Tag Archives: simplicity

Do we need simplicity skills?

Jonny Rashid often calls me a monk, which is more than a little bit true. It is very true that I admire the Christian radicals who created intentional communities in reaction to fellow-believers getting swallowed by the empire, and I admire how they multiplied monasteries when the Roman Empire fell apart. Believers gathered around Jesus and formed an amazingly creative response to the utter chaos and violence around them. They responded to their challenges with radical simplicity. As a result, their network of intentional communities preserved the truth about Jesus, provided a social safety net, and formed centers of creativity and charity that were rare points of light in Europe for hundreds of years. I think they flowered with Francis of Assisi. All the values that held the communities together: poverty, chastity, and obedience are extremely unpopular today. So people often ask the question, “Do we need to think about simplicity?”



You might like to start with my favorite movie: Brother Sun, Sister Moon. In this clip [link], Francis and his newly-minted band of monks are working in the fields outside Assisi and dealing with the new poverty they have chosen. I like the heart of what they are doing, especially the way Francis receives the bread he’s begged with radical gratitude. His single-minded focus turns the hot, impoverished day into worship.

I don’t know what you think of these monk people: scary maybe, from another planet, embarrassing, quaint. Regardless of how you feel about them, they are successfully working on being simple. God did not give it to me to be a monk, but it was given to me to be simple, same as the rest of us.

The heart of simplicity

To get started on disciplining ourselves for simplicity, we will one main thing. That is, we focus on Jesus and let everything else follow who we follow. Jesus said,

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy (or single), your whole body will be full of light. 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!” (see Matthew 6:19-24).

That is probably the key teaching on simplicity. Simplicity is about being basic, unclouded, whole. Simplicity is about being radically centered, not just frugal or generous. Simplicity is not mainly an economic matter. The pure in heart, the simple, the single-minded, will what they do from one reality: faithfulness to Jesus, no matter what their circumstance. That willingness is the character trait upon which simplicity skills are founded. Eternity is centered in our hearts so that reality gives our hands their focus.

We usually think of simplicity in terms of money. We are living in the United States, after all — and those people care about money! Not that everyone in the world isn’t pretty much obsessed with it, too, but Americans are schooled to see themselves as part of an “economy” and to see their consumer choice as an expression of their “freedom.” No matter how many times we are instructed that the president can’t really do all that much about the economy, the presidential election is going to be about jobs, when it should probably be about drones.

We need simplicity skills because our relationship with money (and with most everything else about us) is not so simple. We are at the center of a schedule that cannot be juggled properly; we are at the center of a communication system that overwhelms us — we can’t even figure out how to use the machines we have to use to run it; we are expected to be the center of an enterprise that sells our time, our communications, and our future — in terms of debt. The decisions we have to make are weighty.

Here are two ideas that I find important as part of my own simplicity skills for dealing with money. I wouldn’t say they are easy, but they are basic skills for using the tool of money in a radical way.

Be frugal. Budget with a vision. James 4:13-17

We should not construct our budgets as if our lives came from ourselves and as if the future were in our hands. This is basic Christianity. We say things like: “If I live, I live to the Lord. Whatever is at the heart of God, that is what I want in my heart.” I don’t think anyone writing the New Testament is sitting around waiting to find the perfect choice to make so they don’t mess up eternity. God can be trusted for the future. They are moving with the Spirit and focused on that one thing.

I have had the distinct pleasure of walking with people who are getting married this year. Some of them have already talked a lot about their finances and others almost not at all. Some are easy-going about how to organize their budget and assets and naturally want to share. Others are quite nervous about how sharing is going to work out and are naturally protective. Maybe that reflects how they first attached to mom and felt she was generous or withholding. Who knows? But how we handle our money as partners and as a community is important.

A basic simplicity skill is budgeting our money. We should know what we have, what we usually spend, what our goals are. We should not have to go to the ATM to find out what we have before we buy a snorkel for our vacation. We should not put it on the credit card and fix things up later. We should have a radical strategy for how we spend so our money is used for eternal purposes.

Be focused. Know when to kill the fatted calf. Luke 15:29-30

Throwing a lot of cash at an over-generous party might seem like the opposite of having a disciplined budget and being aware of how one is spending down one’s assets. If we did not live in eternity, scarcity would, indeed, be a huge  problem. If you kill the fatted calf too often, there isn’t another calf to eat! You know about the calf, right? If you are a subsistence farmer/cow raiser, the succulent meat of the cow you fed a special diet to plump it into shape is a very rare treat. You don’t eat it until you are celebrating the Eagles winning the Super Bowl, or your sister finally gets her BA.

Simplicity is also about knowing when it is time to kill the calf and celebrate. Simplicity is not all sweating in the field being poor. It is sharing our bread and praising God. Of course, some of us kill calves we don’t even own yet, hoping we will get some joy out of it — that is a little backward. The skill is to have the joy of eternity in our hearts and to celebrate it, not to celebrate in order to get some joy. We might see some joy looking backwards, but we get it by living forwards.


fatted calf | the classical beaver

Maybe we should all have a “fatted calf fund” as part of our budgets.  Some of us may be living under our means already, so we always have money with which to bless others. But some of us have not mastered money-making and spending yet, so we might need to deliberately put some money away for the time when we need to buy the piece of jewelry, or send someone on a trip, or take a friend to dinner, or buy a forty dollar piece of meat or  a wonderful carrot at Vedge. That’s radical budgeting, too.

I hope my two suggestions spur your imagination for how you can be simple in practical ways, in that you discipline your money, and other things, to move with Jesus in this wild world. One person told me, “Wow! Being simple is complex!” Well, I guess so. But the heart of all that disciplined living is simple. The main thing is being faithful to the Lord who is so single-mindedly devoted to us.

