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In the next few articles, we hear the Jesus Christian spin on the Quaker ideal of simplicity.

This week we had a visitor whose first comment when he walked into our flat was, "My, you have a very nice flat here!" For anyone else, this may have been taken as a compliment. However, Cherry and I have come to recognise the real implication that comes from many people when they say that.

He had just come from spending some time with Paul, who is presently living in a little tent hidden in a national park south of Sydney. Paul has, for several weeks, been living on the streets in Sydney. He has been able to get free meals, free laundry, a free haircut, and even free train travel (by finding unexpired excursion tickets lying around railway stations). This guy was impressed with Paul's humility, and he was actually having a shot at us because Cherry and I live in such luxury by comparison to the hardships that Paul has been enduring.

I should state here that the "nice flat" that Cherry and I live in costs us $80 a week to rent (That's less than $50 a week in U.S. dollars). It has no windows at all in the kitchen, lounge, or dining area, because it is squeezed in between other buildings on the main street of the poorest suburb in Newcastle. It has two bedrooms, one of which I use as my office. We took it because it meant that we could sell our car and walk (or use public transport) to do all of our business. It does look nice, because it was freshly painted and carpeted when we moved in two years ago, and we have tried to take very good care of it since. It also has fluorescent lights, which make up for the lack of natural sunlight.

I didn't explain all of this to our sarcastic visitor, but I did eventually tell him about how Cherry and I started, with four children (aged from three to seven) in three little tents (smaller than Paul's) on the bank of a stream by a roadside rest area, and with no way to travel apart from hitchhiking. Only then did he start to relax about whether or not we were genuine in our faith.

I am writing this article because I feel that the problem this guy was having is a fairly widespread one, and that it even exists within our own community. It has to do with confusing "abject" poverty with "liberated" poverty. I'll try to explain.

We have noticed in India that beggars feel they must moan and groan and do everything they can through body language to communicate the fact that they are in total misery. They dress themselves in the filthiest possible rags and invariably lie on the ground as though in the final throes of death to complete the picture.

However, we know of one particular beggar who works in a pedestrian tunnel near Triplicane. He turns up every morning in a neatly ironed shirt and slacks. He has no arms, yet he stands there facing the crowd with a big clean smile on his face. He asks people to put their donations in one of his shirt pockets. He told us that he only stays there until he gets 50 rupees ($2) and he is happy with that. Then he goes home for the day.

It probably is true that the abject beggars make more money for their efforts; but I am confident that this man lives a better life. He does not generate as much sympathy, but then he doesn't need it. His poverty has not destroyed his self-esteem, and so he comes across as being spiritually rich. In fact, it is his "poor spirit" (i.e. being happy with $2 a day) that makes it unnecessary for him to stoop to the tactics that it takes to make big money as a beggar.

But I could well imagine people thinking that this man does not deserve a contribution because he obviously has enough money to eat well and wear nice clothes. How silly! The truth is that he is living on less than the others. We give to the other beggars as well, because they are still poor; but they are not as poor as their image suggests.

Now let's relate that to ourselves. A few years ago, we asked the rest of the community working here in Australia with us whether they would like to live in a flat (like Cherry and I were doing) or whether they would rather have some kind of a mobile home. They said that they would prefer the convenience of a mobile home, so that they could move from place to place as they sought to get out tracts and books. We shopped around and were able to buy a bus for $12,000 that was reasonably well decked out, and we gave that to them.

However, over a period of time, some members of the team felt that there was too much responsibility connected with owning a bus (repairs, fuel, the cost of improvements, parking inconveniences, etc.) There was a growing push toward an even simpler lifestyle. Paul eventually made the break and dropped out of the bigger team to become a one-man team in his little tent in the park. His lifestyle is enviably simple; and even as I write this, another one of our members is thinking of having a trial week with Paul in his tent.

I would be happy to have all of our members living in tents all over the city (or all over the country if we had more members) and doing like Paul, where he travels into the city each day to get some books out. Whenever he needs more books, he just contacts us and we give him some more.

But I would not want any of our members to feel that they have to live in tents; at least not as long we have the resources to provide something more comfortable for them. The choice should be up to them. If they feel a flat is too much responsibility, and they would rather live in a van or in a bus, then fine. If they find a vehicle too much responsibility and would rather live in a tent, that is fine too. But it should not mean that we all need to live in the same way.

We have a certain range of choices which we can all make. Some involve more comfort; but with the comfort comes more responsibility. It depends on which appeals to them. But I would hope that we can project an image of "liberated" poverty at all levels, and not an image of abject poverty.

If the flat or the bus or even the tent is cluttered, dirty, unhealthy, run down, etc. then maybe you need to ask yourself whether you need to take more responsibility for the image that you project. By all means, let us rejoice in our poverty and not be ashamed to say that we are poor. But let it be as neat, tidy, healthy, happy, and clean as possible. (I realise that someone sleeping on the dirt is not going to be able to wear white ironed shirts each day; but neither do they need to sleep on the same dirt where they urinate, if you get what I mean.)

I want our buses, our vans, our flats, and our tents to be testimonies to the simplicity and order that God has given to our lives. If they are not projecting that image, then we need to ask ourselves why. Let us be careful that we are not doing like the groaning moaning beggars of India, and trying to look miserable in order to gain sympathy.

For me personally, it is a compliment when someone says, "My, you have a very nice flat here, don't you!" I am proud of what Cherry in particular has been able to do with $80 a week (and what she can do with even less to provide nice food for our visitors). It is a testimony to most of our friends and neighbours, who virtually all have more money than we have, and yet they continue to moan about finances, and to long for more.

At the same time I appreciate the fact that our lifestyle is very comfortable by comparison to what some of our other members are experiencing. But then, again, it has brought certain responsibilities which others do not want either. So let us all appreciate the diverse possibilities that are available for each of us, and let us each choose that which will make us more liberated in our poverty.

(See also Contentment and The Greed Tree.)

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