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Bob Sitze's Blog

August 27, 2014

Simple enough: Simplicity effigies

Consorting with simplicity miscreants and anarchists as I do, it's only a matter of time before I/we hang someone in effigy. Like voodoo dolls, this ancient practice—in Europe, going back to the 1670s—has weird roots, perhaps in magic or sorcery. The basic idea? If you construct the likeness of something or someone and then hang/burn/harm that replica, those actions may inflict similar pain (at least shame) on that person or thing. While I'm not sure there's any science behind any of this, my fellow radicals and I (you too?) might be on to something if we apply "hanging in effigy" to matters of simplicity. Here's how it might work:

  • We build the crude model of a management structure that sucks employees dry, and we torch it on Administrative Professionals Day.
  • We invent a large-sized logo for "running behind all the time" and hose it down in public.
  • We fashion a huge graphic organizer chart about "necessary stuff," and then write and distribute a ritual that mocks the concept.
  • We construct a large mosaic comprised of advertising slogans that tempt us to buy what we don't need. And then we hold a big rally where we edit each slogan into oblivion.
  • We erect a large paper sculpture comprised of our overstuffed calendars, burn it to a crisp on New Year's Eve and use the ashes for Ash Wednesday.

And when we've destroyed or expunged all these examples of what's wrong in the world, we will all go home, make little clay effigies of ourselves, weep over our own sinful natures and bury the self-replicas in our yards or cat litter boxes. Only then can we understand that each of us creates some portion of a sad world that remains unmanageable and unsustainable.

You in on this? 

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August 24, 2014

Simple enough: A puzzle

I'm a Jumble® fan and proud of it. Every morning I match wits with the clever and puckish creators of these word-oriented puzzles, sharpening the word-finding capabilities of my brain in an enjoyable way. This daily activity—unscrambling words, then recombining circled letters to form the answer to an illustrated riddle—might also be one way to think of an approach to much of life, especially the simplicity-finding part of it.

Unscrambling, recombining, solving visual riddles—these might comprise a metaphorical construct that describes the metatasks of any of us who attempt to find simplicity in our lives. Let me try to parse the Jumble comparison for you.

Unscrambling: Sometimes all the elements of daily life seem like a mess, hard to decipher and even more difficult to sort or prioritize. One of the jobs you might undertake each day is to tidy up the tangled jumble of tasks that regularly come at you.

Recombining: One possible way to bring order out of the chaos you encounter is to reclassify the components of your daily living into new groupings, new definitions. For example, you might use back-to-school bargain shopping as one of the many ways you plan, converse and celebrate with your child(ren). Recombining calls for creativity, but it also sparks surprise and imagination.

Solving visual riddles: It's possible that many of the brain-teasing matters that you encounter every day may be less "problems" and more like riddles. (By definition, the answers to riddles are usually found inside the puzzling questions themselves!) What would happen if you could approach lifestyle difficulties with that understanding: The way out of a vexing situation could be contained in the problem itself, hiding in plain sight!

Perhaps life's quagmires could be more enjoyable if you thought of them as pleasurable puzzles.

Simple enough? 

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August 21, 2014

Simple enough: A rare species

This summer I have had the good fortune to observe an admirable human subspecies. These sometimes rare beings carry with them enormous loads of gear and dress in camouflaged clothing that doubles as storage for their supplies. Sometimes subjected to the ridicule of other cohorts, this genus can be found throughout the entire U.S.

I am talking here about birders, of course, a remarkable part of the larger fellowship of natural historians. Their behaviors come from their passion for observing the winged ones among us. Too-easily parodied for their commitments to find, photograph, and protect birds and bird habitats, birders go to great lengths to bring you and me deep appreciation for natural beauty.

I have watched birders stand in one spot for hours, their cameras weighted with telephoto lenses the size of eagles, just to capture the sight of a rare woodpecker fledgling emerging into the sunlight. I have seen gaggles of these folks walking silently through meadows just to catch a glimpse of a kestrel patrolling for prey. I have heard them chirp among other flock members about strange and wondrous sounds and sights that they will enter into notebooks or databases.

You can find the results of these folks' commitment in the astounding images of birds that you might encounter in books, smartphone apps or PBS specials. Your appreciation for the simple joys of nature comes as a result of their personal steadfastness to preserve this one wondrous part of the natural world. Your simple pleasure—seeing birds up-close-and-personal—comes because of their unswerving devotion to what they consider a nearly spiritual duty.

