Category Archives: Possessions

santa is not sustainable

Perhaps the first image of the modern-day representation of santa--done by Haddon Sunblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

Perhaps the first image of the modern-day representation of santa–done by Haddon Sunblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

 

 

Sustainability is something people in our line of work talk about a lot. How can you stay for the long haul, and not burn out? How can you make sure programs, traditions, and services are not based solely on you and your work, but can continue on for many years? Sustainability is like the opposite of how many evangelicals typically work: quick, fast, results oriented, crash-and-burn. One of the reasons we were so drawn to our mission organization is that they have a commitment to contemplation–recognizing that without taking the space for finding God in your own life, you will never be able to care for others.

Which is why it is super helpful to think about what can be sustained for the long haul when it comes to strategic decisions regarding time, money, and emotional energy. 

Like Christmas.

We made the decision that it wasn’t sustainable to fly to Oregon every Christmas. It’s a hard decision (um, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Dean Martin is on repeat this morning, along with “A Tender Tennessee Christmas” by Amy Grant, even though I never lived in Tennessee. Because Nostalgia). But it’s the right decision for us. Neighbors and friends have come out of the woodwork, and we are going to have ourselves a patchy, somewhat merry, somewhat sad little Christmas. Which seems pretty sustainable for our future.

What about celebrating Advent?  

We light Advent candles with our daughter, read some Scripture, and pray. She gets super excited to blow the candles out, and the rest is probably over her head. Is this sustainable? Yes, I think it is. As one of my friends pointed out, if one of my neighbors asked how we celebrated Advent, this would be an affordable, accessible option. Is unwrapping a piece of the $50 Playmobile nativity set every day of Advent a great way to engage your kids in the story of the birth of Jesus? Sure. Are “kindness elves” awesome? Totally. Are fair-trade chocolate Advent calendars the best thing ever? Yes, absolutely.

But are these things sustainable, for our neighbors both near and far? I don’t think so. Many people do not have the resources to pull off these bits of “Christmas magic” that we so casually revere. I am all for whimsy and encouraging imagination and celebrating with some good fair-trade chocolate, but I also want to recognize how so many children do not experiences these privileges in any way.

Which brings me to Santa. 

Santa, and his cultural counterpoint of the perfect, Norman Rockwell family christmas, took ahold of our cultural imagination many years ago. I used to not care at all about this. Growing up, we were pretty lackadaisical about it all (and my parents refused to lie–so if we asked, they told us santa was a fake). But we still laid out the cookies, got a few presents labeled “from St. Nick”. But my biggest memories were of Christmas eve services and sitting quietly in front of a brightly lit tree. 

Now, in my neighborhood, I can’t help but see images of a weird, materialistic holiday everywhere. Red-nosed reindeer and some fat man with presents, as far as the eye can see. And I am starting to loathe it. Because Santa is not sustainable.

For those who grow up poor in America, Santa is another reminder of failure. Kids can’t help but grow up and be saturated with the story, which puts pressure on the adults in their life to find the time/money/energy to get the presents the kids want. People go into debt, people spiral into depression, kids are disappointed and feel shamed, Christmas morning turns into another reminder of the inequalities of the world. The picture-perfect family Christmas is the same way–for many, all of these images we see in the movies and on tv are just a stark reminder of our own families–the mental illness, the addictions, the abuse, the empty seats around the table. The myth of the perfect family Christmas is not sustainable either, because our nuclear families were never supposed to be the point.

What is sustainable, then? 

I have learned some things from my Muslim friends. Their holidays are smashingly good–count yourself blessed if you ever get invited over for Eid. I have seen Eid celebrated in several different states and countries, and there are always striking similarities: the celebrations are marked by food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. 

That’s it.

A lot of food, or just a little. Your family, what remains of it, plus your new family you have formed in the diaspora. Friends, neighbors, co-workers invited to experience the richness of your culture and celebration. Prayer, early in the morning, and throughout the day, thanking the One who created us all. Generosity–extra food cooked, coins given to the children–reminding us to always extend our table.

That, my friends, is sustainable.

I’ve started to think about what I want the holidays to look like for me and my little family. Food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. All the elements have been modeled to me from the beginning from my own parents, and it is time to claim them for my little space now. Even thought sometimes I will be far from my parents and sisters, i will still value family, and use the definition that Christ gave me (we are all brothers and sisters). I will cook food, even if it doesn’t look pretty. I will pray the prayers that have been spoken throughout the centuries to celebrate the coming of Christ (the Magnificat, my friends, is extremely sustainable). And I will try to be generous, try to escape the pull to only seek out what is best for me and mine in these dark and bright weeks. I will try and stick around long enough to have space for those who have been bruised and battered by the cultural expectations of Christmas. And there are so many of these souls, more than we can possibly know, longing for a real, sustainable celebration–firmly anchored in this real world, yet a mirror of the great parties we will have in heaven.

 

Like Mary, may our souls magnify the Lord. May we seek out the humble and exalt them, fill the hungry with good things.

And most of all, may we be ever mindful of His mercy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Am I Going to Be a Giver Today? (Guest Post by Haley Baker)

Haley is my girl. My bestie. She gets me. We can have the most insightful, spiritual discussions and then be complete and utter nerds. She is so honest, and so great at taking care of people. But if you had told me two years ago that Haley would be living in Uganda, I would have laughed hysterically. Doing without just wasn’t her jam.

But more than anything, Haley listens to God. So when he tells her to live her best life now, she jumps. i have been so inspired by her journey, even as I mourn the fact that it is taking place to far away from me. I have been pestering her for a while now, hoping she would give us an insight into her journey in loving her neighbors. And man, did she bring it–just like I knew she would. 

 

me and haley and my awesome, cake-faced baby.

me and haley and my awesome, cake-faced baby.

 

 

Am I Going to Be a Giver Today?

Guest Post by Haley Baker

 

 

I never thought I could live in a 3rd world country. I always dreamed of being the kind of person who could do that kind of work but never thought it would actually be me. In my heart, I always cared about the poor but I spent more energy convincing myself that since I wasn’t “rich,” my giving was never very sacrificial. I am now more convinced than ever that the more we seek our own comforts the more we marginalize others. I remember telling D.L. Mayfield that I never wanted to move to Africa. I really liked my life. Then 8 months later, that’s exactly where I found myself: Northern Uganda. The opportunity snuck up on me when my husband and I were presented with the opportunity and we were in a place where we were willing to say “yes” to God. Be careful what you ask for! We just spent 13 months in Uganda and are planning to go back in early spring for the next 3 to 5 years. I chuckle a bit to myself because in so many ways I’ve yet to “arrive.” My husband recently pointed out to me that I still own more than 15 pairs of shoes after our big downsize.

