Bob Sitze's Blog
July 26, 2015
Simplicity's children: The unstructured summer
Today let me propose a simple idea that might help you and your family carve some simple pleasures out of the remaining days of this wonderful season of the year. I'll group them around the idea of "unstructured", an adjective that already tells you what's coming. ("Stay-cation" might also help frame these possibilities.)
- Think how your kids might spend at least a couple of days a week with no rules or schedules. If you're already over-scheduled and over-ruled, let your children know in advance about this change in their time-use.
- Share your memories of unstructured summer days during your childhood. Without glossing or exaggerating, speak about your positive feelings about these times.
- Paint yourself out of the picture; paint in your children's friends. Your children are capable of inventing their own activities and priorities.
- Enjoy the benefits of setting aside your roles as chef, concierge, taxi-driver or law enforcement officer. Think of these days as mini-sabbaticals.
- When the (unstructured) days are complete, talk with your children about the experience. Refrain from cheerleading or judging.
- Characterize these times as adventures, explorations or hunts.
- If appropriate, relieve your children of their digital leashes.
- Where they're safe, walks into other contexts can result in new settings, new learnings, new questions.
- Odd objects—even junk!—can inspire building/inventing instincts.
- Exploration tools—magnifying glasses, walking sticks, rubber boots, camera with close-up capabilities—can engender children's natural curiosity.
- Loosely framed challenges might start the ball rolling. (E.g., Invent a new sport, bring home something interesting or explore a tiny space completely.)
Unstructured time might not work well at first. But sitting at home in front of a screen won't teach your child anything about the simple pleasures of life.
Your choice, of course....
July 23, 2015
Simple words: Mansplaining
(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also enables you to assume leadership among truth-seekers. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)
Among some educated males in our species there is a quirksome personality flaw that has come to be called "mansplaining," as in "Men who overexplain everything they think of." (Dilbert of cartoon fame skewers his boss about mansplaining, which means that this condition has become a widespread societal problem!)
I notice this flaw in myself when I write—yes, even in these blogs! Often I include at least three iterations of an idea before moving on to the next one. And in public and private discourse, I sometimes find myself circling back on the same general thought, as if living in a verbal version of Groundhog Day. I think of my motives as positive: I really want you to comprehend (for your benefit?) what I'm communicating.
Being totally honest, though, I'd say that mansplaining could be a sign of personal insecurity: I'm worried that you won't understand me, so I'll expound on the subject one or two more times. Mansplaining may also indicate my subtle disregard (or arrogance?) regarding your ability to pick up meaning. This behavior may also signal my need to control meaning or relationships.
The results of mansplaining—so well portrayed by Dilbert and his colleagues—are complicated and certain: Disregard of the "splainer" and what he explains. Lost possibilities for heartfelt conversation. Wasted time, paper or screen space.
What might cure mansplainers of this trait? Perhaps benevolent interruptions, quickly summarizing the content of a discourse or conversation in exquisite simplicity. Perhaps refraining from asking appreciative questions that encourage more explaining of what's already obvious. Perhaps showing by your example how to speak directly with fewer words.
So if you see me coming, please help me wrestle with this character flaw and be prepared to forgive me for my advanced degree in "Overly Obvious."
July 20, 2015
Simple enough: Distilling
In my ongoing search to find a just-so metaphor for our simplicity-seeking, I want to explore with you the idea of "distilling"—pulling out of something ordinary what is delectable and precious. Distilling involves gathering raw materials, smashing them into a pulp, applying gentle heat over time, filtering out unwanted substances, gathering the essential vapors and condensing them—resulting in the concentrated essence of something new and valuable.
Simplicity-seeking may be a kind of metaphorical distilling. When you try to live simply, you approach the ordinary stuff of life with expectant appreciation: Something surprising might be hidden in what's commonplace. You are willing to mash up what you experience without immediately having to make sense of the mess. You apply heat—insistent, critical thought—to your experiences. You use filters (for example, the wisdom of God in Jesus' teachings) to draw off what's not good, not necessary, not vital. You condense small wisps of new attitudes and behaviors and put them to use in your life. This work takes time.
