Saturday, August 6, 2016

Simple Kind Of Life

Back in 2000, Gwen Stefani wrote and recorded a song entitled "Simple Kind of Life" with her band No Doubt. The lyrics talk about her wanting to get married, settle down and have children and then contrasts it with her life as the lead singer of a popular band. Music tends to come to mind whenever I am reading something that sparks a recollection of a song or a lyric. Today it was when I read this verse in Thessalonians, "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life" (4:11). When we think of ambition we definitely do not associate it with a "quiet life." Ambition in our culture is climbing the ladder of success. It means making a lot of money and having a lot of possessions, buying the newest latest in technology. Nice cars, nice house, nice life.  We tend to think of ambition in terms of bigness. "He has big ambitions" or "She has ambitious plans." Yet, contrary to this attitude, the Apostle Paul is writing that those in the Church to, "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life."


Certainly it sounds paradoxical to be ambitious to not be ambitious, to strive for a quiet life. It doesn't come natural to us nor are we taught this. From the time we are children, we are asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It's a pragmatic question that reduces a child to a commodity because we often believe that our value is in what we do, our work as identity. It is a utilitarian view of self that continues throughout our lives. Just go to a social gathering and see. One of the first questions we often ask someone we've just met is, "So, what do you do for a living?" We have forgotten that living is a state of being and not a state of doing.  The tendency in people is to focus on the external life over the internal one.

Philo, the Jewish philosopher from the first century, wrote that the quiet life was the goal of the righteous and stressed that one cultivate "a tranquil, and a quiet, and stable, and peaceful life."

In Hebrew, the word for quiet is shaqat, which means "to be quiet or undisturbed." In Greek, the word is h├ęsuchios and that means "quiet, tranquil, peaceful." The word for peace in Hebrew is Shalom and it means more than peace but is rooted in an inner peace. This is contentment, completeness, wholeness, harmony and well-being. This brings to mind what Jesus says in John 14:27, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." 

The peace Christ is speaking of is of a wholeness because it is communion with God and focused on him. It is a peace that cannot be taken away by the world because it is not given by the world, it does not come from what we own or have in this world. The Quakers have a term for this called "restful simplicity." It's based on their tradition of "plain living" which focuses not on what we have but on whose we are. When one focuses on God, it becomes easier to embrace simplicity and a quiet life. 


How many people really have it?  How many of us have ours tied up into how much money we have in the bank, what we own, where we live, how often we can travel? How many of us would be anxious if Jesus told us, like he did the rich young ruler, to "sell everything we have, give it all to the poor and follow him"? I must admit, I would. I'm far from rich by American standards (notice I don't state by the world's standards), but I love many of the things I have collected over the years: pottery, items from our travels (including those we bought in Ukraine) and, especially, my books. Would I walk away from Christ like the rich young ruler did? Would I try to negotiate with him to selling "some" or "half" of what I have?  

The Shakers have a hymn that begins, "'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free . . ." but do many of us view simplicity as a gift? We have storage units to contain all of the things we own when our houses can no longer do so. The late-comedian George Carlin had a whole routine about people and their "stuff."  There is a whole market of books on how to simplify your life. People would rather buy those than to just simply simplify their lives. Most are not seeking simplicity but merely a way to organize themselves and their belongings. There are numerous Ted Talks on the subject matter of minimalism and simplicity. It's also why trends like downsizing to tiny homes have caught on (Don't believe me? Look at how many television programs there are about tiny homes). Yet none of these addresses the root of why people store up treasures for themselves. Simplicity is a spiritual act that shifts ones focus from having to being, from wanting more stuff to wanting more of God. That's Hebrews 13:5 tells us, "Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have..."

But are we? 

Are we truly content with what we have? 

Our society doesn't want us to be. That's why there's advertising. Ads want us not to focus on the eternal but on the momentary, the now and reminds us that we are unfulfilled when we don't have the newest, latest, new and improved. Yet in a study done by UCLA, scientists found that people's stress levels spiked the most when they were dealing with their belongings. What does that tell us?

Our perspectives are skewed. We war among ourselves and within ourselves out of coveting and envying what we do not have. I come into conflict within myself whenever I go to an upscale mall in Charlotte. It fills me with shame and not being up to a certain standard of living. It is literally a spiritual battle whenever I have been in this mall. I fell less than. I feel discouraged. I feel a sense of failure. I become a bit angered at God. Why do I have to financially struggle? Why do I have to so often go without? Why is doing our family budget so stressful and filled with so many things that we cannot do or buy? I don't like the person I become whenever I am there so I try to avoid going. but it strikes deep at something within me that causes me to feel insecure, inferior and unsure of myself. I begin focusing on what I don't have and this is a very warped and ungodly perspective to see the world from. When I stepped back, I began to ask myself why I was so stirred up and to delve into the reasons for my desire to want to own those things and what was I trying to prove and to whom? I asked myself, "What drives my desires? And what am I teaching my sons through them?" To change them, to change myself, I must first change my heart. I must change the will and the want. If I don't, it would be easy for me to be like so many else who are buying and living beyond their means to try to keep up a life I imagined or want others to imagine I'm living.