Last month I felt nervous to come back home because I know myself too well. I like iced caramel lattes far too much and temptations like obtaining the IPhone 5 are real for us. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, I also know how prone I am to make unnecessary trips to Target to make myself feel better. I’ve wrestled for months to reconcile our American spending habits with the very real needs of people in the developing world to the point where I’ve made myself crazy. We only eat meat about twice a week in Uganda because not only is it difficult to prepare, but most people we know hardly eat meat. I’ve actually felt guilty about that.  Toward the end of our stay, I visited 11 orphans in the bush who don’t even own shoes and I began thinking, “If I gave up meat, what could I do with that $15 a week? That would pay for 3 children to go to school every month. I could come back here and bring those naked babies some clothes.” I wonder, at what point can you say that you’ve arrived? Your sacrificing is enough. Recently, an Africa friend said to me, “I wish I could see what your life was like in the states before you came here.” I felt ashamed because I remember how much of my living was for my own self and my own comforts and I don’t want to be that person again. Every day, I have the opportunity to make choices that really do define the kind of person I am. Even in Africa I have to ask myself, “Today am I going to be a giver? Am I going to sacrifice my alone time, my money, and my comforts for the betterment of someone else?”

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I think as humans we have a tendency to be “all” or “nothing” and that can make downward mobility feel overwhelming or unattainable. When we can’t make radical, downward shifts all at once it is easy to give up and throw in the towel. Don’t do that! Let’s keep wrestling with those tensions. Even in Uganda I struggle with those tensions. I know that I can l go without running water but please, oh please don’t ask me to go without electricity. My husband and I live a somewhat comfortable life in a 3rd world country because I told myself that in order to “survive” there I would need an indoor toilet and decent coffee. You have to figure out what works for you. Not everyone is called to take the same steps or make the same changes in their life. Downward mobility is going to look different for you than it does for me and I love seeing how Jesus is wrecking all of our lives when we take that risk. I’m much more interested in listening and sharing stories than I am about who is doing it better than the next person.

Even after reading this whole series, I still sometimes ask myself, “What is downward mobility, really?” Isn’t it about embracing Kingdom values and purposefully moving towards valuing what Jesus valued? For me, downward mobility wasn’t just about downsizing my stuff. You could be an incredible minimalist and still not care about the vulnerable. Giving up 90% of my worldly possessions to move overseas was the easy part. Showing solidarity and digging deep into relationship with people who are different than me is what is difficult.

In my own experience, downward mobility is nothing apart from Jesus. My sacrifices are nothing apart from Jesus. If He isn’t the one guiding us then the whole pursuit is self righteous and ultimately purposeless. Sometimes the changes I have made in my life make for an incredibly lonely place to be and I can’t wait for the day when He comes and fulfills His kingdom once and for all. At the same time, I wouldn’t trade this downward mobility journey because of the joy and love I have experienced over the past year. And I am still trying to figure out my life just like everyone else. We need each other and we need Jesus to do that.

 

 

unnamed-2Bio: Haley Baker is an advocate for vulnerable children in Northern Uganda. She and her husband are from Portland, Oregon but are in the process of returning to Uganda for the long haul. They will be doing sustainable business and community outreach. They have no littles of their own but hope to adopt some day. You can follow their adventure atwww.rickhaleyandjune.blogspot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

 

 

 

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my year in books

I use Grammarly’s plagiarism checker because the world is in desperate need of originality.*

 

image from Pinterest

image from Pinterest

i have been thinking about gifts lately, and about what are things i actually like to give and to receive–presents that value us as people. and i have to say the first thing that came to my mind were books.

books, books, beautiful books. i am a reader first and foremost; a teacher and a writer second. books are my bread and butter. when we sold almost everything we had and moved to the MidWest, we took clothes and artwork and mostly books. they are important.

i love to give books to other people, and i love to receive them as well. hanging out with people all day who were denied the pleasures of them their entire lives gives one a unique perspective on reading for pleasure. it’s a privilege, one we need to acknowledge, and a gift that is fruitful to cultivate.

all this to say, i wanted to tell you guys my favorite books that i read this year. this was a difficult, joyous year, and as per usual, i read a lot of books. not so much fiction this year; a bit more about the charismatic stuff and food/lifestyle books. here are the ones i couldn’t get out of my head. instead of buying crap that no one needs, let’s all buy books for each other this year! we can scrounge for them at thrift stores, give one to our favorite missionaries or teachers or friends or sisters (or, even buy one for yourself). i have not linked to any websites, but i encourage you to buy local (or use indiebound). anyways, here they are in no particular order:

 

spiritual books

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the life you save may be your own

by paul elie

This is one that will take me a while to get through. Paul Elie weaves together the extensive biographies of notable Catholics: Flannery O’Conner, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day (my hero!), and Walker Percy. It is described as a pilgrimage following people who “made literature out of their search for God”. Excellent stuff, here.

 

 

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miracle work: a down-to-earth guide for supernatural ministries

by jordan seng

Just keeping it real, people. I read books on miracles, because I am intensely interested in them and our world is in great need of them. This book was nice and pragmatic, and while I don’t agree with all of it, it made me question some of my own malaise and unbelief. I also will never be able to pray for people in the same way (Seng models his own prayer style after Jesus, who basically just spoke the truth about God’s desire for the world into people. None of this hemming and hawing).

 

 

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jesus feminist: an invitation to revisit the bible’s view of women

by sarah bessey

Bessey is a friend of mine, and I love how she takes a topic that is battered about left and right and asks us to sit quietly with it a moment. When she writes that “patriarchy is not God’s dream for the world”, something inside me stirs up. You will relate to her, you will thrill to her message, you will be surprised at she refuses to to be controversial.

 

 

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when we were on fire: a memoir of consuming faith, tangled love, and starting over

by addie zierman

Addie is also a friend, and this book is unstoppable (named one of publisher weeklies best 5 religious books of the year!). In almost every chapter, I recognized myself in the pages categorizing the weird, parallel world of Christian culture in the 90s and early 2000s. She is a ferocious talent with a keen eye for the sorrow that undergirds all of our desires to be loved by God and by our peers.

 

 

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speaking of jesus: the art of non-evangelism

by carl medearis

This book lifted a weight off of my shoulders. There is no other way to put it. Medearis spells out the ickiness behind our desires for conversion to Christianity, and instead asks the reader to trust that Jesus himself is worth following. I laid down my idol of Western Christianity a long time ago, but I still felt compelled to save people personally. I am still working through the implications of actually believing the power of the Bible and the Spirit, but it is pretty life-changing stuff.

 

 

literary books

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swimming studies

by leanne shapton

Shapton is one of my favorite designers of book covers, which led me to read her own strange little “memoir”. It is a beautiful, non-traditional look at her years of almost-professional swimming. There is no way to explain the book, but it thrilled me in how it broke out of so many boxes. There is not a boring page in this book, and I am not even remotely interested in swimming.

 

 

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this is running for your life

essays by michelle orange

Orange is a new discovery to me this year. She writes complicated, smart, funny essays on a variety of subjects. If you don’t want to buy the book, just google one of her essays. You will be hooked (especially on the one about Ethan Hawke’s face).

 

 

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blue nights

by joan didion

I read this book on an airplane as I flew away from my daughter. I do not recommend this. Didion writes an almost excruciating book on the death of her daughter, her friends, and her own impending old age and ill health. It is beautiful writing, but not easy reading. There is one passage in particular which made me so aware of how privilege does not protect one from harm; Didion herself is a testimony to this.

