Bob Sitze's Blog
February 12, 2016
Simple things: A radio
(This entry continues a mini-series within the larger "Simple enough" blog family. The premise: It’s important to look more deeply, appreciatively and gratefully at some of the elements of your lifestyle that are wonderfully ordinary.)
Over the years of writing these entries, I have been accompanied by the quiet comfort of classical music that emanates from a rather simple radio on my desk. Granted, it’s not as simple as a flower, rug or pencil. But in its wondrous ability to make life enjoyable, a radio presents itself more simply than its technological cousins. In gratitude for my radio, these few thoughts for your appreciation ....
As with all current radios, this instrument receives signals on both the AM and FM bands. Each turn of its dial tunes in the message of a single station, a transmitter-and-tower combination that hopes for my attention. As a medium of mass communication, my radio encourages the notion that news, opinion, music and events can be broadcast into thousands of waiting ears. Into thousands of stationary, traveling or waiting lives. Large segments of society can be welded together by their reception of the same signal at the same time, over wide expanses of space.
My radio speakers allow for sound to be amplified to any level, filling just this room or my entire home. In my case, these little pieces of vibrating material can infuse my entire being with the wonders of a composer’s efforts, soothing or inspiring me with imagination, creativity or courage. (In earlier decades, those speakers would have invited many of us to gather around them for a shared experience.)
I don’t determine what my radio sends my way—I’m dependent on its ability to transmit what others have deemed important for me to hear. My radio makes me dependent on the wisdom of unknown others. I am grateful for this radio’s presence in my life—as well as for the daily life ministries of those who send me the sounds that make my life enjoyable.
February 9, 2016
Simple enough: Can you be stupid and live simply?
No, I’m serious. The above question connects to what may plague the Christian life. Yes, God loves people of all kinds, even those with low intellect or supremely selfish dispositions. But does that mean that those folks can carry out the requirements or accept the invitations of a gracious God? Does our redemption from self-idolatry result in greater wisdom than what was previously available to us?
Why ask now? It seems like there’s not a lot of intelligence being called forth in our present political or economic climate. Fear, anger, selfishness, hatred of others, un-Christlike behaviors—these characterize too many of our fellow-citizens. Desperation—one form of stress or fear—dumbs down people, taking them toward acquisitiveness, disregard for others and disinterest in the created world.
You and I sit here on Shrove Tuesday, wondering about matters that may seem esoteric to folks for whom wisdom is difficult. We deal with humongous concepts. We ask ourselves questions about things—explorations that are way deeper than others may understand. We wrestle with self-doubt, dystopian futures, the greater good and stewardship of the broadest kind. For those mired in dull and brutish lives, all this simplicity-seeking may seem like mental games that don’t amount to much in a hard-scrabble world.
I’d like to think that the answer to the question in this entry’s title is a resounding yes. I’d like to know for sure that wisdom comes with repentance. I’d like to believe that simplicity’s complexity still has enough easily grasped ideas that anyone can comprehend them, that anyone can practice them in daily life, that I’m not shutting out anyone by what I write.
This question comes at my self-identity too—I am stupid in enough ways to carry that label, and so I have asked it for myself as well.
February 6, 2016
Simple enough: A new simple living metaphor?
Recently a friend characterized his reluctant participation in an opulent meeting as being “the benevolent parasite” at the event. It struck me that maybe he was onto something: a new way of thinking about how to live simply. See if the metaphor makes any sense for your life.
First of all, parasites are usually thought of as little creatures that suck the life out of their hosts. What’s left when a parasite has completed its work is the husk of a formerly living organism. The parasite and its babies benefit from removing life’s essence from the host in order to pass on life to another generation. Because they are small, parasites are not easily noticed and can be deft at their work. They rarely fail at their task.
So how would benevolent parasites—people like you, let’s say—behave in matters of lifestyle? These thoughts:
- They would live off the wealth of larger, wasteful organizations or individuals, slowly taking from those organisms their capacity to ruin the world.
- Benevolent to a fault, these parasitic simplicity-seekers would not resort to obvious violence or other broadly destructive behaviors.
- They would be motivated by their desire to inject alternate views of well-being into false notions of abundance.
