Diane Stranz on American Life


Poverty, Relationship and the Banality of Evil

Yesterday my high school friend Debi (isn’t Facebook such a great way to reconnect?) asked me a thoughtful question about my vow of poverty which caused me to spontaneously spill out an email which has morphed into this post.  (Note:  the soundtrack for this post is slightly old school —  Pink’s Get this Party Started.)  

At the core of my vow of poverty is to live each moment of my life as if money is completely unnecessary and doesn’t matter.  One thing I have noticed is that people often allow the pursuit of money to impoverish their personal relationships — and I’m not just talking about the pursuit of wealth (as in big money).  I’m even talking about the pursuit of the basic money necessary to survive.  If you consistently put people first, it is EASY to eventually find yourself poor, trust me.  Just ask a single working parent who stays home with her kids when they’re sick . . . .

I worked my way through college, and senior year my sole source of income was a job at my Aunt’s bookstore (a job I had worked for over six months and LOVED).  One Friday my mother called as I was getting ready for work:  my grandmother had fallen, was in transit to the hospital, and no one was able to go be with her but me.  I called my Aunt (opposite branch of the family) and she said if I did not show up that day, I was fired (this was only my second time to ever miss work, but the first time had just been the week before:  I had the flu).  That my own flesh and blood could fire me under these circumstances is nothing less than the banality of evil at work . . . but boy was she a ‘good Methodist’ on Sundays!  

I say that sarcastically, having been burned repeatedly myself by hypocrites pretending to be Christian.  My second ex-husband, a largely uneducated manual laborer, is currently in an employment arrangement which is nothing other than white slavery — all because he lacks  social and economic power and his employer, Don, knows it.  Don loves three things in life:  money, his church, and cheating his employees any which way he can.   Go figure . . . .  In his defense, he tithes their unpaid wages to his church AND slavery is permitted under Old Testament law, so I guess it’s all good.  (That was sarcasm again:  just making sure we’re on the same page.) 

Back to my Aunt firing me:  I had no idea how I was going to make it without my job, but of course I chose to go be with my grandmother (and yes I was fired) . . . but thank God I did, because as I held her hand and cried with her she slipped into a coma, never came out of it and died a week later.  I could have never lived with myself if I had put my FEAR of being without a job ahead of being there for her in her hour of need.  And I’ve made those choices throughout my life — before and after taking the vow of poverty, but especially afterwards — and although God is faithful and always opens windows when doors close, still it often means just barely getting what you need, not what you want (or THINK you need).

Jesus summed up God’s law as pointing to one thing and one thing only:  that God desires us to put relationship above all things  —  relationship with God and then relationship with other human beings.   In the early 90’s God brought me into close relationship with a number of people seduced by ‘Christian’ New Age principles precisely so I could experience for myself  how these seductive ideas subtly erode the spiritual lives of all who embrace them.  One massage therapist friend justified his callous treatment of his girlfriend (i.e., ignoring her to practice yoga and meditation, like many ‘Christians’  ignore loved ones to go to the gym or watch a ballgame . . . ) by telling me he was at a stage in life when he couldn’t be ‘bothered’ with the burdens of relationship because he needed to focus on his spirituality.  My immediate thought:  “God, man!  There is nothing else TO spirituality but RELATIONSHIP!”  I mean, for REAL!  Can you say ‘narcissistic wolf hiding and cowering within a (false) spiritual sheepskin’ or WHAT?! 

This also reminds me that when I was too poor to have a car, I rode the bus frequently in Dallas and got to know a few people who also relied exclusively on mass transit.  This one woman appeared to observe a vow of poverty similar to my own, but she was so obnoxious in how she CONSTANTLY talked about ‘Jesus this and Jesus that.’  

People:  your relationship with God is a personal and private matter you just do not need to TALK about constantly in casual conversation!  You do not witness to others through words but through living a life of love, integrity, acceptance of ‘others as they are so they can see what they can become’ . . . as Jesus did.   When someone observes that you live fearlessly, with integrity and strength, such that he approaches YOU about what ‘makes you tick’ — i.e., you haven’t approached him, he’s approached you — THEN pull out the bible verses and talk about the difference that relationship with God makes in your life.  I mean, hello!  What do you think Jesus MEANT when he told us each to not be like hypocrites who preach their spirituality on every street corner?   He was CONDEMNING public preaching, absolutely.

