I have been finding simplicity anything but simple recently. Starry-eyed and romantic, I left my good-paying job, excellent benefits and a promising retirement plan in a feeble attempt to “give up everything and come follow Jesus.” That was six years ago. To many of my friends in the U.S., my life in Sierra Leone is very simple: I live on love offerings, without running water, a car or many of the amenities that I used to enjoy. But my perspective is sometimes very different.
Here in Freetown, I am very wealthy in comparison to all my neighbors and the teens on the streets I came to befriend. I am constantly being harassed for money and things. In quiet moments, I find myself asking if anybody here actually cares about Jesus, or me, or if they just want a friendship with me for what they can get. I read Jonathan Bonk’s scathing treatment of missionaries who live in relative affluence compared to the ones they come to “serve,” and I am convicted.1
Yearning for something normal, something familiar and comforting, I go to a coffee shop here. The croissant and cappuccino would console me if I weren’t at the same time perpetuating the colonial-assumed double standard that I came to dismantle. I drop the equivalent of two days’ Sierra Leonean wage for a few minutes of air-conditioning and a caffeine fix, and try to press the guilt away as I go back into the sweltering sauna afternoon. You see, some of my friends may not eat today.
So some see me as a saintly somebody. Others see me as a source of stuff. I see me as a contemptuous charlatan.
How do you see me, God?
I look to Your Word, only to be further confounded. On one page, grace and mercy abound, sufficient. On the next, somebody like me is thrown into hell for not tending to his poor neighbor.
Oh yes, I have enough theological training to intellectually reconcile these passages, but my emotions and conscience resist.
Honestly, these days I don’t really get simplicity. At times, I have lived more simply here, often getting sick. Now my pendulum has swung the other way, living with better “self-care” and “sustainability,” some would say. Are these just the latest buzz phrases to justify my selfish, hedonistic tendencies?
Why doesn’t this ever-always guilt go away? I am tired of being idealistic. I don’t know how to be simple. Can I just go Home? Maybe I don’t have enough faith.
Hmm. Maybe that’s it. Faith. Simplicity springs out of faith. If we honestly believe in a loving, just God, we can be free to be simple. We can only be as simple as our trust in the goodness of God. Let me unpack what I mean.
There is a great Krio chorus we sing with the little ones in Kroo Bay. Translated into English, it says:
Yesterday is You
Today is also You
Tomorrow is in Your hands
It is all You
So simple. So true. When we truly trust that our good God is in control and will provide for our tomorrows, then we can simply stop living in fear, fretfully hoarding and trying to be self-reliant. We can then give generously to meet friends’ real needs in the divine present.
In the New Testament, Jesus tries to reveal to us how ontological God truly is. In the story of the Prodigal Son, He exposes our Father as loving lavishly regardless of His children’s behavior. When I take time to really let the truths of this parable sink in, I realize not only that there is love and acceptance for me, but also that I, as a daughter of this Dad, want to emulate His generous heart. And Jesus shows us that we truly are all related. So common a phrase that it can be rendered powerless, “Christian brothers and sisters” is both a scandalous truth and a radically hopeful revelation.
Binta, a scrawny, bright-eyed friend of mine, loves that “Yesterday Is You” song. She does a jig to the music in her tattered T-shirt, her tiny bare feet exposed to the dangers on the slum floor during our Saturday afternoon children’s Bible club. What if I were to jettison the culturally conditioned cold, numb distance and, by faith, truly take Binta as my sister, loving her as passionately as my dear siblings in the States whom I sometimes miss so much that I ache all over?
In my confused rantings above, I asked how God sees me.
Trusting You, I now realize that I am Your beloved daughter, in Your attentive care. I am also Binta’s sister, whom You love just as much as me. You’ve entrusted me with so much, hoping I will imitate Your generous heart, knowing that our tomorrows are in Your hands.
1 Jonathan Bonk, Missions And Money: Affluence As a Missionary Problem…revisited (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006).
Cami loves to dance with the kiddos in Kroo Bay, bake Jen’s secret-recipe cookies with Noah’s boys, hike in the lush hills overlooking Freetown, swim in the ocean and read Mrs. Pollifax mysteries by the light of her headlamp under her mosquito net.