Economic Discipleship: Not for adults only

This morning at breakfast as I leafed through my Bible I found a thousand colones (about $2) stuck between Philippians and Colossians.  Nobody could remember how it got there—but now our family was now just a little richer!  We all suggested various uses for our newfound wealth (mostly centering on Club Penguin memberships) and then I got ready for work.  But a few minutes later, as Isaiah left for school, he handed me a homemade envelope containing the thousand colones and the note you see above. He had decided where the money should be spent!

For me this was more than just a cute, heartwarming kid story.   Jodi and I believe that a central part of parenting means teaching our children, as Jesus put it, “to obey everything I have commanded.”  And Jesus commanded giving to the poor repeatedly and emphatically.

But trying to share these Gospel values is tricky.  If we decide that our giving commitments mean no room in the family budget for a Wii, will the kids become embittered towards this Jesus Who Robs Us of the Games All Our Friends Have?

So it’s really encouraging to see instances like Isaiah’s note in which it’s clear that he “gets it,” even just at the level of a seven-year-old.  But in some ways, that’s just what I’m striving for too.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” –Matthew 19:14



Compassion Renewal or Compassion Fatigue?

We’ve all seen it before—the pattern is always the same.  A natural disaster tragically devastates an already-poor country.  For a week it’s front page news. Politicians make speeches. Reporters flood the scene.  Governments promise aid.  People send money.

But then something happens. Reporters go home.  Governments send a fraction of the promised aid. “Compassion fatigue” sets in. People forget.

That’s why I’m encouraged to find that today, on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, so much media coverage is again being devoted to the continued suffering of the Haitian people.  The Economist, the New York Times, the BBC, and the Boston Globe, among others, all have written detailed updates on the stalled recovery of the US’s oldest neighbor.

For me, the grim message of these reports has been a call to move from compassion fatigue to compassion renewal.  Whenever any of us encounters stories of intractable suffering, we have two choices:

  • Surrender to the temptation to be overwhelmed, choose numbness, and subconsciously avoid such emotional disturbances in the future.
  • Choose hope, renew our compassion, and do our part, even if it is very small compared to the magnitude of the problem.

So why not join me in remembering our brothers and sisters in Haiti today, before you get up from your computer?  If you have a favorite charity, chances are they’re in Haiti.  If you’re not sure who to give to, just take my word for it and give through Partners in Health, who supplied the video above.  They’ve been renowned for their excellent work in Haiti for more than 20 years.

O Lord, we ask that you would give us a compassion as steady and generous as Yours. We pray that You would move Your Body to stand with our brothers and sisters in Haiti so that the justice and redemption of Your Kingdom might come to that devastated island.  Amen.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.    –Galatians 5:9

Sad but True

I encountered this in a blog recently, and first it made me laugh at how I do whine about relatively insignificant things, like how drivers pull in right front of me and drive really slow. Then it made me feel bad in a good way about how much more I still need to grow in my commitment to practical concern about the much greater suffering of others.  What’s your reaction?

Guns and other stuff: think before you buy

amazon_crave

In many U.S. states, there is a mandated waiting period before you can purchase a gun.  For Jodi and me, living in Costa Rica, we have a mandated waiting period before we buy just about anything.  Here’s how this reality has helped us make progress in living simply:

In Costa Rica, most consumer goods are readily available, but usually for 50% to 100% more than in the States.  Just a few random examples:  Converse shoes are $60-80 instead of $13-20 on Slickdeals; laptops are easily double, as are just about all kids’ toys.

This extreme price difference means that we still buy most of our stuff from the U.S.—we make our purchases online and send them to the next visitor who’s kind enough to schlep them to Costa Rica in their luggage (thanks mom, bapa & nana, LKVP, D/CD, G/CB, KH, MS, SK, NN, SL, J/EC)!

Thus, just like buying a gun, nearly every sizable acquisition carries with it a significant waiting period—often several months—from when we first want something to when we actually buy it.  We’ve found that this time gap is an excellent mechanism for thinking twice about whether we really need more stuff.  It gives us space to prayerfully discern whether a particular item is a necessity or a luxury, whether it is a tool or a toy, whether it is part of the life of economic discipleship to which God calls us.  As Richard Foster says,

one clear advantage to this approach is that it effectively ends all impulse buying. It gives time for reflection so that God can teach us if the desire [for more stuff] is unnecessary.

For Jodi and I, our “waiting period” spiritual discipline has become an integrated part of our lifestyle , no matter where we end up living in the long term, and we’d like to urge you to consider it as well.  I close with some provocative discernment questions, adapted from Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline, that we’ve found helpful in guiding our prayers during our “waiting periods”:

  • Am I buying this for its usefulness or for the social status it will give me?
  • Could this purchase produce an unhealthy addiction for me?
  • Could this purchase blur my spiritual focus or distract me from pursuing God?
  • Do I need to buy a new product, or would a used or borrowed one work just as well?
  • If I buy this, will I still be able to meet my goals for giving to the poor and to God’s Kingdom work?

