catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 10 :: 2009.05.08 — 2009.05.22


The piles behind the screen

Hand-me-downs. One pair of shoes a year. Reused sandwich bags and foil. “Surprise ingredients” (also known as leftovers). “Reduced” bread and produce. On vacation, we carried sack lunches on free tours. Our home looked clean and uncluttered, sparse by today’s standards. Except for the mortgage, my parents had no debt; they made it their practice to give generously to the church and others in need. We seldom had extra, but always enough.

I never felt less than satisfied. We were rich in laughter, team work and comfortable togetherness. Evenings often found mom coaching us on math facts or dad rough-housing with us on the floor. When dad’s company went on strike, we discovered anonymous bags of groceries in our car after church — a tutorial in God’s provision and a mystery to boot. Extended family gatherings and church picnics made me feel a part of something bigger. I don’t remember wishing for more or better or different. To me, life felt full…abundant.

While in college, I visited the home of my future husband — and looked around in amazement. Were they rich? Flowered sheets, plush carpeting, multiple sets of dishes, antiques, a garage full of tools, two fully-equipped kitchens, and well, just a lot more stuff than I was used to! They stockpiled sugar in the front closet, and their pantry shelves boasted enough canned goods to keep them going for a long time. If they lived through another depression, they would never again go without.

Ironically, Barry’s family saw themselves as far from wealthy. Dad Phillips worked the grape farm and did carpentry work on the side. Mom canned vegetables from the garden out back. They worried about their future on a fixed income, and their conversations reflected a resentment of taxes and high prices. I could sympathize with their concerns with the soaring inflation of the 1970s. Yet I sensed their definition of abundance and mine might not be the same.

In our thirty years of marriage, Barry and I have had a few tug-of-war discussions about my propensity for simplicity and his tendency to be a pack rat! A few years ago, he devised a solution to “keep us both happy.” The main part of the bedroom looks neat, but behind a tri-fold screen, on the floor, lay an odd assortment of books, piles of papers, CDs, scattered notebooks, videos, etc. Perhaps this room arrangement is our way of acknowledging the tension between the simple and the saver/collector-and respecting the other’s paradigm. He tries to keep the room picked up. I don’t touch his piles behind the screen. It works.

But one compromise doesn’t erase the tension of how much is enough. I still think we have too many books, files and papers we haven’t used in years. Are we guilty of hoarding (Luke 12:16-21)? James Kennedy, in his book Lord, Change my Attitude, says, “Think of how much time and energy you spend sorting, transporting, buying, and maintaining your stuff….Is your stuff getting in the way of what you really want to do with your life?” My answer is yes.

My husband’s response to Kennedy’s question might be different. He is going through a vocational transition and unsure of his future employment. The contents of the boxes decorating the back wall in the garage might be useful again someday. To him, they are more than books and files. They represent a large part of who he was — and still is. We have a richer relationship because I have chosen to stop bugging him about thinning them out.

A friend of ours grew up as a missionary kid in the Philippines. Adjusting to life in the United States didn’t come easy for him. The sharp contrast of the two cultures clashed in his thinking. Why all this affluence? Fancy clothes? Big houses? And of all things: insurance?

His story led Barry and me to consider the term “respectable.” If we are to live in this culture and in the town and neighborhood where God has placed us, we cannot camp out in a shack or do without a car. We try to keep our home in good repair, mow the lawn and weed our flower beds — not to impress the neighbors, but to maintain a respectable testimony of our God (not to mention an outworking of self-respect).

The apostle Paul instructed the Philippian believers to let their conduct be becoming to the gospel of Christ (1:27). I have said to my daughter, “Your dress is very becoming.” Though pretty in its own right, the dress accents her eyes and slender frame. It brings out her best characteristics. The way we live everyday reveals a certain level of Christ’s work on humanity’s behalf. Lately I’ve asked myself if my attitudes about abundance bring to light the remarkable features of the gospel. Or do people miss it?

The folks in our area raise their eyebrows at piles of junk in the yard, weeds a foot high, and a saggy roof. If all we talk about are the virtues of being tight or our worries about the economy, God’s grace in times of need stays hidden. Nor would it be a good idea for us to go over the top with the latest accessory or hire a limousine and a gardener. On our street, these lifestyles would distract from the Kingdom. “Respectable” is a goal worth pursuing for Barry and me, subjective as it may be.

Trying to find equilibrium in abundance isn’t new. A thousand years before Christ, a wise man prayed, “Give me neither poverty nor riches…Lest I be full and deny You, And say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8, 9).

I have to admit, I love a garage sale bargain. I reuse foil and sandwich bags. My family eats surprise ingredients (never the same recipe twice — and my husband never complains). I head for the clearance shelves in the grocery store and at the mall. Yet I hope our trust reaches higher than human-made simplicity and frugality or the amassing of material things.

Next week, the simple minimalist will team up with the saver pack rat, this time to prepare the guest room for company where piles have multiplied-again. Something tells me some of those stacks will end up on the floor behind the screen in our room. But I won’t touch them. Not now.

In the last year, our income has taken a forty percent nose-dive. We’ve faced many adjustments and have had to make countless difficult decisions. Our future is somewhat shrouded in uncertainty. But God has been ever faithful. I don’t feel less than satisfied. The presence of God has been abundant. That’s enough.

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