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Bob Sitze's Blog

March 6, 2015

Simple words: Cognomen

(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also astound your true friends. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)

From your early days at Flavius Augustus High School (Go Flaves! Fight! Fight!) you will recall the deep value of having and holding an easily recognizable cognomen. Without that designation, you would have lived through your entire life not knowing who you really were. The Roman patricians (Go Patsies! Fight! Fight!) solved that problem by assigning everyone a family name—usually a third name or nickname—that would immediately identify the holder by her or his kinfolk. The additional name held families together—and made it a lot easier for early postal workers to deliver mail to the right person. (Think about it: How many Augie Augustuses could be living on the same street?)

And yes, I'm thinking about the possibility of our assigning cognomens to ourselves, as members of the simplicity seeking cohort that hides behind other, non-patrician names. (Don't get ahead of me here.) So we could cognomenize our normal names by adding in simple-family monikers such as: Simplicitii (Go Simplies, miminalize! Minimialize!); Calminums (Go Calmies, relax! Relax!); Wisdomae (Go Wiseys, think! Think!) or even Generositii (Go Gens, share! Share!).

I don't know about you, but this really works for me! Why? I've gone by "Joe Cool" for years and would dearly welcome an even more descriptive cognomen, one that joined me to you in our common identity—and quest—to pursue simplicity. We would know each other by our love, certainly, but also by our cognomenized names. And we would stand out, stand up and stand tall. We could form guilds of skilled practitioners and roving bands of garland-laden prophets. We could eventually develop secret hand signals, symbols to festoon our bicycles and backpacks, and ritual chants for those wonderful times we were all present in the same place. (Go Christians. Love! Live!)

Enough simple words? 

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March 3, 2015

Simple enough: Responsibly retired

It's easy to retire irresponsibly (for example: "It's my money, I earned it and I'll spend it how I want"). But a sturdy cohort within the retired-among-us sees this time in life as a golden opportunity to do good, to pay back, to ensure the future for others. To varying degrees, the responsibly retired are unfettered by the constraints that may have kept them locked into lifestyles that weren't always simple. But in these years? In these years the possibilities for being joyfully purposed can flutter around retired people like butterflies looking for delicious flowers.

You may be among those who have retired—at whatever age, for whatever reasons and in whatever circumstances—and have kept hold of a sense of your lifework. Now you get to pursue your passions for justice, your caregiving of loved ones, your sense of direction. Now you can speak out, stand up, and let loose with what's noble, righteous, even godly. Now you can pick a cause, an organization or a need and apply your capabilities (foremost among them your wisdom!) for the sake of God's will. Now you can pour yourself into your church or move past its embrace toward new horizons. Now you can ratchet down your lifestyle and ramp up your generosity. Now you can put final touches on a legacy that will extend your life past the time of your death.

To those of you already retired or about to retire: Consider this time in life as exciting, fulfilling and rewarding. Recall what it was, when you were younger, that you really hoped to accomplish with your life. Find other like-minded retirees who can join you in satisfying tasks, new vocations, surprising experiences—all part of being responsibly retired.

God keep you joyful! 

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February 28, 2015

Simple congregations: A simple annual meeting

(This entry is part of a continuing series that applies simplicity ideals to congregational life. These slightly longer entries can complement any program of congregational transformation.)

By law and by tradition your congregation probably holds an "annual meeting." This is the time where basic accountability about the health of the congregation's ministries takes place. For many congregational leaders, the dynamics of the annual meeting can also make it a source of stress or worry. I offer the following observations in an attempt to apply some simple living ideas to your annual meeting.

Establishing a tone
Most people aren't comfortable in most meetings. What can redeem this preexisting attitude is a positive, realistic and hopeful tone that leapfrogs over the sometimes-grim attitudes that can hitchhike into the annual meeting. That emotional atmosphere can be evident in the wording of reports, the quality of devotions, the physical setting, the number and variety of presenters, or the explicit declarations about the purpose(s) of this meeting.

Inviting interactivity
Think of interactivity as more than question-and-answer times or the occasion for individuals to interact with the meeting's convener/leader. People can also interact with information, their peers, their feelings and their God. These interactions can be spoken or written; they can be shared in small groups. Interacting with information can occur in the days and weeks before the meeting. FAQs can anticipate some of the interactivity. And not all the interactions need to be connected to decision-making.

Deepening relationships
An annual meeting can strengthen or deepen the appreciative feelings members have for each other, for congregational leaders or staff members. This is a time of accountability, certainly, but also an opportunity for heartfelt thanks. An annual meeting can offer the chance for people to catch up on each other's lives. Personal stories—testimonies by another name—can highlight parts of reports or be part of mealtime table-talk. The meeting can introduce new wisdom in new faces—youth, emerging leaders, older members.

