Don’t give it all away

by Editor on March 17, 2016

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My internal situational analyst is part fascinated, part disturbed by Jesus’ challenge to give everything up and just follow Him. “If I go and do likewise,” it asks in a small voice, verging on terror, “If I give everything up, how will I live?”

One of my organization’s guiding principles while I was serving in Uganda was to have its workers strive to live comfortably, but at a similar level as their neighbors. We began our service term expecting great sacrifice, and looked forward, to some degree, towards how that sacrifice might bring us closer to God.

At team meetings, we would hear each other’s struggles as we sought to live out this principle – whether to purchase a large refrigerator to preserve more food and save on cooking time, or stick with a smaller one that would better match those in neighboring homes. Or, whether decorating our home in a way that comforted and inspired our spirits would be wasteful among families with no expendable income. Around and around we’d share, wondering whether we were benefiting too greatly, whether we were sacrificing enough.

Interestingly, our neighbors were often confused by our self-imposed emotional turmoil. We had already given up so much, they would point out. We didn’t behave like other NGO workers, with their flashy cars and gated homes. We sat in our compounds on the same tiny wooden stools we offered our guests, our children chattering and playing with theirs. We didn’t need to hobble ourselves with a finicky charcoal stove. “Just get the gas cooker,” they would say, smiling and slapping their stomachs. “Don’t worry. We will benefit also.” While we made plans for the feast we could prepare if we had a steady heat source, all mention of the personal I was stripped from conversation, and the communal we slipped into its place.

This was an answer to my worry-question. By seeking to live as a neighbor in this context, I had signed on not to give up everything I had in pursuit of some kind of personal religious experience; I had agreed to share access to our gas cooker and other resources as part of a what’s-mine-is-ours Kingdom lifestyle. How much more comforting to answer Jesus’ call, knowing I wouldn’t be alone in the following. The journey would be up to us, not just me.

Originally published in Purpose Magazine, November 2015

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eh1Esther Harder spent six years in Uganda and Rwanda as an English / Math / Computers teacher, football coach, and peace facilitator. Currently, she works in a library where she is known as the computer literacy instructor, homework mentor, crocheted-flower coach, and the you-dream-it-I-make-it resident artist. Esther blogs at roamingpen.blogspot.com.

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  • This is such a great post and perspective on this – one I whole-heartedly agree with! As a missionary in Tanzania I can totally relate to the internal struggle, but I too had a similar conversation with some Tanzanian friends. I’ve since embraced the *we* mentality and it’s so much easier on the brain/emotions! 🙂

    • Esther Harder

      Thanks! I am sure there are some stories behind the process of embracing the “we mentality”.

  • Bes

    I am convinced that part of longevity in missionaries is having comfortable surroundings. If we live in a way that we cannot find rest and peace in our own home, we will crash and burn. Most nationals expect us to have a higher standard of living to an extent.
    I once had a national tell me how they had met an expat living in the village at a lower standard than even a local store owner. My national friend said, “We don’t choose to live at this low level. If we could, we would try to buy x, y, and z. These things are helpful for anyone. Why would you live in such a way that you cannot cook good food or invite us to your home?”

    • Esther Harder

      Bes: Comfortable surroundings — yes. I’ve learned to give comfort items that help me make a new place feel like home priority in my suitcases each time I make a transition, and to get those items out of luggage and into my space early. Maybe not before the dishes, but you know, pretty soon. 🙂

      And yes, I affirm the prioritization of the ability to be a welcoming home for others!

  • We are 19 months on the field and I feel the internal struggle. More than I expected. Just this week we are having a tool shed built for the supplies my husband has to build churches/wells in villages. And I keep thinking, our shed, is bigger than some of their homes. Yet, we are having an opportunity to provide work to a few builders and their families, have them at our house for many days as they work, give them water, and that is just the short term… long term being the many villages that will be impacted by these tools… an internal struggle for sure!

    • Esther Harder

      It’s a continuous struggle, I think, but a good one to engage in: pressing into that tension of admitting our needs and desires but not letting them rule us to the point that we become blind to the needs and desires of others.

  • Andrew

    This has been one of the toughest things I’ve wrestled with overseas. Western missionaries here are like millionaires to our local partners…we are wanting nothing, comparitavely. Though to our friends back home we are charity cases. :). We may do similar work to locals but live at a much richer standard. While its easy to feel guilty, we are also able to share so much with our needy friends, provide fair household employment, demonstrate appropriate handling of wealth. But I know I never want to be rich in the west…too much responsibility!

  • Kathleen Shumate

    Ah, this is brilliant! Sacrifice is not about a “personal religious experience,” and self-righteous asceticism isn’t holiness! The “We” factor is key. It’s true that we’re comparatively wealthy–so how can we share and love others with these gifts while living in a way that honors them?

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