The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Bob Sitze's Blog

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.


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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.


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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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June 28, 2014

Simple enough: Thwarting robot-calls

The political season begins soon, a time when you'll receive boatloads of telephoned messages. To help you thwart this kind of political communication, I offer this tongue-in-cheek entry. Perhaps these ideas can help you simplify this aspect of your life:

1. When given an "If X, press number Y" choice, punch a single-digit number that's not an option. If scolded by the program, re-enter the number. This will confound the robot-call programmers, who might remove your phone number from circulation.

2. Never say yes to any question. These computer programs learn from your replies, so you may add to the number of unwanted phone calls by your positive response. Instead, give a noncommittal answer, such as "So far" or "I haven't thought about that."

3. Knowing that a "conversation" could be operated by sophisticated voice recognition software, you might insert off-the-subject sentences or nonsensical phrases into the dialogue. If the call originates from a computer program, your response may discombobulate the self-adjusting features of the algorithms and bring the whole system down. If an actual human is on the other end of the line, they will hang up quickly and put your name in the "Do not call again" column.

4. If you have Caller ID, don't answer the phone. When the callers hang up, call them back and ask a complicated question, such as "Can you tell me the candidate's position on campaign financing?" or "What constitutes effective politics?" You won't be called again.

5. Convey an unassailable emotion into the phone by crying or laughing continually until the caller ends his/her unpleasant experience.

Self-disclosure: I've made hundreds of political calls to people like you. That's why I hope we can find better ways of listening to and learning from each other in these matters.

Simple enough? 

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June 25, 2014

Simple enough: Quieting your inner yammerer

If you're like me, you may harbor an "Inner Yammerer" who emerges when someone asks you about some overarching matter of deep significance — like living simply. When this happens, I lapse into the kind of behavior that gives "yada yada" a bad name. I take on this persona because I care deeply about this penultimate matter (like living simply) but overlook the fact that I may leave my audience somewhere back at "Did you know that ...?" Not good when it comes to being persuasive.

So today I will put aside that quirky part of my inner Bob for a moment and offer these few thoughts about how to tame this particular communication beast. I hope these ideas will help you remain highly convincing in the matter of simplicity-seeking philosophy and practice.

I think the secret to stifling your Inner Yammerer is to value quiet. With that basic attitude in place, you can probably be more judicious with the number and nature of the words you use — fewer, and mostly questions. You can carve simplicity-seeking verbiage down to pithy maxims, incisive probings and distilled explanations. You can save your emotional expressions for those precious moments when your audience is best able to receive your most fervent feelings. You can set aside sermonizing and theologizing in favor of the give-and-take of respectful conversation. You can tune into the heartfelt thoughts of others, understanding their inner struggles and hopes.

I want to encourage you to keep under control the yammering part of you so you don't overstay your conversational welcome, don't get a reputation for bloviating, don't turn your listeners into your enemies and don't end up talking mostly to yourself or the wall.

In other words, if you can control your Inner Yammerer, you won't turn out like me.

Simple enough? 

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June 22, 2014

Simple enough: I agree

Today's honest moment: Most likely your privacy has already been compromised by the owners and users of big data. Eventually this complicates your life because you become the target of lifestyle temptations that appeal to circuitry in your brain that is already known by algorithmic genies living inside the bottles of a variety of enterprises.

How did this happen? Simple: You hit the "I agree" button on a website or new smartphone app without reading the fine print — googobs of techno-speak information written so that you won't read it! By your perhaps-mindless agreeableness, you allow a bevy of agreement-seeking enterprises a flurry of rights and assume a sizable set of responsibilities and/or risks. (By the way: You're not alone in your trusting congeniality — the majority of us computer users do the same thing.)

Among the rights you give away: Knowledge of the patterns you exhibit while using Devices X or Y, and all the personal characteristics that those behaviors reveal. Because you are now a known quantity, the data that summarizes you can be sold to other enterprises. You become part of a large system of commerce in which you are both consumer and product (part of a large body of evidence that can be sold to advertisers). The end result? Deprived of your privacy (remember, because of your agreeable compliance with unread covenants) you are continually assailed by unwavering companies and organizations that want your attention and purchasing power. Nothing simple there.

The "genie" metaphor fits well here, because once you've been amenable to relationships whose details you've never read, the automated processes of commerce react quickly — even if you delete apps or "unsubscribe" to repeatedly pesky Web messages.