 

 

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high rise stories: voices from chicago public housing

compiled and edited by audrey petty

True confessions: I have only read a bit of this one. I am saving it for when I complete my manuscript, which hopefully should be done soon (because I want to finish this book!). The Voice of the Witness series out of McSweeney’s is one of my all-time favorite non-profits, publishing works of narrative that will crush your heart and make you sit up straighter. This one is dear to my heart as it focuses on densely populated low-income high rises in the urban MidWest. By letting the residents speak for themselves, we learn so much.

 

 

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rooms in the house of stone

by michael dorris

This was one of those happy accidents, a library book plucked off the shelf for no reason. A few days later and I am in a coffee shop, bawling my eyes out at the grace and severity in the short essays Dorris wrote during the great famine in Zimbabwe. This book will make you stop your life for a few hours and consider what the opposite could be. It is intensely powerful writing, coming from a very complicated man. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

 

 

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refugee hotel

by juliet linderman (essays) and gabriele stabile (photographers)

I got this for my husband’s birthday, but I really wanted it for myself. This is another Voice of the Witness book which details the lives of refugees when they first arrive in America. It is gorgeous and a visual way to engage with the realities that our refugee brothers and sisters face when they come to America.

 

 

fiction

 

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where’d you go, bernadette

by maria semple

Hands down my favorite fiction book of the year (but honestly, I didn’t read very much this year). So funny and witty and charming and fast-paced and very very poignant. I would recommend this to anyone. Anyone! (Read my longer review here).

 

 

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north and south

by elizabeth gaskell

This is one of those I-Have-Read-Jane-Austen-A-Thousand-Times-And-I-Need-Something-More books. I liked it pretty well. Some of the themes surrounding commerce and wealth inequality and factory conditions were fascinating to me. But in the end, it is a period romance. You have been forewarned.

 

 

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the complete stories

by flannery o conner

All the hype is true. All hail Flannery, the lover of grotesque darlings, the one who sees beauty in all of the tragedy. This is perfect reading when your life is both very beautiful and very very hard.

 

 

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the fault in our stars

by john green

My foray into YA fiction for the year (although I did re-read books 6 and 7 of Harry Potter as well–never gets old!) and I did like it. It was very cathartic. It was fun. It was exceptionally sad. It made me have hope for some teenagers. If you hate it when people die in books, then don’t read this one.

 

food/lifestyle books

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depletion and abundance: life on the new home front

by sharon astyk

I don’t believe a book has impacted me like this in a long time. Astyk has gotten me to reconsider nearly every facet of my life that I felt like I couldn’t change: energy consumption, food choices, buying local, making do. And she made me reconsider it because this lady loves her life, and she loves the lives of her poor brothers and sisters. I believe in peak oil, I believe a day is coming where everyone will be forced to change their habits. But I believe our lives can be free from the bondage of materialism, and they we can be more joyous for it too–and that this is a freedom offered to everyone, regardless of status or money. I am doing a terrible job of describing it. Just read it, ok?

 

 

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how to cook a wolf

by m.m.k. fischer

Fischer is one hell of a lady. Cooking food in war time, man. This book is radical and easy to read and somehow very, very encouraging.  I couldn’t help but think about the solidarity Fischer would have had with the millions of people the world over who struggle with filling their bellies with food every night. It will make you think, and you won’t ever throw out your scraps again.

 

 

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an everlasting meal: cooking with economy and grace

by tamar adler

Adler is a bit like the kinfolk’d-up version of Fischer. But this girl can write about food, and inspired me to cook beans at least once a week (the way she writes about them makes them seem precious and beautiful and luxurious). I am not much of a cook, but I was changed by the way Adler described how good it is to eat well for not much money at all. So many books on food reek of privilege, but this one did not. It was accessible, in all the right ways.

 

 

the husband’s picks

(Note: he is a much slower and much more thoughtful reader than I am. Mostly he reads psychology books, but he picked out two for this here blog).

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disunity in christ: uncovering the hidden forces that keep us apart

by christina cleveland

I am going to read this when the husband is done, but he can’t stop talking about this one. Christina’s blog is so smart and so well written, I can’t wait for myriads of people to hear her clear voice on reconciliation.

 

 

 

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simply jesus

by n.t. wright

I am sort of in a I-Have-Read-Enough-Theology-Books-By-White-Dudes-To-Last-Me-Awhile phase, but my husband assures me this is an excellent book. He especially liked the chapters on what the ascension and resurrection actually mean. I head him talk about Jesus at a conference recently and had mad respect for his message. For the theology nerd in your life, it seems like you can’t go wrong with N.T. these days.

 

 

 

So, that’s it. I read a lot more, but these are the cream of the crop. 

I would love to hear what your favorite books of the last year. Share, please! 

 

 

*this post is sponsored by Grammerly, (which is excellent for ESL teachers, BTW). all the books and opinions and content are my own, thank you very much.

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Living More With Less

I bought boots at Target yesterday.

I haven’t bought clothes of any kind there for about 6 years now. I don’t even let my glance fall on the clearance racks, lest I be tempted beyond what I can bear (the hands that made those dirt-cheap goods most certainly were not paid well, you can be sure). But it’s supposed to snow this afternoon, and the snow boots I bought at the Salvation Army last year fell apart, literally, in my hands. Every day off we have we have been scouring the thrift stores, using precious time and gas to try and get ready for winter. But everybody else needs boots too, so there never was any to be found.

I researched ethical, sweatshop free boots and found some. Gorgeous. Perfect for me: I walk 1 mile to work and I need shoes that I can both walk in and then teach standing up in for 3 hours. I found these shoes. They were even a bit hipster! But they were $160, and no doubt worth every penny. I prayed and sweated and heard no clear answer. And then our vacuum died (bought on Craigslist) and the husband has to get a tooth pulled and if we opt to do a replacement that will be $1,200-2,500 (think through that next time popular culture asks you to laugh at people who are missing teeth as being stupid and ignorant and poor. They are missing teeth because state healthcare considers replacing teeth to be vanity).

So. There is no way I can buy these boots, no way my neighbors can, and so I don’t. I see a coupon for 40% off of winter boots at Target, and I go and buy some for $20, and they will keep me warm and dry on my way to teach ESOL. When I buy them, I don’t even feel guilty, except:

I have told everybody that I only shop at thrift stores.

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I recently checked out a book from the library at my church called Living More With Less by Doris Janzen Longacre. I’m familiar with the More With Less cookbook (which I adore, to be sure–but more as a book on a theology of food and less as a book of tasty recipes), but I had never read the sequel until now. The original goal of the author was to write a “practical, how-to help to North American Christians who genuinely desire to live more interdependently with the poor.” And she has, although it isn’t as neat and tidy as we would like it to be (in fact, Longacre refuses to use the word “lifestyle” and instead focuses on “life standards”–because she felt “lifestyle” was too easy and flippant a term). She writes in the introduction that “the trouble with simple living is that though it can be joyful, rich, and creative, it isn’t simple”. It demands a complete change of theology and a committment to orientating your life to something much bigger than you and yours.