What comes of simplicity-distilling? I think it's exciting to think of simplicity as a purified way of living, a lifestyle that's been concentrated, and a viewpoint that screens out unhelpful and unwise habits. You can sometimes find quiet delight in discovering the exquisite essence of some part of life that had gone undetected for years. In its condensed form, simple living can be wonderfully palatable, something you want to share with others. Rare and therefore precious, simplicity-seeking can give you pleasure. You can learn to be patient as you make sense out of what others may overlook or not value.
As you continue this metaphorical process—distilling ordinary life into something precious—expect delightful surprises and deep satisfaction with what a purifying Spirit can accomplish in your life!
July 17, 2015
Simple enough: Evoking profound memories
One of the valuable lessons I've learned from elderly friends is the fulfillment that comes from recalled memories. While I'm still adding to the stories that will constitute my later-in-life memories, it makes good sense to practice that memory rummaging now. I'm going to spend this entry's word-quota doing just that, with my office walls as a source. You're free to come along ....
The Bach Cantata Series wall poster recalls a host of memories about all the quiet moments I've listened to cantatas, performed in them as an organist or singer, and drew inspiration for a current situation from a worship service wrapped around a cantata. Sometimes I miss being a musician.
My Amsler Grid eyechart reminds me of the early discovery of my age-related macular degeneration, when the possible loss of vision really frightened me. I recall those legitimate emotions vividly, but also recollect how my eye doctor put the fears to rest with this reassurance: "You will not lose your sight." His gracious announcement put my condition into perspective.
The photos of my parents in their later years: How I am starting to look like them—even think like them! I recall their plucky acceptance of aging's effects: "Getting old ain't for sissies," they would say. I remember so many of their other adages. They are my mantras now.
The tiny business calendar from one of my former youth group members in Texas evokes all the wild times Chris and I spent as "newbieyouth" ministers—we made a lot of it up as we went along. But now I think carefully about how the recent floods continue to affect him and his family.
My short personal reveries also provoke this invitation: Practice memory-evoking now, so that when you are older, you will be skilled at this life-enriching activity.
July 14, 2015
Simple enough: Connecting to your legacy
As you grow older, you shift from being a legacy-receiver to a legacy-giver. At some point you come to realize your responsibility to improve and protect inherited blessings before you pass them along. Here are some beginning steps that might help you connect to your legacy:
- Know your family history. Talk with older living relatives about family artifacts. Help these relatives develop, write or narrate their personal life stories. Begin chronicling your life story—journaling, captioning photos or recording stories.
- Honor your mentors. Your legacy may include individuals who guided you through beginning stages of your career or parenting. Pay tribute to your mentors with grateful conversations or letters. Tell them how you've turned out!
- Identify your teachers. You have inherited the knowledge, skills and wisdom of countless teachers, some of them filling that role formally and others informally. Name these individuals and identify what you learned from them.
- Consider whose shoulders you stand on. You owe your legacy to people who paved the way for you. They may have sacrificed their own well-being for your sake. Learn those stories.
- Remember your childhood goals for your life. Those early expressions of your desired life-purpose may help you remember what was originally important to you. Save artifacts that reveal your earliest thoughts about your possible future.
- Live into the witness of Scripture. You can find your most-trusted legacy in the Bible. Not just the wisdom of the ages, but the lives of God's people that can serve as examples for how you might live.
As you undertake any of these tasks, keep a record of what you find so those coming after you will find their own legacies more assuredly and more appreciatively. Soon they will be connected legacy-givers as well!
July 11, 2015
Simple things: Glass
(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 the many elements of our lifestyle that are wonderfully ordinary, yet startlingly rare in the rest of the world.)
As I write these words, I can take my eyes away from the (special glass) screen of this computer and gaze out the transparent double-paned (glass) windows of this office to see the beauty of a cloudy day. Next to me is a (glass) container of water that will keep me hydrated throughout this writing. My work is illumined by the glow of a (glass) light bulb. And, of course, my eyesight is made possible by the corrective (glass) lenses of my eyewear.
In each of these examples, a vital ingredient in my well-being (or work) is made possible by a form of glass. In the near-alchemy of turning silica into various substances, the manufacturers of glass create a low-cost, durable material that continues to amaze me. I am protected from the elements by a translucent sheet of glass. I can touch the screen of this computer without ruining its inner workings. My water will remain cool and clean. The illumination of my work area will be free from glare, diffused evenly into this room. And the miracle of eyeglasses—precision-ground, UV-filtering, multi-focus lenses—is critical to my daily safety and routines. (I cannot drive a car without wearing these glasses!)