Ordering decision-making
Whether or not members are familiar with "Robert's Rule's of Order," take a few moments to remind participants about the basic process by which motions are made, seconded, discussed, amended and voted upon. If discussion will be limited or focused, say so at the start of the meeting. Attach a timeline to agenda items so  participants get a sense of how long the meeting will last. You may want to confine the presentation of committee reports only to their written form. Arrange the meeting room so participants can see each other. Display information—written or projected—in simple and attractive formats. Refer to page or slide numbers during times of discussion or decision-making. Invite participants to be succinct in their questions and comments, and respectful of others' rights to express their thoughts.

Evoking imagination
One purpose for an annual meeting is to renew members' sense of coming possibilities. Imagination, creativity and hope can be strengthened in a meeting that invites participants to recall the past appreciatively, to consider the sometimes-invisible good that happens because of your congregation or to imagine a preferred future. Each report or decision can be tinged with imagination—inventiveness, vision, ingenuity, dreams, future-orientation, reality-based hope—that connect with motivating emotions. Imagination can be wild and roaming or grounded in practicality. One starting point: "What if ...?"

Establishing expertise
Your annual meeting offers members a window into the skill and commitment of congregational leaders, so there is no substitute for high-quality materials, attention to details and even rehearsal of the meeting's process. Financial accounting (including budget proposals) must be clear, approachable and accurate. Reports should be well-written, carefully proofread and complete. Proposals for decision-making should be precise and accompanied by supportive background materials. Leaders or presenters should be easily heard and seen. Perhaps most important are the skills of leaders and presenters as they engage others in respectful and assuring dialogue.

Adding enjoyment
Some congregations make their annual meeting into a time of shared celebration. You might add this quality to your meeting by giving awards, or by noting special milestones or achievements that occurred during the past year. The meal that accompanies the meeting might have an added flair—special menu, some brief entertainment. Some surprises might take place—special guests, a video-compilation of the past year, a take-home item for families. You can change the venue during the meeting—moving from a dining area to a circle of chairs. You might preface the meeting with a "meeting" on social media or encourage Tweets. The annual reports can be refashioned into an attractive format—photos, charts, bulleted lists, sidebars and pullout quotes. Elections—usually the adoption of a slate of willing volunteers who are running unopposed—can be a time to note the special qualities of each "nominated" individual.

However you conduct your annual meeting, you can make it more than a exercise of legal requirements. The spirit of your congregation can be strengthened by this meeting, and your capacities as God's people broadened and deepened by this time you spend together. Simply stated, you can make this meeting manageable, a part of the sustaining vision you share in getting God's work done in this part of God's world! 

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February 25, 2015

Simple things: Pencils

(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 our lifestyle that are wonderfully ordinary, yet startlingly rare in the rest of the world.)

In our times the simplest of writing instruments may be a ballpoint pen, but for hundreds of years that designation was applied to the humble pencil. In some places in the world today the pencil still retains high status because of its rare qualities and utilitarian capabilities. (Schoolchildren in some parts of the world treasure their pencils as remarkable tools of learning.) The form of its materials enable this instrument of communication to scrape wood-encased graphite (a refined lump of carbon) against paper, another form of wood. The marks of that scratching become words, images and ideas that last. Written communication can be shared across miles and time.

To form a pencil, cedar trees are harvested and shaped into rounded or octagonal tubes; rubber is cooked and fashioned into erasers; a bauxite mine in Jamaica provides the metal for the aluminum sleeve that holds the eraser in place. A pencil is born from the efforts of a complicated array of industries that produce millions of these writing instruments around the world.

The pencil is a thing of beauty. Its coloration attracts attention; its lingering smell of cedar and rubber evoke memories of first-writing experiences; its heft invites dexterity and imagination. One end of this word-sword fashions sentences that can be changed by the other end. "Mistakes" are not permanent. Charts and diagrams and drawings appear at the end of a pencil. Its sharpened point becomes an encouragement for the sharpened mind that holds the pencil. As it continues its faithful functions, the pencil slowly gives away its life until it's discarded as a stub. Except for the metal sleeve, all components of the pencil eventually decompose—a final benefit for small organisms and the earth itself.

A simple thing, the pencil, but exquisitely complex in its construction and use.