So the next time you see people gazing into a tree or bush with awe—and cameras—thank them for their faithfulness to God's created world. They deserve it!

Simple enough? 

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August 18, 2014

Simple enough: The simplicity selfie

(With thanks, today's blog forms itself around a sermon preached by the Rev. Rebecca Watkins of Community Presbyterian Church in Lee Vining, Calif., on July 6, 2014. The sermon set the day's New Testament lesson, Romans 7:15-25, inside an evocative invitation to consider both law and gospel as worthy guides for a Christ-following life.)

The "selfie" — now thoroughly embedded in contemporary techno-jargon — is certainly a way to get your face in front of people. Not just any face, it turns out. Because of the wonders of modern image-capturing, you can manipulate your smartphone camera buttons as many times as you like, until your soon-to-be-shared image is just right. Just the right smile, the right lighting, the right background, the right look in your eyes. Not necessarily the real you — warts and all — but the person you want others to consider as most truly you. Thus the selfie skews your image toward only the most flattering or attractive self-portrayal.

When it comes to knowing — and picturing — yourself honestly, the selfie of face-flattering technology yields to the scrutiny of law and gospel. Seeing deeper than the lens of any camera, the selfie of Scripture serves as a necessary (and perhaps welcome?) personality check. Peering to the core of your faith life, the words and word of God both accuse and assure: Your simplicity-seeking is flawed and comes up short compared to God's will, but this lifework of yours is also blessed by God and powered by the Spirit. By grace.

The good that you want to do? Confounded by the wrong that you don't want to do. Your best work? Stained and smudged by sins and shortcomings. Your lifestyle? Two tacos short of a full plate. The seemingly obvious conclusion? Give up, because you'll never get simple living right.

But as you keep framing and taking snapshots of your life, you'll notice that every selfie always includes someone else besides you: the God who loves you in spite of how you look and act. The God in whose image you were created. The God who keeps looking at your picture and keeps being pleased.

Simple enough? 

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August 15, 2014

Simple enough: Willing partners

Recently it struck me that you might find simplicity partners in your congregation among those who have taken or are about to embark on a "mission trip." For the moment, I'll withhold judgment about what makes a mission trip a worthwhile experience and concentrate instead on the thought processes that occur inside the minds of participants. The short story: These folks are ready to learn from—and teach—you!

In my experience, people who participate in service learning opportunities come back home ready to talk about more than poverty or injustice. Due to their experiences they are hungry for conversations about what's important—specifically, the changes in their lifestyles that now seem to be required as a result of what they have experienced. Some of this seeking can be motivated by guilt ("It's not right that we have so much, and they have so little!") but something deeper also moves within their souls. During the trip these folks (in my congregation they're really savvy teens) have questioned almost everything they've taken for granted. If they've prepped for the time away, they're also able to articulate the dimensions of that searching.

How to engage these traveler-seekers? Ask better questions! For example, "How was Rwanda?" is going to get you a shallow answer, but "What's different about you now that won't change soon?" will help the other person put words to as-yet-unspoken thoughts. You present yourself to the traveler as someone ready to learn. Soon the subject of lifestyle-here-and-now will emerge, and that's when your conversations can lead to even more essential answers.

So look around, and see who in your fellowship has—or soon will—be part of a mission trip. And be ready to find a worthy colleague in your continuing life of simplicity-seeking!

Simple enough? 

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August 12, 2014

Simplicity's children: Out in the wild

Today I'm asking you parents and caregivers to consider this invitation: What would happen if you took your children to a place that's wild? Read on ....

You may be pleased that your children explore local backyards or show interest in birds, rocks or dinosaurs. But think what might accrue to your children's lasting well-being if they spent time in places where they got dirty, where animals ruled, where weather was both lustrous and looming, where they faced nature in its fierce and foreboding forms. What could they learn from exploring parts of the natural world that didn't feature identifying plaques, docents or media presentations? (Nothing wrong with any of these, of course!) And what might happen if your children experienced true darkness, the sounds of the night or the sight of the Milky Way?

Facing untamed elements of the natural world, your children could increase in self-reliance, humility about their place in the world, understanding of both fear and courage, unbridled curiosity and respect for the power of nature. They might learn about predation, beauty, camouflage, interdependence and danger.