Glass is easy to take for granted until it's broken. But even then, this wondrous material is easily replaced at an affordable price. In any of its forms, glass is readily available near my home. Glass is another example of how human ingenuity has taken one of God's created substances—in this case, common sand—and made good use of it. And in its more exotic forms—auto glass, art glass, heat-resistant glass—this ubiquitous material is an example of God's abundance.
Join me today in being grateful for the benefits that come to our lives because of glass!
July 8, 2015
Simple congregations: The simpler pastor
(This slightly longer entry 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)
In many congregations, pastoral ministry may not be manageable or sustainable. The role of the pastor is fraught with impossibilities and improbabilities that lead toward burnout or worse. Whether in your congregation or in your soul, you may know firsthand how strongly the whole church yearns for ministry that's manageable and sustainable—hence "simple." In this entry, I want to add my voice to the chorus that continues to sing hopefully about what might be called "the simpler pastor."
By definition, a simpler, more manageable pastoral ministry takes place in a simple congregation. This congregation has quietly—and perhaps painfully—shed itself of a program-orientation or an identity as a kind of hospital. Its numbers have stabilized somewhere in the range of 150 to 250 members. Its governance structure has flattened to a church council that supervises and enlivens the work of permanent and intermittent task forces. In this congregation, the number and shape of ministries changes periodically, as members' assets and interests fuel specific efforts.
The primary mission of this congregation is (per Ephesians 4:11-13) to equip members for their vocations in the worlds in which they find opportunities for ministry. The congregation identifies strongly with its denominational family. The congregation's influence is rooted in the collected relationships its members enjoy within their community.
The pastor as a professional
The simpler pastor is seminary trained, ordained and called to this congregation for word and sacrament ministry. The pastor brings an additional set of marketable skills and experiences gained during a previous career. He or she is schooled in the arts of community organizing, including the identification and use of gathered assets. The pastor works on a bi-vocational basis: Time and energy devoted to this vocation is shared with another calling, preferably one located in the congregation's community.
The pastor's work
With the diminishment of program and "chaplaincy" duties, the tasks required of a simpler pastor are considerably diminished. The time a pastor devotes to the congregation consists mainly of visiting members in their workplaces or other relationships. (In this critical role, the pastor helps members connect their faith and life.)
The pastor is not the congregation's ex officio or de facto organizational leader. Significant leadership roles and responsibilities are assumed by members. In addition to worship leadership and legally described pastoral acts (marriages, funerals), the pastor convenes small groups of lay members, assisting them in their leadership of changing ministries. Some of that assistance takes place in formal and informal events that promote Christian formation and fellowship.
In the pastor's shared vocation, she or he works as a trusted employee in a local enterprise. In this role, the pastor also carries the congregation's influence into community matters. The pastor/employee may also take secular leadership roles and responsibilities consonant with the skills and experiences carried forward from previous work.
These descriptions presume that a congregation will have condensed or modified its expectations about what's manageable. It has turned much of its presumed "outreach" over to societal institutions (populated by some of the congregation's members). This congregation and their pastor remain uniquely powerful in their roles, largely because they have matured past the narrow idea that ministry occurs primarily within the congregation's programs. Both a simpler congregation and a simpler pastor function as yeast that infuses everything it touches.
This description of pastoring seems possible to me, most likely in a smaller congregation where members are willing to shed long-held assumptions about the function of the church in our society. The description may hark back to simpler times, but it may also point the way forward to newly simpler times.
God's Spirit will be there too!
July 5, 2015
Simple words: Finicky
(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also enables you to gain respect among erudite eccentrics. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)
Before talking about the derivation of this word, let's set the context of this entry: It's hard to live simply if you're going to be finicky—fussy, fastidious, hard to please. Got it? Now let's see how this word started and where it has led.
The term has a British derivation, dating to the late 1500s and denoting a person who was too dainty or too particular. (The sense of "too fine" comes from fine, the likely root for this less-than-complimentary adjective.) Thus this descriptor has maintained its negative meaning for centuries.
It amazes me how much finickiness still exists—and is perhaps condoned—in our culture.
