Tag Archives: simplicity

The culture of things

One of the qualms that comes with an international move (apparently) is that cultural values in regards to things, abundance, and excess inevitably don’t quite match up.  

I mentioned that in China, many of my friends only owned one or two pairs of clothes, many families had just a few possessions, the insides of their homes, some with dirt floors and concrete walls, appeared barren to my Western eye.

Before we moved to China, my husband and I sold many of our possessions.  But another young couple used most of our furniture for the two years we were in China, and we had other treasured things–wedding photos, souvenirs from travel, and books–stacked in footlockers waiting for our return.

We’ve all but completed our move and our set-up here in our new apartment in New Jersey, and the business of making a home is fun, and one that was made quite a bit easier and more affordable given the items we kept those few years.

But everything I’m reading lately (see here, here, and here) reminds me that we live in a climate of excess here in America.  Every time I go out to eat and a huge portion greets me, or even when warm water runs over my hands in the kitchen sink, or when I’m sorting through boxes of items that we’ve amassed over the years I’m embarrassed, stunned, and overwhelmed by things and their hold over me.

Views of the countryside in Yunnan province. Photo by Evan Schneider.

A fellow blogger recently discussed the growing materialism in China today, while also remarking on the lively debates we Americans get into over PC vs. Mac, or the way we caress our computers and phones.  She argues that Americans are simply unaware of their materialism, to the extent that they are unable “to separate material (especially techno-consumerism) from their identities.  America is so accustomed to its wealth that we are loathe to part with the products that make us who we are.”

We speak of things we need that we don’t really need.  We choose to feel inadequate when we don’t have enough “furniture to fill the space” and we buy more things as we can afford bigger spaces.  This morning I heard on NPR that the average cost of raising a child from age 0 to 18 in America is $250,000, but that’s relative to your income–as in the more money you have, the more money you will spend on a child.  

How does God desire that we live, and is that living relative to the country or the continent on which we find ourselves?  

I’m asking you this morning because I’m still parceling these things out as I go.  I’m still reeling from this new context in which I’m making my home and trying not to live in a nostalgia for China that romanticizes poverty, but rather a life that realizes authenticity and simplicity.  And God knows I’m finding it difficult…what about you?




What Jesus can teach us about the busy trap

This Sunday my husband and I went to the Presbyterian Church for the first time in over a year and half.

Certain things were familiar–the liturgy, the scriptures, the Gloria Patri, the Doxology– but I have to tell you, all that English kind of threw me!

You see after two years in China, I’m used to stumbling over the words to the Apostle’s Creed in Mandarin, and watching ninety Chinese brothers and sisters file into the TSPM sanctuary to be baptized on any given Sunday, instead of the solitary blond little girl with her entire extended family flanking her this Sunday morning.

Chinese friends in front of Lashihai Lake, Yunnan province, China.

My husband mentioned today that there are times that falling back into life here in America feels so natural, like we didn’t even leave, and other times, everything is foreign, overwhelming, and well…decidedly unnatural.

But this Sunday morning as the pastor painted pictures with her words, preaching on John 6:1-21, the stories of Jesus feeding the five thousand and walking on water, and pondering whether it was the effervescence of fellowship that produced enough bread and fish, or whether Jesus found a sandbar that fateful evening, all I could hear was the calm of the sea, and the steadiness of Jesus’ faith and vision.

He didn’t panic when the disciples approached him with just five barley loaves and two fish, but told them to sit down, and broke bread, feeding the crowds until they were satisfied.  And then when the crowd wanted to crown him king, he silently slipped away to be still on a mountainside.  And later that night, the disciples find him walking on water.

Now I always wonder about the point of that whole walking on water bit.

But seeing Jesus’ penchant for solitude and stillness throughout the miracle of feeding, roaring crowds, and pesky disciples, I like to think of him as perhaps not being able to sleep that night and walking across the waters, embracing that brief moment of stillness and simplicity.

At one point in her sermon, the pastor shared the famous Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese,

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware.

I have to admit that I have some anxiety, not only about this whole cross-cultural readjustment thing, but also about the business of setting our life in order here in America, about budgets, and housing, and dissertation-writing, and job-hunting…and my stomach is turning just typing out that list, actually.

But Jesus reminds me that in the business of miracle-making, crowd-pleasing, and discipling, he took time to be still.  He didn’t succumb to the busy-ness, but saw that “every common bush was afire with God” ….and took off his shoes…and walked on water.

And… he is the one who calms the storm.

And the fact that all this doesn’t feel so natural all the time isn’t so bad either, right?  After all, I don’t want to sit around and pluck blackberries with such irreverance as to miss the earth crammed with heaven.

Rather, I want to be bold enough to take off my shoes and tiptoe onto that water, and trust in the madness of a promise and a blessing in which I can be so touched by my life in China and yet meant for this place and this moment and this future.  

May Jesus continue to teach us when to feed and when to retreat, and above all, how to find calm in the midst of stormy seas.