Six Things I Did in My 20’s that Made All the Difference

When I was on retreat last week I had a moment of wonder as my memory wandered back to my twenties. Some days I remember myself as the world’s dumbest 21-year old! So many of my present twentysomething friends seem so much better off than I was! As far as my soul is concerned I think it was like I was a spiritual refugee in my twenties who washed up onto the shores of Christianity. I made some big mistakes as I haltingly made my way into the strange new land of Jesus. But the good thing is that I also did not know that I shouldn’t adopt what appeared to be the best things about the ancient culture of my new homeland. I just kind of did things without a lot of insight or direction as I settled in. I “somehow” happened upon things that proved to be astoundingly important. Here are six things I did that have shaped my life for the better ever since.

I learned to live simply on purpose.

I was very poor. But I decided to stay that way on purpose. My cause was world hunger, apart from the mission of the church. Every extra penny I could get was designed to go to people who were starving. I became committed to not eating up other people’s resources in general. I ended up learning about the historic Christian discipline and even spiritual gift of voluntary poverty. It seemed strange then and it does now. But I managed to miss ever being tempted to live off fast food or to waste money on things that were meaningless. My resources have been purposefully used and that feels good.

I received the Spirit.

I was also poor in Spirit. “Receiving the Spirit” is what Pentecostals tell you to do to have a REALLY personal relationship with Jesus. I kept shooting for that no matter how uncool it seemed (and it did). A lot of Pentecostals are weird. But the best of them are radicals. If the Apostle Paul says “Be filled with the Spirit,” they are going to go for that. As I look back on it, some of their theology is so wrong that I’m glad I wasn’t paying very good attention! What I got was that I could and should have some experience of God’s Spirit in my life. I opened up to that and I met God personally. I thought it was thrilling then. I did not realize just how much more experience there was.

I conformed my lifestyle to the Bible.

“My lifestyle” is a pernicious phrase, it is so egocentric. But I was very egocentric in my twenties. I was forming my “lifestyle.” I was determined to be the best Christian possible and my teachers were all about the Bible. Thank God for teachers who got me to study the Bible! I’m not sure how they did it, but I sure thought knowing the Bible was crucial. I spent something like seven years doing 2PROAPT (which I still recommend to people) as my daily act of devotion. I got the basic material down. I must have pondered almost every line in the New Testament and tried to “apply” each of them “to my life,” as we said. I did not understand everything I should do about the Bible. But I filled my mind with the raw material of transformation that I have been using ever since. What’s more, I had a life-forming dialogue with the Bible writers about what is important and how I should live that formed my ability to keep having that dialogue.

I got married and had children, in that order.

These days, people are either wiser or more controlling, I can’t tell for sure. They wait a lot longer to get married. I did not wait. At age twenty, if I was dumb or dumbstruck about anything, it was the blessing of Gwen. And, I must admit, I became her very dumb husband at twenty-one. I knew very little about sex, myself, relationships, intimacy – name anything that would make me a decent partner. But being married improved me when I was available to be improved. Love shaped me instead of my career or my personal desires. Add the children on to that (I had four by the time I was 29) and that just deepened the requirement for me to learn how to love someone and to be responsible for something other than what moved me or pleased me. I don’t think I was too conscious of the benefits of my choice, but, as it turns out, it was nice to get a head start on being a grown up.

I lived communally.

In my late twenties we formed an intentional community that lasted for eight years and often had upwards to twenty people in it. Within that group of dear people I did some of my deepest formation and some of my stupidest things. It was a wonderful, irreplaceable experience. Even the people I lived with who are now geographically distant still feel like relatives. I think that is how the church should be. We took Acts 2 (see “I conformed my lifestyle to the Bible,” above) and decided to do it. Our “household” was a great environment in which to practice simplicity, too. Looking back, I think it was best for doing theology. We sat with each others for hours figuring out what God wanted us to do. Each year we would re-write our “statement of formation;” they are one-page works of theological art. When I was getting my first license with the BIC, I sat down with my household and asked them, “Here are the questions they are asking. What do I believe?” They could tell me. Christians don’t do much that is more countercultural than submitting themselves to love. Doing that with intention in my twenties shaped me.

I protested things.

It might be that if you never get over the edge to become a protester in your twenties, you lose the capability. Living simply in community was something of a protest in itself. Being Pentecostal was a statement, too. But I am talking about coming up against political philosophies and government actions that steer people toward destruction. I wanted to do something about hunger. I got (symbolically) arrested for trespassing on the weapons testing site in Nevada a few times. We picketed a new abortion clinic. We complained about Ronald Reagan. I evangelized, which, in itself, is a direct confrontation with the powers that be. I am glad I “got over the edge.” Getting over my fear of being vocal about my faith needed to get an early start. I think it helped to develop the habit of pushing against my fears before my brain hardened into the  habit of not doing faith that way.

There are probably more things that could be noted, of course. You are probably doing other things that you will note later. These are just the things that came to mind last week. I offer them as encouragement to my many 20something friends, many of whom are so much more mature than I was. I hope you don’t give up. If you are doing something that seems crazy for Jesus, now, it might be the very thing that will have made all the difference in thirty years. Do the best, most spiritual, most Christ-following thing you can think of doing with the capacity you have. You are equipping yourself to keep doing the word for the rest of your life. If you’re not twentysomething anymore, at least we’re not dead yet – neither is Jesus. Maybe some wild or difficult thing we are doing for love or truth right now will be very memorable in a few years!

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