Thursday, August 11, 2011

Contentment and Freedom

Post 42—:

You might argue that this is really no way to start off with this new blog that is supposed to deal with concrete life events. “Contentment” and “freedom” are pretty abstract terms and really belong in the other blog, “WorldlyChristianity,” that majors in more abstract issues. Well, yes and no. These are somewhat abstract terms indeed, but they are based on and evoked by a great story of people who have found those qualities of life. Besides, I did warn you at the outset that the two sometimes merge or that they cannot always be neatly separated.

I am reacting in this post to an article by Elizabeth Payne (“Imagine the Freedom of a Contented Life,” Vancouver Sun, July 26, 2011). She begins with reference to the common Canadian dream of winning a lottery fortune. Now a dream may be abstract somewhat, but this one is such a common nightly and daily phenomenon that the abstract has become a concrete and a regular event in the lives of many of us.

Allen and Violet Large, an elderly couple—both in their late 70s-- in Nova Scotia recently won $11.25 million. They had always lived a life of simplicity and contentment and saw no reason to change this just because of this sudden intrusion in their lives. Of course, it did not come altogether unwanted. After all, they did buy the winning ticket. But in contrast to others, they did not expect to find some kind of new and exciting freedom with these new resources at hand, for they “had something far more valuable and rare: satisfaction,” according to Payne. Violet, the wife, said, “We haven’t bought a thing. That’s because there is nothing we need.” So they gave it all away. Paine details the gifting. They gained in satisfaction and freedom by giving their fortune away.

Violet died shortly afterwards. Preacher Harrison said at her funeral that the reaction of the Large’s was “almost antithetical to the way many of us would respond.” That’s true. “It is a safe bet,” Payne continued, “that few imagine freedom the way Violet did—something you gain by giving those millions away.” She concluded her article thus: “That may be the real freedom: Imagining being happy with what you have.” Not sure why she used the word “imagining” here. The Large’s were content and therefore free; they did not merely imagine it.

Their attitude was indeed antithetical or opposite to the more common approach of living it up and then, for many, ending up with a life “ruined by the stuff and stress and expectations (and often, eventually, the debt) that come along with the (unexpected) money.” But that only goes to show how far removed we are from the reality that the Bible portrays. In the world of the Bible, their attitude is the common, the normal, the standard, the expected, the prescribed. Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). In the more contemporary style of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language by Eugene Peterson, it reads, “You’re far happier giving than getting.” Again, Jesus said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39—New International Version). Peterson has it as “If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to Me, you’ll find both yourself and Me.”

The Apostle Paul wrote, “I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am” (Philippians 4:11, Peterson’s translation).

This is not to promote the view that poverty is virtuous, as has sometimes been thought and promoted in some Christian circles. There is that vow of poverty some take upon themselves. I have lived too long in Africa and have seen too much poverty to spiritually trivialize hunger as something acceptable. That is the opposite extreme from what obtains in much of the West. As my father used to say, “Money is nothing.” He would pause slightly and add, “as long as you have some of it.”

The Large’s had caught on to that secret of life, practiced it and were happy, content, satisfied.

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