- These parasites would be deftly inconspicuous in their work to dismantle the ruinous materialism that characterizes too much of today’s culture.
- Their offspring would repeat the cycle of their behaviors, through countless generations.
- If enough simplicity parasites were working in one part of an over-affluent culture, they could eliminate virtually that entire element of wasteful or ruinous living.
OK, so you know: I’m not sure the metaphor works all that well. But perhaps there is some small, benevolent part of you that understands what might be possible here?
I hope so ....
February 3, 2016
Simplicity's children: Trophy children?
Social critics are blunt in their assessment of men who marry women who make them (the men) look good. These men see their wives as trophies, signs of how they (the men) are powerful, attractive and worthy of admiration. Sadness abounds in these situations—false pride, women-as-possessions, love gone sour—and these marriages are difficult to sustain.
I wonder whether those of us who are parents think of our children in the same way, as if they are trophies awarded for our efforts. I’m not sure about all the signs of this condition, but I’m certain that the attitude could easily invade our parenting.
Some trophy child behaviors might include:
- How easily we brag about our children’s ordinary accomplishments.
- How strongly we insist on their perfection in everything.
- How willingly we spend money for their “skill development” in lessons, sports, academic matters.
- How unquestionably we lavish attention on their every comfort.
- How fiercely we protect them from all dangers, even those that only we imagine.
- How quickly we let them dominate family decisions.
- How minimally we lead them toward self-reliant maturity.
- How little we love them for who they are, warts and all.
Trophy wives and children don't prosper inside what seems to be their exalted or honored position. Eventually all bubbles burst, and trophiness is likely one of them. At the moment we discover that our children are average; that their “participation” sports trophies are meaningless; that our braggadocio is suspect; that we’ve mortgaged our children’s futures by our present behaviors—at those moments a mental mantle filled with trophies just won’t satisfy anymore. Worst of all, the self-worth we’ve built on a shaky foundation of trophy-hood eventually collapses.
How to avoid all this? Remaining content and grateful about the ordinariness of our children.
January 30, 2016
Simple enough: The lies bubbles tell us
Our economic life rises and falls with seeming unpredictability: Formulas of supply and demand don’t offer prescient knowledge any more. Economics has devolved into mysterious anachronisms of behavior that can’t be predicted or described accurately by algorithms. The complexity of vast global systems is beyond complete understanding.
One thing is sure: Seemingly unexplainable economic expansions eventually become unsustainable. At their heart, bubbles are always lies. (The film, The Big Short, opened the window on one of those inventions: The home mortgage banking boom-and-bust.) These lifestyle-related falsehoods have similar characteristics:
- There is no downside to a sudden increase in benefit or value.
- You are not going to be harmed by what may harm everyone else.
- You are among the first to notice a sure-fire winner (or loser).
- By extension, you are smarter, quicker, wiser or shrewder than most people.
- You have to act now; your expertise or intuition is your guarantee of success.
- This idea, event, trend, asset or resource is too large to fail.
- You can benefit in a huge way with minimal effort or investment.
- These profits will come to you quickly, assuredly and continually.
- This bubble is not like the last one.
- You can win by deflating others’ bubbles.
What strikes those who live simply is how readily any of us can fall into the trap of others’ mendacity. Each of the fabrications I have noted above has its proponents, its success stories, its beyond-belief truths and logic. So we fall for bubbles that predict growth in our churches, bubbles that guarantee our children’s intelligence, bubbles that assure us of health. and others bubbles that cause us to mortgage our future wellbeing for a life of contentment now.
However you encounter them—in all their disguises—remember that emerging or continuing bubbles are always harmful lies.
January 27, 2016
Simple words: Hucksters
(This entry continues the series, "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also insulates you from foolish decisions. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)
In its original Low German use, “huckster” referred to a wandering peddler—the term originally derived from the woven-reed basket that a traveling hawker would carry. Over time, this label gathered derisive and cautionary overlays, yielding a word that we associate today with fast-talking, hard-selling purveyors whose wily attention is drawn to innocent victims. Broadly applied, this term covers a multitude of sins, all of them arranged in the general category of fooling people into buying what they don’t want or need.
