“Keeping It Simple”

February 23, 2014


Philippians 4:4-9

Matthew 6:25-34


I like to go to the grocery store, because that seems to be where I get my ideas for sermons. It’s amazing—the amount of spiritual advice that jumps out at you while waiting in line.

Just one example: That magazine in the rack at the check-out called Real Simple. Now, I look at the cover and it seems so calm, so ordered, so, well, simple. And I think “I could use some of that.” So I buy a copy and take it home. And of course the first thing I notice is that my home doesn’t look like the cover—and I really don’t have a problem telling you that because, even if I haven’t been to your home, I know yours doesn’t look like the cover either. And the second thing that I notice is just how hard it is to be real simple.

Simplicity, apparently is a rather complex subject. I should have realized this, since a magazine is published twelve times a year to help us with the task. In these few minutes I can only make a preliminary sketch. You’ll have to help me see what is lacking and how we might fill out the picture.

Maybe we need a magazine because, certainly, the Bible doesn’t tell us much about simplicity—in part for the same reason that a fish doesn’t talk about water. A simple life is the very context in which the Bible and the Christian life developed.

“Consider the lilies of the field,” Jesus tells us. “Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Take it easy. Don’t worry. Right?

Maybe so, but our lives are vastly richer than Solomon’s, who would be astonished to open our closets and see the rich fabrics and the great variety of our clothing. Our lives are more complex than Caesar’s—who never had to manage getting kids to soccer practice, music lessons, and play dates while working full time, caring for an aging parent, and serving on two church committees.

Of course there is the fast track to a simple life that a few people will take. Millard Fuller comes to mind. You probably know his story—how as a successful young millionaire he followed Jesus’ advice, gave away his fortune, and started Habitat for Humanity with the goal of eliminating poverty throughout the world.

Proof again that simplicity is not all that simple.

Some will take the fast track, but the call of God is different for each person. Most of us will continue along with our ever-growing amount of stuff and our complex relationships and our increasingly complicated lives. All the while we wonder if there is something better, something different—not necessarily something more but maybe something less that we need.

One possibility for wholeness in our lives is simplicity. The way of simplicity is not easy. Life is complex. Wonderful events happen: I once spoke with a mother who recently had adopted her second child. She was beaming—and also very tired. Tragic events happen: life-threatening illness takes us by surprise and we discover a wealth of support and concern. In the midst of the rapid pace of life, the crush of demands, and the opportunities and challenges that come our way, our own well-being—and the well-being of others—might still be found in focusing with grace and a quiet peace on the simple basics.

Keep it simple. The practice of simplicity is not a one-size-fits-all discipline. Simplicity requires that we take time to discern what is right, what we need, how we want to live rather than being blown about by the winds of fashion, demands, or fear. We find ourselves asking a lot of questions in the hope that we might become more fully alive.

Simplicity asks about how we make decisions.

Simplicity asks about how we acquire things.

Simplicity asks about how we relate to one another.

Simplicity invites each of us to ask: “How do I make decisions?” That’s a good place to start. Are your decisions fraught with anxiety? Or do you decide out of a growing foundation of peace and grace?

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz tells of going to the Gap and asking for a pair of blue jeans. Have you ever done that?  Like simplicity, it’s not as easy as it would sound. The clerk asked if he wanted slim fit, easy fit, or relaxed fit. Regular or faded. Stone-washed or acid-washed. Button fly or regular fly. Spending much longer than he had planned, investing, as he said, “time, energy, and not small amount of self-doubt, anxiety and dread,” Schwartz eventually decided on “easy fit.”

After this experience, he did a casual inventory of his local supermarket. He found 85 varieties of crackers and 285 varieties of cookies, 230 different soups, 120 pasta sauces, and 175 kinds of salad dressing. Like I said, the grocery store is where I get my sermon ideas. Now, the typical American supermarket carries over 30,000 items—start counting next time you’re at Hy-Vee. How do you decide?

The choices we face can be daunting—and not just the trivial ones at the grocery store. Consider medical care. In one survey, the majority of non-patients said they would want to be in charge of their treatment if they were to develop cancer. Most of those who actually had cancer, however, wanted their doctor to take over. It seems that while some amount of choice is needed and contributes to our health, at a certain point too many options, too many decision points can become debilitating.[1]

Kennon Callahan suggests that one resource for making a life of simplicity is a healthy approach to making decisions. When we do it reasonably well, decision making focuses on what is important. The more complex life is, the more crucial it is that we develop our capacity to focus on what is important.