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February 22, 2015

Simple enough: Smartphone axioms

If it's true that you can learn about simple living almost everywhere you look, then it must also be true that one of those everywhere-places is the smartphone. In the spirit of sharing important life lessons with the Blogitude of True Believers, I will now pass on what I call "Smartphone Axioms." In no special order—and with no guarantee of smartitude—here are some simplicity-seeking learnings:

  • If you wait long enough, even your trash will disappear.
  • Everyone can always use more memory.
  • Whims are good because whims are natural because whims are necessary.
  • If you send "It," they will receive "It."
  • There is a need for every application.
  • There is an application for every need.
  • All-knowing Sirius voices are not reliable.
  • "Choice" means pushing the right buttons.
  • Silence is frightening; silence is the enemy of happiness.
  • Clouds are free.
  • Clouds are safe.
  • If you're not connected, eventually you will run out of energy.
  • If you're always connected, eventually you will run out of energy.
  • Loneliness is an easily dispelled illusion.
  • Never text/talk to strangers.
  • Looking down is downright dangerous.

As you can tell, I am somewhat richer for having the experience of carrying around this handy device and smarter for having learned from it. What I still can't quite figure out, though, is how to pay for all these life lessons. No, not the money costs. I'm talking about the other valuable qualities of life that I've set aside in order to make the smartphone my teacher: the other axioms that are waiting for my attention, the other teachers who are just waiting to be noticed, the other attention-worthy people and experiences that are eclipsed by the supposed wisdom of a supposed communication device.

Smart enough? Simple enough?

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February 19, 2015

Simple words: Mollycoddle

(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and impress your few remaining friends. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of modern parenting—or, come to think of it, any loving relationship—is our too-easy tendency to mollycoddle those whose behaviors actually need correction or rebuke. Among our friends and in our families, we excuse or enable profligate spending, wasted time or resources, shallow life-goals, purposeless pleasure-seeking or overwrought egos. That mollycoddling—spoiling others by our doting overindulgence—eventually coats the relationship with sugary relational fluff, invisibly weakening our abilities to be honest and helpful. Perhaps worse, mollycoddling others may be a secret way to invite that same kind of behavior to be applied reciprocally to our miscreant lifestyle adventures or mistaken attitudes.

By its derivation, mollycoddling (indulgent-woman babying) names women as the etymological culprits, but this tendency exists in all of us. (Watch Mr. Blogger Guy raise his hand as chief of sinners.) When it comes to sowing simplicity, how easily I can forgive the small addictions of friends or colleagues, how calmly I might overlook (or even affirm) the "rushrushrush" of those I otherwise admire, and how dearly I hope I can be forgiven or spoiled by those who love me—even when I behave like a champion narcissist. And when mollycoddling becomes ingrained in a group (of truly nice people), the organization can eventually collapse or lose its effectiveness in a saccharine-poisoned atmosphere of imagined kindness. (Or "Christian love?")

The antidote to mollycoddling? Elemental honesty, truth spoken in love. Hard questions and insistence on good answers. Accountability in all relationships. Allowing consequences to wash over formerly mollycoddled ones. Sweeping the hard stuff back out from under life's rugs. A starting place: Our relationships with spouses and children—the likely place where mollycoddling begins and grows into unacceptable behaviors that can ooze into workplaces, friendships, blogs and even our churches!

Enough simple words? 

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February 16, 2015

Simple enough: Purposed cultural ignorance

Chicago Tribune columnist Josh Noel recently got my attention with a piece titled "With overload, greater cultural ignorance useful" (Jan. 2, 2015). His thesis is not all that complicated: There is a profound benefit to being clueless about some facets of contemporary culture. (Noel centers his provocative column on the example of his not knowing anything about People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" for 2014.)

Noel's point: When you sidestep the onslaught of contemporary culture—no, let's call it an avalanche of only partially useful information—you remain unique. And that's good for you individually, as well as the culture itself. Selective consumption (paying attention to what you choose as valuable or useful) helps you retain some vestige of individuality. The differences among us—at least those of us not willing to spend too much time in a cultural blender—are what makes conversation interesting. Individuality pulls at the edges of relationships, helping them grow. Creativity prospers when selectively acculturated people rub at each other's knowledge and skill sets. You learn from people who are different from yourself.

Noel is not a crabby curdmudgeon or a Luddite. He admits that some of his thoughts come from getting older—I'd say he's wiser too. But if cultural similitude is a function of eternally bland youthfulness, perhaps civilization prospers when we're not all the same age too.

His well-written insights were a welcome year-opening encouragement for me to continue this simplicity-seeking enterprise. What might be criticized as self-centered individualism might instead be strong evidence that the human spirit can't be bottled or packaged into predictable personalities. That those of us who choose to swim against cultural currents are perhaps also its redeeming influence.