If this all makes sense to you, please click on the following button: " I Agree."

Simple enough, or not? 

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June 19, 2014

Simple enough: Hot investment tips

Never wanting to be outdone in the area of "what's hot in society," Bob's Blogs staff have just assembled the following tongue-in-cheek investment tips by which you can become either fabulously wealthy or the laughingstock of your neighborhood.

The point of this entry? In order to make big money (we're talking about the kind earned by venture capitalists who fund snazzy start-ups and whizbang wind downs) think about investing in massage therapy providers, chiropractic clinics, orthopedic surgery practices or physical therapy conglomerates.

After extensive research lasting at least 30 seconds, we recommend these investments for a simple reason: Any of them will likely be the beneficiary of the slow collapse of spinal column health soon to be experienced by a large swath of contemporary culture — especially those who stay current with what's hot in society right now. Yes, we're talking about all the way-cool people who use their smart-devices for most of their waking hours, whose posture is unhealthy and therapy-inviting.

You ask why? Simple human biology: For every inch of forward inclination of the chin — as in spending most waking moments looking down at a smartphone or other digital toy — the skeletal system experiences a 10-pound increase of displaced pressure on the neck. Thus bent out of shape, the health-seeking neck searches for amelioration, per the investment-worthy enterprises noted above. (And it doesn't take too much hot-tips thinking to extend that condition to include the entire spine, shoulders, hips, knees and toes!)

Spend but a few moments in any public space and you'll realize that this malady will soon inflict its will on much of the semi-sentient population. And with this inevitable plague will come the need for shrewd investors who understand that "what's hot" may also be "what makes money."

Just think: You could be one of them! 

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June 16, 2014

Simplicity's children: Pets on board

Before you know it, vacation time will be here, and a difficult lifestyle decision will confront your sensibilities again. I am talking, of course, about the question of if/how to bring Fluffy, Bowser or Jimmy the snake along on the ride. Your children's lifelong well-being hangs in the balance until you pronounce your verdict. This is an important matter, so the staff here at Bob's Blogs offer our usual assortment of partially useful cautions:

  • Do you want to shell out big bucks to have pets inoculated, vet-certified, crated and sedated for an air flight that's going to render Fluffy/Bowser/Jimmy either crammed under the seat in front of you or smushed into the baggage hold?
  • If you travel by car, consider the possibility that your cute little pet will be bored within 10 minutes.
  • Is Fluffy/Bowser/Jimmy's bodily elimination system strong enough to eliminate the need for elimination for periods longer than every hour?
  • Think what your pet will gain from the trip, as compared to the valuable life lessons he/she/it will learn from staying at home under the care of a twice-daily pet-walker/feeder/animal psychotherapist.
  • Consider the cost of kennel boarding and the post-trip dollars you may spend visiting the vet to correct possible post-kennel stress syndrome.
  • If you stay at hotels, what's that going to cost? (Think about the per day fee for pets, along with frequent tips offered to hotel personnel who have to deal with Fluffy/Bowser's cute little accidents.)
  • If you camp along the way, are your pets ferocious enough to fend off the snacking or gathering habits of predators such as coyotes, cougars, large cousins of Jimmy the snake or miscreant tourists?
  • Ponder the reasons you agreed to get a pet in the first place.

Yes, what were you thinking when you decided to bring a pet on board? 

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June 13, 2014

Simple things: Wood

(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 our lifestyle that are wonderfully ordinary, but still precious.)

In these days of widespread environmental degradation, it makes sense to examine the blessings that come from wood, a resource that, although renewable over time, is still precious in many settings. Because I have lived in the forest and am the son of a wood broker, I have learned to rejoice in the presence and benefits of wood throughout my life.

Set aside for a moment the obvious utilitarian reasons why wood is a precious commodity. Instead, consider some other ways by which you might enjoy the presence of wood in your life. Think along with me here:

  • Wood's various smells — words fail me here — bring to mind desirable qualities of life such as freshness, latent possibilities, eager vitality and physical connections to the essences of nature.
  • In its raw forms — limbs, stumps, logs — wood conveys trustworthiness, sturdy assurance, protection and creativity.
  • Before or after it is milled into useful lumber, wood is heavy, bulky and difficult to move easily. Thus wood invites basic humility and the respect of its users — character traits useful for carpenters and also for you!
  • Because it was once a living thing, wood reminds you of the power of life that springs from the ground to enable wondrous items and wondrous processes.
  • In its minimally processed forms, wood retains unique characteristics — grain and blemishes — that make each piece a unique part of creation.
  • In that sense, every piece of wood is a testament to God's artistry, a sculpture formed slowly to God's creative specifications.
  • Even at the time of its fiery destruction — in a furnace, stove or fireplace — wood blesses you with warmth and comfort.

