Saturday, October 22, 2016

Where is your heart?

This article originally appeared in The Mennonite December 2012. Was reminded of this story through a discussion on Gelassenheit on a message board. Antonio embodied the Anabaptist concept of Gelassenheit better than anyone I know. 

(Name in the story changed for anonymity)
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Matthew 2:21 (NRSV)
“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that,” responded Antonio without hesitation when I proposed a plan for investing the hypothetical million dollars he would receive. I was surprised that he brought up the subject because money was seldom a topic of conversation for us. Especially not winning the lottery or being the recipient of someone’s generosity. “If I didn’t give the entire million away first day I received it,” he continued, “it would completely change the relationship I had with my church and with my neighbors. I would be too tempted to use the money on myself and become less dependent on God.”
The congregation in Mexico City
 where Antonio attends.
            Antonio, a close personal friend from a small, struggling
Mennonite congregation in northern Mexico City and I were having a discussion about his dream of receiving a million dollars for one day. He was telling me about the financial struggles of many of the members of his congregation and neighborhood. He was hoping to start a recreational outreach program in his community to give desperate youth an alternative to drugs, gangs and other illicit behavior. With a million dollars, he could help different agencies working with youth, establish his own agency, double the amount of medical caravans he could be involved in each year, and help the many needy people with whom he had contact.
I had what I thought was a superior plan for that million dollars and decided to challenge his plan with what I thought would make him a better steward. “In my country,” I said, “my financial advisors would tell me give half the money away as you propose, but then invest the rest so that the other half could keep on giving for many years.” It was after I identified this US American perspective on financial accountability that he responded as he did. “I would be too tempted to use the money on myself and become less dependent on God,” he stated with conviction. Not only would he become less dependent on God, but he sensed, probably correctly, that having that extra money at his disposal would change his relationship with his neighbors.
Antonio lived his life for service to others in the name of Jesus and not for accumulating for himself “treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt. 6: 19, NRSV). He divided his normal days (although it could be argued that there were no normal days in his life) between his family business and his dental practice. His family business consisted of making specialty soaps in the garage of his house. He spent time during the morning overseeing this business, providing jobs for a number of unemployable neighbors and family members. In the afternoons, he saw patients at his dental practice which was housed several blocks away in the home of his mother. One would think that a dentist would earn enough money that no supplemental income would be needed. But Antonio was not your typical dentist. He sees many patients who cannot afford dental work. He does their care for a minimal fee, or for free. His dentist’s office is lined with before-and-after pictures of numerous children with extreme orthodontic issues, fixed by his handiwork. Many of these children were picked on in school and on the street because of their teeth. Few could afford the price of normal dental services, let alone the normally exorbitant costs of these special needs. Antonio’s skill and compassion for the poor changed all that.
He used the money from his home business to pay for the supplies he needed to fix the various dental problems that came to his office. In addition, he went on medical mission caravans every other month to some of the most rural parts of Mexico, giving free dental care to the people in the regions he visited. His home business helped finance these trips. He was not interested in accumulating personal wealth; he didn’t live in poverty, but he didn’t live in luxury either. He followed Jesus’ mandate to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:20, NRSV).
This different perspective on economics with which Antonio challenged me really brought me up short. I had prided myself on having a different perspective on money because of many years spent in Latin America learning from my brothers and sisters there. I thought I had integrated more of their reliance on God’s providence. In spite of those formative years, I was still strongly influenced by my US American culture—a culture that too often places more value on money than on relationships with other people or God. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (NRSV). Other people and God; Antonio knows where his heart is.
Our national currency blatantly announces “In God We Trust.” Nearly everyone else in the world recognizes that most US Americans trust their green backs more than God. We are too often blind to that irony. Our bank statements, our retirement accounts, and how the stock markets are doing hold far more weight on how we feel about the future than our trust in God. My own solution to Antonio’s dream was half-baked. I wanted to trust God and give away half, but I also wanted to trust that the green backs would keep giving for many more years when there is no guarantee that they will—something that the financial meltdown of 2008 proved beyond a doubt. Other people with some hesitation, God with some reservation. Where is my heart?
Our lack of trust in God shows its demonic head in other ways as well. We accumulate “treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal” and go to great length to protect these treasures. “Though we often imagine that the accumulation of worldly goods makes us more secure,” writes Scott Bader-Saye in his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, “. . . such accumulation tends to make us more afraid, since the more we have the more we have to lose.”[i] The more we have to lose, the more we spend to protect what we have. From elaborate security systems in our homes to spending more on our military budget than all other countries on earth combined (, we have misplaced our trust. Fear instead of trust in God; trust in what money can do to secure our possessions. Where is our heart?
Not only do we keep accumulating, but we think we deserve, or have earned what we have. “The attitude of entitlement saps us of our ability to give thanks, to receive the goods of life as gifts,”[ii] writes Bader-Saye. This sense of entitlement blinds us to the true provider of our wealth, and instead of being grateful for these good gifts, we use all means to hoard them and to protect them. We think we are “owners of our property rather than as stewards of God’s property.”[iii] It is no wonder that Jesus warned in Matthew 6: 24: “You cannot serve both God and money.” Our trust is misplaced. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Antonio, and many other people who live in the developing South, truly show trust in God’s providence. They live the slogan “In God We Trust.” “Everything that comes their way is a gift from God; they are not burdened by a sense of entitlement,” writes Bader-Saye about a group of people he met in Uganda. “[E]ven in the midst of devastating circumstances, they find reason to give God thanks.”[iv] My own experience in rural villages and working-class neighborhoods of Latin America confirms this trust in God and sense of gratitude. Antonio is an exception because he could have easily chosen to get rich, accumulate possessions and become more “secure” with his dental practice. Instead, he has chosen a life of service to others and trust in God. As such he provides a model for us. We do not have to get caught up in the vicious cycle of accumulation, fear and paranoid protection of our possessions. We can learn from him to trust in God and our relationships with other people for our security.
In the end, neither Antonio nor I had to decide what to do with a million dollars and it’s unlikely we ever will. Neither he nor I buy lottery tickets or have relatives that could leave us a sizable inheritance. But through our discussion we learned to understand each other better across a cultural divide; something more valuable than the money we were discussing. We became more sure of where our heart is. Where is YOUR heart?

