A couple of Sundays ago I received an early morning email from Zambia. I had been there last year speaking at a pastors' conference alongside a delightful Zambian man called Albert. We (my son Martin was with me) grew close to Albert. We've kept in touch ... except that in August we received an email to say that Albert had died suddenly.
This recent email came from Albert's wife (and four children). It had two sentences: "We just want to share with you to continue praying for us for the issue of accommodation. We are staying in the house up to December and after that we don't know where to go."
I went off to church and came home to read the newspapers. I was confronted with what happens pretty much every weekend. Lengthy articles stacked with facts and figures and projections presented to a readership stacked with anxieties and greeds and fears about the price of houses in this country. We are obsessed! I find myself drawn so easily into this obsession.
But this time I have an email from Zambia, not just the Herald on Sunday, to process. I've done this by asking myself some questions. Maybe you can help me with the answers...
1. When does an icon become an idol? I know about the Kiwi dream of the 'quarter-acre pavlova paradise' and I know that the dream is fading. People are miffed by the injustice of it all. But when the 'miffing' is mixed with this obsessing - what does that say?
2. When does owning become hoarding? I doubt whether God has difficulties with home-owning, but I do wonder about home-hoarding and the practice of the wealthy to purchase multiple houses, particularly if there is no intent to extend the circle of beneficiaries beyond the family. If a Malachi or an Amos moved through the land I do wonder what they'd say ... and I wonder what could possibly be said in a face-to-face conversation with this young mum in Zambia?
3. When does a home become just a house? A home is a place to nurture family life, to raise secure and contented and generous children and face them towards Jesus ... and to open up heart and home to a hospitality towards others who have not had this privilege. But when a home becomes merely a house something happens. Those Sunday newspapers figure too large in the imagination. Children pick up that facing the Joneses, rather than Jesus, is what is important. The energy for hospitality drains away as hearts begin to close.
4. When does nuclear family become household of God? The Bible has little to say about Mum, Dad and the kids. When it speaks of 'family', it is speaking of a household with a far wider orbit - encircling the single, the employee, the grandparent etc. It is basically a small village! And as the globe shrinks into a village, as we have the opportunity to build relationships with people living far away ("yeah, why not put facebook to some good use, rather than this narcissistic nonsense that is happening at the moment?"), as we become aware of their needs ... is there not some sense in which I should view this mum in Zambia as part of my household? I now know of her need. Do I not have some responsibility to meet that need?
5. When does the accelerator become a handbrake? As I face my society the prevailing wisdom is all about getting rid of the mortgage as quickly as possible. Our feet are on the accelerator as heavily as we can manage. And yet there is this danger with debt - particularly when we multiply it and extend it. It holds us. It imprisons us. A handbrake goes on in other areas of our lives. We don't seem quite as able to let God move us on. Being fiscally responsible becomes the ultimate wisdom. We become stuck in a life far from what God intends for us.
6. When does the compassion mask the envy? My heart is a deceitful thing. Maybe the emotion stirred by the plight of a widowed and impoverished mum in Zambia is not about compassion or justice - but just a vehicle to transport the envy in my heart which can look at others and long to have more for myself.