This ‘stranger on a bus’ grew to know and trust me, and finally confided that her husband had a drinking problem and complained constantly that she was always gone from home . . . attending church and Bible studies!  At first I kept my thoughts to myself — I knew I couldn’t have an influence if I ran her off speaking Truth before she was ready to hear it — until the day SHE admitted, “Maybe God would rather me be at home trying to save my husband and my marriage instead of being at church constantly.”    

I wanted to scream “DUH — DO YA THINK?!!!”  But of course I just praised her for having finally hit the nail on the head, and used her opening to gently speak my mind on the topic.

While editing the above paragraph, after publishing the post once or twice already, Joan Osborne started singing in One of Us  ‘what if God is just a stranger on a bus, trying to get home?’  Since I forgot that song was in this playlist — one I haven’t played in awhile — the coincidence doesn’t seem accidental.  By the way, if you’ve never watched the TV show Joan of Arcadia, for which One of Us is the theme song, see if your local library has the series on DVD (it’s no longer on TV).  It’s an awesome and painless way to learn how God REALLY works — because the theology of Joan of Arcadia is simply impeccable.  Barbara Hall, if you’re listening, you did good.  [Hall, a Catholic who grew up a Southern girl as I did, created, wrote and produced Joan of Arcadia.  You go girl!  There’s a great bio piece on her on the Random House website:  http://www.randomhouse.com/author/results.pperl?authorid=11573]

If you put relationship first, then in the workplace you will be an employee who does not shy away from speaking up on behalf of coworkers who are being discriminated against or otherwise treated unfairly (when they ask you:  I’m not saying you should intentionally focus on ferreting these things out.  You are there to work, so your focus should be on work.  TRUST ME that people who need help will come to you without you doing anything to solicit that).  But because ‘power corrupts,’ most people with ANY amount of management authority in the workplace will let the unequal power of the employer-employee relationship go to their heads, such that you will end up fired or otherwise transitioned out of a job by standing up for what is fair (this is the impetus behind whistleblower laws, though they are so limited and largely ineffective). 

I have been squeezed out of jobs — jobs I had performed excellently, by the way — SO many times by doing nothing other than responding to a work situation in a way which showed that I cared more about the ‘least of my brethren’ than job security . . . so OF COURSE I observe a vow of poverty, because it’s either that or risk getting an ulcer!  HA!  Oh!  Oh!  The opportunity to insert a favorite quote which is relevant!  I can’t pass THAT up!!   This is from C.S. Lewis’  Introduction to The Screwtape Letters (which you MUST read if you haven’t): 

I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’  The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint.  It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps.  In those we see its final result.  But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.  Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern. 

Finally, to have a deep and meaningful relationship with God requires spending a lot of time alone with Him just as you would spend time with a person, because He IS a person (even though he is not a human being . . . and not all human beings qualify as ‘persons’  the way I mean . . . but that’s a whole different post).  I have OFTEN during my life, especially after I took my vow, experienced an inner knowing that God wanted me to drop everything (even if it meant missing work) to spend the day alone with Him, in contemplation, inner dialogue, solitude . . . and if THAT approach life to life won’t make you materially poor, I don’t know what will, frankly!

June 2010:  Last week someone asked me if I blog, and I said “I started a blog last year but immediately had to deprioritize it, so I only wrote a few posts.”   Knowing she planned to check it out caused me to re-read these posts for the first time in ten months, and this story of the stranger on a bus who was failing her husband by spending her time at church has been on my mind.   So wouldn’t you know,  I ‘happened’ this morning to come across the following, from a speech given by Keith J. Miller in 1991 (Keith is an oil entrepreneur-turned-Christian writer who co-authored with Bruce Larson the original ‘Emerging Church’ book in the 1970’s;   I have no respect for the whole ’emerging church’ spectacle/spiritual sideshow, but I agree that the following is the Truth):

We work too much. Religious work is one of the best ways to keep from facing your reality if you are Christian, if you are using it to calm the pain, because that it what all addictions are, attempts to cover the pain of this spiritual disease.

I discovered this disease in my own life. When I was a child, my father couldn’t love me because he loved my older brother. I felt like nothing. He took him fishing and wouldn’t take me. Work was the thing I chose to be somebody. I think a lot of us do that. It is easier than love.

