Wednesday, 30 January 2013

lessons from the table

So here's the post I've not really wanted to write, and yet have been unable to write anything else because it's one of the main things I've been wrestling with post-missionary life.....

For Richard and I, one of the most appealing things about becoming missionaries was the poverty of it all. We're weird like that. Actually, we were naive like that. The idealistic melancholic half of each of our temperaments was incredibly drawn to a (highly romanticized) vision of a radically simple life. In our early stages of accepting the call, we envisioned ourselves living for twenty four months as impoverished missionaries in a bare, wood-panelled cloister, and then leaning heavily upon the insights gained from those years of practicing complete, un-materialistic detachment when returning home to re-create our life.


In many ways, during our missionary years we did have a totally different relationship with money and material things than we had ever had before. But, to my surprise, it was not so much being without a salary that was so unique, it was my altered relationship with "stuff".  

I didn't have most of my "stuff" with me. I missed a lot of my "stuff" very much more than I ever expected to. I was living in a house amidst someone else "stuff" and realizing for the first time that I equated the feeling of being "home" mainly with being surrounded by my OWN "stuff". There was "stuff" that I wanted to buy that was not available for purchase abroad. There was "stuff" in stores there that I wanted to buy to make our lives more comfortable, convenient, pleasurable or beautiful, but couldn't invest in because we'd need to leave it behind. There was "stuff" I did buy in stores that seriously frustrated me by being at the same time always wildly overpriced and cheaply made. There was "stuff" I desired, but couldn't afford because of not having an income. There was "stuff" the kids "needed" that we couldn't afford. There were gift-giving occasions that were made very challenging by these and other considerations about "stuff".

I'd never realized how materialistic I was before being forced to live for two years with a whole new way of relating to material things - to stuff. 

Every time (per week) that Rich talked about staying "longer" in New Zealand, or relocating there permanently, some of my strongest and most secret objections had to do with STUFF. I barely admitted it to myself, no less to Richard or any other living soul. I was embarrassed of it. I was allegedly the Simple One. Whether living as a simple missionary, or simply living the mission of every day life, money and material things were supposed to be, for me, the easiest area in which to conform my life to the Gospel.

One would think that after two whole years of living in forced detachment to some of the things I was suddenly learning I most desired, the attachment would necessarily weaken. In a few areas, yes. In most others, I think, I just began living for the future. When I get home, I'm going to get......   I'll buy......   I planned the house I wanted to live in, the furniture I wanted to have, the clothes I hoped to acquire, the foods with which I'd stock my pantry, and more. If anything, I was preparing to go home and live a life FAR less simple than any I'd ever lived before. It was shocking. While Richard's desires were very different from mine, he too was thinking ahead to all the material bonuses about returning to life in the US.

So, in light of this, the Lord was wise to see to it that Richard and I came home to far less available cash than we fact, to far less than we'd ever had before in our joint married life. For two and a half months, we had no salary whatsoever. The little income we were getting from Rich's part time work didn't even cover our monthly mortgage. We literally ate whatever "leftovers"there were from our mission fundraising. We used our savings for utilities, gasoline, and bare necessities. A few kind and generous souls took pity on us and helped us financially. When finally Richard was hired in Illinois and we had a real income again, we also had mortgage & utility payments in Pennsylvania - and rent & utility payments in Illinois. If anything, money was even tighter than it had been while Rich was unemployed. But we had weird priorities. Rich bought a few Toys and Gadgets. I spent "lavishly" on groceries and children's books. Meanwhile. my clothes, which had worn into near tatters in New Zealand, became fully worthy of Cinderella sans fairy godmother and were not able to be replaced even after eight months back in the world of stuff I'd been dreaming about for those two missionary years. The whole family (all 6 of us) had only one tiny loveseat upon which to sit in the living room. The way we were spending what little disposable income we did (not) have really caught our attention.

Our house sold earlier this month and we stand now on the cusp of beginning again financially. February will be the first month home in the States with both a salary and no second dwelling costs.  I share all this in order to thank God for His goodness to us. Had we landed on our feet back on June 1st, we would have missed these eight precious months of something scary and amazing at which the Lord has been at work. I don't know yet how we are going to dive into handling the money that suddenly will be available to us. It's not that there will be oodles and heaps of money - in fact, just writing that sentence makes me smile a bit wryly. But there will be enough for the basics, plus enough for us to purchase the things we "need" without debating it so much.

And I don't want to want the things I want anymore.

