Before any of us were married, before any of us had kids, even before the youngest of us was finished with high school, my four sisters and I embarked on a road trip to Buffalo, N.Y. We laughed and ate, crossed the border to check out Niagara Falls and danced to music piped outside of the Hard Rock Café like no one was watching. And on a cold, snowy morning in late December, we watched as our sister, Heather, handed over the last of her worldly possessions.
Heather stood there, dressed in a shapeless brown sack with a white piece of cloth on her head, keeping only her undergarments and her glasses. My sister was becoming a nun of the cloistered variety—she was planning on spending the rest of her life in prayer for those in need in the world.
For the past two weeks, I had watched Heather give away all of her possessions. The backpack I gave her for a birthday went to our youngest sister. Another sister took most of her clothes. Many of her books found a home on my shelves. Several of her friends left with something of Heather’s after saying goodbye to her. I had the task of buying her a Christmas gift that year—I had drawn her name in our family gift exchange. What do you give someone who is trying to give everything she owns away? I chose a tree that we planted as a family. It was more for us as a family than for Heather, to remind us of her when we gathered without her for holidays.
It’s eerie, watching someone give everything they own away. It’s unnatural in our society to strip down, to do with less. It’s just darn disconcerting watching someone choose not to live with anything. In our society where our identities are based upon what we consume—from possessions to experiences—seeing someone choose another way is, in many ways, just plain weird.
I saw this process with my own eyes. She kept giving things away. Heather wasn’t someone who people would think of as having tons of stuff—she had just finished college and had both a degree and the student loans to show for it. But Heather, like many of us, had accumulated bookcases, books, clothes, shoes, bags, jewelry and boxes of other things. And Heather kept peeling these things off like layers, removing the power they had over her, letting go of the responsibility of their upkeep, freeing her to pursue the life she had chosen.
Now, while watching a sibling join a convent or religious order is not something that many of my friends have experienced, we have asked the question of how we are to live in the way of Jesus in our consumer-driven society. I have met, both in real life and virtually through books and blogs, many people following in the way of Jesus who have chosen to live with less. Some have become missionaries to foreign countries or to urban settings. Others have chosen to live less comfortably in order to give as much as they can away to those in need. Still others hold typical jobs but live in what many would term “an undesirable neighborhood” to live life intentionally in that space.
When I encounter people who have chosen to live differently in our society, who question the very ethic on which our culture revolves, a number of questions emerge. How do we, as followers in the way of Jesus, reconcile owning clothes or cars with the picture of life Jesus painted in Scriptures? How do we somehow find creative ways in our socioeconomically segregated world to live in solidarity with “the other”—those who own more or less than we do? How do those of us with student loans learn to look past the tyranny of paying off that nagging debt to be able to see the needs of those around us? How do we look past our current needs of fixing a car or buying groceries and see those in need around us? What might a lifestyle ethic be for those of us who desire to live differently in response to what we know of Jesus but aren’t called overseas or to a convent?
In the end, my sister chose not to stay in the convent and has been involved in ministry and teaching to and with college students for the past six years. She now owns clothes and a car again. But the tradition of women and men of God throughout the years who have intentionally lived differently still speaks to her. And to me. I don’t know if I could hand over my favorite jeans or, more honestly, my Dr. Martens Mary Janes to don something much less attractive but just as functional to live a simple life, but there is something calling me to rethink how I view ownership, how I view possessions, how I view solidarity with those who are “the other.” I think it’s the call of Jesus.
Editor’s Note: this article originally appeared in issue 25 of RELEVANT.