So keep at your simple living, even if you have to risk being named "culturally ignorant." Maybe that's a compliment .... 

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February 13, 2015

Simple enough: An invitation to covet

Last fall I found an exciting new opportunity to develop covetousness among the truly righteous—you'll recall that I live in a very righteous town, right? I'd like to share this wonderful idea for your benefit. Its name? "The Holiday Housewalk." Its ostensible purpose: to raise funds for whatever. Its actual outcome: increasing covetous attitudes and behaviors among the truly righteous.

Here's how this works: You get together all the folks in town with really nice homes. You convince them that they can raise significant cash for a good cause by charging other people a modest fee to traipse through significant portions of their tastefully well-furnished homes. The visitors will naturally admire the delights of high-quality interior decorating and will also get fabulous new ideas about how to bring their  homes to the levels of acquisitive beauty that we all deserve—the blessings we receive on account of our truly righteous lives.

Oh, and covetousness. Yes, hosts and visitors will get really skilled at coveting. "Oohs" and "Aahs" will be the metrics by which to measure how thoroughly participants have discarded mindful notions of sufficiency or satisfaction. Adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin will flow through brains warmed by the possibility that they, too, can possess drapes that reflect the dappled morning sunlight into their sunrooms furnished in this year's newest color schemes. For a small sacrifice (to unnamed gods) participants can relish each other's admiring comments and secret jealousies—the twinned results of full-bore covetousness!

And before you get all holy and commandment-y on me, remember that it's covetousness that drives our economy and provides for us the "American Way of Life" that we so richly deserve. (Well actually, that's true only for those of us who are truly righteous.)

The rest of you will just have to live simply. 

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February 10, 2015

Simple enough: Burnout

In the January/February 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind, Professors of psychology Michael P. Leiter (Acadia University in Nova Scotia) and Christina Maslach (University of California at Berkeley) offer some hope about the vexing problem of burnout in the workplace. They not only describe the cycle of burnout, but also propose some practical ways to ameliorate this all-too-familiar characteristic of work life. I summarize their research findings here.

They extrapolate three main components of workplace burnout: exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. Each element of burnout feeds off the others, thus creating a cycle that's difficult to interrupt or diminish. Exhaustion comes most often from working too many hours/days without sufficient rest/sleep. The accompanying cynicism insinuates itself into the workplace because of perceived unfairness. (Favoritism, inept bosses, increasing workloads, lack of rewards or recognition—all create cynicism.) Eventually workers feel ineffective, powerless and immersed in futility.

Simply enough, the solutions center around improving what the researchers term "workplace civility"—eliminating or diminishing disrespectful patterns such as backstabbing, gossiping, hiding information or using competition as presumed motivation. Pleasing social interactions with co-workers lower the threshold for burnout. Wise, worker-centered management patterns and practices can help employees take charge of their workplace environment. Employees who think of themselves essentially as independent contractors are more likely to sidestep the destructive cycle of burnout—"destructive" because stress-related reactivity results, none of it good for bodies or minds. Two important factors for which employees can take responsibility: physical fitness and social interaction. The authors also suggest "job-crafting"—adjusting the ways employees assume the duties of their jobs with their mental and physical health in mind.

The article suggested to me again that most of us already possess the wisdom to apply simple—and well-known—solutions to difficult situations we face in life, including workplace burnout.

Simple enough? 

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February 7, 2015

Simple enough: Text neck

Awhile back (Nov. 27, 2014) I read in an actual newspaper (Chicago Tribune) an article ("'Text Neck' may wreak early havoc on your spine") written by an actual journalist (Lindsey Bever of The Washington Post) about a new discomfort that is plaguing society: people looking down while constantly using their smart devices. It's called "text neck" (or "tech neck") and it could actually kill you.

Your head weighs about 12 pounds. When inclined slightly forward—let's say when you're texting your BFF about what you're wearing today—the forward pull of your head puts extra weight on your cervical spine. At 15 degrees forward, the effectual weight is about 27 pounds, at 30 degrees it's 40 pounds and at 45 degrees it's 49 pounds. The long- or sometimes short-term effect? Degeneration of your spine and the tendency to walk with your head down.

As any gerontologist, occupational therapist or back surgeon will tell you, what comes next isn't pretty: As your muscles habituate to a forward-inclined posture, looking down also becomes a habit and results in shorter strides. Shorter strides correlate with an increased risk of falling. And falling is one of the major causes of death among the elderly! (Texting-while-walking also creates havoc when you stroll into walls, buildings and journalists!)

