Some images will always be readily available in the view master of your mind. You can just click and there it will be, replaying on a tiny loop— forever. For me I’ll never stop seeing those 10 suitcases tumbling down the airport luggage belt. Ten bags for my family of seven, filled with our entire lives possessions.
Minimalism has always played some sort of role in my life— whether by choice or not.
When I was six my parents decided to become missionaries. So we moved from my beloved blue house in downtown Minneapolis, to an apartment in the second story of a house a few blocks over. Then we moved to an even smaller apartment as we prepared to leave. Every time we relocated we shed more of our belongings. In the final days before we left, we were living in my grandparents’ guest room, just us and our 10 suitcases filled with the few things we’d deemed worthy of our new lives.
Once we arrived in Uzbekistan we mostly continued to live out of those 10 bags. My dad didn’t want to live differently to our neighbours; he wanted to blend in. If they didn’t have cars, we didn’t have a car. If their kids slept on cots on the floor, we would too. And even though most of our neighbours had TVs, it still took us a few years to convince Dad to buy a TV for us. I still remember some of the rooms in our house echoing because there was hardly anything in them.
This minimalist living was a choice for us. Somewhere in the back of my mind, even at seven-years-old, I knew that at any point we could pack our 10 bags and tumble back to America where I would be reunited with all my favourite toys, books, movies and foods. Stuff was waiting for us if we wanted it.
For most of our friends in Uzbekistan, “minimalism” just meant they were poor. It wasn’t a lifestyle; it wasn’t a choice. They were living as well as they could with what they had.
Fast forward 10 years and we’re moving back to America. Our 10 suitcases have somehow reduced themselves to one per person, and we’re on the brink of starting life over. My parents used the little savings they had from their missionary salary to make a down-payment on a tiny house just outside of Minneapolis. My dad got a job that just about supported us five kids – why do missionary families always have a million children? We unpacked our bags and again, even though our house was tiny, it felt huge with nothing in it. Saturdays were garage sale days where Mum and I would get up early and go scout out the best deals on old junk people were throwing away. I think we still have that silverware set somewhere in my parents’ house… This time minimalism wasn’t a choice we were making, it was making the most of what we actually had— which was virtually nothing.
These days, de-cluttering our lives, stripping down to the bare necessities is trendy in the Christian and secular world. Images of bearded hipsters sitting in white rooms whittling away some wooden bowl with an heirloom pocket knife, while dressed in plain — but expensive— organic fibres come to mind. For Christians, we often equate living with less with being more holy. So we donate our second TV or start eating all our leftovers. And it isn’t good to waste our things or place our happiness in them. Sometimes living with less can really reveal our unhealthy dependency on stuff. It allows us to locate problem areas in our hearts, which is good.
But what I think we sometimes forget is that for us in the proverbial ‘West’, minimalist living is a choice, and therefore a privilege. When we left America, people applauded our noble 10 suitcases, congratulating us for needing so little. But when we moved into our Uzbek neighbourhood, we were that American family that had — can you believe it?!— 10 entire trunks full of stuff! We never stopped being the ‘wealthy’ American family down the street. And you and I will probably never, in our lifetimes, stop being a part of the wealthy West to the rest of the world. We get the privilege of shedding our things and still living comfortable, happy lives.
Materialism is an unhealthy focus on stuff. And at its worst, minimalism is still just again focusing on ‘the stuff’, albeit in a different light. But our God doesn’t live minimally, instead He gives generously to all out of His abundance. Instead of cutting back, He gives more than anyone; His love, His freedom, His goodness, His own life, He gives us Himself. That’s because it’s never been about the things we own, and has everything to do with how we love people. For me, I’ve lived frugally and, separately, have been quite poor. From my experience, it’s not the stuff you do or don’t have that makes you a better person. But what you do with what you have— be it a lot or a little— can change the world forever.
This year, instead of resolving to have less stuff, why don’t we resolve to do more with our stuff? Instead of vowing not to buy more than one item of clothing a month, why not vow to buy clothing for people who have none? Or instead of deciding to eat your left overs, invite people who need a meal over for dinner so there are no leftovers? Instead of buying bottled water, use that money to invest in getting clean water to those who have none.
If you’re giving it all away, trust me, you’ll definitely have less stuff at the end of this year. We as Christians have the privilege of living generously and giving out of the truth that nothing we have in this world is truly our own to begin with.