You don't have to travel to mountains, deserts or oceans to provide your children this experience. Patches of woodlands, streams, lakes and prairies may be within one day's drive. Federal, state, county and local parks dot the landscape. And most cities and suburbs include overgrown areas where nature has taken back its territory from buildings and asphalt. These settings might offer some of the same benefits as backpacking trips or adventure camps. The key requirement? That the setting be wild. (You define the term from your own adventures growing up!)

As you think about the life-lessons you want to offer your children, consider the benefits that come from them encountering nature by its own terms, with its own rewards.

Simple enough? 

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August 9, 2014

Simple things: Sprinklers

(This entry continues a mini-series within the larger "Simple enough" blog family. The premise: It's important to look appreciatively and gratefully at some of the elements of your lifestyle that may seem ordinary, but are still precious.)

Water sprinklers come in all sizes and shapes, some replete with technological wizardry and others as simple as a pattern of small holes in an end-of-hose mini-dam. Sprinklers are the simplest part of a water-sharing ethic that embraces drip irrigators, hoses, nozzles, ditches and aqueducts. The lifework for sprinklers is straightforward: get water to more places quickly. Evenly.

Before there were sprinklers, water could be carried or channeled to distant locations with great effort. Buckets and hand tools made that possible. But with the advent of the sprinkler — dependent on water pressure coursing through hoses — water could now be distributed equitably over large swaths of the landscape. Plants could flourish far from the source of water and children could enjoy mini-fountains in their yards. (And the concept of "yard" might well be a derivative of sprinkler-ness!)

In the heat or wind of a day, of course, sprinklers are inefficient distributors of water, giving away large percentages of their benefits to the sun or wind. But their intended use is always founded on generosity and sharing — water for all who lie within the sprinklers' range.

Yes, there's a simplicity thought hiding in this, one you can see easily through my writing-mist: However we receive the blessings of God in our lives, it's always good to spread the benefits around generously. To sprinkle others with grace, to scatter smidgeons of hope, to pepper conversations with humor.

For fun, the next time you use a sprinkler of any kind, spend a few moments looking at it. Imagine a strong jet of water being splattered into smaller streams, each with its now-gentler arc through the air, each headed for its specific life-giving mission. Thank God for the ingenuity of sprinkler-inventors and recommit yourself to sharing God's blessings.

Simple enough? 

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August 6, 2014

Simple congregations: The way forward

(This entry is part of a continuing series of occasional blogs that apply simplicity ideals to congregational life. These slightly longer entries can complement any program or planning process.)

As you may have gathered in reading these "Simple congregations" entries, the way forward for churches can be framed in some simplicity propositions that might seem counterintuitive. Try out some of the following.

MORE doesn't live here anymore
Many "future church" options are based on presumptions of continual growth in membership and contributions, and are subtly based on the false premise that expansion is always possible, that "abundance" is about more. Another shaky proposition: Growth is dependent on the work, skill, personality and spiritual depth of church leaders. What's more likely instead: The world is entering a (new) epoch of limits that have to be reckoned with. This viewpoint is also filled with spiritual depth and biblical precedents or proof.

Living with less still works
Hard work lies ahead, taking what you have — probably a little less than you've been used to — and making something good and godly with it. Many congregation members have discovered  they can live with lowered incomes and fewer possessions, so perhaps leaders have to learn from those who have found joy in living with less.

Surefire techniques might overpromise
Best-practices systems of planning, vision-setting, reorganizing, leadership development, fundraising all may have value, but probably not to the degree they advertise. Matters of change, especially when it comes to the core values and identities of groups of people, don't come with guarantees attached. Core principles probably still apply, even when surefire tactics don't.

Expect and embrace the mess
God's first creative act was to create the primordial clutter (see "the formless void" of Genesis 1:2) that only later God ordered into night and day, etc. It makes sense to honor first that act of creation by taking on chaotic messiness as something normal and even good in congregations. To be patient with the time it takes to slowly sort through the seeming disarray of competing possibilities. To be comfortable with risk and ambiguity. To forgive each other when the hodgepodge of congregational life doesn't present itself well. As with the moments and epochs of God's second creative acts, your formless voids will order themselves. The Spirit still "moves on the face of the waters."

Beware time-wasting tautologies
Self-proving circular arguments and activities can suck up precious time and attention. Be aware that much of what passes as "new-and-improved" congregational structure and programs may be an old/failed way of thinking that's gussied up in a new uniform. (Your congregation's older members can be helpful here.) As you look at the future possibilities for your congregation, be ready to see if propositions find their supposed utility only in self-reinforcing logic. (A likely sign: Use of the words "ought" and "should.")

