Sometimes I wonder if we as Christians lie to ourselves about what it really and truly means to be a Christian; to follow Christ in the true meaning of His message and legacy. I have an American friend who lives here in Cape Town. She loves God and is a wonderful artist. But one thing that is very disturbing to me about her is she is seemingly misunderstood by friends, family, and others that she is connected to back in the States. She feels called to Cape Town for the time being. She volunteers at a home for young men and gives countless hours of her time and energy in service to them. She creates beautiful art. But to many American Christians she is seen as “irresponsible”.
This is probably because we both come from one of the wealthiest countries in the world; a place where the “American Dream” is still alive and kicking. People work their entire lives to get good educations, which lead to well paying jobs, which leads to being “successful”. This success is often gauged on material stuff: a big house, a nice car (or two), all kinds of appliances, televisions, YMCA memberships, lots of money and loads and loads of stuff…throw in the white picket fence, a faithful dog and two-point-something kids and you have the American Dream. The country we come from has individual States that have a higher Gross Domestic Product than whole countries! For interest sake, I come from Tennessee, which has a Gross Domestic Product similar to that of Iran. No one would argue the fact that Americans are hard workers and are very successful!
Ironically, maybe only to me, America also views itself as a “Christian Nation”. A statement of faith, “In God We Trust” is written on the notes of the American currency to this day! For me, that is an in-your-face example of how the culture of striving to be materially successful is often intertwined with Christian beliefs in America. It is in this environment that the “prosperity message” was birthed; “God wants us to live life abundantly and the more you have, the better you make Him look”. I am not saying that every American Christian is wrong, or that every American Christian is striving to be rich. But I am saying that being materially wealthy is an extremely common quality found in many American believers. So it makes since that someone who challenges that lifestyle would not be all that well received or understood, and that person would, in turn, probably receive a bit of flack from friends, family, and his or her church.
After a difficult visit to the States my friend wrote something on an airline napkin on the plane ride back to South Africa. She later created a piece of art in which she beautifully painted her words to a canvas. One day I saw it hanging on her wall and I was moved by it. I could feel the pain in her words, but also the hope and dreams with which they were laced. I asked her if she would write it down for me and she did. Here are her words,
“I want to see life in its raw form. I want to be an artist here, to create meaning that deals with the messiness of the world. I want to be a part of something that matters. I want to be transformed. I want to be fully here. I want to dive deeply with integrity. I want to stop treading mindless so called necessities and breathe. I want to live boldly, value the process and enjoy the mess. I want to seek truth, seep joy, to reflect light. I want to be free.”
These words are beautiful to me. What is equally beautiful is to see her living these things out on a daily basis. She is doing just what she wants to do! She is in the place she is supposed to be. She is impacting people and communities around her. And she is being faithful to serve God and others. I guess I can’t expect someone who lives a totally different life, with totally different values, in a totally different part of the globe, to truly understand my friend and embrace the life that she lives. But I wish they could. I can only imagine what this world would be like if people were not held down by expectations of family, friends, and society; if people stepped out of the comfort that they know to live a freeing life in service to others and not in service to their mortgages. I guess this stepping out can look irresponsible to some, but I am reminded of other pillars of the Christian faith that did the same.
I think of one man in particular. A man who did not even get started with what he was called to do until the age of 30. A man that had no mortgage to pay because he had no home to speak of. A man that had very few material possessions that we know of; namely the clothes on his back. A man who spent much of his time just “hanging out” with his friends and other people that crossed his path. A man that was never married and never had any children. A man that had no education that we know about. A man that was known to hang out with prostitutes, beggars, sick, poor and other undesirable characters. A man that lived a totally non-materialistic life, striving to bring glory to the Father in all that he did, and knowing that his wealth was in eternal things. A man that lived a totally radical life, and was eventually killed for it. I guess by now you know who I am speaking about.
What is difficult for me to understand is, if this is the man we say we all follow, then why is my friend’s lifestyle so “out of the ordinary” and looked down upon. Why is this type of lifestyle not the “norm”?