Some examples: A significant number of children are allowed to be finicky about which foods they will eat. "No questions asked" returns on purchased goods seems like an encouragement to be finicky. A high percentage of the goods we purchase are available in multiple colors, styles and sizes. This feels like a tacit acceptance of finickiness reaching into our entire economy. Digitized matchmaking services may be supporting the finicky idea that finding and marrying a perfect spouse is possible.
I have questions about the lasting results of being finicky: Is someone who is finicky about small details also overparticular about most everything else? Can finicky people see life's big pictures? If finicky people cannot be content with what they have or accept less-than-perfect lives, what motivates them toward gratitude? What does satisfy them or make them happy? How do finicky children mature into selfless, giving adults? What worries me the most: It seems as if finicky people are really vulnerable to the vagaries of real life. (Remember the original sense of "daintiness" in this word's etymology!)
Or perhaps, when finickiness doesn't work any more, will these folks be ready to seek simplicity?
Could be ....
July 1, 2015
Simple enough: Sale!
Out here in the hinterland, this is the time of year when homegrown sales hatch like mosquitoes. Not just garage, yard, rummage, toy, used book or native-plant sales, but also some experiences that stretch credulity. (Today I saw signs for a "Hoarder Sale," presumably offering bargains on the purchase of these over-habituated stuffer/gatherers.)
I understand some of the wisdom of these sales. Previously used possessions are repurposed into others' lives. People with low incomes can obtain useful merchandise at an affordable price. The barter/cash economy thrives. Landfills don't fill so quickly. A kind of material redemption occurs and simple living is thereby strengthened.
What strikes me as questionable, though, is how many hours of time, gallons of gasoline and psychic energy are expended as some sales-seekers continue cruising among these events. Perhaps some unintended results: Saturday morning disappears, closets get stuffed a little more, disposable income disappears just a bit. Impulsive purchases are justified by ill-defined "needs." Other priorities for a person's time get shelved in search of "good deals." (Is it possible that "simplicity" is lost somewhere in the shuffle?)
What drives this bargain-seeking, this compulsion to buy something (or anything) at a lower price? I'm not sure, but I know that addictive brain mechanisms might be at play when sales signs become a primary motivator for entire systems of habituated behavior. Even though less harmless than maxing out credit cards, compulsive bargain-chasing could still be a sign of misaligned acquisitiveness. Still a niggling reminder of the power of stuff in our lives. Still not always the best use of precious time.
Without diminishing the value of purposed deal-seeking at these sales, I offer these thoughts for your careful consideration—especially if you find your pulse quickening and your wallet itching whenever you see "SALE" festooned on handcrafted signs.
June 28, 2015
Simple enough: Freedom for what?
Coming soon to a holiday near you: Fervent exclamations about "freedom" and "liberty." In today's entry, I want to add thoughts to what you'll encounter in other places. Basically I want to ask the simple question: "What are freedom and liberty really about?" My simple answer: They're centered in giving, not taking.
From what I read and hear around me, many of the folks who speak of these two subjects at this time of year are quick to invoke their rights. And when they do, their words invariably indicate the sense that they deserve to take or receive whatever they name as desirable or necessary for their well-being. I get this idea: part of being good stewards is to receive the blessings God offers.
At the same time, I disagree with that way of thinking. My disagreement with insisent declarations of individual rights comes from understanding Jesus' life and teachings. He had "the right" to exist only as True God, but elected to become truly human as well. He chose to give up and give away much of what was available to him because of his birthright or cultural standing. (Let's not forget that he opted to be unemployed and homeless.) He understood his liberty and freedoms—such as they were—as platforms for a grateful, generous life. His days were filled with selfless leadership, kindnesses to undeserved others, crafty political wisdom for oppressed peasants and careful mentoring of his sometimes-hapless followers.
Jesus did not bask in his rights, his freedom or his liberty. Instead, he saw both as ways to give back to God and to other people what blessings he had already received. Jesus was a freedom-giver.
And you? How could you observe this coming national holiday? Perhaps as your own kind of freely giving person?
June 25, 2015
Simple enough: Extra time coming soon!
Don't get too excited about this fact, but in the not-too-distant future, your life is going to be graced with some extra time. No, not some kind of time-saving tool or handy-dandy tip for being efficient. I'm talking about extra time here—actual time added to your lifespan! This is important, especially when you consider all the occasions when you've bemoaned how little time you have for living contentedly. Think of it: additional time to do what's truly valuable, truly human and truly simple. A blessing and a gift that you can hardly pass up!