Remembering the Poor: Film Edition

Central do Brasil (Central Station)Sin NombreOsamaBorn Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

I’m writing this from my home in Costa Rica after spending the last ten days in Chicago and Grand Rapids.  After two and a half years in Central America, visiting the US can be quite a jolt.  One of the things that hit me hardest on this trip was way in which most college-educated people in the US are nearly totally insulated from poverty.  It’s almost as though the quiet suburbs, trendy neighborhoods, and antiseptic offices of the professional class have been hermetically sealed off from the poor across town and across the world.  Despite globalization, most of us still live our lives in “gated communities” that keep the disturbing faces of the poor safely out of range.

I am convinced that this sociological reality is one of the most important factors that make biblical giving to the poor so difficult.  If a hungry family watched us eat through the windows of our favorite restaurant, how many of us would turn away?  If a woman brought her daughter dying of diarrhea to our doorstep, we would not refuse the few cents it took to save her.  But because these tragedies take place a car ride or a plane ride away from our daily lives, they become literally forgettable.

Many of us reading this blog do care about the suffering of others, and we want to make a difference, but we find daily life squeezing out our good intentions.  So what can we do? Well, for a start we can do the same thing that Paul did as he kicked off his missionary career: “remember the poor.” (Gal 2:10)  Paul’s commitment to remember the poor resulted in his massive collection for those suffering in Jerusalem, and left a strong mark on the New Testament.  (See, for example, I Cor 16:1-4, II Cor 8 & 9, Romans 15:26-29.)

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of “remembering the poor” as a spiritual discipline—just like praying or reading the Bible.   Of course, there are lots of ways to remember the poor, but let me just suggest one that you could act on even this week—watch a movie.  For me, films have often not only served as windows into the world outside my middle class bubble but they have steeled my resolve to keep giving and stay involved.  So, here are a few recommendations that

1) are not well known

2) are highly rated by critics, and

3) deal with poverty in a nuanced, non-sentimentalized way:

 

  • Central Station. How the lives of a Brazilian street child and an office worker become intertwined.

Central do Brasil (Central Station)

  • Sin Nombre. A harrowing account of gang violence along the Central American immigrant trail to the US.

Sin Nombre

  • Dirty Pretty Things. A brilliant look at the life of African and Turkish immigrants in London.

Dirty Pretty Things

  • Osama. Growing up as an Afghani girl under the Taliban.

Osama

  • Born into Brothels. Hopefully portrays the artistic potential of prostitutes’ children in Calcutta.

Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

  • Tsotsi. An intensely personal account of inequality in South Africa.

Tsotsi

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these films or others you’d recommend as a way to “remember the poor.”

Reflection on Lazarus at the Gate

When Gary and I had our first Lazarus at the Gate meeting, with its tagline of “simplicity for the sake of generosity in community”, one of the most important steps we needed to take was to focus on small steps.  If I cut my own hair for the next 50 years of my life, I will save at least $10 per month, or $120 year, or $6000 over the next 50 years!  A bunch of small steps could add up quickly.

Those small steps were internal as well as external.  When we heard how much each person made, rather than give in to feelings of jealousy, pride, shame, or fear, we cheered for each other as each of us took a small or big challenge towards simplifying our lives in order to give more generously.  The larger goal of giving to the poor was more important than my petty feelings – feelings which were almost always tied up in my sinful confusion that money measures my identity.

In other words, we decided to develop the spiritual gift of giving.  Giving, like evangelism or bible teaching, is not only a command from Jesus but also a spiritual muscle we need to develop.  Paul lists it as a gift in Romans 12:8.  But where can you go to develop the gift of giving?  Not seminaries:  Seminaries train teaching, evangelism, pastoral, and leadership gifts, but not the gift of giving.  Not Christian books and financial workshops:  All of the ones that we knew about did not prioritize giving to the poor more and more, but simply rational money management.  Not churches:  Most churches only teach about tithing to the church, not giving to the poor, when it’s time to discuss the church’s annual budget.  Not church small groups:  Money is such a private matter in American culture(s) and other cultures that we have effectively removed our financial decisions from Christian accountability.  We have hidden them in dark caves far from the light of day.  All that is unacceptable.

So we started learning what it meant to bring out this delicate, judgmental, comparison-oriented, anxiety-ridden place in our hearts, before Jesus and before each other.  We did it for the sake of giving more to the poor.  It was well worth it.  I think you’d find it to be true as well.