I am part of the Madonna generation. And know, I don't mean Mary. I mean the once ubiquitous popstar, whose famous song "Material Girl" still gets regular play on the radio. In my mind, her music was synonymous with the excess of materialism and general love of excess that pervaded the 80s and early 90s. We could do what we wanted, have what we wanted, and there was no such thing as too much stuff. I was just a kid during the most of this time, but as a kid I was on the receiving end of a certain amount of vicarious excess. Our parents generation had grown up on simple stuffed toys, Barbies that you could sew clothes for rather than buy, and the reality that the ingenuity of a well fed imagination was more valuable than anything. When we hear songs about Christmas days of the past, there's no talk about Cabbage patch, Polly Pocket, Thomas the Train, or Furbies. Even in the world of claymation, all the kids wanted was a dolly, a train, or a scooter. Pretty plausible stuff for Santa and his hard working elves to make with rudimentary tools. Flash forward to my childhood (and every Christmas since) and you'll have no problem finding video of otherwise reasonable people knocking down strangers for some battery operated monstrosity that they will grow tired of only 24 hours before their kids do. We are in the material age. There's no denying it.
I confess even my family isn't immune to it all. This past Christmas I saw evidence in the strewn wrapping paper on the floor that while the kids didn't expect much (a Barbie or two, some Cars dinkies, and some slippers were the requests), they were inundated with so much stuff they didn't know what to do. Now almost month later the favourites have emerged, and not surprisingly it's what they asked for. Baby girl is drawn to books and simple wooden toys. Big girl wants to play with the Barbies. The boys spend all day playing with their Cars dinkies. Everything else is background noise and has already fallen to the bottom of the toy pile (and yes, it's a pile). Partly it's because they're the only little kids in the family on both sides (they have a preteen cousin who is well beyond the trendy toy age, and has moved on to music and art. Well done!). This lends itself to a certain amount of spoiling from one particular set of Grandparents *coughmyMomcough* who seem to have 20 years of pent of Christmas shopping they unleash under our tree every year since we've had kids (and let's be fair, any other said Grandmother sees something she thinks would please the kids). It comes from an honest desire to express love and to leave a lasting impression on the kids. My fear is that the impression it's giving isn't of love, but of entitlement and privilege. They are young enough that they don't have an expectation for how many gifts they have, or the financial value they can place on the stack of gifts they receive, but it's only a matter of time before their real needs get crowded around by the wants society teaches them are essential.
So what do we do? Do we roll over and accept the materialism of this world? For myself and my family, I say no. The riches of this world are worthless when I think about what their hearts really needs. I've learned over the years, that what my heart needs is something I can't find on the shelves at Walmart. I need God. The only one who will feed my soul. The same way that pair of shoes will give me only a moment of joy, I know that the pile of presents under the tree will give a momentary thrill before leaving their hearts more empty. If I could give my children any gift at Christmas, their birthdays, and every other day of the year, it would be a Franciscan heart.
For me, a Franciscan heart is one that relies on Providence. It is a heart that gives everything to God, even our suffering, with joy and trust that even if we can't see it, God is making good of our lives. A Franciscan heart rejoices in the moments of grace, and turns to God for comfort when this world strikes us down. It is a heart that hungers for the love of God and seeks to share that same love with everyone else. If I can have a Franciscan heart, I will not be ashamed to accept charity, but also be compelled to give everything I have to a stranger in need. I will work hard to provide for my family, but trust that when I am struggling to make ends meet, God will teach us to need less, and send those with a heart for the Spirit to answer our prayers before we know to pray them. Even if to others we appear little or poor, if God will teach me how, I want to give my children a Franciscan heart rather than any other material thing the world says they need. That is a gift that they can take with them throughout this life, and into the next.