As I am sure you all have noted, the downward mobility series on this here blog has caused me no small amounts of consternation. Part of the problem is that I lead a rich, full, chaotic life and I rarely have the time to devote to good writing anymore–much less engage well with other writers, readers and thinkers. The other problem is that the conversation leaves out so many people–specifically those who don’t have the luxury of choosing their mobility, and people who have been practitioners for many years but aren’t public about their lifestyles.

Longacre addresses the latter issue directly. As she sought for personal testimonies and stories for her book, she found some intriguing patterns. She writes:

Testifying isn’t easy . . . will people think my ideas foolish? Will they trust my experience? Is my life ever consistent enough that I dare open my mouth publicly?

These are the same feelings expressed by those who wrote (and sometimes refused to write) for this book. Entries began in humble tones, often with some version of “undoubtedly you already have some of these ideas. They may not be usable anyway, but I’ll share them just in case.” Postscripts frequently read, “I know we haven’t arrived” or “I know my living isn’t really consistent”. People everywhere confided that they did have ideas but they were afraid others might find them proud or ridiculous.

When I read that, I sighed aloud in my chair. Here she had summed up so many of my problems with this series in a neat little paragraph, written 6 years before I was born. So, these kinds of issues have been around for a while, and they will certainly be here tomorrow.

Because I do feel proud, and I do feel ridiculous, and I do feel like a failure, almost every day. Writing about these kinds of subjects and asking others to do the same is vulnerable, in all sorts of ways. Many, many people who I would love to hear from stay silent, from these very fears. Longacre later says how many people didn’t want to write because they were afraid of what their family and friends would think–because they often fell short of their ideals. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? We’ve only got the days set before us to do what we are meant to do, and often times we will fail.

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N.T. Wright shared at the Simply Jesus gathering about how important the interaction in John 21 between Jesus and Peter was.  This is after Peter betrayed Jesus, after he was resurrected. Jesus, playing up on the 3 denials, asks Peter 3 times if he loves him. This anguishes Peter, who replies yes! each time. Then feed my sheep, Jesus says, over and over. Feed my little, precious lambs.

Jesus then goes on to do something strange, predicting Peter’s death. Peter turns around and looks at “the one whom Jesus loves” (probably John, showing off) and says: “what about him? What’s going to happen to him?” And Jesus replies: “what is it to you if he remains until I come? You, follow me!”

N.T. Wright made the point that all of us in ministry at some point will disappoint Jesus, and we will feel our souls crushed as a result. And this passage is so important for us to read, because it shows us that Jesus continues to ask us to follow him. He asks us to stop living in our imperfections, to stop worrying about if the person next to you is following Jesus–and just, follow Him.

I just want to share this with you as a way of extending the conversation here. Lord knows it’s a truth I need to sit with awhile. I love having a few lifestyle choices in the bag that ensure I am following Jesus–like only shopping at thrift stores. It’s a neat thing to say that makes me different from people, possibly even holier. But in reality, in the trenches here, I am finding I don’t have the time, energy, or gas to go thrift shopping. Every purchase has to be carefully weighed out, every vegetable and sock and Christmas present. As I find myself going deeper and deeper into living interdependently with the poor, my easy and neat lifestyle choices no longer hold up as well. I question more, I feel less sure, and at the same time–feel a lot less guilty.

Because that is what it has to be about. It has to be about relationships with those who are at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. And relationships are messy, complicated, life-long affairs. No simple blog post or 10 EZ tips 4 downward mobility here. Just me, and a bunch of other people, plodding along, making mistakes, constantly holding a mirror up to our own faces and asking: are we following Jesus? Are we taking care of his children with our lives?

No doubt about it, we all will fail. We always will. And Jesus will always be there, reminding us that he wants to use us in spite of that.

As I walk through the snow in my boots, you can be sure I will be thinking of all of this. How living simply is not very simple in the least.

But it is rich.

 

 

 

 

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Mammon — Guest Post by Kevin Hargaden

Well. You best sit down before you read this one. The internet introduced me to Kevin, and I am so grateful. One day he will write a book that with all of his Irish humor still manages to make us bleed. Besides being smart and theological, Kevin and his wife are the goods. They sent me and my husband a care package–complete with Irish Tea, Irish poetry, and a handwritten letter filled with quotes from the Pope. I know! 

This post gets to the very heart of the matter, I believe. It’s so easy to make downward mobility a game of sorts– all about material possessions, what I have done for God, see what a difference I have made with my second hand clothes! And sometimes people like myself need to be smacked in the face in regards to what is actually going on: how God longs for those living under the oppression of wealth to be set free. Because he loves us too. And he has been trying to free us for a long, long time.

 

 

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art by Banksy

 

Mammon

Guest post by Kevin Hargaden

 

 

I’m totally behind the downward mobility movement. Quite literally. My wife and I are downwardly mobile. We’ve swapped prosperity in a beautiful university town on the edge of a bustling EU capital city for a life on the wrong side of the tracks in a provincial town on the edge of a region most famous for a legendary, mysterious sea monster called Nessie. We are from Dublin, where we have lived our whole life. My wife had a fantastic and rewarding job. We had a large circle of friends. My family were minutes away. Everything was familiar and wonderful. We love our hometown with a passion.

Now we live in Aberdeen, which is a grey city on the coast of the North Sea, buffeted on one side by Arctic winds and surrounded on the other by the mountains that rise into the Scottish Highlands. We have been here six weeks. My wife’s fulltime pursuit has been job-searching. Today she got word of her first interview, for a temporary role, in a low level administration position, at about 40% less than her last salary rate. The reason we are here, in a city more northerly than Moscow that has less than six hours of daylight in winter, is for my PhD. Ironically, as we quickly accelerate downwards towards destitution, I will be researching a theology of wealth.

While today the circumstances press in on me hard and as I feel the pressure I paint a particularly dim picture of what we’re doing, the reality is that we are involved in a grand adventure. We have never lived abroad before. We have never started again before. We are doing a hard thing but it is exceptionally cool.

So we probably meet whatever requirements can be imagined to classify a couple as part of this radical downward mobility movement. And presumably if you check back in on us in three months we will have stories about how it has liberated us. And I suspect that our life will always be indented by the experience of profound freedom that came from unburdening ourselves of all the possessions that we had accumulated over years of mimicking Western-world middle class comfort. We were possessed by them.

But it is exactly at this point, when I reflect on how our (relative but very real) wealth warped our view of the world that I begin to part company with the largely brilliant conversation about downward mobility.

***

I am haunted by the words of Jesus. My life has been transformed by reflecting on his parables, which I think are the greatest stories ever told. They are simply divine.

In Matthew 12 we find an image that we could spend our lives reflecting on. In context, Jesus is disputing with Pharisees who are accusing him of being in league with Beelzebul. He answers them (29): “how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.”

