Downshifting: Out From Under the Shadow of Death

Written by Mark Nielsen : September 12, 2008

“The Lord is my shepherd,
I do not want for anything.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
Though I walk through the valley
Of the shadow of death
I fear no evil.
For You are with me.”

I’ve practically been living the 23rd Psalm lately: from lying down in actual pastures and following behind Jesus beside the still waters of a lagoon (on my morning powerwalk), to having my soul restored through new and renewed friendships, and even a night in “the shadows” earlier this week, as my wife and I tried not to become anxious about my need for a good job.

We’re making our bills okay, and even our donations, our son’s college fund, and so on. But we’re starting to watch our savings trickle out of the account in order to keep up, at a time of year when this didn’t used to happen. Another bad sign: last month’s credit card bill (which we pay every month to avoid interest) featured $529 worth of gasoline charges. We did go to our cottage in Wisconsin several times, and my wife’s commute to work is over thirty miles, but it’s not like we drive some 8-cylinder gas-guzzler!

So the “shadow” is definitely there. It appears sometimes as a worrying that we will have to make big changes (like sell the cottage), or that we’re not “better off than we were eight years ago” (to use the current political tone). Or it shows up when we face the possibility, like many Americans, that in the long run, we will not do as well economically as our parents did.

But then the Shepherd steps in and gently reminds us, “You do not want for anything.” Even better, I find myself wanting less, needing less, ready to give more when asked, even looking for chances to do so. I step off the manic hamster wheel of consumerism and stop running my soul (or my body) into the ground. I stop envying those who seem to be “winners” by comparison to my own situation. For one thing, who says I am SUPPOSED to become wealthier than my parents? It’s not some sacred American birthright. It may not even be ethical to have such an expectation at this point in history.

So it can be very freeing to be knocked down a peg or two like this, if one does not become bitter or anxious. And if I do get a lucrative job (which I do still hope for, I won’t lie), it will all be gravy… just that much more money to be generous with. And it will be a job that is generative in itself, that’s in line with my values and vocational identity, one that builds the Kingdom of God in some way. This is the biggest sign of all as to how “rich” one is: when one’s deep desire, and one’s gifts, precisely meet some deep need in the world.

My wife is not warming to this “downshift” position as easily, however. It’s forcing her to break some old habits, to let go of some things she’s tempted to grasp too tightly. Yet she’s very brave and conscientious. She willingly took a pay cut of about 15% this academic year, just to get out of the rut she was in at the wealthy, high-powered high school she taught at for 21 years, up till last June. Now she’s in a growing district that’s post-rural, with a higher Latino population, and in a hundred other ways is radically different from the wealthy suburb she knew (not to mention the wealthy suburb she grew up in outside of Boston).

But we believe this is where she’s supposed to be now. It’s a place where she can be more useful than where she was, a place where her kindness and professionalism is clearly needed (and more likely to be appreciated). At an age in life when most people are settling in, upwardly mobile, or seeking comfort, she made a choice toward discomfort and learning new things, in order to live out her values. And in an economy where everyone is seeking safety and security, when most folks are paranoid about what’s around the corner, she’s taking personal and professional risks, for less money and mediocre benefits. Furthermore, she’s choosing to serve in a situation where “the poor” are not some abstraction, but are sometimes right under her nose. In so doing, she’s also taking back some of the power and life that money (and worry about money) had begun to subtly steal away from her. I have no doubt she will eventually be happier in the new job, though it is clearly hard work right now, to remake an entire academic culture and overcome several generations of low academic expectations. Growth and development is not supposed to be easy, for individuals nor for schools. But when the fruits of her work are seen, in her students and teachers (she’s chair of the English department), her satisfaction and hard-won wisdom will be worth more than any money could be worth.

I’m not saying this to toot our own horn here (at least I hope not). I’m just grateful for both what we DO have, and for the learning. So I want to bear witness about God’s grace. For me, this place of economic and family tension is a clear example of God “preparing a table” for us, even “in the presence of my enemies”, as the 23rd Psalm later suggests. (I suppose the enemies, in this case, are the demons and worries that are trying to break our resolve.)

