In the beginning…
We lived life very simply, in a spirit of voluntary poverty that was almost unconscious, though of course we knew what we were doing. That was in the late 1960’s and the first half or so of the 1970’s. This way of life came directly from reading the bible—the psalms, the prophets, the gospels, the epistles, the acts of the apostles. We had no one to teach us, and we didn’t really understand how the Holy Spirit works in us yet, but He was at work just the same, doing what He always does, not drawing attention to Himself, but pointing us to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.
After living alone with the bible for about three years, we finally stepped forward and did the scary thing—we joined a church. It was the Episcopal Church in the last days of its orthodoxy. Deaconess Noel was a gentle spirit who was testing her new vocation with the charm of anxious young womanhood emerging from the simplicity of her girlhood faith. Later, she would move on and be ordained a priest, after the Episcopalians fell under the spell of the spirit of the age. Father Neville (who used to say, “if you can remember the devil, you can remember Father Neville”) was the last generation of those old country Oregon pastors who knew more jokes than gospel but wasn’t worried because “our Grandfather in heaven” only wants us to have a good day and be happy, after all. God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world. Again, simplicity, but of a different kind.
We lived very simply, and with only one son at first, led a beautiful, quiet life. Our house was a small, dilapidated old farmhouse on a quarter acre of land on the edge of town. People used to ride horses down the streets sometimes. On our little quarter-acre we had an ancient cherry tree, a huge, spreading walnut tree, three hazelnut trees, a plum tree, a pear tree, two apples, a peach and an apricot tree, blueberry, red currant and elderberry bushes, and about fifty ancient rose bushes—all producing food that we harvested, stored, and fed on, all for no cost. We had an unsuccessful asparagus plantation and of course a vegetable garden. For juice, we went down to the communal blackberry grove and harvested luscious fruit that we converted into juice in a blender, straining the seeds out. In those days, I even tried my hand at winemaking, and made some wonderful plum, pear and blackberry wines. What we couldn’t grow and harvest on our quarter-acre, we bought. That wasn’t much.
I had a book back then (I still have it to this day) called How to Live on Nothing. The cover shows a young, longhaired man with his wife and children in a wooded setting. That picture could’ve been my little family. I bought that book when I was a poor, starving student, and I read it here and there, but to this day have never actually read it through. Perhaps it wasn’t that kind of book. Anyway, even without reading it, we were actually living a life in the way it described, or very close to it. How to live on nothing? Well, not absolutely nothing, but very close. This didn’t last, however.
The beginning of the end came when we were given a used color television set, our share of the inheritance of my wife’s father when he passed away. I had always resisted having a television in the house, but that day arrived when I was forced to capitulate. That started a whole series of capitulations on my part, out of love and sympathy for the “needs” of others, which gradually transformed our simple, self-sufficient lifestyle in ways I could never have imagined. I felt like Peter, to whom Jesus said, “when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked, but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go” (John 21:18 JB). And go I must, and the simple, straight words of the truth we read in scripture, overlaid with the world’s demands, were almost choked to death in me. Yet here I am, having survived my middle years, and ready again to live the life of discipleship, ready and willing again to live on nothing.
What is this nothing? The paradox is that it’s the opposite of what people usually mean by nothing, that is, nihilism. Even “nothing” in the scriptures usually means this kind of lifeless, deadening unreality, or its agents, elilim as the Hebrews call them. When I think of how to live on nothing, that’s not what I’m thinking of. Certainly, in the book of that title, the theme is how to live in a moneyless way, making use of resources that are free, costless. That is part of it, of course. But what I think of when I hear the phrase how to live on nothing is something different.
To live with oneself and with others, giving away for free all those good things that we have received for free from the Lord. “You received without charge, give without charge” (Matthew 10:8 JB). It costs us nothing to have a welcoming and friendly spirit, to meet everyone and to treat everyone as if they were in fact Christ coming to us. It costs us little or nothing to help others when we see that they need it but are ashamed to ask. It costs us nothing to graciously withdraw our hand when we see our interference would cause more harm than good. It is free to let another go ahead of us, or to have the last piece of anything, even if we must sometimes go without, because what we receive in the action of not receiving for ourselves outweighs all earthly benefits, letting us have a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom.
When I consider how hard people work at trying to be successful, how much they slave and deny themselves wrongly for the accumulation of wealth, not gathering for others, but for show, and how they will quickly lose everything in a heartbeat, or the lack thereof, having no time for acts of kindness, not knowing the joy of welcoming others into their homes and lives, it’s a wonder to me how strong people can make themselves against the opening of the door that Christ is knocking at. But the words of scripture are always true, and we fulfill them all, whether we live for God or apart from Him.
How to live on nothing? I never think of it, it just happens when I’m not looking. Never has poverty felt so rich, when we give away that which the world despises yet which can purchase the whole world for God, if we only dare spend it.