In these two sentences, Jesus gives us a peek at his entire intention. As Jesus sees it, the world is held captive. The New Testament gives us a range of different words to describe the captor. At base the captivity is at the hands of a personal force, referred to often as “the Satan”.

Jesus very clearly loved the world he inhabited. He loved the terrain of his homeland and he loved the seasons of the farms and he loved the fruit of the vine and the culture of the cities. But his perspective was that this world was echoing a glory that had been smothered by a force that held it captive. He came to bind up the strong man who was claiming this world as his own. On Good Friday he goes into battle with the strong man and at dawn on Easter Sunday he comes up triumphant. The strong man is bound so that bound Creation can go free.

This is not the only way to think of God’s Gospel, but it is one of the ways we find in the gospels that describe it. There is a false power that held the world captive under its hollow authority. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God overthrew this fake potentate and now we, the church, join him in this non-violent liberation.

***

Paul takes up this way of seeing things in Ephesians. At the end of that letter he summarises the kind of battle that Christians are called to engage in. He is clear that the battle is not a violent one of war and fighting. Instead, “our struggle is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

I want to propose that one of the powers of this darkened world that Paul is describing here has been named by Jesus. He called it Mammon. He seemed to use that word to describe an impersonal force that controlled the affections of people by making them love money. Adam Smith, the great father of modern economics spoke about the market as an “invisible hand”. His words, which are a gospel to capitalism, have a dark hue when heard against Jesus’ warnings about Mammon.

***

So here is what I have argued:

  1. Jesus saw the world as held captive by a darkness that had to be subverted.
  2. Paul says that this darkness manifests itself in forces, “powers and principalities” that rule the world.
  3. Jesus names one of these powers as Mammon.

And here is my tentative proposal:

  1. To be wealthy is to be under the realm of Mammon.

Which leads me to my conclusion, which makes me sound like quite the crackpot:

  1. To be wealthy is to be captive to Satan.

***

If I am right, then the judgement of God is upon those of us who are wealthy. And everyone who has access to a web browser with an internet connection and the literacy skills to read my convoluted prose is bound to be wealthy.

There are smaller problems with downward mobility. For one, it seems self-defeating since only the wealthy can imagine a scenario where they could relinquish their wealth. For another, intentional poverty has a long tradition in the church but it is fraught and complex. There are technical problems in that individual acts of solidarity and solitary acts of divestment alone make absolutely no difference to the justice, politics or material conditions of our unfair world.

But the biggest problem with downward mobility is that it underestimates the problem.

***

If we, the wealthy, are to be pitied as those held captive by a force that although defeated, retains residual strength, then we cannot possibly hope to be freed from by our own action. If my theological hunch is true, and we the wealthy are blinded from reality by the warping effects of having so many things at our disposal, then the only hope for us is an intervention by someone strong enough to bind up the strong man.

Being less consumerist or more frugal, moving in with the poor and the dispossessed, spending our life in advocacy and agitation for environmental justice or economic transformation or political revolution – we may be called to all of these things but none of these things will suffice.

Since camels don’t fit through the eyes of needles, we, the rich men, are screwed. With man, it is impossible for us to get to heaven. But in uttering these awesome and rarely reflected upon words, Jesus says with God, all things are possible.

The problem with downward mobility is that it imagines we can decide which direction we should go. In our downward mobility we seek to disposses ourselves of privilege and power, wealth and influence. But that dispossession is always an illusion if it is true that the wealth we are seeking to let go of is imposed on us by Mammon. The dispossession we are all called to is to be dispossessed of our delusion that we can set our own course or define our own destiny.

***

If we pursue downward mobility for downward mobility’s sake, we pursue nothing to nowhere. We are just caught up in another endless maze of self-justification that Mammon erects to distract us from the returning King.

We must wrestle with the fact that the inequality in our world is an injustice. But if we are to undo that injustice, we have to first see the gangster at the top tied up. The strong man must be bound for the captives to be set free. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ seems to involve the claim that the rich are cursed.

We are cursed.

Unless we can be set free.

 

 

 

 

SONY DSCKevin was born and bred in the Dublin suburbs. He has an Irish
aversion to writing bio-pieces since they invariably sound cocky. He
is training to be a minister with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland,
but is studying for that at Aberdeen University. He can’t sing but he
does lisp. He loves the Simpsons, the parables and making lists but
perhaps not in that order. He blogs at www.hargaden.com/kevin about
faith in contemporary Ireland and he can be found on twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

 

 

 

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Silver and Gold — Guest Post by Ben Bishop

Ben is a cool guy. He’s a good friend of my good friends, and when I met him I was struck by our mutual affinity for both literature and Jesus (it ain’t as easy to come by IRL, people). A few months ago, Ben wrote a stunning and honest portrayal of what it meant to write his book, and then to fail (as of yet) to publish it. Go read it–plus all the other great stuff–at his website Ragged Band. I always leave enlightened  amused, and spurred on to create.

This post is something special. It’s long, which I like–since life is just so lamentably messy and can’t be addressed in a neat little blog. For me, it struck a nerve of honesty that perhaps is missing from even my own discussions of the subject. I cried my guts out when I read it. 

So take some time, sit down, and read this essay from start to finish. Also, I couldn’t help but think of this video, which also makes me cry. I guess I am sort of emotional these days. Because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. 

 

Silver and Gold — Guest Post by Ben Bishop

 

I seek an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, and it is laid up in heaven, and safe there, to be bestowed, at the time appointed, on them who diligently seek it.” – The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan

^^^^^

 

 

The poor are ugly.

They are not demur widows in biblical robes graciously accepting alms from pastel saints.  They are young black mothers in pajama pants at the grocery store.  They are old white men with no teeth and pornography habits.  They are hardened teen alcoholics, gangbangers, pedophiles, strippers, con men, shtarkers, pimps, inveterate liars and parents perpetuating the very cycles of generational suffering that once shaped them.  They are the children of God turned old before their time by oxycontin addictions, botched abortions, and personality disorders.   They’ve never heard of Pitchfork, they don’t know what selvage denim is, and they don’t care about your organic produce.  They live hand to mouth and, my God, do they suffer.

I am a mental health counselor working in the Portland/Vancouver metro area.  My current caseload of clients is comprised of low-income seniors, many of whom live in the type of government-subsidized urban apartments or predatory single-room occupancy hotels that serve as greenhouses for the kind of stereotypes I’ve just rolled out.

In addition to my current gig, over the last decade I’ve worked and volunteered with impoverished men, women, and children in a number of different settings.  I have been a personal aid and overnight caregiver bearing witness to the loneliness and emotional frustration of the profoundly physically and developmentally disabled.  I have been a case manager for commercially sexually exploited teenage girls.  I have worked at a community mental health nonprofit and counseled at a church.  I have visited prisoners in jail.  I have advocated for impoverished elders, living alone at the end of their lives, crushed by regret and terrified at the knowledge that someday soon the gossamer thin membrane separating them from the world of the dead will vanish with a pop.  I’ve done all this and more, and now I’m contemplating getting the hell out.

