The Selfishness of My Frugality

This morning, I felt pretty good about myself for reading our chapter for small group one day early. We’re going through Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller, a book on “connecting your work to God’s work.” In chapter 2, he compares the 21st century, American view of work to the ancient Greek framework, leading up to the following observation:

Often people who have made it into the knowledge classes show great disdain for the concierges, handymen, dry cleaners, cooks, gardeners, and others who hold service jobs. (47)

My first response was to think, Wow, that’s so true of other people. I should come up with some incredible discussion questions: Who makes your life work? How do you treat them?

Some ill-advised honesty came over me and I tried to answer the questions.

The first people who came to mind were road construction crews. I resent them. Whoops.

What about baristas? No, I avowedly will not say “baristas” in small group. I’m the guy who doesn’t go to coffee shops. I’m the guy who brews his own coffee and keeps our family out of chapter 7. Baristas would not do. I’m too good at avoiding them and their little tip jars.

Keller mentions house cleaners. Definitely not shelling out for something I can do myself.

What about grocery store clerks? Fully 75% of the time, I use the automated check out system. Much quicker. No human interaction required. And baggers? I’ve never asked for help out in my life. I think you might have to tip those guys if you do. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” after all.

Bankers? ATMs. Postal worker? Condo. Never see him. Target employees? Buy everything with Amazon Prime. Free 2-day shipping, and 5-10% most stuff. Ice cream scooper? I repeatedly remind Annie how much cheaper it is to buy a half-gallon at QFC. We find one on sale then self-check that sucker.

I have so designed my life around efficiency with my money and time that I often go days or weeks without interacting with any service providers. Do I disdain the “concierges, handymen, dry cleaners, cooks, gardeners, and others who hold service jobs”? I don’t sneer, but I don’t support them either. All of a sudden I realized, I live like saving my own dollars and cents is more important than supporting others’ endeavors to create and contribute.

Now, not all janitors and window cleaners take Genesis 1-2 to heart, living as the Imago Dei, finding dignity in their work and seeking out opportunities to create and carry out beneficent dominion over the world around us. Perhaps, if I start living that way, I can help them take hold of it; perhaps not. But God takes His own Word quite seriously. “Live frugally” is not the second commandment.

You’ll have to make your own decision about the selfishness of your frugality (while you’re at it, you may need to consider the selfishness of your opulence as well). You’ll have to consider your own circumstances: What will it take for you to make ends meet, be generous with others, care for your family? What I’ve realized this morning is not that I necessarily need to move away from a frugal lifestyle as a whole, but that I must think beyond my own money in each decision, considering who else might be involved. Patronizing my local grocer or bike shop may cost me an extra couple dollars, but is it really my financial wherewithal that got me those couple dollars in the first place? If that money came, not from me, but from the God who 1) provides and 2) decrees love, then I need not fear wise generosity. There are time to support service people as they labor, not only to provide for their children, but to co-create with God.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

Consider, today, how you can move beyond selfishness, even beyond politeness. How can you invite those around you, especially those you’ve habitually ignored and taken for granted, to take part in the creative charge that God has given humanity? How will you support them in that endeavor?

Fear and Faith

In downtown Seattle, just a couple blocks from Pike Place Market and the rest of the seawater-smelling tourist destinations, there’s a store called Columbia. Towering plate glass windows are set in the faux lodge exterior and long banners proclaim sale percentages; 12-foot adventurers forever pose in the most exciting moments of white water journeys and snowcapped summits. I’ve walked in before, to find the familiar clothing racks of all the other downtown stores, the main differences being the prices of their jackets and the slough of “heat technologies” advertised on every tag. If I were to buy one of those jackets, I could put it on, walk back onto the streets of downtown Seattle, and it would doubtless keep me warm. Yet, that’s not all it was made for. It was made for a blizzard, and for all the cold and confusion, I’m sure that a blizzard would be where I’d finally discover this jacket’s real utility and delight. After a few such encounters, that jacket would likely become a dear friend of synthetic fabrics when I opened the closet each morning.

Faith is a blessing in the streets of the city, but it’s a gift and a shield for more than that. I’m learning that in times of fear, we discover the true utility and delight of faith. I commend Philippians 1–Paul’s declaration of faith and faithfulness in the midst of prison, suffering, and immanent death–to every high school freshman who will consider it; the passage deeply changed me as a 14-year-old. Yet, I also commend it to pastors, professors, VPs of sales, because perhaps you’re actually afraid. You may have read of faith before, you may have even received and practiced it to the extent that you were able, but have you taken up faith for today? Have you considered faith for the things you’re afraid of in your church, your job, your home?

Last night, Annie and I were talking about the future. She told me that she was sure that God would work things out. “What do you mean?” I asked. “What do you mean by ‘work things out?'”

“I believe He’ll help me find meaningful work,” Annie replied.

I thought about that for a few moments and considered how to respond.

“Why?” I finally asked. “Why do you think He will provide that? When I say that God will work things out, I just mean that He will work things out for us to survive.” The cynical side of my worried that she would respond, There’s no proof we’ll survive either; God’s people starve all over the world.

To my surprise, Annie went the opposite direction. “I believe He’ll give me meaningful work because He is faithful and He wants the best for us. He might not give me the work I want, it might be hard, but whatever He gives us it will be for our good.”

The good He intends for us may be the opposite of what I currently want, but today, faith in His goodness means pushing back against that fear that distrusts His plan. I’m thankful for this conversation with Annie, because it is a reminder to trust God in a way that goes beyond logic and the apparent. I’m afraid these days, and I need God’s people around me, my wife in particular, to remind me what faith is and what it might look like in December 2012. At 14, I intellectually wrestled with hypothetical death; this morning, I’m struggling with the real possibility of run-of-the-mill debt. Perhaps this is a smaller concern than the persecution I see in Philippians, but it’s manifested itself in my heart in a much bigger way than my fears have before. I’m showing my hand here–I am yet to shed the cowardice that comes with a charmed life–but I am not the point. The point is, the God in whom we put our faith will be faithful in this and so much more. Only in times of fear can God teach us that we have nothing to fear. His perfect love casts fear out.

Today is a day for faith. You may not always feel like your faith has grown over the months and years, but as you look forward at the rest of 12/13/12, will you make space for your faith to grow in the circumstances God has placed you in?