Simplicity — Week 5

Monday, February 5

Read: Philippians 2:12-13

Consider: In the past few weeks we’ve been considering the practice of Christian simplicity. And we’ve seen that this “practice” is not an isolated event or something we do from time to time. Simplicity is a way of life that liberates us. On this journey, we are increasingly freed from the things that distract us from the life that God has for us. And yes, it is a journey—a long, slow, wonderful, amazing journey. We’re all learning. We’re all novices.

I’ve tried to make the point that simplicity is an inside-out job. Simplicity, first and foremost, changes our values. That’s why we must explore our expectations and our desires. It’s why we must examine where it is that we look for peace, joy, significance and meaning.

But simplicity not only works from the inside-out, it also works from the outside-in. As we make alterations to simplify our outward lives, we discover that we are not only clearing physical space, but we’re also creating space for us to thrive emotionally, spiritually and relationally.

As Christians, we believe that God incarnated himself—en-fleshed himself—in Jesus Christ. Following that, he incarnated himself in us by filling us with his Holy Spirit. Like Jesus of Nazareth, we are physical and spiritual beings. We don’t separate those realities. So, as we walk with Jesus, we allow him to change us inside and out, outside and in. Which comes first? Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Sometimes we believe ourselves into acting differently. Sometimes we act ourselves into believing differently. The important thing is that as we walk with Christ, we open our lives completely to him.

So, this week we’re going to look at two ways that simplicity is lived out in the nuts and bolts of daily life. We’ll look at our relationships with time and we’ll look at our relationships with stuff—money and possessions. And, like the inward work of simplicity, we’ll find ourselves with a renewed awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence as we yearn to live as Jesus taught us to live.

Pray: “Lord, the old hymn says, ‘Oh, what peace we often forfeit.’ I don’t want to forfeit the peace, joy and wonderful relationships you have for me because my heart, my home and my calendar are too cluttered. Help me to learn how to create space for my walk with you and my walk with the people closest to me.”

 

Tuesday, February 6

Read: Psalm 139:1-16

Consider: I have always been a very busy person. Too busy. As a husband, a father and a pastor, I never had a moment when I had nothing to do. There was always something to do—usually something that I thought carried a degree of urgency with it.

In my early years serving as a pastor, time was always in short supply. So, I began to read books on time management. In those days, the time management literature basically taught you how to be more efficient—how to get more done in less time. But that didn’t simplify my life. In fact, it complicated my life. I became more efficient, but that only opened the possibility of doing more. So, I tried to accomplish more, fulfill more requests, and move faster toward my goals. I wasn’t clearing space. I was just cramming more into it.

When we live that way, a host of bad things can happen. When we move at an unsustainable pace, we live in a manner that is contrary to how we were created. The most important things give way to what seems more urgent. We cannot quiet our minds to pray. Because we spend less time in solitude, we go weeks or months without thinking about real life issues. Because we live with a constant sense that we don’t have enough time, we begin to feel like we don’t have enough of anything. And then we lose our sense of gratitude. When our gratitude dissipates, so does our joy and our peace.

I used to get frustrated when people gave me one-liner advice. “You need to slow down!” “You should lower your stress level.” They made it sound so easy, but it felt impossible. People needed me. I had obligations—many that I did not choose—that couldn’t be ignored. How could I possibly slow down and reduce the stress in my life?

Of course, we’ve heard all the answers. “It’s a matter of priorities.” “You’ve got to learn to delegate.” “Every person has the same amount of time, it’s just a matter of using it wisely.” Those things are all true, but they’re much easier to say than to do.

I’ve been blessed. I never hit the wall. My busyness never put me in an emotional or spiritual crisis. But, I must admit, my approach to life did rob me. The joy of ministry was not as rich and deep as it should have been. I was so busy working for the Lord that I didn’t take time to feel the warmth of his embrace as he blessed my efforts.

I now realize that my problem was not the use of my time, but the way I viewed time. To me, time was a commodity. It was something to be utilized. It was a tool or a device to get things done and to live life correctly.

What I didn’t realize then, but I realize now, is that time is a gift.

Tomorrow we’ll think about how we might accept that gift.

Pray: “Thank you, Lord, for time. The psalmist said that you ‘ordained’ my days (139:16). The moments of this day—including this very moment—are gifts beyond my imagination. But too often, I don’t even think about them except when I’m wishing for more. Today I want to find new ways to share these moments—these gifts—with the One who gave them to me.”

 

Wednesday, February 7

Read: Matthew 6:25-34

Consider: If you read the great spiritual writers of the past and the present, those Christians who teach us how live with a powerful sense of God’s presence, you’ll find many common themes. These mentors who help us in our spiritual formation have built upon the wisdom of Jesus and two-thousand years of experience in walking with him. In teaching us how to walk with Christ, they are schooling us in joy, peace, contentment, service, sacrifice, meekness, dependence, nonviolence (in word and action), and how to love like Jesus loves.