Those of us seeking simplicity in our lives are aware of the presence of these individuals—and the companies or economic forces behind them. We might too easily decry marketing or advertising approaches that seem manipulative or worse. But what we might not be aware of are the ways in which we attract or encourage contemporary charlatans of merchandising. We show our weaknesses for shiny toys. We make split-second decisions based on pure emotion. We yield too easily to group-think or others’ persuasive insistence. It’s possible that a share of the blame (for harmful economic decisions) lies on our own emotional doorstep, our own innate capabilities for self-delusion.
One key to identifying and resisting hucksterism of any kind is developing an accurate and honest self-awareness about our baser emotions and character traits. Always necessary: friends, colleagues or family members who can help us frame a clear-cut self-concept. Another helpful habit: reflecting on lifestyle decisions before acting on them. (Social scientists consider 10 minutes as the optimum time span between a decision and its resulting actions.) A third behavior: Admitting that we are probably not skilled at judging the supposedly good intentions or character of others.
Hucksters will always be present in the world, and suckers are born every minute. We don’t have to be either one ….
January 24, 2016
Simple enough: If you sense something, say something
“Being aware” is something most of us would lay claim to. We’re Christians, after all—the kind of people who notice what others miss, mostly on account of our different way of seeing. Our awareness may not deserve admiration, though, if those of us who seek simplicity are reluctant to take action on what we notice. We may see others whose lives are distracted by stuff, but we remain silent. We may stay only in conversational safe-zones with people who seem to be living on the edge. We may hyper-extend our imagined niceness to the point of never wanting to openly criticize, even when it’s apparent someone else desperately seeks caring critique. We sense things, but don’t say anything. Not enough!
Since 9-11 we’ve been encouraged, “If you see something, say something,” noticing early warning signs about possible terroristic acts. This makes sense as long as we don’t all become hyper-suspicious people willing to turn in our neighbors for miniscule lifestyle infractions. It might be good for us to extend our noticing-and-saying into other, less frightening aspects of life. All around us are people who really want help with their out-of-control lifestyles. They dearly hope someone WILL sense something about them, and SAY something that will help them wrest their sanity away from lifestyle craziness. There are fearful parents who would cherish a conversation with you about their lifestyle struggles with their broods. Teens trapped in cycles of self-despair would love to know that you have noticed their positive attributes and will speak appreciatively with them. Individuals who feel unloved because of their wealth might enjoy a friend who valued them for their inner character, not their stuff.
You are probably already aware, probably sensitive and understanding. Today, extend that noble quality of your life into a conversation….
January 21, 2016
Simple enough: Whose birthday WAS it, anyway?
If you look closely, Lent is waving its inviting hand at you already: “Time to slow down and think about what’s really important.” In that frame of mind, let me share some personal observances about the folks who first brought simple living into sharp focus.
The mainline Christian version of simplicity-seeking began over three decades ago when Alternatives for Simple Living was formed. One of its first publications was the Advent family resource “Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?” Its intent: Use the natural themes and rhythms of Advent to help families find different ways to celebrate the birth of Jesus. By definition, these options would help families avoid the crass commercialism of Christmas and beyond. Families could also begin forming traditions and habits that would extend simplicity into the rest of their lives.
As the booklet morphed into an annual resource, Alternatives garnered the support of individuals, congregations, mainline denominations and parachurch organizations. The influence of “Whose Birthday” grew into a movement within the hunger-and-justice programs of church bodies and congregations. Alternatives insisted that simplicity-seeking would not devolve into a sour-faced outlook on life. Instead, joy and hope were bound into the desire that contemporary lifestyles could free themselves from consumption, busyness and despair.
Alternatives ceased to exist as an organization several years ago, but one of its former directors, Gerry Iverson, carries on its mission in “Simple Living Works,” an enterprise that continues the initial work of Alternatives, with some new twists and emphases.
Much of what appears in this blog owes its spirituality, insistence and passion to the folks who began and continue Alternatives’ work. That’s why I invite you to visit SimpleLivingWorks@yahoo.com to find personal and family resources that will strengthen your resolve for simplicity-seeking during the season of Lent too!
And for all your joyful living!
