The Mennonite and the Diva

By Donna Lee Schillinger

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Matthew 6:25, 26, 28-33.

I saw something in WalMart the other day that caused me to evaluate my value system. I saw a Mennonite family that had adopted a Chinese baby girl.

It is rather ironical that Mennonites dress plainly so as not to call attention to self (among other things), and yet their style of dress is quite attention-grabbing. The purpose is defeated whenever they leave their own circles. And so I notice them, but not just notice, I ogle them. I cannot explain my fascination with Mennonites – I just love to look at them (though try not to be caught doing so). But on this day in WalMart, I was staring at something more than their bonnets. I was so stunned by the site of a little Chinese girl dressed in calico that I just walked right up to the older sister who was holding her and asked the obvious, “Did your family adopt her?” (She could have been a foster child, I guess.)
Yes, they had.

The baby, who had a beautiful name I can’t recall, had been in the U.S. about three months. She looked to be about 18 months old. I said a few words to her and then put my foot in my mouth again, saying, “Oh, I guess she hasn’t been in the country long enough to learn English.” Then I recalled that many Mennonites speak German in the home. We had a nice little conversation between two families who have adopted. They also inquired of my son; we exchanged well wishes and went on through the checkout.

On the ride home, I told my daughter, “I feel sorry for that Chinese baby.” We chuckled thinking of the day she finally realizes she had been brought to the land of opportunity by Mennonites. As the humorous thoughts were forming in my head, I simultaneously recognized there was a problem with my thinking. So I began to explore mentally why I thought the Chinese baby was less fortunate than if she had been adopted by a mainstream American family. What do we have that Mennonites don’t? Certainly not money. The Mennonites in this area are well-off – simple, but not lacking for anything. They use electricity, drive cars and have cell phones, so they don’t lack for modern conveniences. They shop at the same grocery store, and I’ve been to their bake sales – food is certainly in their favor. I finally concluded that what we have that they don’t is a huge variety of fashion accoutrements and entertainment choices.

Wow. So I felt sorry for that little Chinese girl because some day she would realize she can’t wear paisley, and that she would miss out on things like “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Hannah Montana” and when she’s grown, “Desperate Housewives.” How could a stable family*, and a strong, moral community make up for this little girl being denied pop culture?

Even as I was reflecting on how much I apparently value fashion and entertainment choices, I received in the mail a review copy of Divanomics: How to be Fabulous When You’re Broke by Michelle McKinney Hammond. Normally, it would take me up to six months to review a book, but on that same day, I just happened to have a two-hour window with nothing else to do but read. I was intrigued to learn that the well-known diva had come on hard times – books not selling and all that – and now had major financial problems such as needing to dump an overpriced condo, staving off creditors before they repossessed her wig collection, and the like.

Having always lived modestly – and not by choice – I found it hard to muster sympathy for Hammond as she is forced to deconstruct her empire. I would not be so bold as to say that God brought her to this financial trial as a way of setting things straight, but it is quite obvious that in this trial, He is drawing her closer to Him. I was touched by her final reflections about the things that truly matter. The book is packed with decent advice about how to live frugally, but nothing ground-breaking. It might be useful if, like Hammond, one had never in her life given a thought to being frugal and now suddenly needed to become just that. However, for those of us who have been living it all our lives, this book reads like Dick and Jane. I did learn a new trick about house-sitting a McMansion in the chapter “How to Live in a House That’s beyond Your Means.”

Let’s just take that trick, for example, and dissect it. The advice is that there are agencies (she lists a Web site), that represent people who are out of the country, have more than one home, are trying to sell their home, or for some other reason, have a huge, hunking house that is sitting vacant, and would be agreeable to someone living it in for free, in exchange for them maintaining the lawn and deterring thieves and vandals. Sounds pretty good until you consider that the utility bills would probably be more than rent on a two-bedroom apartment, and maintaining the home and grounds of a McMansion is like a part-time job. And for what? So you can impress your friends with 4,000 square feet more space than any single person needs? And forget about watching any scary movies while living in that big house all alone!

The fact that Hammond would guide women into unnecessarily getting into a huge house just for the look and feel of it gets to the heart of a basic assumption that we need to challenge – and it’s the same assumption that led me to feel sorry for that adopted Mennonite child: Variety, luxury and brand names are hallmarks of a good life. Divanomics reflects the confusion in Christian thinking on the matter of prosperity and luxury. This is also a topic I am exploring in my blog Throw Away Your 401K: What the Bible Really Says About Money.

On the one hand, we have the Proverbs 31 woman, dressed in fine linen and purple, bringing her food from afar, with kids clothed in scarlet. On the other hand, we have Jesus telling us that if we want to be perfect, we need to sell our possessions and give to the poor. These are seemingly contradictory, and since there are so many more scriptural references to prosperity (albeit, mostly in the Old Testament) than extreme generosity, a lot of Christians are claiming the prosperity promises with only the occasional nod to gospel generosity. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this: If both of these concepts are recurring in God’s one Word, there must be a way to reconcile them.

Oh, what’s that? Look what Jesus said at the beginning of this article (and in Matt 6:28-33). Don’t worry about clothes, food and the wine list, instead occupy your mind and energies with seeking God’s will for your life and He will add all these things to your life. So He wants His children to dress in fine linen, but not to put the appetite or pursuit of it above Him. That was simple enough.

Does Divanomics promote worrying about food, drink and clothes? Well, it is an entire book dedicated to seeking these things out. Beyond that statement, I am ordering my jury to remain silent and leave the final judgment to the reader. The case is somewhat complex, with Hammond mixing in personal testimony, instructions on tithing, and teaching some basic survive-on-the-cheap skills.

I did arrive at a verdict about the Chinese baby, however. I decided that my thinking has been distorted by materialism, and that child is, in fact, blessed.

*In 1982 (last reported stats I could find), when U.S. divorce rates were at a high of near 50%, only 3.5% of active Mennonites had ever divorced or even separated.

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