Pay attention to God's other kingdom
In "two kingdom" doctrinal formulations, God's realm outside the church is also important and truth-revealing. God operates powerfully and effectively there too. As you seek the future, it makes sense for you to spend time parsing out what's happening in so-called secular arenas. Science, business, government and other enterprises are all part of God's working so you might expect to find wisdom, vision and actionable knowledge in those God-blessed arenas as well.

These few examples can help you sort through competing propositions about the future of the church. As you consider your personal knowledge and practice of simplicity, you'll probably find other ideas that fit well with congregational life.

Moving forward, simply — propositions you already know! 

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August 3, 2014

Simple enough: Nixing metaphors

The more I read the more I am convinced that we church people don't do ourselves any favors by much of what we write. To be direct, much of our writing about spiritual matters is overburdened by metaphorical constructs.

Nothing wrong with metaphors — biblical prophets and poets, Jesus and Paul all used them. But it may be true that we churchly writers/speakers fall back on metaphors when we think we can't find other language for expressing matters of faith. What's worse: We think we're communicating directly into the parts of people's brains where faith lives and grows.

The opposite is probably true. Churchly metaphorical constructs (e.g., the realm of God, feasting on eternal manna, discipling or being enfleshed for missional identities) all beg the question, "What in God's name are you talking about?" Or less politely: "Huh?" Among listeners and readers not steeped in churchly language, eyes glaze over, attention wanders, our relevance dissipates and our relationships wither. We slather our communication with mysterious/magical verbal constructs and fail to realize how few people speak, read or write in that fashion.

I'm prone to this communication breakdown, too, and would be less-than-honest if I didn't tell you that it's easier that way. (Just as it was easier for the pastors of my childhood to end all their sermons with a favorite hymn verse, or for some preachers today to gesture in sermon-conclusion toward the altar or baptismal font and murmur something about "these life-giving and hope-fulfilling sacraments.") It feels simpler to rely on metaphorical formularies than it is to grapple with the best-fitting words.

So what seems uncomplicated — piling up the jargon of spiritual/biblical metaphors — actually creates complexity: People who don't know what we're talking about or who we really are. Who God is ...!

Is it time to be quiet yet? 

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July 31, 2014

Simple enough: Impulse control

You probably know hardy parents who are trying to help their children or teens deal with impulse control skills. These good-hearted folks use time-proven parenting methods to help their progeny deal with actions and emotions (such as anger) that arise too quickly from too little mindfulness. The children benefit from their parents' help in engaging their rational and social brains. Eventually they are able to consider possible consequences before they react quickly to events or feelings.

Some children may have missed that life lesson, though. They may have grown up to become only semi-adults, still living with deeply habituated decision-making processes that are unplanned on a good day and imprudent the rest of the time. The brains of these mostly grown-ups may have become used to irresponsible decision-making. They respond to a full range of impulses — drives, wants, fads, pleasures, fun or entertainment — at the drop of any hat. They may even name this semiautomatic reactivity with positive personality descriptors such as "madcap," "creative," "spontaneous" or "living in the moment."

Why think about this subject here? In a culture in which everything moves quickly, speedy decision-making likely leads to the kind of unmanageable lifestyles that none of us can sustain for long. Lacking impulse control, children, teens and adults are easily manipulated by advertisers, peer pressure and their most basic emotions. Not all impulses end well. Impulsive people can also be thoughtless, unwary and reckless, perhaps tarnishing their relationships and placing themselves in physical and emotional danger.

It seems possible that, distilled to its purest form, simplicity-seeking can be described in terms of impulse control. Those who seek simplicity may have found ways to judge the invitations of their impulses in order to sort out consequences and choose from among other options for actions.

Perhaps they should thank their hardy parents .... 

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July 28, 2014

Simplicity's children: Rising up to call you blessed

You may wonder how your years of parenting will turn out. One of the Bible passages I cite in answer to that legitimate question is Proverbs 31:28. This text describes an almost implausibly perfect wife and mother, and ends with this compliment (in the King James Version): "Her children arise up, and call her blessed." That phrase could characterize your greatest hope for your parenting efforts.