One theme that continually stands out to me is a simple truth about how to live so that we can be led by the Spirit of Christ—so that we can hear his voice. The great spiritual leaders of the Christian movement teach us to live in the moment—to live right now. Not yesterday and not tomorrow. But right now.

Richard Rohr calls it “the naked now.” Jean-Pierre de Caussade called it “the sacrament of the present moment.” Jesus simply said, “take no thought for tomorrow” (6:34).

Our first response is to put a bunch of qualifiers on Jesus’ teaching. We state that Jesus certainly didn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan for the future. We think that in some ways we’re supposed to worry about tomorrow. Well, let’s not qualify the life out of Jesus’ words. Let’s not try too hard to explain them. Let’s just hear them. Take no thought for tomorrow. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Live right now.

I’ll confess that, for me, this is probably the most difficult spiritual discipline. I’ve always been a worrier. Overcoming anxiety has been a constant challenge for me. I’ve tried a lot of techniques to quiet my mind and my emotions in times of high anxiety. So, believe me, I’m not simply throwing out some simplistic one-liner about being happy. This is about learning to sense the presence of God in this very moment, whether it is a good moment or one that is filled with stress and anxiety.

What does this have to do with simplicity? Everything!

Living in the present presence of God places everything in perspective. My possessions, my calendar, my responsibilities, my temptations, my search for meaning—my life—make sense in this moment when I seek his presence.

Yesterday I shared that for many years I crammed a lot of things into a limited span of time. Whether you’re cramming in too much work or pleasure or adventure or some destructive habits, something else will be forced out. And that something is usually the awareness of God’s presence in this very moment.

Simplicity of time comes with understanding that time is a gift. And that understanding begins right now, in this very moment.

Pray: There are many prayers and spiritual exercises that we can use to develop the habit of living in the “naked now”—the present moment. I would encourage you to explore them and to develop some of your own disciplines. A good place to begin is with the Lord’s Prayer. In it we’re not instructed to ask for anything in the future. Jesus tells us to simply ask the Father for what we need right now—“Give us today our daily bread.”

You may also want to read today’s passage—Matthew 6:25-34—every day until it begins to penetrate so deeply that it changes the way you think throughout the day.

And, by the way, you have everything you need for right now. Enjoy the moment.

 

Thursday, February 8

Read: Matthew 6:19-24

Consider: We can’t talk about simplicity without talking about our stuff—our money and our possessions. These gifts from God can enhance our lives and empower us to serve him with joy, or they can bury us to the point that they sap our energy by increasing our anxiety and stress.

There’s a simple axiom that we need to understand when it comes to our physical possessions — Every thing that you own, to some degree, owns you.

That’s right. Our possessions make demands on us. They need to be stored, cleaned, maintained, insured, repaired, painted, refurbished, fixed again, and on and on. Now there is nothing wrong with owning stuff. We have legitimate physical needs. We own homes and cars and clothes and computers—things we really need and for which we are grateful to God. But we must be aware that too much stuff takes a toll on our time, our financial resources, our concentration and our emotional energies.

It’s also true that clutter is depressing. How do you feel when the house is cluttered? How do you feel when the house is uncluttered—the closets are cleared, the counters are clean, things are put in their place, you can actually see your desk top, and the car fits in the garage?

Is there a spiritual truth behind this? Yes. Jesus said that what you treasure—what you store, hoard and keep for yourself—will demand your affection.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (6:21)

Over the past few decades, American homes have been getting bigger. But the square footage hasn’t increased because families are getting larger. We build bigger houses because we need more space to hold all our stuff. (And then we rent storage facilities for all the stuff that won’t fit in our houses and garages.)

I know I’m painting with broad strokes. I know there are many good reasons for families to have large houses, and due to people’s circumstances or the businesses they own, they may need extra storage space as well. Families with small children have different needs than families with no children living in the home. People who are caring for an elderly parent have different needs than someone who lives alone. One size does not fit all. So, I’m not trying to be judgmental. But I am trying to say that most of us have a whole lot of stuff that we don’t need. And that’s not good for our souls.

Here’s a simple challenge. Today get rid of one thing you own. Donate a good shirt to an organization that will give it to someone who needs it. Donate one of your duplicates. (After all, how many TVs do you need? How many winter coats? What about the furniture in the attic?) Throw away clutter that has little potential to be used in the future.

Then do it again tomorrow. One thing. And the next day. And keep at it. The truth is that most of us have so many possessions that we could go months, or even years, getting rid of something every day without adversely affecting our lives. In fact, we would be enhancing our lives with increased freedom, because fewer things would be making demands on us.

Simplicity is a journey. Don’t be discouraged about the clutter in your home or on your schedule. Just take one small step today and thank the Lord that you’re moving in the right direction.