The good things God has in store for His people are almost always meant to be enjoyed while the enemy, the shadow of death, is near. Even the Last Supper is an example of this. It’s also part of the natural order of things: harvest time happens not long before first frost, right? Meanwhile, the palace and the penthouse (where people desperately try to keep enemies at bay, unaware they are secretly in their midst already) are not conducive to either community or communion, and these are seldom to be found there. Nor do those who ”have it all” tend to be any happier than the rest of us. And though we will mostly try to deny it, death is never far from the rest of us, either.

So it is in choosing and valuing life each day, in giving love, in accepting God’s reality – especially owning the messy and difficult details of it– that we remain in the light instead of the shadows. It is in the struggle, in sacrificial giving, that we paradoxically receive the best gifts. And as a bonus, we can enjoy the company of the Shepherd Himself at our table. When we drink from His cup, it is simultaneously a cup that contains both death and life. And His is the only cup that runneth over, the one that never runs out.

Drink up!

Author Bio:: Mark fashions himself a writer these days, but in stumbling across the professional landscape he has also been a teacher, a filmmaker, a nonprofit manager, a salesman, and a shopping mall Santa Claus (a job from which he was fired for being late once too often). A Chicago-area native, he currently lives in Skokie, a Chicago suburb.

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    Dear Mark, I found today's entry so refreshing and heartwarming.Many years ago, when I ran a small bed and breakfast business in the south of Scotland, I welcomed an American School Principle and his wife to my home.They were complaining about a tax that had increased the price of butter in the USA. When I gently drew their attention to the plight of the poor of the world who had never even tasted butter, their reply, "Well, they ain't gonna miss it then!", absolutely floored and astonished me!
    I had just returned from 10 years teaching service in Africa, where much of the deprivation could be laid at the door of the exploitative West and could give an explanation for the alienation that they felt towards us.....and still do! Miles of tobacco, sugar, coffee, tea and other cash crops, with no nutritional value, had robbed rural farmers of their land and had displaced whole communities from their traditional homes depriving them of their identity and dignity. Starving labourers were employed to harvest, bag and load laden sacks of soya and corn for export to Europe to feed our demand for beef and bacon.( It is with great shame that I greet the knowledge that Scotland is only 2nd to the USA in Obesity ratings). With his dollar-a-day renumeration, our labourer would then attempt to provide for his family and bring them to church on Sunday to hear about the "moral superiority" of the Christian West! Is it any wonder that they are now seeking meaning, purpose and social justice elsewhere!
    I too have a village home to which I retreat from my inner-city place of work as a social-worker in Glasgow. Sometimes I can only make the 70 mile journey in my head as I can't justify the use of a non-renewable source of energy that we are consuming with little thought for future generations. With seven grandsons and two grand-daughters, I have a vested interest in preserving their world.I often have young VSO volunteers, of different cultures and religions from around the world, staying with me in Glasgow and I then use the opportunity of a full car to show off my beautiful wee country.
    The sacred concept of Celtic Hospitality is dear to my heart as it was to my daughter Gwen who died in Chicago (Google-Gwen Sale) in 2002.It was a great comfort to me to know that by welcoming the "stranger" to her table of homemade bread,soup and music, she made so many friends aware of the need to "Live Simply that others may simply Live". Thus,her death was not in vain.
    Your article, Mark, has restored my faith in a country that from the outside appears to be largely inward-looking and self-serving.The current world-wide economic climate is indeed a God-given opportunity to reflect on how we, as a human species, arrived at this self-destructive impasse' with little thought for the Planet itself or the sacred human, animal or plant life with whom we share it. Every plane that is grounded or car journey suspended, is music to my ears. I fear it may already be too late to reverse the damage we have done with our ignorance and greed but I at least want to look into the eyes of my grandchildren and admit to my part with sorrow and responsibility.
    The enemies of indifference and denial are indeed amongst us now and we must constantly challenge the powers-that-be who would prefer that we focus on the "enemies" without -most of whom we have created in fact or fiction. And we now send our innocent young to destroy them in order to safeguard our access to what we already have in excess. If ever I have the opportunity to welcome a visiting Martian to my Celtic table, I am sure he will listen to the human story with incredulity and make a very hasty retreat from our corporate madness hell-bent on mutual self-destruction.
