The Non-Essentials of Life
Issues of lifestyle have been forced on American Christians by a haywire economy and a starving world. Roberta Winter, in this Moody Monthly reprint, goes deeper than motives of fear or guilt, and gives some refreshing, personal reflections on how Christians can withstand the relentless pressures of cul¬ture by engaging in Christ's fundamental purposes for His Church. Mission Frontiers will carry the article in two parts.
Scene 1: Summer 1951
(It was our second date. Ralph and I were sitting on the grass close to the Rose Bowl, getting acquainted. We had first met just two weeks before.)
"I want you to know I'm a rather... uh... radical person," Ralph told me. "My mother has often despaired of me. At one point I even refused to wear dress clothes to church."
I waited for explanation. He seemed to be dressed like everyone else sport shirt and slacks. Nothing elaborate, but nothing weird.
"Some of my friends and I had been reading about various saints down through history, and we just couldn't see why God would not expect as much of us as of them. Take neckties, for example. It didn't seem right to buy neckties when people elsewhere were starving. I figure Americans must own $500,000,000 worth of neckties."
"But you wear them now, don't you?" I asked.
"Yes, but not for the usual reasons. I wear them only to keep from scaring away the natives." And he laughed as he motioned with his hand to some people sitting a little ways away.
I didn't fully understand what he was saying. Gradually I realized that, as Paul said, we don't live to ourselves alone (1 Cor. 10). Our conviction of how the Lord wants us to live must be balanced by its effects on others. Does our style of living lead others to Christ or become a barrier to keep them from Him? As I came to understand, I was more able to enunciate what for us both has become a basic principle of life:
Principle One: Our lifestyle must please the Lord, yet you should not make small matters be so shockingly different from those among whom we walk as to make unintelligible the message we wish to convey.
That day in the park was certainly not my first exposure to a simple lifestyle. Born during the depression, I could remember birthdays celebrated with one lead pencil. Yet we now could have meat every day. If I needed a dress, I could get one. Furthermore, long before 1 met Ralph, God had touched my lifestyle when I asked myself, "Would I follow what the Lord wanted me to do if no one understood?"
As we talked that day I knew it would be exciting and challenging to marry this man. He told me of little economies here and there, but mostly he talked of his dreams, his ideals, his goals that had derived from his walk with the Lord.
I was fascinated with those dreams. Some were just dreams. Others were becoming realities. Because of his efforts as a student in seminary, a group of Christians were in 'closed" Afghanistan teaching English and starting an engineering school.
He was excited about his doctoral studies in linguistics because he wanted to make the biblical languages more useful to the average pastor and missionary. Already he had a card file of the Greek lexicon which he hoped to arrange in order of the biblical text to avoid the endless flipping of pages to look up a word. In his head were the ideas behind what has recently been published: the Word Study Concordance and the Word Study New Testament.
I caught a glimpse that day of the excitement he felt in doing something creative for the Lord, something that would make a difference in the spread of the gospel. Any excitement I might have ever felt for new clothes and a beautiful home paled in comparison to his.
Much later I learned that John Wesley had also been caught up in this same kind of excitement and had called it "the expulsIve power of a new affection." Wesley could have become wealthy, but he was. so excited accomplishing things for the Lord that he could not be bothered. When he died, he owned only two silver spoons, but was known and loved in the smallest towns of England because of the light he had brought.
During the first few years after marriage, our problem was not whether we should live simply. Once we chose the dreams, we had no alternative. Ralph was in graduate school. And though I could have earned a good salary as a registered nurse, I preferred to become a part of those dreams by working with him in his graduate studies.
I would nurse for a while to build up a reserve, then do research for him until the reserve was gone. We repeated the cycle as often as necessary. After he finished his dissertation, our first two children were born. Then I could neither nurse nor do library research.
By now Ralph had returned to seminary, and we had to make ends meet on what he earned as a student pastor and as a part time engineer. Our income was so meager that when we became missionaries, it tripled.
Scene 2. June 1957.
(We had just arrived at our post in the mountains of Guatemala. Our assignment was to work with a dozen congregations, among the Mam Indians, one of the poorest groups of people in this hemisphere.)
