So it’s that time of year again, and I’m doing my taxes. Reminding me just how complicated life is and how much time was spent last year in slave labor. This year is sort of my halfway mark – if I’m lucky. More if I’m really lucky; and almost the end if I’m really, really lucky. Not of filing taxes. Like death – taxes are the only other inevitable thing; but more powerful, because even after I die they will keep coming for my money.
I was recalling this morning where it all started. Do you remember your first pay? Not by your parents, who gave you an allowance to do chores, or your grandparents sliding a crisp five dollar bill into a birthday card. But the first time you worked hard for something and were paid for it?
I’m a missionary kid, and missionary kids have a weird relationship with work and money – I have found out. Those two things are not related in our minds, because they are not related in the realities of our parents’ lives. In point of fact we grow up thinking that work itself is not worthy of pay – I wonder if missionaries know this about their children? Missionaries have to raise their money – which itself is work (ask anybody in ‘outreach’ or ‘sponsorship’). Work – for the privilege of doing more work. Hard work in terrible places. Running hospitals in Kashmir; managing schools deep inside Virunga and teaching in seminaries lost in the foothills of the Andes – suffering illness and violence. The violence is a natural part of life for missionaries; because it is a natural part of the lives of the people missionaries serve. It’s everywhere – in the noisy explosions of war or silent and stealthy in the dead of night; it comes. Like when I was a child in an Argentina controlled by a military junta – who banned public events and gatherings and arrested people at their discretion. Soldiers on the street. Go-bags packed fearing the expulsion by the junta; Hugo Chavez’s warplanes bombing the city. Strip-searched by narco-military as a 13 year old; I guess they were worried about competition. When the embassies were emptying out and folks were headed for the airport, we hunkered down – what good would we be to the people we served, if we ran away during the times of their greatest distress? Who would be a witness to the darkness – if the light became afraid of it and fled?
Then the “break” – every four years. Furlough it was called – which sounds nice, doesn’t it? Beach, water lapping on a dock. Log cabins beside pristine frozen lakes buttoned up tight in the winter, chocolate and marshmallows and fudge. Television and movies and restaurants after so long without electricity.
More like itinerant gypsies roving from church to church tin cup in hand. Charity cases. “The Lord will provide,” my parents would always say, except that He didn’t – and we abandoned the foreign field. HUD housing, not as glamorous as it sounds. I wish Ben Carson luck! Yup, the idea of an hour’s work for an hour’s pay is, well a little foreign to the missionary kid. Took me some time to get used to. To be sure, my ideal is not to sell my time for money – job security doesn’t really interest me. Financial security, that’s another thing altogether. Maybe someday… But I digress.
I remember my first hard-earned money. I was fifteen I think, and back in Phoenix, and there was an abandoned lot that needed mowing. So there I was, with a push-lawnmower trying to hack down grass that was knee and sometimes waist high. Pushing and lifting and hacking in the hot Phoenix summer sun, when I saw it glistening under a piece of grass – a twenty dollar bill. I felt a king! Twenty unexpected dollars to my name I walked down the road to the Circle K to buy one of those huge Slurpees. My decision, with my money – not having to ask permission, to give account to God for my extravagance.
But that was then – twenty-five years ago. A quarter century of work: busing and waiting tables, selling books, filing papers. Learning – working during the day and studying late into the night. Moving food around the world, managing staff, learning languages. Building schools, running campaigns, writing books, defying dictators, ending wars. Marriage, family. Mortgages. All the while counting pennies, counting the cost. And watching life build itself into a great edifice of character.
It’s a long process – isn’t it, life? Prosperity? But as I sit here downloading papers and scanning documents I realize just how blessed I have been. Because if there was one thing being a missionary kid taught me, it has been that a life in search only of money and power and position is a life misspent. Service, the value we add. The people whose lives we touch; the difference made in a nasty brutish world.
Nevertheless sometimes in the dark of night – or when I’m doing my taxes – I again sense the fluttering in my chest of that fifteen-year-old boy. And I am nostalgic for the feeling of immense opportunity that a twenty dollar bill clutched by a sweaty adolescent walking through a Phoenix minimart brought.
Then I realize it’s probably heart palpitations of the middle aged. Death and taxes…