To help you get ready for wise use of this extra time, I offer this list of suggestions that I have culled from my inner core as a Stewardship Guy:
- Take a quick breath. Fresh air is good for you!
- Giggle. (If you prefer, just chortle derisively.)
- Stretch your fingers for added flexibility.
- Blink purposefully.
- Clear your throat so you can speak clearly.
- Smile at a stranger for no reason at all.
- Say "thanks" to God, preferably out loud.
- Slow down the pace of others around you by infecting them with a simple yawn.
- Look upward—it's good for your posture, your eyes and your attitude.
Let me add these small details to help you with this gift of time: On June 30, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service will add—get ready for this—a leap second to life as we know it. This will compensate for small variations in the Earth's rotation. And in case you missed it, a total of four leap seconds have been added to your life since 1999.
Please, no giggling or derisive chortling about this. I'm just trying to help you live simply—if only for a moment!
June 22, 2015
Simplicity's children: Allowances redux
Moms and Dads and Other Caregivers: Don't look now, but many of the answers to your questions about allowances for your children have now shifted over to the digital realm. A variety of apps as near as your tapping thumbs now offer you help in this sometimes vexing matter. All that's required are a few smartphones, an Internet connection, a banking account and quality time to work with your child on financial matters.
Going by names such as Allowances Manager, Virtual Piggy, iAllowance, Famzoo and ThreeJars, these apps actually help your children learn how to think about and manage money. These online and mobile applications seem to promote underlying philosophies that support your best intentions for your children's and teens' financial acumen and skills. In most cases, the apps can be downloaded at no cost.
Visiting this part of the digital nanny world, parents and children can learn how to set up bank accounts, track their balances and make decisions about spending/saving/sharing. In some cases, these sites are aimed at younger children; in other cases the target audience is slightly older. Some of the sites connect children's chores with "earning" their allowances. (You may want to think carefully about the wisdom of this viewpoint.) Other apps help your children reckon with matters such as using credit cards and "bill" payment
Depending on your views about allowances—and your considerations about your children's time and reliance on digital devices—these apps may be helpful in the sometimes-difficult matter of teaching your child to be wise about financial matters. Working alongside you, the apps could provide additional impetus for continuing conversations about the broader questions of stewardship, generosity, materialism and personal responsibility.
And to those who choose NOT to rely on digital assistants for basic parenting tasks: I understand completely!
June 19, 2015
Simple enough: Simple flow
One of life's most satisfying experiences is "flow"—those times when you are so deeply immersed or intertwined in a task or a moment that you lose track of time and place. (Think "runner's high" or "the zone.") Although they require physical and mental effort, flow experiences are rewarding for your mind and body, perhaps because you sense that everything inside and around you seems to be in sync. (Yes, meditation and prayer qualify.)
I'm not sure about the scientific basis for the following theory, but I wonder whether flow experiences are more likely to occur when simplicity is part of these moments. To phrase this matter as a positive question: "How can you get lost in the flow of simple living?" This idea seems to make sense: Flow probably requires that the stresses of multitasking or attending to multiple stimuli are simultaneously shut down or bypassed. "Slow" accompanies a simplicity-seeking mindset, so more of your mind is available for the synchronicity and inner calm that comes with flow. The sabbaths of zoned-in times seem more possible when your life isn't bound by constant chaos.
I'm also not sure how you could test out this possibility. During a time of repetitive-and-enjoyable physical activity, such as weeding a garden or engaging in a worship ritual? When you're deep into your thoughts during a ride on public transportation? At those lingering moments when you are engaged in conversation with someone you love deeply? When you are joyfully imagining your way through difficulties that others see only as problems?
One thing I'm sure about: You should seek and savor flow experiences, in whatever circumstances they might occur. However they are connected to your simplicity-seeking, these natural highs can soothe your soul and make you glad to be alive!
June 16, 2015
Simple words: Comeuppance
(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also enables you to rouse jealousy among bystanders. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)
Rarely do I find a time-honored word with such a thin etymology as comeuppance. (No Latin or Greek heritage, no curious root story, no techno-jargon parentage.) But because comeuppance is probably a shirttail relative of the justice family of words, it deserves examination.
