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.
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.
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.