Here's how it could feel when your children "rise up and call you blessed." You might:

  • Experience the continuing satisfaction of mutual confession and forgiveness with your children.
  • Hear your advice or counsel in some of your children's conversations with their peers.
  • Watch your children's Mothers' and Fathers' Day card messages evolve into heartfelt descriptions of specific traits or behaviors they deeply appreciate about you.
  • Understand how the family stories and humorous anecdotes your children tell are evidence of their gratitude for your parenting.
  • Notice the moments when your children spontaneously undertake what they know is necessary, right or helpful.
  • Enjoy, later in life, your children's skillful and loving parenting of their offspring.
  • Observe your children naming you as hero, model, mentor, friend or even BFF.
  • Learn secondhand or from their friends about your children's positive and perceptive assessments of your parenting.
  • Relish as your children grow into adulthood their more frequent personal contact with you, no matter their distance from you.

Granted, some of this "blessed-calling" may have to wait until years from now. As your children mature, you will grow surprisingly smarter and wiser in their eyes! There are, of course, no guarantees that this will happen. Whenever it occurs, be ready to accept the praise and gratitude of your kids. Their expressions and deeds of blessing are part of their love for you.

May your children rise up and call you blessed! 

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July 25, 2014

Simple enough: Risky ambiguities

Let me set the record straight on one simple-living matter: Simplicity does not necessarily free you from life's risks or ambiguities. In fact, it's possible that seeking simplicity actually results in increased risk and greater ambiguity than following the crowd or living in splendor surrounded by all the stuff your money bought you. (Yes, I know, those behaviors are ultimately risky too!)

What more can I say? Maybe telling you that risk-adverse outlooks on life don't work out very well? Perhaps pointing out how eliminating ambiguities and avoiding risk could be based on self-idolatry — or some deep-seated fears or doubts about your  capabilities? Maybe showing you how Jesus actually sought out risky situations, that he taught using seemingly ambiguous parables? Or even warning you about trying to eliminate all dangers and vulnerabilities from your children's lives? (Sorry, but that research is pretty consistent: This approach to parenting creates feckless, fearful kids!)

Or maybe I shouldn't say anything more. I might just hug you when you're feeling that the risks are hounding you and life's ambiguities are tempting you to freeze in place — doing nothing. Or perhaps I should send you a thank you note for the courage you give me. It's possible that I could write a book — a field guide, actually — about finding hope. Or I might ask you to come along with me when I get all knotted up in fear about what doesn't make sense or what seems potentially dangerous.

Whether I say anything or not, this much I know: you and I are not going to sidestep risks and ambiguity. What I can assure you, though, is that living simply gives you a realistic framework, a calming set of expectations when the vagaries of life hit you up the side of your head.

Simple enough? 

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July 22, 2014

Simple enough: 'Was ist das?'

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther helped children and their parents understand major portions of Christian doctrine by asking, "Was ist das?" (What is this?) The question preceded his down-to-earth explanations of doctrinal matters, but also carried an implicit invitation to ask (and answer) deeper questions about faith.

This question might be a good way to approach joyful simplicity, asking "What is this? about most everything and everyone we encounter. The question is part of an entire collection of exploratory and meaning-seeking queries, such as:

  • How did this (person, event, item, situation) come to be?
  • What lies under or beyond what I'm experiencing at this moment?
  • What's really going on here?
  • What had to be true for me to experience this now?
  • What might I easily overlook?
  • What's wonderful, astounding, exemplary, beautiful or encouraging here?
  • What large construct or system is this (person, event, item or situation) part of?
  • How important is this to my well-being?
  • What's likely to happen next?

To see if Luther's "Was ist das?" could deepen my appreciation of what/who I encounter every day, I have tried to ask questions like this at the oddest moment in my days. For example, I was mowing my dandelions (my lawn gave up long ago) and I asked "What is this?" appreciatively. Or I was talking to someone looking toward a career change, and out popped the question, "What's really going on here?" When I've come to the end of a day and want to pray in a richer way, the "Was ist das?" family of questions helps me review my thoughts with assurance.

And yes, all this Luther-like questioning is really just another approach to appreciative and grateful mindfulness, another way to think joyfully and hopefully about anything or anyone.

But then, you knew that already, right? 