It’s a winning formula—literally. The year that Barry Alvarez coached the University of Wisconsin football team to a Rose Bowl victory, he posted the word WIN in prominent positions. Alvarez said it stood for “What’s Important Now.” When we ask that question our vision is focused on what really matters.

We make healthy decisions out of a spirit of grace and peace, not anxiety and fear. Paul urged the Philippian Christians not to be victimized by problems within and without. Now, the peace that he commends will not be found within the Christian community, for there will be dissension. The peace will not be found outside of the Christian community, for there will be opposition. The peace that Paul commends and that we seek as we make healthy decisions will be found in God. God’s peace, Paul suggests, is on duty—standing sentry watch is how Paul puts it—so that we don’t have to be anxiously scanning the horizon for every new threat.

A healthy approach to decision making is constructive and forward moving. Decisions made with a sense of grace and peace, calm and confidence tend to be constructive decisions. Simplicity asks how we make decisions and invites us into a place of peace so that we can focus on what’s important now.

Simplicity asks about how and why we acquire things.

I’m told that the two happiest times in a boat owner’s life are buying the boat and selling the boat. In between, from what I hear, you pour money into a hole in the water.

I once served a church that had an annual rummage sale—and it always troubled me. I still remember standing in the church hall one year before the event began with a member who looked over the goods on display and marveled at how at one time each item was something desired by someone but was now no longer necessary. “You can’t take it with you,” she said, and added poignantly: “It’s just stuff.” Standing there I felt my own mortality pre-shadowed in all the unwanted LP’s.
There’s a name for what happens to us: “hedonic adaptation.” Whenever we find something that does make us happier, we eventually get used to it, and our sense of well-being returns to where it was before the new thing came into our lives. We can never make progress on the hedonic treadmill. [2] It is almost as if our consumer-driven economy was designed to torment us.

Rummage sales bother me because they challenge my consumer mentality. As much as I don’t like them, they might be the most subversively “spiritual” activities in many churches. I am left with the troubling realization that what I desperately need this year will be the stuff that I desperately need to unload a few years from now. They are a sobering call to a simpler lifestyle.: asking each of us: “What are you living for?”

Again, the answer is not a quick getting rid of all that we own. After all, as one person says we acquire things because it is part of the fun of living.[3] As Christians we recognize that we live in a material world, created by God and called good. And so we give thanks to God for all that we do have. We also recognize that our sin, our separation from God has a way of letting material goods take over our lives and our allegiances. And so we might also join in agreement with the medieval saint who said: “Thank God for all the things I do not own.”

Through all of our getting and letting go we do well to take the advice of the Quaker, Thomas Kelly, who said: “Prune and trim we must, but not with ruthless haste and ready pruning knife, until we have reflected upon the tree we trim, the environment it lives in, and the sap of life which feeds it.[4]

Simplicity asks how and why we acquire things.

Simplicity asks how we relate to one another.

We are social beings and it is very difficult to move toward simplicity on our own. It is also very difficult to start thinking about the large majority of people on this planet who are poorer than we are and not begin moving toward a simpler way of life. Live simply, Gandhi urged, live simply so that others might simply live.

The truth is—and you know this, I’m not telling you anything new—the truth is that we need one another.

One person put it this way: “Life is simpler when we trust those with whom we live and work. When we trust people, two things usually happen. First, they trust us. Second, they act in trustworthy ways with us and with others. When we trust ourselves, we are in a healthier position to trust others.

“Life is simpler when we cooperate with one another. If we try to go it alone, rigid and unbending, then life becomes more complex. Cooperation breeds cooperation. And the more we cooperate with others the more easily we can trust.”

How do you make decisions?

How and why do you acquire things?

How do you relate to other people?

The path of simplicity is not always smooth. Walking in this way requires us to be alert, to ask questions that we normally wouldn’t ask, even to ask questions that many would say we shouldn’t ask. 

Simplicity helps us build connections to other people, however, not just to things. We make decisions in peace. We live with what we need. We work with others to make life better.

Our lives will never look like the cover of “Sermon on the Mount Magazine.” And that’s OK.

After all, the real goal is not to live simply but to live well.

[1] R.S. Warner, “Burden of Choice,” Christian Century, 7/13/04, pg. 18 ff.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Callahan, pg. 88.

[4] Quoted in Practicing Our Faith, pg. 51.