“poorer, poorer. slower, slower. smaller, smaller.”

by Cherice Bock 

I’m feeling convicted by an article by Jim Wallis in a Sojourners email. He uses a quote from Thomas Merton (Catholic contemplative monk), who said:

Be anything you want. Be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form. But at all costs, avoid one thing: success.

Wallis goes on to talk about starting Sojourners in the 1970s, living in community with 18 people in one row house when his son was born, paying himself and the others starting Sojourners in such a way that they only received $5/month each for personal spending…I don’t agree with everything Sojourners/Wallis says, but I’m so grateful for the hard work they’ve done over the past 40 years to bring social justice into the (positive) vocabulary of many evangelicals and others. Wallis talks about trying to make his aim “poorer, slower, smaller,” and to do this by emphasizing prophetic, pastoral and monkish (contemplative) areas of life equally. He admits most of us do one of these better than the other two, and there is usually one that gets forgotten, and for him it’s the contemplative one that gets left off. I think this is fairly common for many of us–at least for myself. Wallis says:

Some might say Sojourners is now a “success”….It all boils down to this: Poorer, slower, smaller may be necessary for the inner journey, but it is not a very good business plan.

This makes me think of John Woolman (1720-1772). Woolman had a successful store and it kept on getting more successful because of his hard work and his integrity. He came to a crossroads: he could continue “biggering” his store (to borrow a term from the Onceler in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax), working harder, adding employees, building, expanding–or he could quit and start being a traveling minister, speaking out against the slave trade. I’m sure the former sounded very tempting. After all, God had “blessed” him with a successful business, right? God had made him prosperous, and with his wealth he could do good things, right?
He could buy only things that were not made with slave labor for his store and in that way he’d be supporting antislavery, right?

I don’t know–maybe God calls some of us to do that kind of thing. Maybe some of us are called to be “successful.” There were many Friends, especially in Woolman’s time, who felt like they could be the best lights for God’s kingdom by being successful merchants, store owners, etc., and giving philanthropically in a monetary way as well as volunteering their time for various causes. And maybe they were right. Maybe that’s exactly where God wanted them to be.

But John Woolman felt called to give it up. He, too, lived by the motto, “Poorer, poorer. Slower, slower. Smaller, smaller.” It takes a great deal of humility to live this way. In fact, he felt like a failure when he died. He felt like no one had listened to his message. He had no idea that 240 years later his spiritual descendants would be reading his journal and aspiring to be like him. He was faithful, and didn’t let success distract him from his calling.

I personally have a very difficult time knowing how to do this well in my own life. I want to be “responsible,” to make it on my own financially, to not be a burden on those around me, especially if I don’t save enough for when I’m too old to make my own living. I also want to enjoy life right now, while I’m young! I don’t think these are bad desires to have.

At the same time, I want to trust God to lead me, and that God will work out the financial details. But that feels irresponsible and scary because of our culture’s emphasis on self-reliance, independence, security, success as the measure of self-worth.

I guess the way to overcome this is probably, as Jim Wallis reminds me, to spend more time on that third aspect: I’m pretty good at the prophetic, OK at the pastoral…but I often don’t make the time for contemplation, on my own and in community. I know in my head that this would release me from fear and give me a clearer sense of direction, but somehow it’s still so hard to force myself to do!

Also, I feel like as Friends of all stripes we talk a lot about this area being our strong point, but we don’t actually do it very well very often. We spend time in silence together, but often it’s just a “nice” space, a place where everyone has a voice, a place where we can go and relax in God’s presence or connect with our Inner Light. These are all good things, but that’s not the original point of meeting in silence! The point is to hear what God is calling us to do, and to struggle together with how we are going to be faithful to that as a community.

How do we create that kind of contemplative space in our worship settings again?

It often feels to me like our worship times are impotent. We come together and have a nice time. We learn and grow, perhaps; we build community. But WHY? Why not just build community with some other group in our lives? If worship doesn’t lead to action, what’s it for? Is it really worship? I’ve heard people say they don’t want to always have a prophetic challenge when they come to worship each week; they want affirmation and encouragement to go back into the trenches with. But to me, affirmation and encouragement isn’t enough, because we’re not really IN the trenches. Most Friends in the United States are middle class or upper middle class. Being affirmed and encouraged to continue the status quo isn’t enough. We feel the need for affirmation and encouragement because we have this gnawing sense that the way we’re living isn’t right. We’re seeking after success as a community and as individuals within the community (myself included). We’re forgetting that God calls us to be “poorer, slower, smaller,” and that it is through God’s timing and God’s miraculous power that our small, poor loaves and fishes, there is a sudden in-breaking of God into the world, a sudden explosion of whatever it is that people need in order to be truly nourished. This doesn’t generally happen through our own attempts at success. We may look successful–we may be able to build a mega-church–but it won’t bring about the power of God in the world.

So maybe I can form my life around “poorer, slower, smaller,” but I also need all of you. Perhaps I could be something like John Woolman and just do this on my own, but I don’t know if I have enough courage and patience for that! I need a community. How can we truly listen together to hear how God would have us work in the world in our generation?

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