January 18, 2016
Simple congregations: Your verbal identity, Part 2
(This entry is the second installment of a two-part look at “verbal identity” in congregations, and part of a continuing series of occasional blogs that apply simplicity ideals to congregational life. These entries can complement any program of congregational transformation.)
In the previous entry, I introduced you to the possibility that your “verbal identity”—how the words your congregation uses portray its character—is as important as your visual identity. Here I suggest some ways in which you might start the process of assessing or reshaping your verbal identity.
An audit of written words
Ask a small group of word-savvy people to help you (e.g., teachers, writers, journalists, poets, teens, Facebook denizens). Gather copies of all the word-laden materials that your congregation produces. Group them by categories—newsletters, sermons, blogs, parish announcements, worship bulletins, etc. Read through these materials together, one group at a time, with factors such as these in mind:
- What’s the general grade level of the vocabulary? The average length of sentences?
- How complex are the grammar and syntax?
- How much “code language” fills the materials? (Code language is a verbal construction that only already knowledgeable people can readily understand.)
- How does the writing look on a page? How does it sound out loud when read?
- What are the goals for the writing?
- Which words or patterns of writing occur over and over again?
- What’s fresh and inviting about the writing?
- How would objective outsiders describe this writing?
- What do these words say about our congregation?
When you’ve examined all the categories of written communication that emanate from your congregation, look at the results of all the audits. What changes do they suggest? What can be strengthened? What can be eliminated? What’s missing? Ask the question again: “What congregational identity comes from the words we use here?”
Find an editor or reviewer
You might entrust various parts of your verbal identity to someone demonstrably skilled in writing, editing or speaking. A member or friend of your congregation, this person would be tasked with reviewing or editing all the materials in one of the communication categories, written or spoken. Give this person some guidelines. Focus his or her efforts by providing a few cues about the verbal identity you want to portray: Do you want to be casual or formal? Would you prefer to present an unwavering viewpoint or invite dialogue? Are you hoping to appeal to a certain age group? What emotions are invited or evoked?
Ask the reviewer/editor for an objective critique, providing enough advance time for this task. Keep at this work for about six months, or long enough to see what you can learn from this person. Some other options: Entrust this assignment to a writing, communication, theater or journalism student at your area college. Or broaden the tasks to include a small group of “loyal critics” who could meet monthly over breakfast or lunch to share their thoughts.
Starting at the beginning
Think about a ground-up approach that gathers together a team of people who know and love the congregation, as well as a few word-loving folks. You could:
- Consider how to describe your congregation’s best self. Make a map out of the words and phrases that come to mind. See what patterns emerge: Where are the strong points, the interesting or unique words, the phrases that spark imagination or curiosity, the appealing qualities? What’s delightful or surprising about various sections of the map? These collections of words and phrases might be the basis for your verbal identity. Try this activity more than once, perhaps with more than one group of members or friends.
- Now imagine the places where these words—or ones like them—could be used in the congregation’s written communication. Where could they supplant what’s possibly dull, negative or confusing? Where could they free you from imagined verbal constraints?
- Overlay these basic thoughts onto present styles or forms of communication. As you compare what already exists with the map(s) you’ve made, what do you notice that could be changed? What could be strengthened? What could be eliminated?
- Share what you’ve learned with the individuals already responsible for communicating with your congregation. (Yes, your pastor too!) Offer to help in the process of change.
Making words look and sound good
One aspect of your verbal identity is the way words look on a page, screen, badge or sign, and how spoken words are heard and understood. Consider these possibilities for improving both the look and sound of your words.
- Hire a local graphic designer (or student) to examine the way your words look, suggesting improvements or asking questions. You might want to consider using special bequests or an increased evangelism/witness budget as sources for funding this work.
- Involve congregation members into the process of decision-making about any new visual/verbal identity.
- If your visual vocabulary is low—you don’t have any strong opinions or background in graphic arts—it might be good to learn what’s attractive or interesting in the world beyond your congregation. Look at other congregations' verbal identities, and don’t forget the wisdom and experience of the secular world.
- Ask a drama teacher, speech therapist or actor to listen to the ways in which your congregation proclaims its message out loud. Consider basic improvements in areas such as tone of voice, ease of hearing, eye contact, verbal tics, emotional qualities or vocabulary levels.