When I grew up, I burned out. Then I found God and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I was so happy that I began to go crazy telling people about it. . . . . As I began to put my work addiction into a religious work addiction, then I abused my own children like my father did me, only I did it in the name of Jesus. A lot of people do that. It is very painful. Your kids don’t know whether you are at the bar or the Bible study. You are just not with them.

So, my vow is not really about money:  it’s about the REALIZATION and ACCEPTANCE that making choices in accord with God’s will is most likely going to lead to a life of material poverty — because God’s priorities are absolutely, 100% NOT the world/society’s priorities, and if you act on them, the world will seek to punish you by pushing you out of the economic marketplace.  This is a passive-aggressive way of ‘murdering’ you (as the world murdered Christ) because if you cannot afford food and shelter you MIGHT just really die off . . . in a way which protects the perpetrator(s) from earthly accountability!  (i.e., No one goes to prison when a homeless man dies of exposure and malnutrition).

But the faith part is trusting Jesus’ testimony (Matt. 6:25-34) that God won’t let that happen . . . or, if He does, it is because He has His own purpose in allowing you to suffer at the hands of the world, and He is pursuing a purposeful plan which is structured in some miraculous way that He will eventually make it all up to you, in His own time and way.   For me personally, the prospect of eventually securing a nomination for Best Original Screenplay and getting to be at the Oscars as a participant makes up for a lot.  And getting to speak out publicly —  through my books, blog and website — about how my experiences with poverty have shown me what God desires us to change in the world makes up for a lot.  But the fact that all five of my living children are turning out to be AWESOME men and women of God who share my values (because I did everything within my power to give them as much of myself as I could) makes up for EVERYTHING!!  They are my joy incarnate.    

Bottom line thought for the day:  DREAM ON, DREAM BIG . . . and trust that if it is GOD who has inspired those dreams (and not your puny, petty ego) He’ll do miraculous, eye-popping things to help you accomplish them.  Even if it means you have to endure being destitution-level poor in the process!  It’s all good.  (No sarcasm this time.)

P.S.  Yes, I know I am 45 and Pink is half my age such that where do I get off calling her music ‘old school’??   Go ahead, slap me if you must . . . but I have no shame.  My kids keep me young at heart.   If it makes you feel better, by the end of the post I was acting my age and listening to Bruce Springsteen.  So chill.  I know I have gray hairs ( a few)!



About my Vow of Poverty

I noticed that the first search of this blog was an attempt to learn more about my vow of poverty.   I plan to eventually publish a book on the topic and do not want to ‘jump ahead’ of myself by talking off the cuff about something so integral to my life that it deserves thoughtful, deliberate, documented writing and analysis . . . .  But I started this blog to cultivate an audience, and I have an obligation to be responsive to that audience, so here is a little more information for whomever it was who was enquiring.  I hope what I have written here will suffice for now.

I took my vow of poverty silently and in my heart, between God and I alone, while I was standing in my closet one day in the spring of 1996.  About a month ago it occurred to me for the first time that I unconsciously obeyed Matthew 6:5 to ‘go secretly into my closet and shut the door’ in order to keep my prayer a private matter between God and myself, but there was no conscious intent on my part that day to do that.  The whole thing came about because I was in my closet sorting clothes to give to a homeless shelter when an acute awareness of the over-abundance in my life welled up within and caused me to grab pretty much everything off the rack and spontaneously give it away.  The taking of a vow of poverty had been on my mind and heart for some time, and suddenly that day, in my closet, I knew the moment had arrived for a full commitment.   This was probably in mid-April 1996.

At the time I was a stay at home mother of three children under the age of 5, living in an upscale neighborhood in East Dallas, Texas.  To understand how I got to the point where I would do such a thing — and to understand what it really meant to me at that time to ‘take a vow of poverty’ —  you have to know so much about my own unique spiritual and life journey  . . . and this is where I struggle about how much I should try to include in a solitary blog post!