I was embarrassed. The truck with all our belongings arrived dust covered from the trip over the narrow dirt road which led
through the mountain pass into our valley. We collected all our barrels and mattresses and our gas powered wringer washer something we considered a "must" with our three small children. A crowd of curious onlookers surrounded us and all that stuff!
"Why do they stare?" I thought with a twinge of irritation. And then, sure enough, a young man asked the question I had been dreading:
"How much did that cost?"
Barefoot, wearing clothes on which even the patches were patched, he pointed to a mattress. He also kept eyeing the washing machine, obviously wondering what on earth that could be. Never in all his life had he seen a machine like that! Mattresses he had seen, to be sure bags stuffed with straw that rustled and pricked with every move and all too soon became infested with vermin.
What could I tell him? We had bought what seemed to us to be so little. Yet I knew that a month's salary for that young man would not begin to buy a mattress. And I felt defensive.
I could have sold all that was luxurious in the eyes of these people. I could more quickly identify with them if I did.
And yet I also knew that without those machines and little "luxuries" I would be tied to housework. These things could allow me to do in an hour what might otherwise take all day. Even hiring outside help would be luxurious in their eyes.
And I didn't want all my missionary experience to be housework. Surely God had called me to more than that! Thus I had to choose between simplicity in how my money was spent and simplicity in how my time was spent.
Nevertheless, I could not close my eyes to the dire poverty of these clear people.. I could not forget that John sad: "If someone who is supposed to be a Christian has money enough to live well, and sees a brother in need, and won't help him how can God's love be within him?" (1 John 3:17 LB).
It took us some months to adjust to the uncomfortable idea that we would always have more "things" than these people. I doubt if we could have survived on their economic level, but in the long run we did everything we could to live in a way to which they could at least aspire.
We bought only the kinds of equipment which they as a group could afford. We even avoided small luxuries like soda pop, a useless temptation they could ill afford.
I learned in those years a new principle:
Principle Two: A simple lifestyle in the US. can still seem extravagant to most of the people in the world. Yet our geographic isolation does not reduce our obligation in God's eyes to people at a distance.
Scene Three: Fall 1961
(We had just returned on furlough after our first five years in Guatemala. Ralph and I stepped into an American drug store to fill a prescription. I waited twenty minutes for the druggist. and came back to find Ralph standing near the cash register rather bemused, looking back at a long counter filled with pink, fluffy giraffes, purple elephants, and green monkeys.)
"Roberta, I've walked around this entire store, and there's not one thing here I would take home even if they gave it to me." He motioned toward the counters filled with bric a brac, poorly made furniture, discount jewelry, and endless toys. "Do they really think they can unload this stuff on thinking people?"
We're still not sure.
After Guatemala, the U.S. society seemed so gorged and glutted with trivialities - things that soon would be more junk at garage sales. But our four young daughters were dazzled."Daddy, do we have enough money to buy. . .?" they would ask.
And he would inevitably reply, "Of course we can! But do we want it?" A long discussion would follow, setting "things" in their proper perspective without making the girls feel deprived and poor.
Furloughs were always a problem. From being the wealthiest people in our Guatemala community, we became poor missionaries in the eyes of others. Yet our missionary salary had always seemed adequate. It was adjusted year by year to our cost of living.
We were provided with money to cover most of our medical and dental expenses. We even had the unheard of benefit of a fund set aside to help with the college education of our children. We paid no income tax. Our home was provided.
It was not hard for us to live on our missionary salary because we knew we were here temporarily. Thus we were not tempted to keep up with friends in the States. Back on the field we would neither need nor want a stereo, a television, or the latest fad in kitchen appliances.
We never hesitated to buy something which would simplify our lives, giving us more time to spend on more important things. But we determined what we wanted. We, not television ads nor social pressure, decided what would help us. And we tried to teach our daughters what to us had become a principle of life:
Principle Three: We don't really need most of the things our culture would push. off on vs. Once we learn to resist socal pressure, it is far easier to determine what we really want or need.
(to be continued next issue)