A final reminder: As you work toward a new or improved verbal identity, keep in mind how Jesus—the Word made flesh—shaped his identity with caring and wise words. You follow in his footsteps!
January 15, 2016
Simple congregations: Your verbal identity, Part 1
(This is the first of a two entries that look at “verbal identity” in congregations and is part of a continuing series of occasional blogs that apply simplicity ideals to congregational life. These entries can complement any program of congregational transformation.)
If you’ve been paying attention to marketing wizards who also specialize in the promotion of churches, you’ve probably given some thought to the visual identity of your church. In building a visual identity, you work hard to make your congregation attractive, pleasing to the eye and inviting for people who want to know who you are by what they see.
Your “verbal identity” might also benefit from some attention. Writer and communications consultant Beth Nyland says verbal identity refers to the words you use to express your congregation’s identity and ideas. You form your verbal identity in every written and spoken utterance that bears your congregation’s name. That identity might include sermons, the written portions of your website, monthly calendars, before-worship words of welcome or signage. Your newsletter articles carry heavy freight, as do announcements in your local media. Written or video blogs are filled with words that can mark your congregation’s personality. Program names, meeting minutes, spoken invitations to receive communion, worship bulletins, hymn choices, the verbiage in your fundraising letters—all are filled with words that shine light on the deepest parts of your congregation’s character. Even the name of your congregation speaks about your image.
Because you may have become complacent about the kinds and amounts of words you use, it might be difficult for you to be objective (or critical) about your verbal identity. Much of the spoken and written styles of your communication may seem to be set in linguistic cement. You may be satisfied with what already seem to be acceptable, accurate or useful language patterns. To further complicate the process of resetting your verbal identity is the possibility that quick-fixes (e.g, “modernizing” the liturgy) may hide a greater need: an in-depth examination of what your words do/do not accomplish or a thorough housecleaning of your ways of communicating.
If this approach seems valuable, stay tuned for the second part of this entry, where I’ll offer some suggestions on how you might engage in this effort.
“Simple enough” can come soon enough!
For further information, you can contact Beth Nyland, a member of Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Ill., at email@example.com. She helps organizations identify and shape their verbal identities.
January 12, 2016
Simple words: Fiasco
(This entry continues the series, "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also delights your friends with old-and-friendly words. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)
This entry's word choice is a favorite of social critics, demagogues and angry pundits. (Almost every day features a commentator deeming something-or-the-other as "a total fiasco!" Are there partial fiascos?) The designation of absurd failure is placed on the efforts of demeaned others—usually at a safe distance—supposedly as a sign of the commentator's erudition or accurate judgment.
The word is of Italian derivation, naming any long-necked bottle with a rounded base. (Think Chianti.) Because of their size and shape, these bottles can't stand by themselves, so a plaited straw or reed base is added for flat-based stability. Eventually, "the bottle that can't stand" morphs into "the project or idea that was doomed from the start," with an added verbal twist branding the failure as obviously ludicrous. With the invitation for others to pile on, the fiasco-fingerer completes the process of decimating anything he or she wants to ridicule, for whatever reason. Fiascos abound, if only because of the negative ether or our times.
What's missing here is the admission that fiascos occur in all of our lives, and that each of us could benefit from some bottle-naming regarding our own botched efforts. Our lifestyles might be a good place to start the finger-pointing. Most of us might live with secret absurdities clinging to us—budgets that don't balance; families that don't work; addictions that don't satisfy or noise levels that don't allow serenity. Most of us live with the fear that our bottled-lives might tip over or crash to the floor. Most of us fear that we will become the object of scorn. Most of us want forgiveness.
Simple living includes some failures, and sometimes they look outlandishly silly. Nevertheless, we have to hold fast to our hopes, to remain courageous, to find joy.
Even in our fiascos.
January 9, 2016
Simple things: Locks and other fasteners
(This entry continues a mini-series within the larger "Simple enough" blog family. The premise: It’s important to look more deeply, appreciatively and gratefully at some of the elements of your lifestyle that are wonderfully ordinary, yet startlingly rare in some places in the world.)