My resume wasn’t really what you were interested in, though.  You want to know whether I was being hyperbolic when I sucker-punched poor folks up in the first paragraph there.  The answer’s yes, I am being hyperbolic.  I am engaging in an act of provocation when I say that the poor are ugly.  I do not for one minute believe that the poor—a broad term with vast layers and implications we don’t have space to unpack here—are morally inferior, less capable of giving and receiving love, or suffering acutely, or achieving self-actualization, or anything else human beings are capable of.  In addition to the strippers and meth cooks, the poor are also faithful family men, selfless grandmothers raising young children, unpaid rural pastors, the cheerful guys who collect my garbage and tend my landlord’s lawn.  I have met many joyful, hopeful people living below the poverty line who are choosing to break cycles of generational harm and engaging in acts of generosity even under extreme duress, and I flatly reject the idea that I, a man often transfigured into a vehicle of naked lust and murderous rage, am better than them.

I am, however, better off in many tangible ways, and here we come to the point of my hyperbole.  Poverty has incredibly negative consequences.  Not having enough money to eat, clothe yourself, afford shelter, or provide schooling or healthcare for your children?  That would break anyone.  And it does.  Poverty shoehorns human beings into its brutal crucible and holds them in the flames.  It has the power to demoralize and shatter anyone.  For the record, I’ve met and worked with a number of very wealthy people too.  When it comes to the kind of things that can grind away at the human soul, money and power are just as effective poverty.  But it sure looks more painful at the bottom.

The American poor are being crushed under the tank treads of a society that uses and derides them in equal measure.  They are harried and victimized by corporations, and abused by judicial and political systems which favor those in power.  In their oppression these systems often end up being agents of the middle class, who want the riff raff and all the headaches that accompany them kept out of sight, while still wanting access to their cheap labor and unquestioning consumption.  They pick our strawberries after all.  They buy those Nikes our ad agency helped make seem so impossibly cool.  The middle and upper classes scorn the poor, ignoring the ways in which we step on their faces while simultaneously blaming them for their own situation, as if poverty were a life anyone would choose.

Like so many of my fellow Christians I am often rankly ignorant of—or brazenly calloused to—the workings of the systems that perpetuate the subjugation of the poor.  Yet I claim to hate the evils of injustice and exploitation.  I protest that I desire justice and mercy.  Ok.  Maybe.  Turns out there’s a litmus test for that.  It is the great catch in the contract of love.  The stone, as it were, upon which men stumble and fall:  In order to truly love the poor one must join them in their suffering.

When D.L. told me that she already had a number of contributors who would be writing on the topic of whether aspiring to downward mobility was enough, I thought to myself, No problem.  I’m writing about the opposite; the idea that it might be too much.  I’ve reached a fork in the path of my life.  My friends are starting to buy houses, have children, shovel the last few nuggets of debt into the trash and begin saving in earnest.  Meanwhile my wife and I are six figures underwater, working long, draining hours in social services, and beginning to seriously consider leaping from the HMS Nonprofit and swimming desperately toward any employer who will pay us wages on which we could afford to have a child.

Money isn’t even the main thing.  It’s not as if we’re not living an incredibly privileged, eminently comfortable lifestyle.  The problem is that I’ve never figured out a way to truly love the poor and disenfranchised without becoming entangled in their problems and having to listen to their broken cries up close.  I’ve fought for a decade to somehow “serve” the poor without joining them in their squalor.  I don’t want to be pulled out of my life raft into the raging sea of their sorrows.  So, I’m standing here at the crossroads, a chilly breeze tugging at the collar of my shirt, looking back and forth between the two tracks and wondering which I’m going to choose.

When I first moved to Portland I took a job working at an aftercare facility with teenagers attempting to get out of prostitution.  One freezing February night I was standing outside the house with a 15-year-old girl when she began telling me about her life to that point.  Between drags on her Camel Light she described a childhood journey that had included a drug-addicted mother and more than 20 foster homes, all of which were merely the preface to the point where she began selling her body.  After she finished up and we headed back inside I slipped into the closet of the staff office, shut the door behind me, leaned against the water heater, and cried.  I’d come to have real affection for this girl, and the knowledge of what she’d been through was too much.

I’m tired.  Weary of bearing witness to the violence we human beings rain down on one another.  There are days when I feel wrung out like a washcloth, sick to death of trying to talk to scabby drunks holed up alone in their trashed apartments swilling mouthwash because it’s the cheapest way to dull the pain of life.  What good am I doing?  I’m tired of picking up one starfish at a time and throwing it back into the ocean.

I’m also tired of working for unprofessional, ragtag operations functioning on shoestring budgets.  Tired of making less than my friends who stock the deep freeze at Safeway.  Tired of being patted on the back and told my work must be so meaningful.  Downward mobility?  The siren call of upward mobility is pulling me towards the shore and I’m looking around, wondering who will lash me to the mast of my better angels.

And so I come, at last, to the question of where the good intentions I do occasionally have find their origin, and what it is that has kept me interested in the proposition of selfless love to this point.  For me, that means arriving at Jesus Christ.  He who surrounded himself with the stench of the poor, and had compassion on the peasant crowds, “because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.”  There are many who claim no affiliation with Jesus of Nazareth and yet love the poor more fully and selflessly than I.  There are many days when I shout at the ceiling, asking the Son of God, my so-called Lord (although it’s strange to call him that when I ignore him so much of the time), why he allows the widows and orphans to suffer, disoriented, alone, running forlorn upon the face of the earth like a hill of crazed ants, and receive only silence for my trouble.  But I cannot quit him.  His gospel is the most beautiful story I have ever heard told, and seems to me to explain the burning pageant of the world, including the existential despair that Kierkegaard called “the sickness unto death,” in a way that resonates, like a morning bell, with the ring of truth.

C.S. Lewis noted with incisive clarity that, “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”  The question for most people is not whether it is good for the broken-hearted to be comforted or the oppressed to receive justice.  The question is whether or not we ourselves want to be the comforters and the bringers of said justice.  Jesus Christ calls all who would follow him to wade out, neck deep, into the suffering of the world.  To embrace the poor, holding nothing back, aspiring not to lay up treasures in this world but in the world to come.

For all his compassion, all his non-violent teachings, all of his physical healings, Jesus was focused on eternal life.  I would argue that he defined that eternal life as something that begins here and now, but he also certainly seemed to be talking about another world as well.  He made no apologies about speaking of a heavenly kingdom, a coming day when he himself would make all things new.  A friend of mine read the following passage from the book of Revelation at my wedding:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

That passage’s searing vision of a reality different from the one I know now is the only vision with enough power to persuade me to continue on with my stumbling attempts to love the poor.  Because the prospect of sacrificing myself upon the altar of love only makes sense to me if eternity is real.  I believe that this makes me something of a small-hearted person.  Perhaps, at times, I could find it in myself, have found it in myself, to love my brothers and sisters out of a pure and selfless place in my heart.  I do not believe that I am all darkness.  But money, security, a sense of calm and order, even if predicated on the suffering of others, exert too strong a pull.  To actively put myself in harm’s way and give up on the flat out sprint toward American comfort and financial security that my entire culture is engaged in requires a belief in the most basic truths of the gospel.  That heaven is real.  That God is real.  That there is one who will lead me to the rock that is higher than I and set my feet upon a firm foundation.  Not just figuratively but literally.