The etymological freight of this word seems to derive from "coming up." In previous centuries this was a way of describing one's appearance before a judge or tribunal—perhaps even an informal court of justice. Inferred in its current usage is the idea that the judgment one receives is deserved. So a comeuppance is usually considered as a turn-for-the-better when a previously unpunished malefactor is punished. Heads nod and tongues wag when comeuppance takes place: "He got what he deserved!"
If you were to adopt this expression into simplicity-seeking, you might create some problems. "What he deserved" is sometimes only a values judgement, sometimes based less on legal precedence and more on public opinion. (Street justice or trial by media come to mind here.) So a profligate, wasteful spender faces bankruptcy, a type A dad becomes a stranger to his family, or the child of an acquisitive parent grows up to be selfish. The taste of shared, societal vengeance can be sweet: When "she got what she deserved," the matter is finished. We can all go about our righteousness-seeking lives.
Some difficulties might arise from our behaviors: The person receiving the comeuppance can no longer live simply—life remains complicated by our lasting punishment or disregard. Those of us who mete out—or participate in—these judgments run the risk of us deserving our own comeuppances: People misjudging our lives and subtly punishing us.
So perhaps the best etymology for this word might be: "'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord" (Romans 12:19).
June 13, 2015
Simple enough: A life of little kindnesses
Tucked away in my office is a small framed poster that proclaims: "The best portions of a good person's life are little countless acts of love and kindness." (The person who gave me that reminder lives this way, which strengthens the message even more!) Let me try to tie that message to your simplicity-seeking.
Like me, you probably look for simple ways to measure the worth of your life. Simplicity-seeking is one, certainly, but simple living may be hard to define or find because it may be invisible. Perhaps the little poster on my wall might provide a helpful insight.
The little kindnesses of which the poster speaks are probably not so little after all. Kindnesses of any kind—especially the vaunted "random acts of kindness"—are sometimes rare in a society awash in incivility and anger. But when the receiver of your kindness does not expect it (because of a persistent feeling of unworthiness?) the size and meaning of any kindness is magnified many times over. These acts—small moments of grace, favor, accompaniment, forgiveness, mercy, help, support, pleasure or appreciation—can transform someone's entire day. Simple at their heart (think of your ready and welcoming hug), little kindnesses require not much more than your living as the best person that God knows you to be.
By God's grace and favor—the kindnesses you receive from God are sometimes overwhelming—you have the motivation, proclivity and ability to show kindness to others. Not just to those who can reciprocate with kindnesses of their own, but also to those who rarely experience kindness. And not just once, but continuously, as an ongoing part of your outlook and your actions as a follower of Christ. Think of it: Little acts of kindness could become wall posters in your mind!
June 10, 2015
Simple enough: One person's lint
Sometimes I like to watch birds' behaviors—you can learn a lot from your feathered friends. (Full disclosure: Jesus thought of this idea first!) Today I want to invite you to think about how birds redeem what we discard. To be more specific, how birds repurpose lint.
First, let's broaden the definition of lint to include more than the collections of fabric fuzz that accumulate in a washing machine or clothes dryer. At a metaphorical level, you could think of lint as any part of your discarded life that gathers together in small stockpiles of detritus, usually in out-of-the-way places. (Small pieces of string and other filaments, paper and food scraps, and yard waste might all be subcategories of lint.)
Back to the birds. In their nest-building—a metaphor for housing, security and home?—birds redeem lint. Carrying and ferrying twigs, straw, paper and actual lint, birds are able to construct their residences for themselves and their broods. Their nests are examples of how God's creatures make something useful out of what you and I throw away. ("One person's house lint is a bird's lint house.")
At a wider level, this simple practice is something to be thankful about. People who conduct garage or estate sales, trash pickers, metal recyclers, dumpster divers—these folks help redeem the created world. Alongside birds, they find the useful in what other people call junk. They diminish the effects of wasteful behaviors and attitudes. They see possibilities where others see uselessness or dead-ends.
Perhaps your local bird population could help you learn other, related attitudes: To be thankful for what you have and to be shrewd about the value of your possessions. Maybe the birds could teach all of us to be appreciative of the worth of lint-like people for God's purposes!
June 7, 2015
Simple things: Soil
(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 the many elements of our lifestyle that are wonderfully ordinary, yet may be startlingly rare in some parts of the world.)
An introductory note: This entry isn't focused on dirt! Instead, I use the word "soil" carefully to designate topsoil, on which so much of our well-being depends.