A few months ago, trying to find a 6mm wingnut to repair a home appliance, I happened on a wholesaler whose business is focused on fasteners. As I wandered the racks of amazing gadgets, it struck me how I take for granted that things will somehow hold together! (This is an ignorant impairment in my overall appreciation of small, necessary technologies). Coming away from my search with the wingnut in hand(!), I started looking more carefully at all the contrivances that keep my life from coming apart.
Padlocks, screws, nails, clips, staples, bolts, rivets and dowels—easily seen because they’re everywhere. Each category splayed out into hundreds of variations. But then I started looking and recalling more closely: The strange connectors that hold together Ikea furniture. Clamps whose sometimes-grotesque shapes enable temporary wholeness—until glue does its work. The ancient wisdom of dado cuts in wood, metal or plastic that enable tight, lasting fits. Cotter pins, roll/hitch pins, roller/spring pins, split drive anchors—many of them hidden deep in the interior of products I use every day. Perhaps most amazing were the fasteners that joined disparate materials to each other: wood to concrete; glass to wood; plastic to metal!
Unique tools and techniques accompany each of these devices of permanently fastened togetherness. Each locking and connecting item requires a specialized skill for its installation or replacement. Most fasteners are small and easily overlooked.
Perhaps what’s most important in this matter: To remember that each of these small pieces of human inventiveness was engineered and manufactured by practical people who help hold God’s world together! In perhaps-unknown ways, these creators of material inseparableness share a lifework that is not far from God’s own intention: An interlocked and interdependent world. These fabricators of togetherness deserve our appreciation and gratitude!
January 6, 2016
Simple enough: The Great Disruption
In case you hadn’t noticed, “disruption” is the contemporary canard of choice among those dedicated to shaping a utopian future from the dust of present-day life. Their tale seems to be promising: Those who disrupt current ways of thinking and behaving—antiquated artifices that don’t work anymore—can best lead us into a future that is bright with promise. Change can and must happen by virtue of large and perhaps-painful interventions in society’s workings.
It’s possible that this frame of mind may also be a false story, spun out of wispy facts, formulas or fancies. Some problems come to mind. Problem 1: Revolutionary at best and perhaps delusional at their worst, disruption proclamations may be tainted with more than a little self-idolatry. Problem 2: Self-anointed “disrupters” may falsely assume that disruption always trumps order. Problem 3: The assumption that small disruptions will eventually coalesce into a larger, grander scheme of things—a "Great Disruption."
Problem 4 is perhaps the most important: "THE Great Disruption" already happened, about two thousand years ago. In Christ Jesus, the established political, economic and social order was cracked open, never to return easily to its self-centered state. Where hate and greed defined social order, grace and mercy broke in. Forgiveness and love dismantled the stranglehold of fear. The mighty were cast down from their thrones. Good news grew in the desert of despair. Nothing could remain the same.
During Epiphany, we celebrate the details of that mighty act of God, and lay claim to a legacy of disruption that challenges smaller stories of algorithmic omniscience. Its simple dimensions make a story worth telling: God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself! The new order that many of us yearn for and work toward? It centers on Jesus, the Christ. The Great Disrupter!
January 3, 2016
Simple enough: Terror management
In her insightful writing, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, Stanford University Professor Kelly McGonigal notes how “terror management” may be an innate part of diminished willpower. In this frame of mind, we try to patch around our natural fear of death—and its derived anxieties—by engaging in risky or materialistic behaviors.
I’ve written about this matter in other blogs; here I want to accentuate how difficult it may be to tamp down dread in these times, when terror-centered messages and lifestyles seem overwhelming. Increasingly, terror fuels the messages and personalities of political candidates. Terror still “sells the soap” of television and social media content. Terror fills conversations, sucking up the relational oxygen of joyful observations about life’s purpose and meaning. Terror complicates almost everything. It becomes difficult to live simply when you’re wounded by wariness and worry. It may be impossible to live contentedly when you’re constantly pushed into fighting, fleeing or freezing.