[i] Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Brazos Press, 2007), p. 55.
[ii] Ibid, p. 58.
[iii] Ibid, p. 56.
[iv] Ibid, p. 58.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Leisurely Efficient

The church tower in
our village of Aarberg

The Swiss are known for their punctuality and efficiency. The clock tower on every village church, usually on the highest geographical point, dominates the landscape. It rings every quarter hour. One for quarter after, two for half-past, three for quarter to, and four for the top of the hour. After the four chimes, the bells more loudly toll the number of hours. Nearly everywhere you are in Switzerland, you can hear the tolling of the bells echoing through the valleys. The sound is beautiful and peaceful, except when you hear them in the middle of the night while trying to sleep.

Swiss public transportation has long been famous for its punctuality. Normally you can set your watch to the arrivals and departures. We have a bus stop right in front of our apartment. Every hour at the scheduled time, we hear the roar of the bus leaving for the next stop. Several times after boarding a bus at the route’s origin, a buzzer would go off, and the driver would immediately start his engine and take off. All the buses have computers programmed for the precise time to begin and to end, and all the schedules inbetween. If there is a known impediment to keeping the schedule, for example, construction or an accident, a huge sign is posted at the bus stop warning riders that not to expect the usual efficiency and punctuality.

So with all their obsession with punctuality, you would think that they, like US Americans, would continually be looking at their watches, hurriedly ending a conversation in order to run off to their next activity. You would be wrong.

I recently went with my brother-in-law to an insurance agency to investigate health coverage for our time in Switzerland. The person with whom we were to speak was tied up with another client. A manager, who was somewhat acquainted with my brother-in-law, invited us to enjoy a cup of coffee while we waited. He stayed with us the whole time chatting away, curious about my story, and deepening the acquaintance with my brother-in-law. He was with us for nearly a half hour. In our view, he “wasted” valuable time that should have been used for getting things done. But did he?

On an earlier visit, I was working for a Swiss construction company being paid by the hour. We were remodeling an office building. The owner of the building visited one day, and heard about my being from the USA. He invited me for coffee during coffee break time. After the normal time for break passed, I kept nervously looking at my watch, feeling that I was stealing from his time and should be getting back to work. He seemed totally unconcerned. I finally returned to work after an hour of conversation. Did he waste his valuable time talking to a laborer?

People gather for an afternoon of coffee,
relationships, and people watching at a
Café in our town of Aarberg
I have been on the lookout for a café here in Aarberg where I can do my writing. There are wonderfully quaint cafés all over town packed with customers, but interestingly enough, none of them have Wi-Fi, a requirement for any café in the USA. The Swiss don’t usually go to a café to work; they go with friends and family to hang out, talk, and watch people. And lingering over coffee after the noon meal is not unusual. Are they wasting their time?

I have experienced many such leisurely conversations in my visits to Switzerland; during the work day, evenings and on weekends. Relationships seem to be as important as getting work done. Because of a more leisurely pace of life, people generally seem to be more relaxed. I believe that taking such relationship breaks actually enhances efficiency and productivity rather than taking away from it. These breaks are daily; I wrote extensively about the leisure of European vacations compared to ours in The Spacious Heart. Spending time just being is a foreign concept to most US Americans.

I think we could learn something from the Swiss about balancing work and life. Although there is indeed stress and burnout among some Swiss employees, I am convinced that it is not nearly the occupational hazard that it is in the US. And their efficiency and productivity hasn’t been affected that much by having more time for relationships. In this study, they are only a little behind the US in the productivity of its workers.

Leisurely efficient. Getting things done while having time for relationships. Sounds like a good combination to me.