Pray: “Lord, sometimes I’m amazed at how attached I can get to my possessions. I don’t want to treasure those things that aren’t eternal. I want my time and energy to be spent loving you, loving my family, loving those in need, and loving life.”

 

Friday, February 9

Read: 1 Timothy 6:6-11

Consider: We’re talking this week about our relationships to time and our relationships to our possessions. Yesterday we considered how our possessions can make demands on us. The more possessions, the more demands. If we’re not diligent, we can spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on the stuff we own. Simplicity of heart and mind—which yields simplicity in possessions—can be unbelievably liberating in everyday life.

But it’s not simply a matter of de-cluttering, even though that is incredibly important. Christian simplicity also gives us an attitude—a frame of mind—with which to view our possessions.

It’s simple. I really don’t possess anything. Everything in my life is on loan from God.

The scripture teaches us that we are stewards—managers—of the material world that is created by God and is held in God’s loving hands. This was an image that the first century readers could easily understand. Very few of them were land owners. But some of them were stewards. The owner had entrusted his estate to their keeping. They hired, planned, planted, harvested and helped the land yield the rich results of the soil. They never considered themselves to be the owners. They were simply doing their master’s work.

This way of thinking is at the core of our Christian liberation from the tyranny of money and possessions. It’s all God’s. I’m simply charged with handling it responsibly. So, when I have too many clothes in my closet, it’s a no brainer. I’ve got to get some of those in the hands of people who need them. When I’ve been blessed with abundance, I get to ask God how he wants this money to be distributed. Should I send it to care for orphans in developing countries or do I need to buy groceries for the man down the street who is struggling to feed his grandkids?

This is one of the hallmarks of simplicity. Christian simplicity holds possessions loosely. We don’t worship them. We don’t look to them for security. We don’t even own them. For, as Paul said…

“We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” (6:7)

If it’s all God’s, I’m free. If God owns my possessions, then my possessions don’t own me. Then I can give myself totally to the One who loves me and holds me in his hands.

Pray: “Lord, I don’t want ‘stewardship’ and ‘ownership’ to be abstract ideas or empty words. Teach me the freedom that comes from holding loosely to the things that aren’t eternal. And help my loose grip to result in generosity—generosity of spirit and generosity of the things you’ve entrusted to me.

 

Saturday, February 10

Read: Matthew 11:25-30

Consider: When we follow the ways of Christ, we find ourselves living on another plane. No, we don’t live on a constant high. We can’t build our houses on the mountain top. We experience it from time to time, but we have work to do, and often our calling takes us to the valley. And sometimes life leads us to the darkest of valleys, what the psalmist called the “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). But we don’t take up permanent residence there either.

We live on a plane where we are liberated from the fear of the valley. We live on a plane where the joy is as real as it is on the mountain. This is a place where we find peace, contentment and joy while we serve and sacrifice. We have embraced a simplicity of life that has liberated us. We don’t have unrealistic expectations of life, but we expect and trust that God will supply all our needs. We don’t need to manufacture experiences to make us happy, because we find joy in the daily, continuous gifts we receive from the hand of our Creator. We have learned the “secret” of being content because we’re not looking for someone or something to give to us what God wants to give. And we’re learning to savor this moment—this gift we call time, because God has inhabited time and there we find him.

Okay, I realize that sounds a little lofty. Am I overstating reality? Yes and no. If I say that we have already arrived at perfect peace and joy, we have already learned how to be content in any and every situation, then, yes, I’m overstating it. But if I tell you that Christ is walking that way and he is saying to you and me, “Follow me. Walk with me. Learn from me,” then I don’t believe I’m overstating our call.

As we’ve been saying from the outset of our consideration of simplicity, the art of simple living is a journey. It is a long, slow, wonderful, amazing journey. And there is One who walks with us every step. Our embrace of Christian simplicity empowers us to see him and to hear his voice on this journey.

Every time I boot up my computer I see this image…

I’ve placed it there to remind me of what God said to Moses when Moses encountered God in the burning bush.

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) 

What made that place, on the far side of the desert, a holy place? It was the presence of God.

I’ve determined to go through life with bare feet. Of course, I’m not talking literally. I live in Michigan and it’s February. But spiritually, I wake up each day and try to remember that I’m standing on holy ground. This place, this time, this life is sacred because God is here. I’ve determined that for me, the art of simple living is first and foremost the art of barefoot living—living with an awareness of God’s presence. Simplicity empowers me to know his presence and the knowledge of his presence simplifies my life.

Pray: “Lord, sometimes I feel your presence on the mountain. Sometimes I walk through the dark valley with no feeling, only hope. But most of my time is spent on the planes. I want to walk those planes with my shoes off, recognizing that I am walking on holy ground. Help me to clear the clutter from my path, so that I can know—whether I feel it or not—the sacredness of this life that is lived in your presence.”