I am a total 80’s girl. I think I was the inspiration for the Bowling for Soup song “1985.” I love U2 and Blondie. I do remember when there was music still on MTV and when Ozzie was a singer not an actor. I also remember my desire to live like Madonna’s “Material Girl.” It was the Reagan years and no one questioned that we all needed, wanted and deserved more, and more, and more.
I grew up in a small town with very limited opportunities. My goal in life was to get the heck out of there as soon as I could. I wanted to go into finance, climb the corporate ladder, make something of myself. So I graduated with honors in accounting in three years from Texas A&M, joined a Big 8 accounting firm (yes, there used to be 8), passed the CPA exam on the first try and was well on my way to a six figure salary, a corner office and the comforts of that lifestyle.
A funny thing happened on my way to the corner office, actually several not so funny things as well. The first was my first child, then my second and then my third. I thought I was super woman, but babies were my kryptonite. Looking into the face of my precious babies melted all my worldly ambition. I had never cared about anything or anyone but me. But here was this fragile little thing and it was totally dependent on me. It was scary but I quit my job and we decided we would eat bologna sandwiches every meal if we had to so that I could stay home. At the time, I thought it was a temporary detour – I always thought I would get back on track and one day have that corner office and the six figure income.
I learned my very strong work ethic from my parents. My dad grew up dirt poor and at the time of his death his estate was worth over a million dollars, quite an accomplishment for a small town boy with only a high school diploma. My mom was a high school drop-out who started, grew and sold several successful businesses. I was born to succeed at business.
Then on November 7, 1997, my whole world came crashing down. My dad took his own life. It turned my life upside down. Everything stopped making sense. He had everything, a happy marriage of more than 30 years, two happily married children, four healthy grand-children, a successful business, money in the bank, and the respect of the community. For months the only word I could speak was “Why?”
I started to think about that corporate ladder and started to question what was at the top. I guess you can say that I got knocked off that ladder and as I lay on the ground staring up at it, I started to get a sense that I had bought into a lie. Was happiness really found in a career, money and success?
After my father’s death, I started to listen more closely in church. I started searching the scriptures for anything that could help me make sense of life. What I found was surprising. I found passages of scriptures that I either had never been taught or that I had simply ignored,
“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)
“When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)
“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:10)
My suspicion that Madonna’s material girl was a con artist was confirmed. As I look back, recognizing the lie was the easy part. The harder part was living into the disturbing truth found in Jesus words. We live in a culture where all the streams go one way – up. Swimming against the current is a nearly impossible task in our materialistic, consumer driven culture.
It took an encounter with a homeless woman and the friendship that followed to show me just how lost and sold out to materialism I had become. I honestly thought that I could befriend the homeless and still live my life the same. I am sure Jesus got a big laugh at that one.
The first real challenge came when one of my favorite new friends and her five children were about to be evicted from their two bedroom house. I will never forget driving up to my five bedroom house and praying, “God please provide”, and then looking at my insanely large home and hearing “I already have.”
I thought my husband would have a heart attack when I told him I felt we were supposed to sale our house and downsize so we could give more to those in need. Instead, he said, “Let’s do it.” My kids did not really understand why we moved until they were a little older. I am sure there were rumors going around that we were financially struggling or some other “rational” explanation for why we were taking a downward path. I did not really talk about it with my friends; I still cared at that time about keeping up my image. It took another six months of working with the indigent before all pretense melted away.
I don’t want to make this journey sound simple or as though I have it all figured out. I still struggle with materialism; I still live a comfortable life in a middle class neighborhood. I feel guilt when I drive out of the public housing complex and leave my friends behind after people have been gunned down in their streets. I look at my children who have so much and wonder why God would allow other children in the community in which I serve to suffer so much. I know I could do way more but I also know I have come a long way and that I am still on the journey.
The thing I love most about my life today is that I finally learned to love me just the way I am. My materially poor friends can’t hide behind houses, cars, clothes and pretense. What you see is what you get. Take it or leave it. It was the authenticity of the people that first drew me into relationships with my new friends. It was so refreshing after spending years surrounded by plastic perfect people all trying to be something they were not.
By walking in solidarity with those on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, you start to see the injustices that are not visible from higher up on the ladder. The role the criminal justice system plays in the lives of impoverished communities is very different than the way the system works in my community. The educational system looks very different. The social services system which is a non-issue in my world yields huge amounts of power in impoverished communities.
I also learned boldness from my new friends, something not found in most middle class communities. One of my friends said, “A closed mouth don’t get fed.” So, I learned to ask for help for my new friends which was terribly hard for someone as prideful as me. I learned to stand up for my friends because so many of them have had no one in their corner and have had to learn to fight for everything in life. I am sure those in my middle class culture find my new found boldness unrefined or abrasive at times but the cool thing is, “I don’t care!”
My friend Charles is fond of saying, “I just do me.” I have always wanted to have that kind of self-confidence and I can honestly say, Charles is rubbing off on me. I am not where he is, but I am getting there. Yes, I learned to love me by watching a formerly homeless man who spent 33 years as an addict serving time in and out of jail demonstrate self-love. Correction – I learned to love me by spending time with Jesus who goes by the name of Charles and who dwells among the least.
I invite you to swim against the current, jump off the ladder, make some new friends and shed the baggage of pretense. Who knows, you just might come face to face with Jesus.
This post is part of a synchroblog titled “Down We Go.” Below are the links to other blog posts on this topic. Hope you enjoy these various perspectives on the topic of downward mobility.
- Alan Knox – How Low Can You Go
- Jeremy Myers – Seeking The Next Demotion
- Glenn Hager – Pretty People
- David Derbershire – Reaching The Inner City
- Tammy Carter – Flight Plan
- Leah Randall – Jacked Up
- Leah Randall (her other voice) – How Low Can We Go
- Liz Dyer – Beautiful Mess
- Maria Anderson – Down
- Christine Sine – There Is No Failure In The Kingdom of God
- Leah Sophia – Down We Go
- Hugh Hollowell – Downward
- Kathy Escobar – We May Look Like Losers – Redux
- Anthony Ehrhardt – Slumming It For Jesus
- Sonja Andrews – Diversion and Distraction
- Marta Layton – Down The Up Staircase