I am no longer a practising Catholic, but I was devout in my child and young adult hood.  As a Catholic, I was  influenced by the story of St. Francis of Assisi, who I consider the father of the Christian vow of poverty.  [I have a great respect for Martin Luther and the Protestant Revolution, but I was repulsed by the cover of a protestant magazine I saw in the mid-1990’s which referred to protestant author Francis Schaeffer as ‘Our St. Francis’ as opposed to the Catholic St. Francis of Assisi.  It was the kind of ‘nanny-nanny-boo-boo-stick-your-tongue-out-at-your- rival’ sentiment which is juvenile, embarrassing and ought not to be tolerated within groups which claim to be religious and/or spiritual in nature!  Sorry, but I can never think of St. Francis now without thinking of that.] 

If you have never seen Franco Zefferelli’s movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon about St. Francis of Assisi’s decision to live a life of abject poverty in order to serve and follow God, you really should.  The movie Francesco starring Mickey Rourke and Helen Bonham Carter is also worth checking out, as is Donald Spoto’s 2002 book Reluctant Saint:  The Life of Francis of Assisi.  I do not think St. Francis did everything perfectly (indeed, I feel he royally missed God’s point by living as a celibate monk and refusing to marry St. Clare and father children, for example), but he was a trailblazer for individual freedom and self-determination — and you’ve got to love him for that.

Six months before I took my vow of poverty, I began journaling for the first time in my life as the result of reading and working through Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way (subtitled ‘A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self’).  That book changed my life:  you can learn more about it at http://www.theartistsway.com.  Don’t buy into all the BS about ‘creative clusters’ and study guides and the other hype Julia Cameron wannabes have created.  All you need to do is read the book and do the exercises she recommends to get all the transformative stimulus you need.  It is amazing how people ‘honor’ a nugget of gold by trying to ‘dress it up’ with silver paint and other crap. 

A fledgling journal entry written while I was working through The Artist’s Way in October 1995 reflects my thinking at that time about a Vow of Poverty:

[My neighbor] mentioned that [her son] only has two small crates of toys while our 3 kids have a room and a half full between them, and I got off the phone contemplating whether we are too materialistic — should I be getting rid of more things?  Are we too indulgent with the kids? (really the problem is with over generous relatives, not with us — we have purchased the kids a mere fraction of what they have). 

The reason why I felt to write this here was that as I was mulling this over, a quote stuck on my bulletin board lept out at me – one I rarely look at:  “Do not scatter your energies on unimportant issues in life.”  I immediately knew I had received a direct answer from above:  God really doesn’t care what you have in your life as long as your focus is exclusively on trying to live according to His will.  Indeed, it has been since I started completely focusing on trying to follow God’s will that I’ve had a more light-hearted approach to money and have felt more moved (by the Spirit) to make purchases than ever before. 

Of course, the purchases are completely different: I’ve bought myself virtually no clothes and have bought very few clothes for the kids, yet I buy books for myself constantly (all spiritual) and I liberally buy books, music, and art/craft materials for the kids.  No junk – all good, stimulating stuff (especially the books).  So, when God calls us to a life of poverty, it is not necessarily physical poverty, although I think He does call some to that vocation, for His own reasons.  The poverty to which we all must submit if we are going to do His will is poverty of desire:  when you have no desires to satiate, personal goals do not block you from receiving God’s messages of what He would have you do with your life, including what He would have you purchase and have around you.  (Indeed, I now see all the time all kinds of beautiful, colorful stained glass, art, candles, whimsical (yet reverent) home furnishings that I would love to see in the house – not because of any status thing, or a need to buy stuff, but because they are beautiful and uplifting and would help me to focus on what is important in life).

I still think the gist of this journal entry is true — but God DID lead me into a life of real physical poverty within three years of me taking my vow . . .  so whether I ‘just happen’ to be one of those few who God intentionally chose for that life or whether it is in fact a necessary part of a vow of poverty for anyone who takes such a vow is an issue I can still argue both ways, and which I intend to address at length at some future time.  Until then, it is something to think about for anyone reading this post.

P.S.  Check out also the life of St. Martin de Porres of Peru:  he literally and routinely gave others the shirt off his back and the food off his plate without a care in the world as to how he himself would do without that shirt or food.  That, to me, is the essence of a vow of poverty, and make no mistake that if you live like that in today’s world, you probably will find yourself really and radically poor . . . because even ‘Christians’ are repulsed by (and seek unconsciously to punish) human beings who do not place a high value on physical security and the possession of the objects necessary to ensure that security.   They may not THINK they are sold out to the material world in this way, but I could cite example after example of how their actions speak to this reality very clearly.  Again, more later.