When I was asked to share this morning on simplicity, I hesitated. If you know me at all, you know that I didn't hesitate because I am shy! I hesitated because I think of simplicity the same way I think of humility...
You know what I mean. In those rare times when God works in and through you to such a point where you actually do some kind and godly thing and it feels so great, you might say to yourself, WOW, I was just really humble right then! and the whole darn thing gets nullified right then and there... THAT is how I think it works with simplicity. It's something you live out, not point out, in yourself.
However, as Richard Foster says in his classic book The Celebration of Discipline, The majority of Christians have never seriously wrestled with the problem of simplicity, conveniently ignoring Jesus' many words on the subject. So I will run the risk of nullifying my pursuit of simplicity today for the sake of greater discussion.
What do I mean by "simplicity" as a spiritual discipline? Foster says it is an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle. In other words, as we seek first His kingdom (Matthew 6:33) rather than seeking first after career or status or wealth or power, that singular focus on Christ should then flow out in and through our daily lives.
How did I come to practice this discipline? I backed into it. In February 2009 I resigned from a 15-year position as a youth pastor here in town, from a church in which I'd been a member for 23 years altogether. This decision was the right one, but it was so difficult, nonetheless. I needed time to wait on God for what was to be next, and to recover from the jarring transition that it was, so I had saved some money to do so.
However, in my immaculate timing I made this decision one month before the historic financial collapse hit bottom! Amidst daily news of gloom and doom I tried not to panic, but also decided I needed to dramatically pare down my budget, not sure when I would be employed full-time again. Thus I declared 2009 to be The Year of Living Simply. I decided to buy nothing new (other than food). I refrained from spending money on entertainment - movies, books, music, eating out and travel. I let magazine subscriptions expire. I stopped buying gifts and just sent cards (sorry friends). This took a third out of my budget!
As I stuck to this approach, I learned three things rather quickly:
- It just wasn't that hard. That sounds crazy, but once I got over the hump of this seemingly hard decision, I discovered that I wasn't suffering. Richard Foster quotes the famous Arctic explorer Richard Byrd, who lived through months of deprivation in his travels to the North Pole: I am learning... that a man can live profoundly without masses of things. Indeed, I discovered the same. Once you wean yourself off the constant acquisition of stuff, you realize it's all rather fleeting in its satisfaction.
- I was much more grateful for what I received. Once you orient yourself around God's provision rather than thinking of it all as the fruit of your own labors, you see everything as a generous gift! The novelty of something new regained its meaning. When someone had me over for a meal, or took me out for coffee, or gave me a gift, I delighted in every part of it, since these things came less often.
- My default became "Why?" instead of "Why not?" When I faced the decision as to whether to buy something or not, now I operated from the assumption that I would not be getting it, and was forced (by my own decision) to think through what I "needed." Rather than get something just because I had the money or because everyone else already had one, I jumped off the treadmill and thought through my spending far more carefully.
Let's be clear -- I am not advocating some dreadful legalism that disdains enjoyment. God wants us to enjoy his provision and his creation. But I was now recognizing how much of my joy came from stuff rather than from God himself and from the people and things he provided already.
Needless to say, I had more free time since I wasn't busying myself as I had previously. I spent some of that new time reading up on monasticism and benedictine spirituality. Monks take vows of poverty and/or simplicity -- they hold belongings in common, because they believe that the more possessions you have, the more those things possess you! They meditate regularly on this passage from Matthew 6:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.25 “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 than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 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? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 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—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
I am happy to say that after my Year of Living Simply that I am now quite gainfully employed. But that year instilled some good habits in me. So I am trying to pursue this spiritual discipline of simplicity in ongoing ways:
- When I buy something new, I give something away. For example, when I buy a new pair of shoes, I give away a pair.
- As I have mentioned here previously, I sold my car about a year ago. I now use my scooter, my bike, and public transportation (with occasional rides from friends). This slows me down and often forces me to think through how many things I try to do in a given day.
- I eat seasonally. I love, love, LOVE red bell peppers and could eat them every day. And in 2011, I can eat them every day, thanks to hot houses in South America and semi-truck trailers hauling food all over tarnation. But I choose to eat red bell peppers when they are in season where I live. By eating seasonally I am reminded to enjoy God's provision in God's timing. Sometimes he gives us things to enjoy, and sometimes he asks us to wait. And it is often in the waiting, and anticipation, that I learn how to deeply enjoy the things he gives me.
I shared this earlier this year, but here is the way that I remember this spiritual discipline of simplicity. It's an adaptation of the 3 R's of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle...
I say Repent (of my materialism), Reduce, Reuse, Refuse (to try to keep up with everyone else, and just buy the things I truly need), Recycle.
Tell me what you think... thanks for listening!