Terror management may be a piece of your necessary psychological equipment, but you’ve also been redeemed and Spirit-gifted as a spiritual being—someone graced by God for a life beyond terror. You can counter the paralyzing effects of terror by continuing to give away your life for God’s purposes. You can focus on your lifework instead of your life’s end. You can pray for those who are terror-filled as well as those who want to jam terror into your soul. You can shut down or shut off the blaring noise of those who proclaim and use terror as the new normal.
Living in terror is no life at all, so continue to find meaning in living hopefully, purposefully and joyfully. It’s the best way to manage life!
Not all that simple, hmm?
December 29, 2015
Simple enough: I don't care that I don't know
In this gray stage of my life, I’m realizing more and more how little I know. And to be honest about it, part of my simple living these days is not to care about what I don’t know.
This attitude is easy when I confront digital tools—I still use my computer to hammer metaphoric nails. It’s not hard to admit that I don’t care to excel in Excel, that it doesn’t bother me that I use the same 15 archaic finger-stroke commands to process these words, that I don’t care that I’m behind the curve because I will never have a Facebook page.
Where simple living gets harder, though, is when I have to admit that I don’t know how to solve most of the world’s problems, that I have only foggy notions about how to curb materialism in the human brain, and that I don’t know what to do about all the fearmongers who claim to be presidential material.
I’ve spent most of my life trying to know what’s necessary to make a difference. I’ve chased or noodled at surefire solutions to societal problems. I’ve joined colleagues and friends on crusades to be at the front of the changes that God surely desires. But eventually I’ve come to the ends of ropes, the end of my capabilities, the end of kairos time.
Still, I’ve not given up on God’s wisdom. I’ve not stopped trying to know and do what’s required of me in my lifework. I’ve not stopped yearning to learn what God still invites me to accomplish. Gray life stages are still good places to be! There’s still hope in me because God is still wiser than I ever will be, more caring and loving than I deserve. There’s still God’s work to do!
Happy New Year!
December 26, 2015
Simple enough: The holy refugees
In too many places in the world, there will have been no “Merry Christmas,” a phrase that would have sounded hollow or even arrogant. There were no garish displays of lights, loud music or lavish displays of gifts. Among the millions of displaced people and refugees, this Christmas may have centered instead on what’s more important: That in Christ Jesus, God came as rescuer, deliverer, hope for the ages.
Jesus and his family became refugees when he was still in his infancy. His parents trekked hundreds of miles to a faraway land—Egypt—where they may have lived with other terror-stalked economic or political exiles. Strangers in a strange land, Jesus and his mother and father spent his early years in the disquieting discomfort that comes when you have no lasting place to call home.
At this time of year, when some churches will observe Holy Family Sunday, it would be well to remember that our Savior lived his infancy in conditions similar to those faced by residents of refugee camps around the world; that he and his family longed for deliverance from oppression; and that they may have had no choice but to live in stark simplicity.
That pain you see pain in the eyes of the refugees who are streaming into Europe? Jesus’ eyes projected those same emotions. The tiny slivers of hope that you hear in parents’ voices? Joseph and Mary spoke in the same fashion. Dependence on God’s providence? Jesus’ family and today’s immigrants cherish that same faith. And the grace that comes from the concern and love of God’s people? Jesus’ family relied on God’s outpouring through these individuals.
Today’s refugees rely on your generosity and love—the kind that Jesus' life, death and resurrection made possible. Hope in God lives in Jesus, the refugee!
December 23, 2015
Simple enough: A time to be quiet
In so many ways, these days call for quiet. The noise of current events, the restive thoughts in our own hearts, the terror that clamors for our attention—all seem to create a void that the seasons of Advent and Christmas can fill.
In that spirit, these blogs will go quiet during these next few days, resuming on Dec. 26.
May the coming of Christ bring you calm and joy!
December 20, 2015
Simple words: Gobbledygook
(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also provides standards for startlingly uncommon discourse. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)
One of the hallmarks of simplicity can be found in the linguistic styles that accompany its precepts and practices. To say that without lapsing into more gobbledygook, simplicity-seekers speak simply. What compels that kind of speech? Honesty, empathy for listeners/readers, transparency, hope and perhaps a desire for intimacy. The test for simple speech? When you speak of your convictions about living simply, you are understood and believed! Minds open when you talk or write.