Again and again, scriptures warn us against amassing possessions. Luke 12:15, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in the abundance of things." (Not going to see an ads promoting that un-American point-of-view). Ecclesiastes warns, "Whoever loves money, never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is me meaningless." This is not a sermon heard in many of our churches today that promote health and wealth and prosperity.  We have become consumer culture churches. Churches that are very much in and of this world. 

That's why so few in our culture and in our churches have what the Quakers have termed a "restful simplicity." The Quakers have a tradition of plain living that is focused on God, faith and community. God-centered lives are more readily willing and able to embrace simplicity and quiet lives. It's about presence, not presents. It's about praise over purchase. It's about communion over commodities. Our sense of self should not be based by what we can put on a shelf.

When our emphasis is not on gaining but on giving, we will find our time better spent in serving. We will reach out to those who most need us: the poor, the elderly, the dying, and the lonely.

One of the prayers I find myself praying for my family the most recently is this one by George Fox:

Grant us, O Lord, the blessing of those whose minds are stayed on You,
so that we may be kept in perfect peace: a peace which cannot be broken.
Let not our minds rest upon any creature, but only in the Creator;
not upon goods, things, houses, lands, inventions of vanities, or foolish fashions,
lest our peace being broken, we become cross and brittle and given over to envy.
From all such deliver us, O God, and grant us your peace.

Not an easy prayer to pray, but a necessary one. It is a prayer for true peace. For a deeper appreciation for that which really and ultimately matters. This focus leads one to live a thoughtful and intentional live. It is a prayer that I do not come to easily, sometimes not willingly, but one that means I lay down my wants for that which I really need more of. Jonathan Edwards wrote, "We are free to choose, but we are always a slave to our greatest desire." What is my greatest desire? For more of God or for more of what the world has to offer me?

To  come to peace, tranquility and quiet, spiritually, is to "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). Stillness is a spiritual discipline. Like bread to the hungry is silence to the soul. To sit in stillness and silence is to be confronted with ourselves, our desires and wants, and all of the noise we carry within us. Only when we can struggle through those things can we begin to truly "Be still, and know that I am God." We have to step out of the frenzied pace of our daily lives, and dig deeply past our contradictions, duplicities, and self-deceptions. We have to be open and naked before our Creator. When we are still and silent, the focus of our culture and our world begin to fade and the distractions are gone. It is there that we discover the futility of the things we so often strive for because they are o disconnected from God. That's why so many avoid any sort of time towards introspection, silence and stillness, which is precisely why God requires it of us. He calls us out of our divided lives. In the silence and the stillness, our masks fall off. We begin to ask ourselves,"What am I really seeking for my life?" This is why Henri Nouwen said, "Solitude, silence and prayer are often the best ways to self-knowledge."

That is what I am striving for and I am trying to teach my sons. Harvard University did a study that showed how people over estimate how long a new purchase will make them feel a sense of happiness. When buying something, say a new car, the amount of time it takes for one to become disillusioned with this new purchase and it becomes just another car is far shorter than they expected (often six months or less). We have reached that goal or dream to own that new car or house or boat and we get a spike in our happiness levels, but it does not take long before we realize that this new purchase will not make us happy. Real peace and joy will not come with the temporal, but from those eternal gifts or rewards that only God can give us.

Inward simplicity allows us to be attuned to the voice of God because we are not focusing our energies on the material clutter that so many chase after. It is a matter of spiritual intent, of the aim of the heart and aligning ourselves with Christ. Quakers refer to this as "staying close to the root." I love that idea. Rooted and established in love, in Christ and not in the things of this world. To work towards a life of simplicity and quiet, to make that my ambition, is to become disciplined in holy obedience. When we remove stuff, we make room for faithful living. We are creating more space for God within ourselves. This is a radical reorienting of ourselves and our priorities.

Does this mean we have to get rid of all of our possessions?

No, but it does mean reevaluating them and their role in our lives. Mary Gregory put it this way, "Simplicity does not mean getting rid of all your possessions, but rather integrating them into your life's purpose." That means they enhance, not encumber. You are not tied to them. Our joy should be tied in our being, not in our having. Extravagance should be in our giving, our loving and our gratitude. How much will our lives change when we embrace lives of simplicity and quiet? How will those around us change by the difference they notice in us?

I will end on this prayer like poem that I love by Wendell Berry:

Ask the world to reveal its quietude -
not the silence of machines when they are still,
but the true quiet by which birdsongs,
tress, bellworts, snails, clouds, storms
become what they are, and are nothing else.

When we are in that quietude, when we still and silence the need for more, when we simply are, we will become what we are and are nothing else.

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