The next time you encounter a piece of wood, examine it carefully, appreciatively, gratefully. You hold in your hands a precious blessing made by God's own hands!

Simple enough? 

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June 10, 2014

Simple congregations: Deprogramming the program church

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

This trend may not yet have come home to roost, but there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that program congregations may not be as sustainable as originally intended. "Programs" require significant investments in facilities, staff and resources. Where those investments (attention, time, energy and money) come up short, the programs can falter or lose their effectiveness. (This can be especially true where congregation members have relinquished their responsibilities for initiating, managing or otherwise leading programs.) Congregational identity and well-being can diminish as a result.

Some congregations have recognized their need to "de-program" their sense of purpose or identity. They are seeking other models or frameworks for congregational life. These churches may be the vanguard of a new way of conceiving of "church," one that's manageable both in present circumstances and over time. If your congregation is at a point in history (staff changes, diminished resources, new opportunities) where you might want to re-examine the fit of the "program church" model to your circumstances, consider some of the thoughts that follow.

Count your (actual) assets
Using formal or informal tools or processes, ferret out all the useful gifts available for your congregation's present (or possible) sense of purpose. You can certainly assess funding sources, but it also makes sense to look carefully at the nature of the commitments that members display regarding present programs. Engage in deep conversation with others about their levels of energy or vision regarding the programs you lead. See how your collected assets match — or don't match — the actual costs (time, money, energy) required by present programs. On the other hand, consider how newly discovered assets might be pointing in new directions, aimed at new outcomes.

Develop a program-pruning philosophy
All enterprises have a fairly predictable lifespan. So it makes sense to develop your congregation's awareness that most programs will come to an eventual-and-blessed end. That process can be strategic and logical (e.g., cost/benefit analysis) or emotional and relational (e.g., "All of us are just tired"). But engage that process before possible program endings are dictated by negative circumstances. One correlating principle: As every new program comes into being, describe the conditions (e.g., a period of time or accomplished objectives) that would suggest its completion.

Shift staff responsibilities
Set as an eventual goal the gradual transfer of primary responsibility from staff to lay leaders. As part of that process, identify likely leaders and secure their commitments for a specific task or role, and for a specific period of time. Suggest that all leaders identify and mentor their eventual replacement(s). Repurpose staff members' responsibilities toward identifying, training, mentoring, evaluating and supporting lay leaders. Insist that the right of initiating new programs belongs primarily (or solely) to lay leaders.

Repurpose radically
It's possible that your congregation's vision and mission statements are outmoded, worn out, complicated, inapplicable or negotiated platitudes. In that case, you might radically reconstruct your congregation's life around a singularly focused outcome: "We're the people who help you live simply" or "This congregation equips you for your work in the world" or "Come here to find some peace and quiet" — and let go of the rest of the usual/traditional purposes and accompanying programs. This works well in places where most programs — and connected staff members — have already been trimmed by a lack of resources or energy.

Program through events
Smaller congregations can retool hard-to-maintain programs into sets of concrete events, each event planned and executed by a dedicated team of leaders and volunteers. Each occasion accomplishes a measurable objective within the congregation's overall sense of purpose, but does not require an ongoing cadre of workers. As they more closely align with — and make use of — existing assets among members, these events might attract even greater numbers of willing/capable volunteers.

However you consider these thoughts, remember that you can retool your identity as a program congregation without diminishing your positive sense of mission, your commitment to God's will in the world or your love and appreciation for each other. Even when deprogrammed, congregations still are filled with the Spirit's gifts and challenged by the opportunities those gifts embody.

You can count on it! 

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June 7, 2014

Simple enough: Durable people

By God's grace, it seems true that most of us are fairly durable people, even in the face of difficult circumstances. I write about this matter because you may harbor the opposite feeling, that the people you care for are easily overwhelmed by life's vagaries.

