Saturday, June 29, 2013

Can I Buy a Pretty Dress when People Are Starving in Sudan?

Yesterday, I wrote a blog about my girliness streak (especially in regards to shopping) that I have repressed out of pride or embarrassment for many years. After I wrote that blog, I picked up the Voice of the Martyrs magazine I’d received in the mail.

Eight pages later, I had read about the unbelievable horrors going on right now in Sudan. Genocide. Unthinkable prison conditions. Thousands of refugees. A pastor brutally tortured for eight years who returned to continue to preach the gospel the moment he was released, knowing he could be returned to prison at any time.

(Does this seem like a way-too-abrupt change in tone? I agree, it is. Life will do that to you…)

This happens every single day, and it’s not limited to Sudan. While I’m scrolling through the super-cute dresses and considering spending enough money to feed an orphan for a month to buy something I don’t need, people are starving, desperate, living and dying in conditions no human should have to endure. 

How is that okay?

This is a question that deserves more than a pat answer. I think it’s a question that everyone should wrestle with, and if you’re a Christian, pray about. A lot. What does it mean to be shallow? Is it a sin to want nice things? Are we compelled to give every spare penny to the poor, and if so, what is considered “spare?” How much is enough? Can we ever give enough? 

It’s important that these questions stay personal. Focus on what this questions mean for you. Don’t go railing about Bill Gates or the pope or the “rich people”— if you are reading this on your own computer, you have mind-blowing wealth in comparison to many countries in the world. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, so don’t try to force your answer on other people.

Unfortunately, this issue raises more questions than it answers. But here are some of my thoughts, inspired by the Bible (if you’re not a Christian, you can pretend the blog ends here):

Proverbs 31 is the famous passage that describes “a wife of noble character.” I find it interesting that these ideas in verses 20-22 are clumped together:
Church in Amberg, Germany

“She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
When it snows, she has no fear for her household; 
for all of them are clothes in scarlet.
She makes coverings for her bed; 
she is clothed in fine linen and purple.” (NIV)

Generosity is a vital part of this woman’s life, but it’s also clear (from these and other verses in the chapter) that she is wealthy. She isn’t ashamed to wear extravagant clothing (purple was an expensive color in the ancient world), although that is not her defining characteristic. She represents an ideal balance of hard work, prosperity, and generosity. She shows that wearing beautiful clothes and being generous are not mutually exclusive.

Another thing that has struck me as I’ve worked my way through the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) is the breathtaking beauty and wealth of the tabernacle. From the priest’s garments and the bronze tent pegs to the intricate tapestries and the ark of the covenant, it becomes very clear that God loves beauty. 

In the book of Ezekiel, God uses vivid imagery to talk about his love for Israel, his bride. He shows his love in tangible ways, and the metaphors he uses are glistening with beauty:

“I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was fine flour, honey and olive oil. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (Ezekiel 16:10-14, NIV)

Of course, it all goes downhill from there, but God first shows the extravagance of his affection for Israel. He is the God of lavish mercy and grace. He loves to give good gifts to his children (even though our understanding of what that looks like is often skewed).

Beauty, wealth, and anything more than our most basic need for salvation are all undeserved gifts. As the Jewish phrase goes, “Dayenu”— “It would have been enough for us.” Living in the reality of that grace gives us a lot of freedom, and a lot of responsibility.

That went a lot deeper than I intended to go, but the questions of wealth and generosity and suffering will blow open your world if you let it. I encourage you to take the time to think about it today. And when you do, let me know your thoughts.


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