A few questions were raised about the Counting Stars pre-order tiers we sold here, and about the pricey $20 Rabbit Room mugs. If a few people were brave enough to question it by commenting, I’m sure there were even more who kept quiet. There are a few more of those patronage plans on the horizon so I figured it would be a good time to explain our thinking.
Years ago I played several shows with a few members of the Kid Brothers of St. Frank. Remember them? It was the unofficial pseudo-Catholic order started by Rich Mullins in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, and included a few younger musicians like Eric Hauck, Michael Aukofer, Mitch McVicker, and Keith Bordeaux (who wasn’t a musician, but who was on the verge of moving to Arizona to serve however he could before Rich died). I was as big a Rich Mullins fan as you could imagine, so in the years after his death I was honored and a little frightened to find myself occasionally doing shows with those guys.
Eric in particular embodied the spirit of the Kid Brothers. He was hilarious, gentle and kindhearted, had a long biker goatee, a braided ponytail, smelled a little funny, drove a motorcycle, and played cello. You read that right. He played cello, and he played it well. Also, he never wore shoes. The only time I saw him with footwear was in the airport (because the FAA requires it). When they stopped him from boarding the plane Eric pulled out of his grimy backpack a grimy pair of flip flops to appease them. He was perfectly content to bounce through life without anything to tie him down, money least of all.
I, on the other hand, was married and had two baby boys. I couldn’t just crash on random couches from night to night. I was responsible not just for myself but to provide food and shelter for my family. I couldn’t up and disappear like a burp in the wind whenever the mood struck. The day I got the advance for my first record deal we threw a party at our little house in Watertown, Tennessee (a 1000 square foot farmhouse we rented for $500 per month), and I splurged on the following: one cheap propane grill, some ground beef, and one Nintendo 64 game system. We used the grill to make burgers for our friends (several of whom were Kid Brothers) and the Nintendo to play the James Bond shooter Goldeneye until sunrise. All told, I spent $200. I remember one of the guys pulling me aside and gently questioning my materialism. I was flummoxed and a little defensive. Was I being materialistic by purchasing a $100 video game? Was I being materialistic to have bought a cheap grill to cook the food? (Food they were happily eating, I thought to myself.) These guys, back when they were official members of the unofficial order, had taken vows of poverty and chastity. I hadn’t. And besides, for the first several years we lived in Nashville (even after the record deal) we were living well below the poverty line. I stood there by the new grill thinking, “I haven’t taken a vow, but I’m living it, by golly.” It wasn’t a big deal, though. I shrugged it off and partied on. It was a good day, and the fun we got out of that James Bond video game was worth every penny. I love those guys and the mighty honor they paid me by letting me do shows with them.
Just a few weeks before that, I was on a plane to Bolivia with Compassion International along with Keith, another Kid Brother. There, I met little Elba (whom we still sponsor), and I wrote “Land of the Free“, about my whirl of emotions, convictions and confusions over Elba’s joy in the midst of such poverty. I didn’t know what to do with the discontent I felt with my own lifestyle. The answer, I decided, must be poverty. If I want joy, I must live in a hut. I must follow the footsteps of St. Francis and Rich Mullins and become a mendicant bard. Houses are bad. Money is bad. People with houses and money are bad. I was fired up. I came back to the States ready to sell everything and live a communal lifestyle with a few other folks, and we even went so far as to look at some land where we’d sing hippie Jesus songs and share packets of Ramen noodles for the rest of our days.
I was still grieving the death of Rich Mullins (we weren’t friends or anything, but I was still grieving in some sense), trying to sort out how to emulate the way Rich lived out his love for Jesus. I saw joy on the faces of the Bolivian Christians, and it was a joy I didn’t see at my church back home. I remembered Rich saying, “Following Christ is not about having your perfect little life with your perfect little house, far away from homosexuals and minorities.” How very true those words still are. But I couldn’t figure out my place in this way of living. I was thankful for our sturdy little house and our community, and didn’t want to leave it. I was haunted by the truth that if I asked Elba and her family whether she’d rather live in their house or mine, they’d choose mine. If they could opt to have running water in their home, they’d choose it every time. They’d choose to have good shoes, clean clothes, and plenty of food. So the answer for me, a family man, wasn’t poverty.
Around this time I read an excellent book by Richard Foster called The Freedom of Simplicity, and I had my answer. What I envied about the Bolivians wasn’t poverty. It was simplicity. They didn’t choose it. It’s a necessary result of living in poverty, the silver lining on a dark cloud. That’s why people come back from Africa with that infectious gladness–not, of course, because of the terrible smell or the sickness or the injustice–it’s the simplicity. It’s a life uncluttered by television and power bills and traffic jams–a life enriched by the intense joy of interacting with other souls at a profoundly deep level, which is what we were meant for. What we miss when we come back from mission trips and church camps and spiritual retreats is life at its simplest.
