houses and homes

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.

nice chatting



Christina said…
It is great to be challenged by your thoughts as usual, Paul. My friend and I have on occasion had cause to talk about this issue too; it particularly saddens us when people in the church have wholeheartedly bought into our society's values on this. We have experienced this mainly from women slightly older than us who often in a patronising manner will make a comment like, “oh this is a nice little starter house isn’t it”. It never seems to occur to them that we might have other reasons for buying a smaller house and priorities other than buying bigger and more houses (my friend is preparing for overseas mission.)

You don’t mention the kiwi’s love of renovating, which is part of our idolisation of our houses, and dominates our weekends, and spare time. I recently saw some young couples (between 20-25yrs) at the Hardware shop at the weekend and I thought how sad that they are already spending their weekends tied to the house, when I was their age I was out experiencing the world and life, not stuck inside renovating the house. What has happened to young peoples grand ambitions?

I also think our idolisation of our houses is caused by the individualistic nature of our society. Houses have become a place to retreat and hide from the world, rather than a place that we can draw in the world so that people can meet Jesus. It is finding a way to live out our “vocation to build together a house for God in this world” (as Nouwen puts it) rather than building a house to hide from the world.

Paul said…
Very helpful Christina - each of your paragraphs advances my thinking further on this.

The compulsion to journey towards bigger and better ... the penchant for renovation ... and with that last one my mind goes to the way fences have gone up over the years and what that communicates to others.

Good stuff - thanks
Anonymous said…
Paul, interesting thoughts as always, and I really feel for Albert's widow and children.

What you call bigger and better, may be a good impulse in people to "cultivate" their lives. I agree that it can be a really bad diversion of a life, but I think creating space for extra children/visitors, gardening, better kitchen areas is a part of the creation mandate. Oh well, perhaps I like Proverbs 31 overly much and am too Lutheran (two temporal kingdoms..).

I don't know what to say about accumulating housing. It seems far too easy for people to borrow off lenders and become middle men for people with less access to capital, and continue to build up huge portfolios. But then I feel the conundrum of "capitalism", the ability to have easy access to capital for anyone ambitious enough brings us many benefits, but also is an enabler for greed. There certainly needs to be some heart searching amongst the Church, and I always feel a bit uneasy when seeing more than a few pastors and laymen quite keen on getting into accumulating property.

Paul, with regards to fences, do you feel people are free to draw lines on how much community they want? I mean some people groups live without walls.. is that a better thing for community?
Mark Maffey said…
We live in an increasingly consumer driven society where the accumulation of "stuff" seems to be our number one priority. One only needs to Log On to Trade Me, or read or watch and other Media to be faced with a myriad of choices.

Do our houses becomes storehouses of things which draw us away from what God may desire for our lives?

Jesus challenges us afresh today with his words found in Luke 12 16-21

16And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'

18"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." '

20"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'

21"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."

Home ownership in and of itself is not a bad thing, it is how we utilise them, Lazarus and his sisters knew what it was to be hospitable, Martha did get distracted by trying to do too many things, and having time to reflect with God in our homes is one thing that should be treasured, rather than the television, video and dvd idols which reside in our lounges.

We can get consumed by our consumer society, we can get sucked into the buy now, pay later vortex, worry about what others think or try and keep up with the Jones'es but God says this ... Seek first my kingdom and all it's righteousness (Matt 6: 25-34)
Christina said…
Hi again.

Paul said "What you call bigger and better, may be a good impulse in people to "cultivate" their lives. I agree that it can be a really bad diversion of a life, but I think creating space for extra children/visitors, gardening, better kitchen areas is a part of the creation mandate."

I can't disagree with you Paul, that some of this is about our creating/building instinct that comes from our being made to image a creative creator God, and that is a very good thing.

Yet part of what I wanted to express and challenge was that even in the church we buy into very white western middle class ideas about what we need to be able to offer hospitality. Why do we need the extra space for visitors/children? Do I really need a better/nicer kitchen area before I can comfortably invite other women from church to my house? Do visitors really need a separate room and their own ensuite? Do children really all need their own room? Or is this another way that we build fences, where we all come home and retreat to our own rooms each doing our own thing.

As Christians sometimes it is necessary to take a step back and look at society and say white middle class western cultural norms may not fit with being a Radical Jesus follower. I’d like to see Christians setting new standards for giving hospitality not using it as a rationalisation to build bigger and better. As Christians we cannot assume our culture is the valid norm, we may have much to learn about true community and hospitality from other cultures. The most stunning and meaningful offers of hospitality are usually those that come from people with very little to give.

Anonymous said…
Yes Christina, I agree :) But I actually haven't witnessed people rationalizing about larger houses for "hospitality", yet I have seen how it can be a boon to both host and guest. (Whereas in terms of rationalization: despite the effort of many churches to talk about worship with one's whole life, I still hear 50 years olds talking about when they are semi-retired or a bit richer, then they will "do something for God").

I'm just wondering if there are "christian" answers to such questions. No one would say they need all that when pressed, but questions are useful so people who want to renovate can at least consider some of the consequences. Witnessing my own parent's renovation and basic suspension of their social lives has made me want to have modest desires (tangent: why does most commentary on modesty that I have witnessed deal with sexual lust, when the housing & personal debt market is far far larger). But then witnessing my friend's joy in developing his backyard (he modifies Eric Liddell's quote "But he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure." to something about mowing lawns).. well I can see its legitimacy.

Just wanted to add a quote:

"[C]ontemporary consumer behavior, often pejoratively labeled "consumerism," far from representing abnormal or aberrant behavior within modern society and culture, actually discloses modernity's highest ideals. The modern project, it seems, was launched with the deliberate decision to forswear philosophical and theological judgment - or what we might term a genuinely religious view of life - for the sake of the comfort and convenience that were to be made possible by scientific and technological development. Contemporary consumer behavior ultimately stems from this decision. It is precisely toward modern consumerism that modern thought, supported by a variety of modern institutions, has been striving for the last several hundred years." - Craig M. Gay, The Consuming Passion: Christianity and the Consumer Culture

- Paul Findlay
Paul said…
I attended the annual dinner of Leadership Development International (NZ) last night ... It is a fund-raiser. Plenty of money in the room.

The comment was made in one of the speeches: "if my children need my money when I die then they don't deserve it."

... meaning that by that age the kids should have been able to achieve some financial security for themselves - and so the parents' money could be spent strategically extending the mission of God on earth!

That really impacted me. Sorry kids - I think we might well head in the same direction :)
Paul said…
I received some spontaneous gifts for this mum in Zambia as she searches for a new home. Thank-you!

I have phoned her and sent the money through by Western Union and she has received it.

Now that I know the system works I plan to send a larger gift through in the new year - fuelled by my own wider family wanting to contribute as part of this Christmas giving season.

If others wish to contribute please ensure that cheques get to Carey Baptist College, PO Box 12149, Auckland 1642 New Zealand by January 10

Many thanks

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