I understand how the simple idea of "caring for others" can become a burden that you strap on every morning and struggle to set aside before you sleep. Your prayer life may be weighed down by the convoluted problems others face. You may feel that others live just one step away from complete collapse. Those thoughts could eventually lead you to believe that you are probably among the primary solutions God offers to others' difficulties.

What I've discovered instead — among very old folks, experienced parents, professional caregivers and educators — leads me to the opposite conclusion: In spite of almost any circumstance, part of our God-given human condition is that we are tougher than what we might at first imagine. We get around or rebound from problems. We have heavy-duty emotional tools by which to find hope and joy. We don't think of ourselves as permanently sad, deprived, neglected or ill. We find robust and actionable hope that can punch through many layers of sorrow. Our faith in God is gritty and sturdy, and our courage in the face of adversity is nearly indestructible.

Not everyone always exhibits these characteristics, certainly. But exemplary people have taught me that most of us are not fragile vapors or tentative life forms. We can outlast even the worst circumstances. We know God's grace as something hardy and useful for every day.

So don't worry at the start or end of your days. The people you care about are durable.

Simple enough? 

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June 4, 2014

Simple enough: Spirit wind and fire

It's that time of year when Sunday worship emphases shift to the work of the Spirit. Let's spend a few moments today reflecting on how the Spirit's fiery and windy work might affect your attempts to live simply.

Full disclosure: My doctrinal searchings lead me to think of the Spirit's presence as more like a steady, behind-the-scenes worker than a hand-raising inspirer of euphoric exclamation. Someone quiet and sure, always working to move God's will from "good idea" to purposed action. For me, the Spirit's wind is more like a gentle breeze, and the Spirit's flame more like a pilot light.

Because of the Spirit, your simple living grows stronger because:

  • Wherever you go, however you feel, whatever you do, the Spirit's breezy charisma encourages and refreshes you, especially when the going/feeling/doing gets tough.
  • Creativity — a major work of God the Father — becomes possible because the  Spirit adds zest, warmth and unpredictability to your exploration of simplicity.
  • Because the Spirit "calls, gathers and enlightens" the whole church, you are always surrounded by Spirit-blessed people. You're never alone.
  • There's something compelling about wind and fire, something elemental that makes you glad to be alive on a summer day. These symbols of the Spirit also name strong, enduring possibilities and promises of coming change.
  • The Spirit always tells the truth. So can you.
  • The Spirit provides healthy servings of Scripture's inspiration each time you worship. Without that wisdom, you'd end up more like a hollow, self-serving simplicity-shell.
  • When you mix together the Spirit's gifts (humility, wisdom, knowledge, courage, etc.) you realize that they constitute the foundations for a manageable lifestyle that's pleasing to God.

During this Pentecost season, then, look for the small-but-strong influence of the Spirit on your simplicity.

And be grateful for the Spirit's fire and wind!


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June 1, 2014

Simplicity's children: A summer of appreciation

Summer will soon peek its sunny-and-warm face into your home, inviting your family into excitingly fresh thoughts and behaviors. I'd like to invite you to turn these several weeks into a time of appreciation — honing your children's skills in observing and affirming the positive characteristics of other people. A people-watching summer! Some possibilities:

  • Observe and talk with your children about other people's body language, the subtle-but-understandable signals that come from posture, gait, gestures and facial movements.
  • Over the summer visit or correspond with an older adult. Debrief the experiences with your children, noting what lessons they learned, what they noticed that was admirable, what good came from the verbal or written exchanges.
  • As relational problems come into your children's lives, do more than react to the simplest actions or most obvious emotions. Take time to help your children probe into motivations, mindsets, emotional needs, external circumstances, patterns of behavior, forgiveness and possible outcomes. Look together for what's admirable, valuable, real-but-not-easily-appreciated.
  • Read age-appropriate fiction with your children and talk about the characters together. Look for what's wise, important, hopeful, amazing or exemplary.
  • Be ready to talk about your own inner thoughts (again, age-appropriateness comes to mind) so your children also appreciate you for who you really are!

This kind of summer will add to your children's admiration and appreciation of others, necessary skills for people who rejoice in God's love for the whole world. Your children will increase in their ability to empathize with others, developing their social brains in positive ways that will last throughout their lives. You will help them see, understand and value what lies below first-look, shallow viewpoints of other people, and will increase their ability to live well in communities of all kinds.

And yes, you get to be the teacher and learner alongside them! 

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