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avatar You are viewing an archive of articles by Ellen Cooper-Davis. Reverend Ellen Cooper-Davis is the minister of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands, Texas, and the author of Keep the Faith, a blog on progressive religion for The Houston Chronicle. Find her on Twitter and Google+. View 's Google Profile.

Ellen Cooper-Davis

This article is written by Consumerism Commentary’s columnist, Ellen Cooper-Davis. Ellen’s column looks at the role of spirituality within the context of personal finance. For an introduction to this column, see Ellen’s first article, The Pastor and the Purse. Your feedback is welcome.

We know by reports of the annual feeding frenzy that the gift-giving season is fully upon us. Around the country, shopping carts are being filled with giant televisions, blinking toys and neatly packaged gift sets of scented lotion, all so that… well… so that what?

There is nothing inherently wrong with purchasing gifts for those we love. The impulse to give is an old one, a way of symbolizing affection, desire, love, friendship, gratitude and celebration. But it might be worthwhile, as we ponder our lists of people to buy gifts for, to ask some deeper questions.

Gift PresentWho is on your list? If we want our giving to take on deeper meaning, then we might do better focusing our limited resources on celebrating the deepest connections in our lives. When the impulse behind the gift is not mere social ritual, but is instead an expression of deep gratitude for who that person is in your life, then the choosing and giving is no longer a chore, but is instead deeply satisfying.

Consider a homemade gift. If we focus our giving on those who touch our lives most deeply, then we have an opportunity to consider how best to touch them in return. Some of the most meaningful gifts are gifts that are homemade. Making something for someone requires intention, thought, time and a sense of who that person is and what they enjoy. There is sacrifice bound up in them. Care. Homemade gifts can include edibles, crafts, or gifts of your own time, skills or service, or even donations made in the recipient’s name to causes important to them.

Choose gifts thoughtfully. The best gifts are the ones given with thought — the ones that say to the recipient, “I see you, I know who you are, and I value that.” Meaningful gifts are not arbitrary, and they don’t come in vast piles. Volume isn’t the goal, here. Instead, the goal is to reflect your particular connection with that person that you’re selecting a gift for. Those sorts of gifts might not come from big-box stores, but they do come with a lot more heart attached to them. Those are the gifts that will be remembered over a lifetime and treasured.

There are a lot of questions about spirituality and money wrapped up in the holiday season.

  • Why are we giving gifts?
  • Am I giving according to my values? Theirs?
  • What is the deeper meaning of this holiday season?

But there is a deeper question that underscores all of our conversation about holiday spending. In the midst of a difficult economy, squeezed budgets, fights over $2 waffle irons and the continuing rise of competitive spending, that question is simple: What is enough?

Photo: jayneandd


This article is written by Consumerism Commentary’s columnist, Ellen Cooper-Davis. Ellen’s column looks at the role of spirituality within the context of personal finance. For an introduction to this column, see Ellen’s first article, The Pastor and the Purse. Your feedback is welcome.

It’s time for a little geography lesson.

Look at the tag in your pants. Right there, below the strict instructions not to put them in the drier, which you, like me, probably ignore, it tells you where your pants were born. “Made in Mauritius,” my pants tell me. The magic Interwebs let me know that this is a tiny island nation off the southeast coast of Africa.

PantsNow I am curious. Because in my experience, small island nations don’t necessarily fare well where clothing manufacturing is concerned. So even though a part of me doesn’t really want to know…I check on the labor practices of the manufacturer. The results are not encouraging.

This means I will have to find a different source of pants. And since I’ve raised the question of ethics in manufacturing, it also means I’m more likely to intentionally seek out brands of clothing that have higher standards. Oh, sure, I could shrug and try to forget I ever looked that up, or pretend that sweatshop labor does not clash with my values at all… but it does. And I did. And that’s the problem. Once you know something, you can’t un-know it.

Most of us move through our consumer lives in blissful ignorance. We don’t know where our clothing, gadgets, trinkets come from, and frankly, we don’t care. We just want them to look good, work well, and entertain us. We don’t want to know about child labor or sweatshop labor or toxins. Because if we knew — if we really allowed ourselves to open our eyes and see the truth, and to notice the places where this truth grates against our most deeply-held truths — then we would have to change.

Ignorance isn’t really bliss. It’s just ignorance. As a society, we would never tolerate knowing nothing about where our food comes from. We want some reasonable assurance that it is safe to eat, that it will nourish us, that it is what it says it is. Why would we deliberately embrace ignorance when it comes to materials, labor conditions and sources of other consumer goods? After all, those are real human beings on the other end of our supply chain. To pretend otherwise is not only ignorance, but dangerous.

In some ways, this is the essence of any spiritual path. It is about taking the teachings and values of that path, and aligning your real, everyday life with them. This includes what we do, what we say, how we treat people, and what and how we consume. It isn’t easy, and no one does it perfectly, but we can all start where we are. I can start with my next grocery trip, or the next time I need new socks. I can start with rearranging my investment portfolio, or I can start by exploring fair trade gifts for this holiday season. Here, at the intersection of soul and money, there are hard questions to be asked. If I am who I say I am, what must I do?

What consumer goods do you research from a values perspective? What do you wish you could evaluate from that perspective, but don’t know how? What would you prefer to remain totally ignorant about? Are there any “lines in the sand” for you, issues or practices that you absolutely do not tolerate in your consumer choices?


This article is written by Consumerism Commentary’s new columnist, Ellen Cooper-Davis. Ellen’s column will look at the role of spirituality within the context of personal finance. For an introduction to this column, see Ellen’s first article, The Pastor and the Purse. Your feedback is welcome.