It would be easy to mistake soil as something that sometimes inhibits a pleasant lifestyle (think "muddy shoes"). If you live with a hyper-antiseptic worldview, you could even consider soil as a health problem to be avoided (think "germs on my skin").
A more accurate and appreciative view: Soil contains the stuff of life. Composed of living and inert substances, soil contains the nutrients on which plant life depends. As you travel up the food chain, you come to the realization that without rich and abundant topsoil, there would be few crops to sustain you. Some ingredients of a healthy life—e.g., drugs and chemicals—can be found only in certain soils.
I'd like to invite you into an experience that could help you appreciate the beauty and necessity of soil for your life. Follow these directions: Using string, cordon off a square foot of soil on your lawn, a pathway, a vacant lot, city park or garden. With a magnifying glass or pocket microscope, examine this small part of the planet, one square inch at a time. Look for what's obvious (living things, plants, environmental detritus) but also try to find what's not apparent (signs of death or destruction, unique substances and varieties of particles). Dig in this soil, running it through your fingers, perhaps even smelling it carefully. Spend enough time with this small patch of soil so you begin to see its lively richness!
Today, consider the ways in which you can help preserve the blessings of soil for those around you, and those yet to be born. Thank God for the earth. Literally!
June 4, 2015
Simple congregations: Whither topical preaching
(This slightly longer entry 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)
Sometimes pastors can get tempted to forsake textual preaching—dependent on an ancient lectionary that recycles every three years—for the imagined benefits of topical preaching. In this entry I ask why topical preaching may eventually wither as a form of proclamation. Some of my questions come from neuroscience, some from practical considerations and the rest from theology.
A topical preacher presumes that the strength of the topic—its principles, organization, its logic—is sufficient to carry the message into hearers' minds. This creates a possible problem: Because it involves the logical/sequential functions of the brain, topical preaching may not be a whole-brain experience. Primarily a forebrain activity, topical preaching may diminish or discourage other valuable spiritual activities of the brain such as imagination, creativity, poetic expression, curiosity, doubt, mystery or awe. Thus the brains of listeners are confined to a narrow range of interactivity with the word of God.
If the sermon devolves into a "teaching," the sermon might feel like a lecture, one of the least-likable experiences any brain encounters. Could large-scope concepts—with strings of complicated details trailing along—overwhelm listeners' capacities to process information? Even with printed/projected outlines, the sermon could become an example of information overload: easily ignored and forgotten.
Topical sermons seem to suggest that assent to a set of ideas is sufficient for faith, that "knowing truth" is the essence of spirituality. That a list of talking points can motivate the brains of listeners to confess sins, break habits or take action. Does this mean the process of conversion itself is reducible to the accumulation of knowledge?
Unless a topical preacher is truly brilliant, clever or creative, his/her treatment of the topic at hand can easily become an exercise in mastery of the obvious. Is it possible that this approach is boring or insulting to hearers? This phenomenon could become especially poignant when a preacher tackles a supposedly contemporary topic, not realizing how many other channels of information-giving have already covered the subject. Does ad nauseum come to mind?
The proposition that a series of topics will somehow attract attention may also suffer from these logical inconsistencies:
People who are not present every Sunday will miss important concepts and thus not benefit from the intricacies that a longer series promises. In present-day culture, attention spans wane quickly. Does series-preaching assume that the opposite is true? There may be a limit on the number of appealing series names. When locked into a preaching schedule, series of topics could also shove aside what might be fresh and compelling in current events, in listeners' experiences or in surprising developments. Although any concept can be expanded into a wealth of subtopics, it's also true that serializing a topic may result in microscopic examination of only miniscule matters.
Another thought: Given the interconnectedness of all information, how can the promise of "covering a topic" ever be fulfilled? To fit into the available time, a topic has to be truncated or cut off from its many connections. Or the preacher adds to the length of the sermon!
In my experiences with topical preaching, I find that some of these sermons lack truly intellectual rigor—that is, the actual exploration of a topic. Instead, preachers are tempted to offer only topical aphorisms—their own or those borrowed from others—that touch only the small surfaces of a subject.
Even with ample scriptural references, topical preaching can morph away from proclamation of God's word toward the presumed wisdom of the preacher. "Scripture as source and norm" may not work so well with this kind of preaching. A connected idea: Topical preaching can encourage cherry-picking Scriptures so they collect around a chosen idea. This could result in exegetical damage to some texts.
