Seeking the Kingdom of God First: The Discipline of Simplicity

Mary Ellen Petini's Story

By Jannette Morrow

Simplicity can be defined as “an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle.” That’s what Mary Ellen Petini experienced when she gave up everything to serve for 15 years in Nepal caring for orphans. “It became my heart,” she says. “Saying goodbye to everything I owned was nothing in comparison to following Christ.”

But her first visit, a short-term mission trip to Nepal, was “very, very difficult.” Mary Ellen admits she didn’t hear from God before going, despite fervent prayer. Spiritual warfare and discord among the team members during the trip left her feeling dejected. “I said ‘I’ll never ever go back to that country,’ which was not God’s will. I think my time was not yet.”

After a more successful mission trip to England and encouragement from Pastor Bob, Mary Ellen finally heard God’s voice and regained her vision for Nepal. “With that encouragement, I said, ‘That’s it. I’m going to sell everything I have and go.’ I didn’t have the finances, but the church rallied behind me and made it possible for me to sell what I had.”  

Yet to Mary Ellen, this decision was more than a change in lifestyle; it was doing God’s will. “It was a slow process,” she says. “There was no attachment to any of it; that feeling just disappeared. I came to that release through prayer. I just knew that if I was going, I had to get rid of stuff. And there was lots of stuff,” she adds with a smile. 

This part of her story reminded me of when Jesus told a parable about a rich man who wanted to tear down his barns and build bigger ones because his harvest was so great (Luke 12:16-21). In our day, people would call him prudent; however, Jesus declared him to be foolish. Jesus lauds those like Mary Ellen who, instead of acting like the foolish rich man, decide instead to act like the merchant in another parable, who sells everything to buy “a field with a pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46). 

While it is not God’s will for us to live in “forced poverty” or lack the things we need, it is His will for us “to follow him into a joyful life of carefree unconcern for possessions,” as Richard Foster details in his book Celebration of Discipline.

However, walking in God’s will didn’t always mean smooth sailing. Mary Ellen recalls having her life threatened by previous supervisors at the children’s home (who had to be dismissed), and another time when a magazine article accused her of using social welfare as a pretense for spreading the gospel. Foster points out that freedom from anxiety is a direct result of seeking God’s kingdom, first. 

That perspective helped Mary Ellen persevere while taking care of 76 children. “It was getting the things they needed—regular meals, basic clothes, medicine, lessons on personal hygiene, encouragement, education,” she says, “that mattered.” 

1 Kings 19:10-18 was a scripture she leaned on. “In that passage,” Mary Ellen explains, “Elijah says to God, I’m all alone, and the Lord says there are 7,000 others who have not bowed to Baal as well. That story encouraged me when times were difficult to stay the course.”

But there were victories too. “We’d have a Christmas program and invite all the neighbors. They would come for the food, but we would give them the program and the message of Christ. People were amazed that a white, American woman would come to their country and give up her life to serve them. They felt like they weren’t valuable. It was just letting them know, ‘You’re somebody to Christ, and He loves you.’”  

When the children were older, Mary Ellen had more time to tell others about Jesus. She spoke to tourists from Europe and to people in prison, including a Hasidic Jew. And if a taxi driver was discouraged, “We’d give him a Bible or an extra tip and say, ‘This is from Jesus Christ.’” 

The kids, most of whom now are adults, are her strongest testimony. “Almost all of them are Christians. Now, they’re pastors, registered nurses, and teachers,” Mary Ellen says. “I hear from them through Facebook, I get birthday wishes saying ‘we miss you,’ and ‘when are you coming to visit?’ They’re doing really well.” 

An inner attitude of simplicity includes trusting God with everything. For Mary Ellen, that fact meant also trusting
him about returning home.

“God had been talking to me about that for awhile,” she says. The poor air quality was affecting her breathing, the children were older and didn’t need her as much, and at home her mother’s health was failing. And she had a strong feeling that it was time. “I saw trends in the country. I wasn’t sure how long they would let us remain. There was a definite pulling away; it was like, ‘for such a time as this.’ It was finished.”

Foster warns us that: “Worthy as all other concerns may be, the moment they become the focus…they become idolatry.” The cure is seeking God’s kingdom first. “Simplicity,” Mary Ellen says, “is prayer. Simplicity is time alone with God. Simplicity is to empty yourself of the ‘stuff’ of the world. Simplicity is focusing on God’s will for you and whatever that entails.”  

Although Mary Ellen has accumulated some things since returning to the United States (“precious kid things” from Nepal, like paintings and drawings, and donations from friends and family), she adds, “The things I have are just the essentials. There’s nothing like…the freedom that comes from walking with Christ.”