be managers of what he owns.”

This past year, hundreds of people in the Northwest have taken O’Connor’s courses to learn how to reduce their debt, spend less money and live a lifestyle that’s more aligned with the Bible’s teachings.

By focusing on God, people tend to think twice before they spend, he said. They don’t waste as much and resist the urge to buy everything.

“It takes divine strength to pull yourself out of debt,” O’Connor often tells his students. “Every spending decision should be a spiritual decision.”