    Your name Mark, suggests Northern European origins. Scots too, has a long tradition of travelling and settling far beyond their boundaries. Our influence abroad has been a cause for as much shame as joy in past centuries but I make no apology for the universal influence of our Scottish Bard "Robert Burns". I am sure that your English-teacher-wife knows of his poetry and his concept of "a man's a man for a' that" and his earnest wish that "come the day, the world o'er, would brothers be, for a' that". I am certain that that is how we are seen in the eyes of God. That vision has been shared with us by the great Teachers and Poets of the world through the ages. The work and commitment to bring it into being can only be in our hands. A first step, as expressed in your piece, is to waken up to our part, individually and corporately in creating it.
    I trust that your fellow countrymen will heed your experience of JOY and LIBERATION that results! We are not alone in this quest and every time we make that shift away from destructive consumerism to trusting creativity, we are instantly rewarded with an infusion of Spiritual energy. At the age of 65, I feel 20 years younger than I did 20 years ago when I actively embarked on this realisation. Once the commitment is made, the means are provided ......"pressed down and brimming over".
    As I write this to you in my city flat, I am looking down at a group of young people who are out of their minds on a cocktail of alcohol and street drugs. Their language and behaviour to those who pass them is abusive and threatening.Just this afternoon I agreed to house security cameras to monitor their behaviour towards the ethnic groups who live in this area and are ofter targeted by these aggressive and ignorant youths. The awful truth is that many of these refugees from the Middle East are devout and displaced Christians from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Palestine, the Lebanon and even North Korea. As I visit their homes, I hear them talk of places where Christ grew and played and worked and taught. And we weep together at the irony of their children being showered, in this "place of safety", with glass and debris as a brick comes through the window against a drunken chorus of "Fucking Terrorist".
    No, our small inconveniences and minor deprivations, are as nothing compared to those, the world over who are paying the price of our 'wants' over their 'needs' and, daily, bear the brunt of all the prejudices and misunderstandings that have ensued.
    This is the world we have created Mark and it is the world that your son and my grandchildren are about to inherit. Of course you will ensure that he finishes his College education. But he is entering this awful reality better equipped than those who see education as a mere means of getting more of what we already have too much of...often to our own detriment. He has the Blessing of parents who are prepared to see our present economic circumstances as a God-given opportunity to change and act accordingly. By your living example, you provide him with the choice of continued awareness and growth without which we invite immanent and self-induced destruction as a species. He will do well!
    Let me end with an invitation to you and yours Mark, who are ever visiting Scotland, to partake of that Celtic Hospitality, which is my humble contribution to healing the world.You will experience the reality of inner city deprivation and all that goes with it and/or you will experience the silence and simple humanity of a small Scottish village. The balance keeps me sane! You will also be treated to a showing of my beautiful daughter Gwen hosting a "Burns Supper" in Martyrs Bar in Chicago a few weeks before she was tragically killed. Her two sons continue the "work" and Oliver, who is just 17, is about to leave for Australia for a year to spread the universal language of music, dance and poetry.
    Love and Peace.
    Yours in Christ....Maggi Sale ...Glasgow .Scotland
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    Ah, yes. It's tough isn't it? I've had to live the past two years on savings, and sharing some of those savings with a BAM. Not having as much as I used to has forced me to see the potential of things that I was formerly blind to because it was an easy to spend money for solutions. From your bio, it seems like you are a creative fellow with lots of good experience. As necessity is the mother of invention, I imagine that creativity is being put to good use. We need creative people like you who aren't willing to settle for the McSolution, but pioneer and come up with better ideas of how to live quality lives on less. We need people like you who lead by example in amongst the poor, that it is possible to enjoy life without enslaving ourselves to the Jones' image, instant gratification, and debt; people who know that the best things in life are free.


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