American culture is one extreme (a land of plenty at the cost of simplicity) and the Third World is the other (poverty with the gift of simplicity). Each has its blessings and its curses. This point of this isn’t to get to the bottom of which of these extremes is better, but to propose a better way. A Christ-centered life of intimate fellowship unharried by either sickness and starvation or the chaos of a capitalistic rat race might be a good picture of the order of the day in the New Jerusalem. We don’t want to thrust electronics and trinkets and McDonald’s fries on Elba’s family any more than they’d want to thrust their dirt floors and malnutrition on us. What I wish for Elba is clean streets and sturdy houses, good food and warm clothes: hope. What I wish for us is walks in the woods, good friends, a tight community with a loving church at its heart: peace.
The only way to usher in that Kingdom is to walk in the way of Jesus. To love well, to push back the fall, to let the Spirit lead. Now, the beauty of it is that each of us carries a peculiar gift to light the darkness. Rich Mullins, God bless him, was single. That meant he could give most of his money away and hitchhike barefoot. It meant he could up and move to Arizona to live with Native Americans and he didn’t have to ask a soul. The Wind blew, and he floated on it. He wrote about his long, lonely, love-struck journey with Christ, and we, the Saints, were edified.
But what about the rest of us? As much as I’d like to be as cool as Rich, I can’t. I got married at nineteen, so as long as I’ve been writing songs I’ve had a family to care for. That means I want a roof over their heads, and shoes on their feet (sorry, Rich and Eric), and beauty and safety and health. In my walk with Christ I have found that at times my footprints align with my heroes’ and other times they don’t, no matter how hard I try. Most of the time, their shoes are just too big for me to fill.
Speaking of shoes, I grew up fairly poor. We never missed a meal, but that’s because many of those meals were a cheap tuna casserole called Peterson Special. (Mom named it that because we all loved it and the name gave the pot of noodles some dignity, I suppose.) Back to the shoes: I remember walking to school in 4th grade and noticing that I could stick my big toe all the way through the sole of my thrift store sneakers. I understood that new shoes weren’t in my immediate future so I duct taped them every other day. I remember sitting at my desk staring at the other kids’ Chuck Taylors, wondering why I couldn’t have a pair. I dreaded the days they’d ask us to take off our shoes in P.E. because my socks were so gray and ratty while all the other kids’ socks looked brand new. They stared at me and I stared at the floor. I know what it’s like to be the (relatively) poor kid in the room.
Now, as a thirty-six year old father and husband, I have a thing about shoes. I’m disproportionately excited whenever I get to buy a new pair of shoes. I feel like the king of the world walking out of the store with those new cushiony insoles, and I’m embarrassed to tell you that I’m constantly checking myself out when I see my reflection in a store window on New Shoe Day. The same goes for my kids. My own 4th grade shame carries itself over into my kids’ lives so that Jamie knows to send me out with them to buy their shoes; I don’t trust her to choose cool enough shoes for them.
The point: being poor is not the only way to radically follow Christ. Some people are called to it. I have long felt a tension between all that I learned from the Kid Brothers and Rich Mullins about identifying with the poor and the weak, versus my holy responsibility to tend to my family’s spiritual and physical needs. Had Rich ever married, I’m certain his wife would have appreciated a nice dress every now and then, or a bouquet of flowers, or a decent kitchen, and she probably would have lovingly insisted that he not give all his money away, especially after she bore his children and needed to buy diapers, and school supplies, and shoes for goodness sake. And the other thing is, Rich Mullins had hit songs that are still making money. He gave a lot of his money away, but he also had a constant stream of it flowing in. Lots of it. And I’m sure the ministries he supported with the surplus were grateful that he channeled it to them for Kingdom work.
Money isn’t the root of all evil. The Bible doesn’t say that. Here’s the verse: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:10) We’re called to keep watch so that we don’t fall in love with money. To be sure, wealth is a heavy burden and isn’t for everyone, just as poverty is a burden and isn’t for everyone. The people of the church are varied in strengths and weaknesses. Money itself isn’t evil. In fact, money can be a great tool for Kingdom work. It’s easy to tout ideals about how wrong it is to be wealthy until you’re on the receiving end of someone’s generosity.
After all, someone has to buy the burgers.
Next: Part II, The Extravagant Gamble