What is gobbledygook? Its origins bespeak its reputation and predict its disregard. The term was coined during World War II by Texas Congressman Maury Maverick. He compared the obfuscations of deliberately confusing speech with the "thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of this gobble there was a sort of gook" (New York Times Magazine, May 21, 1944).
"Ludicrous pomposity?" Who among us would want to have those adjectives attached to our persona? "Deliberately confusing speech?" What noble purposes—simplicity-seeking or otherwise—would that serve? And, when it comes to seeking a manageable and sustainable lifestyle, who among us would want to be tethered to others' inattention?
I struggle with gobbledygookistic patterns of speech, here and sometimes in person. In playing with words, I can string too many together—in long ribbons of complicated syntax. As I try to be persuasive, I can also risk your disregard as I gather together strands of logic or emotion in an attempt to open simplicity to your admiring gaze. (Gobble-gobble, Bob!)
What to do about gobbledygook-ish temptations you might face, especially those intertwined with simple living? Eschew the primordial tendencies to confabulate or complicate in the face of overwhelming complexity, inattention or confusion. In other words, don't be a gobbling turkey like me!
December 17, 2015
Simple enough: A little bit mystical
Here's a thesis I'd like to explore with you: Simplicity invites—or consists of—leaning into mysticism. To say that in a slightly divergent way: In order to live simply, you may need to reframe your spiritual thinking and practice to let a little more mystical thought into your mind. Or still another: Simplicity-seeking is a mystical act. Or finally: Simplicity remains spiritually mysterious.
This notion comes from two streams of thought. First, history notes that many of the exemplary mystics of Western and Eastern spirituality lived simply. When you examine their writings, you see a worldview in which simplicity became their primary guide for daily living. Second, at the basic levels of neurobiology—the brass tacks of identity, thought and behavior—it's likely that mystery and mysticism work as explanations or organizing frameworks for knowing how the brain works. (For example, you can start with the chemical/physical makeup of neurons at the point of their synapses, wondering how or why atoms may "have a mind of their own.")
At its core, mystical thought allows for—and honors—the possibility that much of "the good life" is beyond explanation. (Ineffability fits here too.) Beyond knowingness becomes useful when we finally give up trying to solve, cure or repair everything that's wrong with our lifestyles. Spirituality—in some ways, a kind of rocket science—marries our assured knowledge with the truth that God's nature and ways are beyond what we can comprehend about contentment, greed, fear, fad-chasing, hoarding or materialism.
With these brief thoughts, then, let me invite you into continuing exploration of the mystical part of your being, the places where you welcome mystery and awe. The places where God may be most godly. The places where simplicity begins its certain development into a mysteriously wonderful way of life.
December 14, 2015
Simple enough: Begging your pardon
Several times in this series of simplicity blogs, I've noted how our sense of undeservedness buoys our gratitude—and our resulting generosity. I've noted that Martin Luther's deathbed observation—"We are beggars after all!"—is a good way of adding Lutheran lore to the interconnected string of doctrines related to original sin. Recently, I have been reminded of the gritty reality that, for a growing number of people around us, begging has become a logical (albeit last-ditch) way of life. Theological metaphors aside, begging is for some families a way of putting food on the table. Even closer to home, it's possible that many of us are already begging for some of our deepest needs.
Let me illustrate: In trying to live simply, you may come to the edge of some kind of begging. You may have found the necessity of dumpster diving; you may regularly borrow other folks' possessions instead of buying your own; or you may invisibly plead for friendships. Perhaps embarrassed, you may solicit others' help in putting your over-rushed life back together. You might have come to the end of any number of lifestyle ropes and need to find wisdom or rescue soon.
Begging is not tidy, predictable or ennobling. Imploring others for help—directly or implicitly—requires more than humility. Begging can seem downright destructive to your self-image, your necessary pride or even your will to meet life's difficulties with energy. As in Jesus' times, so now: Begging puts any of us at the bottom of any number of deep chasms—economically, relationally, emotionally.
No matter the ragged realities of begging, though, Luther was still right: We are beggars, after all. Thoroughly, eternally, universally. And so we greet this day with the hope of God's rescue and restoration.
It's what we beggars most hope for!