The other day a friend called to tell me her newborn boy had been rushed to the hospital. The doctors had discovered a serious heart defect. "What can I do?" I immediately asked. The answer was simple enough. She needed companionship as she camped out day and night in the I.C.U. waiting room. Without hesitation I headed to the hospital and spent the day there.
A year ago, that simple gesture would have been impossible. I was working in a high-stress job at a university far from home. With the commute, I was away from home 11 hours a day. My job left me little energyand almost no timeto extend myself to anyone else.
My daily life seemed disconnected from my faith. I was well aware that Christ had spent his life extending himself without fail to the desperate, the diseased, the dying. When he asked Peter three times, "Do you love me?" Peter cried out: "You know I do." Christ’s next statement tugged at my heart again and again: "Feed my sheep." But how can we feed his sheep if we’re stuck in an office scrambling to meet deadlines, responding to e-mail and trying to figure out our next career move?
It wasn’t until I changed my attitude to money that I discovered the answer to that question.
When we got married in 1984, my husband, Jef, and I were caught in the "earn to spend" treadmill. We were consumers par excellence. We relished weekly restaurant splurges, trendy clothes and seaside jaunts. We gave little thought to serving others.
Then we had two wake-up calls. In 1993, a friend gave us Your Money or Your Life (1992), a provocative book that promises to transform readers’ relationship to money. By following the book’s nine steps, one of the authors had left paid employment at age 30 to devote his life to service.
After reading the book, Jef and I became more conscious of our spending habits. Before snaring a shiny new gizmo or trinket, we asked: Will this bring me fulfillment? Does it reflect my values? Just what are my values anyway? And if we had only a year left to live, what would we do? Somehow shopping and splurging seemed a sad answer.
The second call came quickly on the heels of the first. One Sunday we met four nuns sent to Atlanta by Mother Teresa to open a home for poor women with AIDS. Before long, Jef and I were spending our Saturdays in old work clothes helping the sisters and other volunteers transform the house into a beautiful home that was eventually named the Gift of Grace.
In the past, my Saturdays had been devoted largely to me-centered activities like cruising the mall to check out the latest fashions. But as we became more involved with the nuns and saw how devoutly they embraced their vow of poverty, the mall started losing its appeal.
Our lives were changing in other ways too. The book helped us see that money represented our life energy, the hours we spent at our jobs. Since that life energy is preciousand limitedwe stopped squandering it. We gave up our weekly restaurant splurges, started checking books out from the library instead of buying them and shopped for clothes in thrift stores. We learned to live quite happily on much less than before.
Most importantly, we learned to ask ourselves, "Do I have enough?" Clothing, furniture, jewelry, gadgetsoverwhelmingly, our answer was yes. If the answer was "too much," it was time to weed out the extras for charitable causes.
When reading the Gospels, I was increasingly impressed by the passages that warned against amassing treasures on earth instead of in heaven and others that cautioned against serving two masters, God and money. I also was touched by the scene in which Christ washes his disciples’ feet as a sign of loving service.
Since I was painfully lacking in extra time, I squeezed in my service work on nights and weekends. I felt called to eucharistic ministrytaking the body of Christ to shut-ins, the sick and the elderly. I also helped Jef launch an evening study group at church devoted to exploring the relationship between money and values. It took us six years to weed out all the debt in our lives, including our mortgage. There was a great satisfaction in finally being debt-freebut something was still missing from my life.
It was that precious commodity called time.
I felt God was calling me to more service work and I couldn’t keep telling him, "Wait a while longer." I didn’t want my epitaph to read, "She made a good salary with nice benefits." I started to realize that you can’t respond to the desperate telephone call of a friend or the cry of an elderly relative unless you have time and energy to do so. So, after a good deal of soul-searching, I took a leap of faith. I bade farewell to my lucrative job last February to become a freelance writer working from home.
Surprisingly, by edging my way down the career ladder, I’ve become much wealthier. My riches aren’t reflected in bills and coins, though, but in hours, minutes and seconds. Now there’s time to take my 87-year-old friend to lunch or play with my little goddaughter, time to get involved in a morning Bible study at church and to conduct a communion service at a nursing home, time to visit elderly shut-ins. Yesterday, I did something that would have been impossible a year ago. I spent five hours in the hospital holding my friend’s tiny baby while she took a break.
Of course, there are sacrifices to downscaling. I no longer sweep through the mall triumphantly brandishing my charge cards. Nor do I dress in the latest fashions or drive a sleek late-model car. And it’s hard to know how to answer the age-old question of new acquaintances: "So what do you do?"
"A little of this and a little of that," I try to explain, but they look puzzled. "I write," I say, and some look satisfied.
But the Lord is the one who really knows what I’m doing. He knows about the sheep.
Lorraine V. Murray attends St. Thomas More Church in Decatur, Ga., where she and her husband conduct study groups on voluntary simplicity.