Life was good. We were living the dream, “the American dream.” Literally, my husband moved from a 3rd world country at the age of 17, went to college, married himself a lovely bride, worked his way up the corporate ladder, had 3 children along the way, and bought the dream house with 4 bedrooms, 3 baths, and a pool, situated in the perfect neighborhood, all before age 30. What more could we possibly have asked for? Until one day my honey went and ruined it. And this is the story of why I couldn’t be happier that he did…
We were just kids when we got married. He worked as the rookie drafter in a small design firm. We bought our first little 1,400 square foot mansion at age 22. Over the years the business grew, as did his title and responsibilities, as did our family. We had a boy and then a girl, so we bought a bigger little mansion and did the trendy wise-investment thing and rented out the first one. Then we had another boy and sold both little mansions and bought the dream home.
Obviously, my love knew how blessed we were, given he was born into the lower class and then grew up into middle class society in Venezuela. He knew what it was to be poor, to be a family of 5 sleeping in a 1 room studio apartment, in a building shared with prostitutes and eating sometimes only one meal a day. He KNEW how far he had come, how hard he had worked, (or rather, how far God had chosen to bring him), into middle class America. But then, so did I.
I went on my first international mission trip to Misiones, Argentina at 15. I celebrated my sweet 16 giving food and shoes and hugs to native peoples that lived in huts and labored all day in the sun just to survive each day. I went every following summer to another country or three. I saw the happiness that the poorest of poor people had despite their circumstances. I learned early on that MONEY REALLY DOESN’T BUY HAPPINESS.
This was before the book Radical by David Platt had come out and challenged us to take back our faith from the American Dream, before Francis Chan wrote Crazy Love which pushed the envelope of what it means to give ourselves fully to God. We hadn’t heard many big name preachers telling us that God’s desire for us was anything other than to “prosper” us…yet. We simply knew that we had so much more than 99% of the world and something didn’t settle right in our spirits.
So that day he told me about the prayer, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I wasn’t surprised, but I was scared. You know, the kind of fear you get right before you bungee off a bridge? You know what’s about to happen, but not really. You know the logistics that you will feel the adrenaline rush of free-falling, and there is a slight chance you could die, but you haven’t yet experienced the exhilaration, and you trust that in the end the bungee will hold and you will have had the ride of your life. I had THAT kind of fear…and rightly so.
We both knew that this was the kind of prayer God would answer, which is exciting. Though, very possibly the answer would come in ways that were not fun, pleasant, enjoyable, need I continue? Yet we both longed for Him to answer his prayer, now our prayer. It was simple and went something like this:
“Lord, thank you for all of these blessings, (naming them one by one). You have been incredibly gracious to provide well beyond our needs and even beyond our wants. We have SO much. Please, please don’t let any of these “things” ever get in the way of our relationship with you, or our ability to serve you. Detach our hearts from material things. We really enjoy having them, but we want to enjoy YOU more! We don’t ever want the enjoyment of things to become idols to us or prevent us from giving ourselves fully to you. We love you and want to always love you FIRST, above everything else. If there is anything that stands in the way, please remove it.”
I’m quite sure that as those words left his mouth, a swirling vortex appeared in the air above our property and almost instantly began sucking things away from us. (Ok, maybe not literally, but it sure felt like that for the next 4 years.) In the beginning, with the excitement that God had actually heard us and was answering our prayer, it was to be expected and almost easy (almost) to let go of some things, first a job, which was followed by the dream house and life next door to family. Over time it got harder, we had to give up even the things we thought God wanted for us. It turns out, His purpose was different than ours. Imagine that! Eventually, it became easy.
During the last 4 years of our lives, God worked at stripping away everything: jobs, security, money, security, jobs, pride, stuff, idols, dreams, pride, more dreams, more idols, more pride, all the way down to the last smidgen of self, and yep, He took that too. One simple example is that we moved 5 times. We started with 2,400 square feet on a 1/4 acre lot with a pool. Each home we downsized, eventually living in about 1,000 s.f. with 2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom for the 5 of us. Over the course of 2 1/2 years, we took a dozen or so truckloads of “stuff” to goodwill. Each time it got easier to let go of the things that we had previously thought we “needed” in this life.