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July 19, 2014

Simple enough: A vexing circularity

One of the sociological realities that vexes me most is the way in which some folks' lives seem to spiral out of control — in a downward direction — because of just one bad decision sometime earlier in their lives. For example, a high school student plays a practical joke at school that nets him a suspension. His post-high school educational choices become limited. This further diminishes his prospects for fulfilling employment, which influences his lifestyle for the rest of his days.

This downward whirlpool seems especially strong where there are few corrective forces. Forgiveness is not offered, restitution is refused, consequences are harsh, renewal is not possible — and so the bad decision becomes a tilting point on which a person's whole life pivots downward.

A similar vortex may exist in the lifestyle choices we make. One bad decision — to borrow a hefty sum for that "perfect wedding" — can create a burden of debt that weighs heavily on a marriage. One bad decision — taking a job that robs the worker of adequate sleep — can result in stress-related illnesses or the corrosion of personality and relationships. One bad decision — to accept the calling to "be a little Jesus" — and a new pastor burns every candle on both ends, inviting career-ending depression, self-doubt or cynicism. One bad decision — to muse about vexing circularities — and a blog writer spends years worrying about something that perhaps only God knows.

These perplexing life currents don't have to whirl their ways endlessly. Confession, repentance and forgiveness can stop the tumult. Consequences can be shared and decision-making skills can be taught. Mentors can appear when decision-makers are ready to learn.

Living with your own vexing lifestyle circularity? Trust God's grace in the people around you (whose own bad decisions didn't ruin their lives forever) and seek forgiveness.

Simple enough? 

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July 16, 2014

Simple enough: Dispatching dystopian dreams

Recently I dreamed an unsettling, dystopian (opposite of utopian) nightmare that found me in a (future?) world in which friends, family and I were picking through trash heaps for food. The usual mechanisms of a civil society had broken down, so this was how we found sustenance. A key moment in the dream was finding a still-edible tomato and showing it to my spouse. (So you know, I've met resourceful, hope-filled people in this situation — in India and Mexico. I'm not demeaning their livelihoods here.)

I want to tell you how the dream ended: I was not alone, but part of a trash-picking group, working together to sustain life. When I woke up, what hit me was not the fear of societal breakdown, but the hope of stopping it.

Dreams or no dreams, I'm certain that the pervasive presence of individualism — rugged or not — drives the collapse of any society. Where me-first-and-only is woven into cultural institutions, the seeds of collapse are already growing. What dispatches dystopia is the power of people working together in mutual respect, care and love for one another. A simple idea, really, but always tough to live out.

When I awoke, I was determined to do good that day. I knew that this communitarian view is best understood and lived out in the church. As "body of Christ," we forsake the ignorance of individualism and seek the ultimate common good that the gospel embodies. Christ has gone before us, and the Spirit compels us to follow his example.

My encouragement when you want to dispatch your dystopian dreams (or days): Thank God for the company of believers who surround you at this moment. Be grateful that you have another choice besides being selfish and stupid. Bear witness to the truth that together we stand, individualized we fall.

Simple enough?

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July 13, 2014

Simple things: Kitchen utensils

(This entry continues a mini-series within the larger "Simple enough" blog family. The premise: It's important to look appreciatively and gratefully at some of the elements of your lifestyle that are wonderfully ordinary, but still precious.)

Your home's modest kitchen may hold many marvelous examples of the ingenious work of engineers and manufacturers of kitchen utensils. I will now regale you with their wondrous qualities:

  • Most of these devices are examples of the high art of applied basic physics. Think of the clever ways in which kitchen-levers crack open nuts or remove can lids. Or how the inclined plane shows up in vegetable peelers and cheese graters.
  • Newly engineered cooking tools now take into account the ergonomic needs of those who are older or disabled.
  • The many manifestations of forks and knives enable exquisite gradations of utility, each aimed at specific kitchen tasks.
  • Seemingly oddball inventions (apple corers, splatter covers, spoon caddies, meat tenderizing hammers) handle recurring aggravations efficiently.
  • Many of these kitchen tools have evolved over the years, building on original designs while taking into account the development of new materials, science or task analyses.
  • Some of the newest of these utensils (the word "gadget" demeans the wizardry behind their invention) are items of functional beauty. Color, form and texture all blend together to make the use of kitchen tools an aesthetic experience. (For example, the varieties of measuring spoons seem to indicate a kitchen art form!)
  • Many hidden dangers have been diminished by new tools — think knife sheaths, jar lid openers or tongs.
  • Some kitchen utensils save time (a wheeled-knife pizza cutter) and others save food (rubberized spatula/scrapers).
  • Improvements in a basic concept — the spoon — turn into new tools like the slotted spoon, the spork or the slotted pasta grabber.