It's taken more than two years and eight months, but something is crystallizing in my heart now. It started when we read Crazy Love by Francis Chan back when we were preparing to be missionaries. It nearly got choked out by the weeds of crazy greed that grew up during the alleged "simple years" of missionary living. The troublesome nature of those weeds have become more obvious to me with each passing month home as I came back again and again to the concept of what is "sufficient". As Richard worried about providing for us, I reassured him so many times that we had what was sufficient. And truly we did. I have been re-educated in the concept of "need" perhaps, but the Lord never, ever asked us to go without any necessity. Not even close. Maybe those necessities came via gifts and maybe they came by dipping into quickly dwindling savings, but we were never without. It was uncomfortable and humbling to receive gifts. It was worrisome and frustrating to watch our savings disappearing. It didn't feel awesome to sell our house at such a great loss. But I could write an entire series on what is sufficient because my concept of what is sufficient has been pruned. And the Lord prunes and disciplines out of LOVE and for GROWTH.

During these eight months, the Lord has been quietly instructing me about the direction in which He is inviting me in regard to money and things. He has filled my heart with astonishment at how rich and comfortable I truly am and disciplined my greed in many gentle ways. He has spoken via diverse messengers- some serious & others funny. He's spoken through a beautiful homeless four year old girl in South America and through a friend's Facebook photos of families in the Philippines living in garbage dumps. He's put in my hands Ross Douthat's provocative Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, which discusses in part the scandal we Christians have given to secular America by pursuing so universally the American dream.

Perhaps most humorously, He's put in my kitchen a beautiful Amish-made dining table. This table, a gift from family, is a finer piece of furniture than anything I've ever owned. [Previously, my kitchen table was an old junked table that I had painted white before having kids. Said children have spent their short lives dinging and denting the table with their utensils and defacing it with ink, crayon, paint and playdo. They have wiped spaghetti-sauce covered hands on, behind and under the wooden chair seats while simultaneously spilling grape juice down the legs (both the chairs' legs and their own).]

The new Amish table, and its six adorable upholstered chairs, have taught me so much in the eight months I've owned them. At first, I "saved" the table. See, I knew exactly what my children were going to do to this table, so I put it in storage in hopes that we'd soon move into a house with a proper dining room. My plan was that the old white painted wooden table would remain our primary eating/arts-and-craft "kitchen table" and for special occasions we'd have the Beautiful Table. Well, it became obvious that we weren't moving into a house with a separate dining area any time soon, and so the Beautiful Table was finally welcomed into our eat-in kitchen. I spent at least two (enormously pregnant) months yelling at the kids every time they wiped their hands on the upholstered seats before I realized that the blessed things were stain-resistant. But I'm still scolding them for digging their eating & writing utensils into the polished wooden table top. I'm still uptight with my husband about putting hot pans on the (formerly) smooth, unblemished surface. TBH, the table is not unblemished any longer. There are dings and scratches and grooves. It really bothers me. And it bothers me that it bothers me.

I don't want to serve things -and I don't want to "save" things. But sometimes I am doing both. I save a lot of "nice" things for "nice" occasions - and then they go out of style or the kids outgrow them or someone accidentally breaks them or they get lost and they've never even really been used. That's silly. I want to use my nicest stuff the most. I want to wear it out using it. And if it breaks or gets stained or scratched, so be it. It's not good stewardship to take such precious care of things that they are practically made sacred. While my children must be trained every day in being civilized, the Lord is challenging me to do so gently and with a spirit of detachment to stuff. Deep down, I'd rather live in a house with a bit of crayon on the walls, grape juice on the carpet and the faint outline of Bernadette's first stick-figure permanently etched into the table than be an uptight mother in a wannabe Beautiful Home where people do not always clearly come before things. But my children might not realize my deepest values from the way I carry on when the crayons and pebbles in their pockets melt all over the clean laundry in the dryer and clog up the washing machine. So God is asking me to bring these deep values up a little closer to the surface..... Every time I scold, He's encouraged me again to reorder my relationship to The Table - and to all the other things in my life. It's a long process. He's patient. It's beautiful.

I've gone off topic, or at least lost my direction a bit, but February begins for us a month of trying to figure out how we are going to handle "finances and material things", now that we have *some* finances to handle. We have three months left on our lease - then what kind of a house should we consider buying? Should we consider buying at all? How can we rethink our grocery habits - and not for the sake of "saving money to build a better financial future", but for the sake of being more authentic disciples of Christ. What should we do with the money that is not needed for true basic necessities? How can we continue to really live in the radical trust in Divine Providence that were all we knew in the missionary years and the unstable months that followed them? What is a prudent plan for saving for emergencies and the legitimate needs of the future? Where do we find the balance in creating special memories for our family and living the Gospel message in full, without compromise?  What will be our relationship with treats and luxuries? Despite the seeming-innocence of the American Dream (in both the explicit and subtle ways it has implanted itself in the Christian culture) the New Testament speaks plainly about material things in the following terms: Deny thyself. Be content with what you have. Do not worry, simply trust in God's providence. Do not store up and hold on to your excess - give generously to those without. I don't know what these principles will look like in our specific & unique concrete terms yet, but for the past eight months the Lord has shown me -slowly, lovingly, gently -  that it must be concrete. He has also given Rich and I abundant grace to work out the details together quite peacefully. And that is no small feat given our diametrically opposite approaches to the use of money - and trivets.