Today we rent a 2 bedroom basement apartment that makes Ikea’s apartment displays look spacious, totaling all of 600 square feet…for 5 people. Granted, we share the kitchen and dining room upstairs with my parents (oh yes, did I mention that we are in our mid-30’s, with 3 children, living in my parents basement while my husband goes back to grad school?). Yeah…there is no amount of pride that we can derive from this living situation, (at least, not in the US), nor is there any end in sight as to when we could even think about renting our own place again on one part-time salary and my handful of music students. (Yes, I have considered putting the kids in public school and getting myself a full-time J-O-B to be able to afford our own home, but for what purpose? I know…that’s a loaded question, but ultimately it comes down to pride or values, and we highly value the quality of slower paced daily life and home schooling our children, which if you’re curious, looks something like this: http://www.halfahundredacrewood.com/2013/06/of-curriculum-and-schedules.html.)
The fact of the matter is: we still live far better than 99% of the world! The basement apartment we live in has daylight windows and walks out to a gorgeous manicured backyard on a canal (complete with overly friendly baby gator we’ve tenderly named “ankle-biter.”) We have central a/c and heat. We have carpet and tile. We have running water and indoor plumbing. We have comfy (albeit old and slightly saggy in the middle) mattresses to sleep on every night with adequate bedding to keep us at just the right temperature. And we were able to store the rest of our “stuff,” what’s left of it after 5 moves, for free in friends garages. But at this point, our hearts are so far removed from all of the “stuff” that if it all disappeared, or was stolen, or was weather-damaged, we would be just fine. We have so little attachment anymore to “stuff.” Maybe someday we’ll have our own house again and use it all. Or maybe not, and we’ll be able to give more of it away to bless someone else in need. While it was hard to let go in the beginning, we can now freely give of our things and ultimately of our selves.
The bottom line is…we are no longer defined by our “stuff.” We no longer feel the need to keep up with the Joneses, or the Smiths, or…you…get the idea. There is great freedom in letting go of “stuff.” We have seen enough of the world to know that “stuff” doesn’t matter. People matter…to us, and to God. He answered that scary prayer with the most difficult years of our lives, as He stripped us bare, only to replace the “stuff,” the pride, even our godly desires, with contentment, joy in the midst of suffering, and just the slightest bit more of Himself in us than we had before. We are still so far from perfect, so far from selfless, but He knew exactly what we needed to get us to surrender all of ourselves to Him.
In fact, He’s still working on us, still removing idols, pride tries to creep back in, we’re still letting go of “stuff.” Our story is one of riches-to-rags. But in turn, He is molding, and shaping, THE Spectacular Potter is working the lumps out of the clay. And for that I am thankful.
“Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Romans 9:21 ESV)
Our story is certainly not everyone’s story. For the Potter has the sovereign right and will to choose His purpose for each lump of clay. And He never takes away just to take away. He always has a purpose. His purpose is often not to prosper us in the world’s standards of the word. Quite often, He will humble us. For it is only when we truly NEED Him that His magnificent glory might be displayed. There is nothing I have accomplished in the last few years that I can take a millimeter of credit for. If anything good has come of my words or actions, it is only because of Him. And though the past 4 years have been the most difficult of our life, we trust the Potter.
Dear Reader, as a fellow lump of clay, whether chosen for noble or common purpose, we are still both clay, and you can certainly relate to this:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7 ESV)
This treasure is the mystery of Christ, His victory over sin, and redemption of us, His children. And today, more than ever, there is nothing more I want in this life than to share that mystery with anyone who doesn’t yet know it. It definitely took the Potter working out His purpose in me over the last few years to bring me to this place. And for that I couldn’t be more thankful.