Sunday, July 31, 2011

Debt Ceilings and Living Responsibly

The political storm surrounding the debt ceiling has given much food for thought concerning responsible living. Both parties accuse the other of irresponsible spending and have demonstrated little willingness to compromise. Republicans blame the Democrats and the Democrats blame the Republicans. No one seems to accept that both parties are responsible for the mess we're in, that the overspending that has brought us to this point has been going on for years. Of course to admit that would be to admit that we have built our entire lifestyle around consumption. We have established a mindset that we deserve it all and we deserve it now, regardless of whether we need it or can truly afford it. If government has grown used to spending more than it earns, ultimately it has done so because we the people have asked more and more of it while wanting to give it less and less of our money. It seems that what most people want is a solution that will allow them to continue living this lifestyle without pain or sacrifice. From what I hear people say around me and on TV, from what I see reported in the news, people are wondering how long it will take to get through this time of difficulty so that we can get back to living the “good life” again.

What if living the good life is precisely what has brought us to this brink of collapse? What if we all accepted that we don't have to have it all and we certainly don't have to have it all now? A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article in an Australian newspaper. This article pointed out that we do not hear the word austerity used in any discussion of how to bring the country out of this difficult time. We're not willing to live responsibly, if responsible living means giving up all those nice extras that we believe we deserve.

I do not want to see our country go into default on its debt. That would not be responsible. But I wonder whether, if it does, the ensuing collapse might in the long run be good for us and for the world. Would it force us to live more simply? It would certainly be painful and the effects would be far-reaching. But even as I fear the possible consequences, I can see how they might produce a beneficial result in the long run. (I am not advocating for default nor do I intend to indicate support for either political party's preferred solution here.)

As I reestablish myself and my family in this country after a period of living overseas, I am trying to determine what it means for us to live responsibly. What things do we truly need and what things would simply be nice to have, should we be in a position to acquire them? How can we live such that we free up as much of our resources as possible to share with those in other parts of the world who live in much more difficult circumstances? I don't have definite answers to these questions, but I have written three principles to help guide me in my decisions: 1) Strive to live with less, 2) Strive to give more to others and 3) Strive for a healthy, sustainable lifestyle (environmentally, financially, emotionally, spiritually, etc.) These principles don't define every choice in every situation, but they give me a framework to help me as I make decisions.

I'd like to think that the current political impasse will result in fundamental changes to our consumer culture. But realistically I doubt they will. However the issue is resolved, I fear that we will simply continue to try to maintain an unsustainable lifestyle until we really do reach a point of collapse. Maybe this will not be the case, but personally I want to try and live responsibly so that other people, both the poor of the world now and those who will come after me, might be able to live balanced lives as well. If a little austerity on my part can help that happen, then it will be well-invested.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Two Roads Diverged in the Middle of the Wood

This summer my family and I returned to the US from our work overseas for a couple months of rest and refreshment. At least that was how we envisioned it when we came back. The past two years have been very successful in terms of our work with minority language groups. However, that progress has cost us greatly as a family. We have struggled to meet the needs of our children as they move into their teenage years. We do not advocate building family life around the goal of making our children happy, but at the same time we do need to be aware of their needs and not sacrifice them on some false altar of ministry.

During our time in Arizona over the past month it became increasingly clear that we needed to make a radical change in order to keep our family healthy. We thought we had another year to work out the next step, but certain needs have pushed that time frame into the immediate present. Because of this we decided that we should relocate to the US for the next few years while our children complete high school. During that time my wife and I will continue our work with minority language groups, but will do so remotely. This will present a number of challenges, but will allow us to provide our children with the support they need during these important years. Living among the people groups also had challenges and the price was paid most heavily by the children. Now we will focus more on them while moving the work ahead on a slower path.

I wrestled a lot with this decision, because we have invested heavily over the past few years to establish our work. At first I felt that the only choice we had was to sacrifice our family by remaining in location and continuing to work as we had been, or to sacrifice the work by leaving the location and focusing on our family. Neither was a desirable option to me. I spoke at length with my pastor about this and he, without pushing me to any decision, challenged me to open my hand and not cling to what I felt was God's plan for me. He told me to let go and let God direct me/us in the next step. I had been paralyzed by fear, fear of the unknown and fear that our needs would not be adequately met if we made any major change. I also feared the impact on my identity. Who would I be if I were not doing the work I enjoy?

Faced with certain realities in our lives at present, the decision became quite apparent and in some sense made itself. But I still had to choose to accept it. I am still working through the impact of this on me personally, on us as a family and on our work and I hope to share some of this journey with my readers in the weeks and month ahead. Some voices argue that we should sacrifice all for the sake of the Good News, including our very family. They point to the lives of great men and women of God in the past who left family behind while pursuing their "ministry" and they hold such people up as models for us to emulate. But I question whether this is truly the "godly" choice. God is teaching me these days that if I listen to him, he can open up new paths that I might not have considered if I clung to my "ministry" at all costs. And in this new path he can continue to teach me and work through me while at the same time caring for the needs of my family. It does require sacrifice and the sacrifice is painful. But it brings blessing, at least I believe it will and have been affirmed in this choice by people I greatly respect and admire.

In the first days of working through this decision I felt great anguish over what it would cost me and the things I would have to leave behind. My focus was on the loss. But after some time God began to turn my focus toward the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead. It doesn't mean that I won't have to give anything up or make any sacrifices. It doesn't make those sacrifices less painful or easier. But it does help me look ahead with hope and anticipation, rather than remaining stuck in the past or present in grief and sorrow. I wish sometimes that the journey of faith was a nice walk along a manicured path. It's not, because faith requires me to step into the unknown and put complete trust in a God whose ways I do not fully understand--far from it. Growing in faith is painful and exhausting. But it is also joyful and filled with hope. I invite you to continue walking on this journey with me.