The inventiveness of chefs, engineers, manufacturers and scientists makes your food preparation more enjoyable. As you get ready to cook your meals, keep in mind their work and be grateful for the clever ways in which their resourcefulness blesses your daily life.

Simple enough? 

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July 10, 2014

Simple congregations: Disappearing donors

(This entry is part of a continuing series of occasional blogs that apply simplicity ideals to congregational life. These slightly longer entries can complement any program or planning process.)

In this entry, I'd like to help you reckon with a growing trend that could decimate your congregation's ability to fund God's mission in your locale. Not pleasant stuff to report, but a set of facts that will eventually require your attention. Read on.

First, some background. According to the findings of a recent (September 2013) study by Oxford University's Martin Program on the Impacts of Future Technology, almost half of the present U.S. occupations are amenable to eventual automation. To say that another way: In just a few decades, a significant share of jobs could be taken over by robots, automated machines or other software-dependent processes. The study looked at a broad array of work, including what might have previously been termed "professional" or "skilled labor." The researchers assigned numerical values (percentages of probability) indicating that a particular occupation was susceptible to computerization.

Among U.S. jobs most at risk were loan officers, retail salespeople, cashiers, fast food preparers and servers, sales representatives, office clerks, secretaries and administrative assistants, bookkeepers, accountants and auditors, restaurant cooks and assembly line workers. Among the jobs with the lowest probabilities were nurses, teachers and supervisors of office and retail workers.

Emerging anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that still other professions carry possible risks of computerization, with some surprising results — e.g., entry-level legal professionals and medical workers. From this study and other examinations of the phenomenon, this hopeful note: It seems that any work involving critical thinking, synthesizing, flexibility or cognitive complexity might remain beyond the reach of artificial intelligence — for the foreseeable future at least.

Among the many outcomes of this possible shift away from direct human agency in the workplace are these: fewer people may be employed in traditionally lower- and middle-class jobs. This eventuality raises the difficult question of whether "high-tech" work will expand sufficiently to employ the labor force displaced by computerization. If that answer is framed negatively, which seems a likely scenario, then deeper difficulties emerge: except for a shrinking elite, who will have the purchasing power to pay for the goods and services provided by "intelligent" machines?

What's this have to do with your congregation? It depends on your congregation's present and future sources of income, as well as the demographics that describe your present donor base. If your funding sources are confined only to weekly contributions roughly based on a percentage of donors' earned income, your congregation's financial well-being might be at risk. (Another sobering fact: A large percentage of the "boomer generation" has not saved or invested enough money to support their present standard of living into retirement. If your congregation membership consists of a high percentage of this generational cohort, your funding sources might be in double jeopardy when those members retire.)

One possibility for expanding that funding stream: tap into the deep generosity of present members, whose legacy gifts might accumulate in mission endowment funds. Another logical train of thought: trim your ideas regarding your congregation's identity and functions to match the likely levels of income you might expect in the coming decades. (This might include rethinking the role and vocation of "pastor" in the direction of the "bi-vocational worker"—a clergyperson who also works part-time in another profession.)

The sociology, psychology and economics of generosity are well-researched. Bolstering your hopes for financial support of God's mission with biblical proof texts or theological nostrums may be necessary or comforting, but may also ignore the certainty that God's realm also includes the shrewdness of the so-called secular world. In the eventuality that the Oxford University study's conclusions come to fruition, you might broaden your prayers for your congregation's financial health to include answers that come from the wisdom that God's Spirit places in the minds of leaders and thinkers outside of the pale of the church as institution. These folks are known to your members through their daily work. Perhaps it's time for you to ask for their help before these trends overtake your lively hope and send you into a tailspin of needless despair.

I wish you hopeful wisdom as you engage this subject. God's Spirit will be alongside.

Guaranteed. 

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July 7, 2014

Simplicity's children: The attentive family

Want to assure your children their place in society, their well-being among peers and their success in any human endeavor dependent on relationships? Teach them to pay attention. Read on.

To review: attention is the primary commodity of human interactions. Decisions of any kind take place because attention has been directed at a set of circumstances, faces, actions or feelings. Without attention, no human activity can be undertaken. So it makes sense that your children should learn how to attend to both extrinsic and intrinsic realities. Without your purposeful consideration, your children may not necessarily grow skilled in the complex-and-necessary attitudes and skills wrapped into "attention."