How does a topical preacher help listeners encounter God in his/her sermon? Where and how does that occur when the topic requires only intellectual unpacking? Where are the engrossing stories of God's actions, God's nature, God's invitations? When God's grace shows up as a topic, how can it dig deep into listeners' experience? How does a topical sermon engender a sense among listeners of being God's people together? Where are the emotional attachments that come from knowing God, from seeing Jesus' life and teachings up-close-and-personal? Do those ideals enter the deepest parts of our minds as mere topics?
For these reasons, I wonder whether topical preaching will be able to sustain the attention or interest of worshipers. Those who come to encounter God may not be satisfied with more information. Those hoping for inspiration, comfort or wisdom for their daily lives may instead leave worship with outlines, a surfeit of complicated ideas and an empty spot in their souls.
To my friends who have grown weary of topical preaching, this hopeful observation: As difficult the work to prepare a textual sermon is, it still stands strong as a means by which the Spirit cuts through conceptual haze into the deepest parts of brains.
And the deepest parts of souls ....
June 1, 2015
Simple enough: Unspoken and invisible
In the past few months, the good people of Florida and Wisconsin have been underwhelmed by bureaucratic decisions that eliminate any references to global warming or climate change in any governmental communications or presentations. This laughable development—Hello, Big Brother and the Word Police!—recently attracted the bemused eye of Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke, whose astute observations give me encouragement for the musings that follow.
So I'm thinking about the benefits of eliminating from these entries any untoward references to frenetic materialism, overstuffed lifestyles, harried schedules, unsustainable acquisitiveness, addiction to possessions or purpose-greed. I could become only positive in all my utterances. These blogs would provide wonderfully gooey doses of necessary saccharine thoughts. Absent mention of anything related to lifestyle difficulties, readers' brains would be flooded with dopamine and serotonin. My (nonexistent) "Letters Box" would be filled with compliments and gratitude for being so positive, helpful and appropriate.
When it became necessary to hint at not-so-positive warnings, I could easily invent euphemisms that would be gentler and easier on the eye (and conscience). For example, joyful accumulation, efficiency-packed calendars, deserved pleasure and dopamine-enhanced habituation would frame my thoughts. Surefire feel-good words like sunny, self-forgiveness and aw-shucks would take the place of my formerly surefire meanness.
The end result of all this? Just like the good people of Florida and Wisconsin, readers could go about their days in sublime joy, not beset by the possibility that their lifestyle bubbles could burst. Previously worried about the consequences of their actions, readers could now join climate deniers, science haters, freedom-lovers and patriotic consumers in lives of continuing bliss.
My special, positive thanks to the officials in these fine, fine states, who have by their example showed that the best way to make problems disappear is by never speaking of them!
May 29, 2015
Simple words: Reverie
(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also enables you to flabbergast your friends. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)
Sometimes it may seem that simple living requires especially heavy-duty brain work— mental activity that makes your head hurt. Today I want to reintroduce you to the possibility that reverie, a word (and activity), might bring you some pleasure in living simply.
The 14th-century originating Old French term for reverie denoted revelry, frolicking and wild delight. Raving, delirium and impetuous speaking were implied in the original definition. (Here imagine yourself at an early-Renaissance celebration in a small French town! Your thoughts would brim with barely contained joy, your body ready to dance, your spirit wanting to embrace others as dear friends and fellow citizens. However long it lasted, your reverie would be thoroughly enjoyable, infecting your outlook for days afterward.) By the 17th century, reverie found its way into formal English. Its emotional meanings had settled down to mere daydreaming, with the understanding that these periods of solitary thought were also positive, joyful and otherwise pleasurable.
As one who spends considerable time in quiet reverie, I think that both meanings of the term could be helpful descriptors of a life lived simply. It may be a good thing for those of us who seek simplicity to balance our earnest endeavors and dutiful tenacity regarding lifestyle principles with reverie. Whether sitting quietly with a glass of wine at the end of a day or engaging in rowdy and wild rejoicing about just being alive, you might be able to shift your soul-searchings toward gratitude. You might be better able to share with others how good you feel about life. You might fill your justifiable simplicity ravings with a delirium that was packed with joy instead of anger or fear.
And you could live your daily walk with God with the assurance of God's own loving reverie about you!