Thursday, August 26, 2010

Losing Happiness Points

In a dusty corner of a cupboard somewhere, I have a board game called “Careers”.  There is a square on the board called the “Auto Show”.  You can chose to spend up to 1 year’s salary to buy a car and gain 1 “happiness point” for every $1,000 spent, or lose 1 “happiness point” for “just looking”.  Even though the game hasn’t been played for a few years (I’m waiting for the children to be old enough to play it) the phrase “losing happiness points” has entered into our family vocabulary.

The other week I lost quite a few happiness points.  I spotted a house for sale not very far from my children’s school.  Our circumstances being what they are, buying a house is just not an option for the foreseeable future, but I did spend a week or so daydreaming about this one.  It was only an average home, but it was in a quiet street, very close to school, four bedrooms, reasonably sized fenced back yard for the children to play in.  The kitchen was modern, and it seemed to have a nice large living area.

On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with daydreaming.  But I found myself comparing my current, small, drafty rental house with the daydream and feeling dissatisfied.  I also found myself comparing with the lifestyles of my friends, who have different circumstances, and feeling almost ashamed of where I live. Our one small lounge feels even smaller than it did before I started daydreaming. Sadly, my lotto ticket didn’t win, neither did Mum’s.

The tenth Commandment in the Old Testament is “you shall not covet”.  I had always assumed that the reason we’re commanded not to covet, is it creates too much temptation to break some of the other commandments, for example adultery, theft, or murder etc, out of jealousy.  But I’ve come to realize this week that there’s more to it than that.  Coveting takes our attention off God, and distracts us with possessions and things.  Coveting is never satisfied, someone always has something better.

Our whole culture, and even our economy, is built around encouraging us to covet, especially the latest consumer gadget.  We are encouraged to be the first of our friends to have the latest iPad (none of my friends yet that I know about) or iPhone4 (you know who you are) and so on.  If we’re not the first, then the pressure is on to keep up with the Joneses. The little 2G phone that was perfectly adequate when I bought it 18 months ago, and actually still is perfectly adequate for making calls and sending text messages, just doesn’t seem to compare any more.

I've been tying to figure out how to “ground” my value of my spiritual relationship with God, into the practical realities of day to day living.

I've been finding the book “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster to be quite helpful (thanks for the loan, Craig).  In his chapter about the spiritual discipline of “Simplicity”, he urges finding a balance between the “Mammon” spirit of our current society and “un-Christian legalistic asceticism.”  Foster points out that “Both can lead to idolatry.  Both are spiritually lethal.”

After reading that chapter, I noted three attitudes that I thought were important in finding that balance.  
  1. An attitude of Thankfulness
  2. An attitude of Contentment
  3. An attitude of Generosity
I can make a choice, that when I look at my small, drafty house, to be thankful that we can afford the rent, to be thankful that the landlord has recently laid carpet, with a nice thick underlay.  (I’ll keep praying for insulation).  I can choose to be thankful that even when my husband is unemployed, I can still work and earn enough to keep our family afloat (mostly).  I can choose to be thankful that I and my family are all healthy and happy.

I can make a choice to be content in my current circumstances.  I can choose to trust that the recession won’t last forever, and eventually there will be employment available again.  I can choose to not compare with either friend’s houses, or even my daydreams, but to accept the differences in our circumstances.   I can choose to buy only what I actually need, not to keep up with the consumerism of our culture.  If it still works, I don’t really need to upgrade.

I can make a choice to be generous.  I think it was one of Steve’s sermons that I picked up the phrase “we are blessed to be a blessing”.  (I don’t think there’s a verse that specifically says that in the Bible, but I would be happy to be corrected).  When I’ve been “blessed” with extra funds or given extra goods, I can choose to find ways of sharing those with other who have even more needs.

What about you? Where do you lose “happiness points”?  How do you find the balance in your life?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What is the most important thing?

Our family’s journey over the last few months has not been an easy one.  With my husband unemployed, we’ve been living on what I earn part time, family assistance and our savings.  We haven’t gone without anything we need, but 9 months down the track I’m getting tired of having no surplus, no buffer fir extras.  Emotionally and mentally I’ve been feeling worn down by the constant weekly challenge to keep the budget balanced.  With the economy where it is, the prospects of our situation changing in the next few months are slim.

I’ve been thinking again about what’s important for me, and realised my focus has been out of balance.  What is helped me most over the last few weeks has been my faith.  I know some of the readers of this post aren’t Christian, but I am, and this is about my own journey, so please bear with me.

I was reading the Biblical account of Jesus walking on water.  Peter gets out of the boat to walk towards Jesus.  As long as Peter keeps his eyes fixed on Jesus, he’s able to walk on top of the waves - they’re pretty choppy waves too.  But when Peter takes his attention off Jesus and instead looks at the wind and waves, he panics and starts to sink.

I felt like I was Peter.  The storm was like our financial circumstances.  So long as I keep my focus on what’s most important - my relationship with God -  then I can walk over the tops of even the worst waves.

I’m not advocating ignoring your circumstances! I’m passionate about careful budgeting and planning, the importance of knowing what’s coming in and where it’s going out, the setting of goals and working towards them.

What I am talking about here is not letting your circumstances overwhelm you.  I’ve found that taking a step back from the detail and looking again at the big picture makes it easier to ride out the emotional stress of the day to day ups and downs.

The question I’m now asking myself on a daily basis is “Where is my main focus?”  Are my eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith, or am I focused instead on the circumstances around me.  I’m making the effort each day to spend some time “re-focusing”.  I surrender my anxieties and concerns to God, and pray for spiritual guidance in my day to day living and budgeting.

Going back to the Bible: in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us “So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' ... But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

I asked the question on my facebook page: “what's the no.1 most important thing in your life?”  The replies I got back were about prioritising financial needs.  Can I encourage you to also take a step back from the finances, look at the bigger picture of your life, and ask yourself again what is the most important priority in your life?  What perspective does that give you when you go back and look again at your financial priorities?  I’d love to see your feedback.