How to teach them? Consider these suggestions:

  1. Eat meals together, with minimal distractions. Mindful conversation helps children learn from adults and each other the subtleties of meaning bound into language.
  2. Ratchet up your skills in inquiring or questioning. Remember: the same questions get the same answers, and meaning-starved questions elicit meaning-starved answers.
  3. Speak about and invite personal conversations about emotions and feelings. Given names, the affective foundations for personal bonds will be something your children can identify in their relationships.
  4. When in their presence, give your children your full attention — eye-to-eye contact, perhaps close physical proximity and inviting body language. (Digital or virtual substitutes may work, but not as well.)
  5. Model curiosity, respect, appreciation, wonder or admiration of everything you encounter together. This ensures a positive attitude about the world and increases children's observational skills.
  6. Reward your children's developing attention-skills with compliments and further conversation about what they notice. Thus children learn that their attention warrants others' attention, a building block for leadership traits.

Attention-training is an important feature of your parenting, a task that will bring you satisfaction and gratitude as your children grow.

I appreciate your attention! 

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July 4, 2014

Simple enough: The end is near (always)

The end of the world is always coming. Although time may be circular, the chronology your brain perceives makes it seem that your future keeps moving straight toward you, perhaps sooner than you'd like. To keep you company along the way from here-and-now to there-and-then, consider these few thoughts, which continue in the time-honored tradition of raspy warnings issued by scraggly-bearded men wearing sandals and dirt.

Vile children
Your local school district is already dealing with digitized forms of anonymous persecution or bullying among middle- and high-schoolers. Smartphone apps now allow partially formed brains to erupt in scurrilous language out of the sight of adults. Tomorrow's leaders in training?

A paucity of purchasers
Internet-savvy and future-gazing prophet-authors have noted that, as more and more businesses find ways to automate or digitize their work, fewer and fewer employees will have less and less income. Thus these same businesses — in the name of cost-cutting efficiencies — may be cutting off their noses to save their wallets. Unintended consequences that most workers saw coming?

Income inequality
It doesn't take a rocket politician to understand that, sooner or later, those among us who find ourselves perpetually poor may eventually come to the point of breaking our oppressors in pieces. (Yes, biblical language from Zechariah.) Those who are wealthy beyond words are already wary about this inevitability. Class warfare starting from the top?

Inebriated young adults
College-bound, college-age and college-free young adults seem to be sipping, slurping and guzzling alcohol at increasing rates. At the very time when their young brains are finally knitting necessary components together, young adults are destroying the neuronal matter they will need to find the joy and happiness they now assign to booze. Recovery clinics not improving this situation?

Yet, because the end is always near, some of us remain hopeful.

Always. 

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July 1, 2014

Simple enough: Guerilla tipping

You're probably not an overcompensated CEO and the wheels of legislative change grind slowly, so you may think there's not much you can do about income inequality. This entry offers you a tangible means to restore some parity to income. I call it "guerilla tipping."

Background: You've doubtlessly seen stories about semi-anonymous groups of diners who have dropped significantly large tips into the lives of food service personnel all over the country. The generous gratuities — guerilla tipping — help draw attention to the plight of these underpaid workers and make a big difference in their lives.

Here are some easily engaged ways by which you could do your part to rectify the inequities of unequal pay structures:

  • Think about your tipping as less than "rewarding good service" and more about "making a statement and offering hope to people employed in the food service industry."
  • Up your usual tipping percentage to at least 25 percent, perhaps higher when tips are pooled among servers. (If you're eating outside your home, you can afford this extra expense, yes?)
  • Provide the tip in cash, even if it means going to the front desk and asking for change.
  • Think of some quick conversational gambits to draw attention to the justice-related reasons why you're tipping more than usual.
  •  If the establishment — probably a fast-food place — does not have a tip jar, ask for the manager and insist on leaving a tip for your server(s). Explain your reasons for doing so. Your advocacy will be noted!
  • Invite others to engage in guerilla tipping, explaining your mission to increase the income of food service personnel.
  • Extend this mindset to workers who plow your snow, landscape your yard, deliver your bottled water, collect your trash.

Now, your next step in combating income inequalities: Engaging overcompensated CEOs and legislative change-agents!

Simple enough? 

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