In writing this essay I have reflected upon how regularly and with what astonishing ease I reduce the gospel of Jesus Christ to an abstraction.  Just an interesting proposition or set of philosophical constructs to be debated in post-modern, vaguely spiritual terms while I go on living a life that shows precious little evidence of any real desire to adhere to his radical, endlessly upsetting teachings.  My brother used to talk about the idea of losing your life to find it.  Sometimes I wonder if I haven’t tried hard enough.  If I might find the grail of contentment if only I could bring myself to unclench my claws from where they are buried in the idol of self-preservation.  We all end up losing our lives in the end, right?  Just let go, Ben.

It’s not that easy.  The fear of suffering is so great in me.  Too great to overcome on my own.  How wondrous then, how ecstatic and deeply comforting are those moments when I turn back, repent, and find renewal in the belief that my Redeemer lives, and that “in the end He will stand upon the earth.”  Nothing else could compel me to go on for one more day, challenging the American Dream and its legacy of bloodshed, and rebuking the part of my very own soul that wants nothing more than to run panting into the arms of material security.

Lord of Life, you’re my only hope.  Speak to me again of the incorruptible inheritance you have laid up for those who cling to the hem of your robe.  Show it to me, that I might run it through my fingers like silver and gold.

 

 

 

 

photoBen Bishop is a mental health counselor working in the Portland/Vancouver metro area.  His essays and features have appeared in The StrangerWillamette Week, and Relevant.com.  He is the editor of Ragged Band, a website devoted to the concerns of young artists and entrepreneurs.

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

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Runaway Life: An Interview with Shawn Smucker

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I met Shawn Smucker through a site we both write for called A Deeper Church. He is an excellent, prolific writer with a great head on his shoulders–and an obvious quest for adventure. When I heard bits and pieces about the epic road trip he went on with his family, I was hooked (when I was 8, my family sold everything and traveled the world in a motor home as well–and look, Shawn, I turned out excellent!). Shawn wrote a great piece that will be going up on Thursday, but I thought it might be fun to ask him a few questions about his life. So here we go! 

 

Here’s his bio: Shawn is the author of “Building a Life Out of Words,” the story of how he lost his business, his house and his community, then found happiness making a living as a writer. He lives deep in the woods of southern Lancaster County, PA, with his wife and four children. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter. Be sure to check out Shawn’s books How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp and Building a Life Out of Words.

 

DL: Tell me about your family, and this epic journey you guys went on.

 

SS: First let me tell you that my wife, my four children and I have been on an exhilarating, terrifying journey over the last four years. My business crumbled, we left a community that we loved, and I began writing for a living – I wrote about this in my book “Building a Life Out of Words.” We lived in my parents’ basement more often than I would have liked, but we now live in our dream house, rent free (long story). We’ve made more money in one month than I ever thought I’d make, and we’ve gone six months without income. My sense of calling has never been clearer, and most of the time I feel like I am living a dream life. But there’s also a huge sense of the unknown, a constant cycle of being called to faith and belief and trust. Some days I look around me and wish I had a normal life: a paycheck, a mortgage and a car payment  (in order to replace our two minivans that have a combined 400,000 miles). But I know that those yearnings are for temporary things, things that represent comfort, predictability and control. So my wife and I continue making a conscious decision to pass on those things and accept the gifts we’ve been given from God, gifts we never would have received if we had lived our life under our own control.

 

Pretty early in on we realized that the advantages of living a counter-cultural life is that you don’t have to wait to have adventures. You don’t have to work for forty years and then live the life you always wanted to live, the life God is trying to birth in you. So, when the lease on the house we were renting ran out, we borrowed my uncle’s RV and hit the road for four months. Actually, the RV was an old bus that used to be Willie Nelson’s. I compiled my blog posts, my wife’s blog posts, and a few essays I wrote into a book about the trip and titled it “How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp.”

 

What I love about my family is their willingness to go on adventures, to follow God’s voice, to live a life that doesn’t make sense to most people. We home school our kids (ages 10, 8, 5 and 4) not because we want to protect them, but because it gives us the flexibility to follow. I don’t know too many women that have my wife’s willingness to live a life without the usual safety nets – she is constantly surprising me.

 

I grew up going to the same school for twelve years, lived in basically two houses my entire childhood, so sometimes I worry about this transient life we’re giving my children. But they surprise me with their adaptability, the way they form new friendships so quickly, the way they are always challenging me to be a better person, a more loving person. So, again, I have to trust God with their lives and believe that he can make something beautiful with the childhood they’re experiencing as a result of their parents’ choices.

 

DL: How did this trip make you feel about happiness/the American dream?

 

SS: I see a lot of my friends, the way they live these “quiet lives of desperation,” and I get pretty unsettled, angry, at the so-called “American Dream,” the way so many in our generation have swallowed the lie of materialism. It saddens me that we believe more money will make us happy, that the only way to security is through traditional employment, and how we so often refuse to live the life we’ve been called to live because we won’t give up the nice things we’ve accumulated. So much purpose and adventure dying on the vine.

 

DL: Did it change your definition of what a good life was?

 

SS: The trip, and returning from the trip to the hardest six months of my life, solidified for me that my best life is not one that I’ve controlled and planned out. Being “responsible,” as defined by our current culture, cannot be the litmus test for the major decisions I make in life. I just don’t think that the majority of what Jesus told people to do was very responsible.

“Follow me,” Jesus said. So we try to follow. We screw up all the time, of course, but we keep trying to follow.

 

DL: How have you interacted with people who come from a different economic situation from you?

 

SS: Going without income for stretches of time has helped me to identify with the poor. I’m not saying I’m poor or have ever had to live in poverty, but when you’re in a position of not having money for groceries, or you live in a one-bedroom basement, or you have bills you haven’t been able to pay for six months, it opens your eyes. But learning about poverty and learning how to love those who are poor, and love them well, has been a series of concentric circles.

First you learn how to sacrifice the stuff you want in order to help others, and you think, this is it, this is what Jesus was talking about. Then you start getting involved in the lives of the poor and you start trying to help them make positive steps – you try to rescue them from their poverty and you think, Oh, wow, actually THIS is what Jesus was talking about. I’ve got to get them out of this.
And then you get to the point where you think that nothing you are doing is making a difference in their lives, and you want to give up, but you also have this amazing realization that they don’t need your money or your rescuing – what they need is you. And it’s way harder and more painful but it’s also more loving and more rewarding. You realize that sitting on someone’s porch outside their dilapidated trailer and having a beer with them, just enjoying THAT DAY with them, that’s what Jesus would have done.
So that’s where my wife and I are at right now. But there’s a deeper circle to find and to live, I’m sure. There always is.