“There’s a phrase we live by in America: ‘In God We Trust.’ It’s right there where Jesus would have wanted it, on our money.” –- Stephen Colbert

I’m always glad to have a chance to increase my vocabulary; during these last couple of weeks, a favorite word among economists everywhere was whipsaw. The actual tool itself is that sort of old-fashioned long saw with a handle at each end used by two lumberjacks at the same time to get through a tree. But it also means what happened on Wall Street recently. The market was whipsawed, and for those watching their portfolios or retirement accounts closely, it was not unlike whiplash.

It’s tempting, in difficult times, to shake an angry fist at the sky. And these are, for many, difficult times. I can see it in the rise in requests from local food banks, in the discouragement of those who have been unemployed far too long, in the retiree who doesn’t know how to stretch that budget any further, in the eggshell-walking of those who just want desperately to hang on to the job they do have. It all feels rather fragile.

Trust is a funny word when it comes to our financial lives. It’s a very interesting word to put on money, given how anxiety-provoking money (its presence or lack) is in so many people’s lives. We are expected, in some way, to trust everything:

  • Trust our financial systems.
  • Trust the principles of capitalism.
  • Trust the huge banks and corporations that manage so much of the stuff.
  • Trust that it will all work out in the end.

In shaky economic times like this one, I wonder about how that trust is holding up. Do we still trust that we’ll return to a growth economy? That our nest eggs will go back to growing, instead of stagnating? The phrase “In God We Trust” has been on American coins since 1864 and on paper money since 1956. I can’t help but wonder whether this assertion seemed a little absurd during the Great Depression. If we lose our trust in the institutions and systems, then what’s left?

Another word for trust is faith. As we survey our personal and national economic landscape, it’s worth pondering what we really have faith in. Beyond institutions, corporations, banks, economic philosophies, all of which can and do fail, in what can we place our faith? Where lies our ultimate trust that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well?” What keeps us from cynicism and doomsday prophecy, from the assumption that when the systems fail, human communities will be reduced to a sort of Lord of the Flies survivalist competition?

I have faith in a foundational human spirit of generosity. Over and over, we seem more inclined to care for our neighbors than not, especially in times of shared crisis. I have faith that one of the primary characteristics of Life, itself, is abundance, and when we remember that we, too, are part of that Life, that sense of abundance can color our understandings of what enough looks like, and help us see beyond material abundance. On a really good day, I even manage to have faith in something like God, something whole and compassionate that urges us to be bearers of wholeness and compassion in our own lives-even our financial lives.

In the Buddhist tradition, a monk goes out each day with an empty bowl. Whatever others place in his bowl will be his nourishment for the day. When our bowls seem empty, perhaps we might go out into the world and experience its abundance for ourselves. And when you see an empty bowl, perhaps you might put some nourishment into it.

In what do you trust in anxious times? Where do you place your faith? When things are looking economically bleak, what sustains your hope for having enough resources?

Editor’s note: See the “About the Author” section below to learn more about the author, Ellen Cooper-Davis. Ellen’s column appears approximately monthly on Consumerism Commentary.


This article is written by Consumerism Commentary’s new columnist, Ellen Cooper-Davis. Ellen’s column will look at the role of spirituality within the context of personal finance. This first article serves as an introduction to this new column, and your feedback is welcome.

Give me your credit card statement, and I’ll tell you your theology.

Well, I may not be able to say for certain whether you believe that Jesus was the literal son of God, or just a good teacher, or whether you believe in God at all, for that matter. But the choices we make about where to spend–and not to spend–our money offer insight into what we really believe is important, what we value deeply, and what we think the world needs. Some people do this by shelling out extra cash for organic vegetables. Some do this by patronizing local businesses over chains. Some do this through direct political or charitable donations.

Sometimes, there is a gaping chasm between what we say is important to us, and what we actually spend money on. For example:

  • We might say the environment matters, but buy bottled water.
  • We might proclaim ourselves pacifists, but let our retirement funds be invested in weapons manufacturers.
  • We might claim concern for and solidarity with the world’s poor, but purchase clothing manufactured by sweatshop labor.

In other words, our spending can say something about how we are or are not living out our spiritual values.

Whether or not you have a religion that you practice, every human being on this planet has spirituality. Our spirituality is our relationship with the big picture. What is most important? What matters? How should I live? What are my responsibilities? Human spirituality is the capacity we have to explore our connection to that which is, in the words of 20th century theologian Paul Tillich, of Ultimate Concern. For a Jewish person, that might be God. For a secular humanist, that might be the whole of humanity. Either way, our spirituality points us beyond our own selves to wonder about our connectedness to something bigger.

Money and spirituality are not always easy companions. In many religious communities, money is practically a taboo subject, until the annual fund drive comes around. Similarly, I’m pretty sure that gathering a bunch of Wall Street hedge fund investors for a candid conversation on how their spirituality plays out in their work probably wouldn’t go over well. But the reality is that both are important tools in how we build our lives as human beings, and both can be important indicators of what we think that life ought to be about.

So nevermind the taboos, the sideways glances, the polite chit-chat. Once a month, we’ll meet here at the intersection of spirituality and money, and try to get the two talking about life, the universe, and everything. Let us know if there are particular questions or conversations you’d like to see explored here. And in the meantime, the next time you swipe that card, ask yourself how many points you still need to rack up in order to get to heaven.

What is most important to you? Does your relationship with money reflect those spiritual values?

Editor’s note: See the “About the Author” section below to learn more about the author, Ellen Cooper-Davis. Ellen’s column will appear monthly on Consumerism Commentary.

Photo: meemal