Friday, August 2, 2013

What God Is Teaching Me: How To Live Simply

This post is a tough one for me to write, because I’m still not very good at this lesson—at all. However, this topic has been rolling around in my head since we moved to Mwadui, so I figured it was time to put a few of my thoughts down in print. It’s a struggle for every missionary: “How ‘Western’ do I live?” There are large variations in the answers, and there is no “right” answer.

·   Some are naturally adaptable and live exactly as the people in their community. I admire these folks, and there are significant advantages to this lifestyle as it allows them to better see through the eyes of the people and understand the needs. However, these people are rare, and there are unique challenges to this lifestyle. For example, what do you do when your health or the health of your children is in jeopardy? How do you maintain financial support without modern conveniences?  How do you successfully adapt to the culture shock, which is extreme in general, but even more extreme when giving up all familiar experiences and technologies that keep you in touch with family and friends in other parts of the world? If you plan to return to a Western environment, how do you readjust?

·   Some recognize how difficult living in extreme circumstances can be, and they try to make their home a refreshing haven for themselves and their families. This allows them the emotional health to continually reengage in a draining ministry. For example, a family we came to know and love in Nigeria bought a standing pool for their children. They lived in a city where bombs went off regularly, and sometimes their children had to stay home from school for days due to various real threats. The pool gave their children a sense of normalcy and fun in the midst of trying circumstances. Even in less extreme circumstances, some missionaries recognize that certain Western conveniences and hobbies help stabilize their emotional health and make them better people and servants.

·   Some buy Western conveniences so that their time is more efficient and they can give more time to their ministries.

·   Some buy Western conveniences to be shared and used by the local community who would not otherwise have access to such things.

·   Some utilize Western conveniences because they know their children will someday live in/receive education from Western countries, and they want to familiarize their children with this other world.

·   Some use their resources to become a retreat center for those who are live more simply. 
·   And for many, their decisions are a mixture of these principles.

I have found that each situation, culture, and missionary is unique, so to place judgment on others without having walked in their shoes is both hurtful and unjust. However, on a personal level, this topic has been both challenging and convicting for me. “How ‘Western’ will I live?”  

I recently read a book called “Missions and Money,” talking about the complexities of wealth among missionaries. I’m not recommending the book, because it is intensely law-oriented and put me into depressive tailspin of “I’m a terrible missionary, and I should just give up on being here, because I might be doing more harm than good.” Thankfully, a good infusion of gospel brought me out of that, and though I don’t agree with everything in the book, there were many passages that provided food for thought. This passage gave a label to some of my tendencies:

“The word that perhaps best sums up the plethora of secular values which influence all North Americans – including missionaries – from infancy throughout life is consumerism, the way of life established upon the principle that the great goal of human life and activity is more things, better things, and new things; in short, that life does consist in the abundance of possessions.”[1]

Consumerism. Our entire economy in the U.S. is built around it. If everyone in our country was content with what they had, I fear that our economy would crash. Can you imagine a Christmas where everyone decided the gifts were not necessary to celebrate our Savior’s birth? I did not realize until I moved here how much a part of my psyche this is.
I understand that sometimes buying something new can be better than something used. We have been in a three-month battle with our used refrigerator that sometimes refuses to cool. And sometimes, we all buy things for the same reasons as mentioned above—to be used so that we have more time for ministry, to be used in our work and ministry, to be loaned to others, to give us a space to emotionally, spiritually, and physically recharge, to create a retreat and safe space for other people… Yet in Tanzania, I am learning the value of living simply. And though I don’t always succeed, the quest to live more simply is one worthy of undertaking.

In the Bible, Jesus gives just warning to the rich that we can put our trust in things instead of God. Physical wealth can lead to spiritual poverty. In 1 Timothy, we are warned that the love of money (and not just money but the things which it can buy) is the root of all kinds of evil. And yet, in the Bible we also see some examples of the “righteous rich.” In the story of Abraham, God told Abraham that he was blessed to be a blessing for others. The primary meaning of blessing in this context is spiritual blessing, but at the same time Abraham was by no means poor. His resources could be used to help others. The resources in and of themselves were not evil.[2] So how do we keep greed at bay and use our blessings to be a blessing to others? It’s not easy, especially for those of us who have grown up in a materialistic culture. For me, one helpful tool has been when I buy something to ask myself, “What need am I trying to meet in buying this?” “Can I meet that need with something simpler or with something I already have?” “What impact will this purchase have on others in my life and on my ministry?”

Like I said, I’m a work in progress. There have been many times that Eric and I have purposely bought the simpler item or not bought something because we decided that the alternative, while nice, was not necessary. And yet, we also recognize that we still have a lot of things that our Tanzanian friends don’t. We pray that through the financial blessings we have received, we can be a blessing to others.

[1] Jonathan J. Bonk, Missions and Money, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books), 34-35.

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