 

Thanks, Shawn! Check back on Thursday for more of his thoughts on Downward Mobility.

 

 

 

 

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Waiting for Advent

i'm the christmas unicorn-felt ornament.

i’m the christmas unicorn-felt ornament.

December is creeping along. The midwest does not have as much snow as I would have thought; I wish it did, for snow seems magical and new.

We are several months into our move, several months in to this new way of life. We have learned so much. My brain might explode. Someday, it would be lovely to talk about some of it with you all. But I am still young and tend to sound angry when I rant, so I will let these things keep percolating. Also, I have been realizing lately more than ever, that we are playing the long game here.

This is the first year I feel like the word “Advent” is starting to make sense. For the past several years I have been wandering around December, adoring every kitschy light display there is, and then complaining about how I just want to get back to the true meaning of Christmas. This year, many of our safety nets have been stripped. Without family and friends (and our annual Christmas parties–last year was themed “A Tender Tennessee Christmas Party” and we encouraged everyone to dress up like their favorite CCM star from the 90s) it feels sort of like . . . a winter month. Another week, another head cold, another blustery day. I find small comfort in the fact that for the majority of people in our neighborhood, they feel the same way. It is not all hot cocoa and marshmallows, gift-guides, warm fuzzies over here. It’s another season of getting by.

But I feel the wait, this year. I have the space the feel the bleak midwinter, and I am grateful. It has given me the clarity about Christmas I have long wished for. I long to see Jesus and his kingdom come. As tempting as it is for me to think about Jesus coming to save the rest of the world from their brokenness, I have been both shamed and thrilled to realize he came for my own darkness. As I am spending this time waiting, I am encouraged: may the light of Christ rise up in my soul, may he cause me to see his light in others.

I would love to end this post on that dramatic, soulful note (I kid, I kid), but later on in this week I will be sharing some of my favorite Christmas movies and music with ya’ll. I am still very much not into gifts-you-can-buy-at-a-regular-ol-store, but there are elements of celebrating Christmas here in America that I am hell-bent on redeeming. Horribly ugly and thoughtful crafts, treats baked with butter love, engaging all of our senses in this period of hope and expectation . . . now THAT I can get into. I’ll also highlight some friends of mine who are churning out thoughtful (and thought-provoking) pieces about this season.

So hit me up: what are you doing as you wait for Advent?

Ps. That awesome ornament was found here on Etsy. But, poor you, it’s sold out. So make your own! And give it to me.

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what i’m into: december downwardly mobile

hullo.

time to write a hodge-podge post about things i have been into. it has been a good couple of weeks, my brain feeling fired up and ready to go. but the truth is, i don’t have loads of people in my real flesh-and-blood life to discuss these things with. but i’ll be hanged if i haven’t met some lovely people on the internets and learned a lot from them, and what they have been reading/listening/watching. so i will post my own in hopes that it will be helpful, and might even spark a conversation or two.

one thing i wanted to address with this-here list is the commitment to simplicity my family recently took. we are moving backwards in the american dream, ya’ll. some things are easier than others (clothes, for instance, or eating out fancy), some things are not nearly as bad as i thought they would be (i had a horror of washing dishes by hand by now i find it oddly soothing–as long as they don’t stack up and completely overwhelm our miniscule kitchen). and other things that i thought would be fine tend to be a little trying on the soul (not being able to read every book that i would like to, for instance).

so here’s my list of things things that i am into this month, and they are almost all completely free/accessible to all (although many of them require a computer. but libraries have that too!). so here we go:

listening

i have been really into sufjan’s latest christmas album, silver and gold, which i find so beautiful (the hymns) and so sad (the other songs). this album is quite a bit darker, if you look under the superficial christmas cheer. this is a song about longing for a time when everything was perfect, even though you know it never was. this is an album for advent, when we live into the reality that we need a savior, and he is nothing like we expect.

(you can listen to the album for free on spotify).

watching

oh, pbs. i have recently rekindled my love for you. in the past month we decided to quit our huluplus account because i had a sudden and intense hatred for all our situational comedies that i used to love (modern family, new girl). they just seemed so . . . stupid. and privileged. and i do believe that zooey deschanel might be the anti-feminist right now (but that is another rant).

enter pbs.

good ol’ dowdy, serious, public television. except, the quality of the programs are quite a bit higher than the masterpiece theater’s of yore. i got hooked on a bbc show airing on pbs entitled “call the midwife“, set in east london in the early 1960s. although the show should come with a trigger warning for anyone with past traumatic birth experiences, i found their take on poverty very refreshing–showing the need, but also showing vibrant culture, and a variety of stories. i loved it. unfortunately, i think the free run on pbs might almost be over. but look for it on dvd soon.

i have also started watching a series of videos on poverty from pbs, called Why Poverty? I have only seen 2 of the 8 documentaries available, and they have kept the husband and i up for hours, talking and discussing (and that is saying something, as the child has started waking up several times a night and we are tired!). the first one we watched was on wealth inequality in America, and why we should care about it. I’m not going to lie–this one raised a LOT of questions for me, and I would love to discuss it with some other folks if you get around to watching it. The other one we just finished was an animated history of poverty–a really unique (and not western-centric) take on the various phases and histories of poverty around the world. I feel like my brain is growing two sizes and my heart is struggling to catch up. Both of these films brought out the fact that I am slow to catch onto: we really do live in an age where there are an unprecedented amount of riches existing side-by-side with untold sufferings as a result of poverty.

lord, may your kingdom come.

all of these videos are available for free on pbs.com until the year 2019. so go get on it!

reading

the library card might be my most valuable piece of plastic right now (more on that another day). although, i have been a little grumpy by how slow the system here in the midwest works (maybe they just have way more readers than the system in portland?) whatever the case, there are about 10 new books that i have been wanting to read SO BADLY but i am way down the line of library holds for them. at this point, i will read most of them late next year.

so i have been looking past the big-name newbies and discovered a new favorite fiction author in Anne Tyler. Her novel St. Maybe is a funny and more than a little sad look at family, with a surprising amount of forgiveness and atonement sprinkled in. I love it. I  read it and wished somebody had told me about her long ago. So here I am, telling you: go to your library and get it.

I am also reading my apocalyptic subsistence economy books and still loving (and hating) it.

Also, i have been rereading the earliest books in the Harry Potter series. Because escapism.

On the blog front, there are too many good things going on so I will just tell you about my favorite writer that you have never heard of: Becca of Exile Fertility is nuanced, funny, wise and passionate. I just love every single thing she writes, and decided not to be selfish and share her today. Go check it out.

There is probably more I could share right now, but Sesame Street only lasts so long (starting the child early on her PBS!).

I am linking up with a bunch of others talking about what they are into, and I would love to hear yours.

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it’s all happening

My new post for Deeper Church is up.

A riff on an excellent quote by Harry Crews:

If you wait until you got time to write a novel, or time to write a story, or time to read the hundred thousands of books you should have already read – if you wait for the time, you will never do it. ‘Cause there ain’t no time; world don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.

Good advice for writing; excellent advice for the Church.

Go on over and read it?

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