On average, smartphone users spend about two to four hours per day on their devices. If they are today's teens, these "huncheratii" could, over their lifetimes, devote more than 5,000 hours per year to spine-torture, preparing for early onset of the senior shuffle. Some solutions? Look down with your eyes, not your head; exercise your head, up-and-down, side-to-side and maybe cut back on texting?

Me? I'll be investing in rehab hospitals, spine surgery clinics and assisted living facilities for the not-so-old.

It seems the right thing to do. 

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February 4, 2015

Simple words: Shindig

(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and impress the few remaining friends who still want to be seen with you. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)

Sometimes "simple living" gets the reputation for being about dull, dutiful or dreary things. (Simplicity-seekers eat nuts and twigs, walk everywhere barefoot, have sullen/sunken visages and get excited only when they can point their long, bony fingers at lifestyle malefactors.) But hey, enough about me ....

Today's "Simple word" takes care of that matter quickly: I want to invite you to host a shindig! Probably sourced in a Gaelic expression that corresponds roughly to leaping around, skipping or gamboling about, shindig came to mean a boisterous social gathering, probably featuring dancing, drinking and shouting.

Here's what I'm thinking: How would you feel about planning a simplicity shindig? Characterized less by dour activities (standing around and watching each other give electricity-free haircuts), your shindig would include dancing, loud conversation, laughter, back-slapping, hugging and kissing. The libations would include (reasonable) amounts of strong drink, with healthier options for those not so inclined. The food would be plentiful, exciting and simply delicious. The people you invited would be the usual cast of simplicity characters (prophets, introverts, wiseacres) but would also include local eccentrics, lonely pastors, writers, artists, social studies teachers, budding poets and gentlewoman farmers.

The party would be raucous and celebratory (the coming of spring, the greening of a home, the birth of a congregational initiative, the retiring of a partygoer's personal debt), and you would let loose with all the bound-up joy you've been waiting to unleash into the wind, the ground or the cosmos.

What would come of all this shindiginess? Hard to tell, but my guess is that you'd get to know each other better, make new friends, set a new tone (for your family, neighborhood or church) and have something more to talk about for weeks. Sounds good from where I sit, glumly writing blogs ...!

Enough simple words? 

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February 1, 2015

Simple enough: Sports chaos

Make no mistake, I'm a true believer in the value of sports for "Future Generations of Largely-Inactive Children." And I certainly have learned teamwork, self-determination and wet-towel flicking terrorism from my days as a sports-kid. But there comes a place and time to ask some harder questions about the collapse of sports in our society, and it might as well be here and now.

I'm talking specifically about the currently chaotic state of organized sports: lawsuits over pervasive head injuries, revolving-door coaching changes, academic cheating to ensure eligibility, skyrocketing salaries and profits, franchise monopolies, taxpayers on the hook for colossal municipal sports palaces, and malfeasances of many kinds in locker rooms, bedrooms and boardrooms. From where I sit—not in the stands or in front of a television—it looks like the whole enterprise of sports, from high school through professional levels, is whirling out of control.

Can the sports world keep wobbling on its axis for much longer? Or is the sports nation that we call the U.S. heading toward wholesale unmanageability? It seems like a cultural black hole is somewhere drawing civilization into its unforgiving maw, and the devolvement of organized sports might be the canary in this mixed metaphor!

If my observations are correct, perhaps the present conditions of sports are themselves the effect of some larger collapse or great unraveling. Perhaps the "pleasure principle" is coming to its logical end, or what we're seeing is the inevitable breakdown of an enterprise that just got too big.

I'm not a sports prognosticator—"Cubs Win World Series"—so I won't presume when or where the sports enterprise will eat its own tail, lose all its wheels or come to a sad end.

I just ask the hard questions. 

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January 29, 2015

Simple enough: Cheap accountability

If there's cheap grace, there must also be low-cost accountability. For your use in life-hacking integrity, I will show you how this works.

To keep your accountability costs low, use this phrase whenever you get into deep doo-doo: "I/We here at (name of malodorous enterprise or person) take very seriously the matter of (description of regrettable, mistaken or stupid action) and (weak pledge to do something.) For example: "We here at Lost Trees Puppy Farm take very seriously the matter of letting our puppies play on the freeway, and we promise to begin their retraining program within the next fortnight." Voila! "Take very seriously" proves your accountability and you have also absolved yourself by the penance of corrective action!

These helpful examples might apply to simple living:

  • We here at St. Judas Church take very seriously the matter of wasting your time with endless before-service announcements, and hereby pledge to put all future notices into our new 15-page worship bulletin addendum.
  • I want you to know that our family takes clueless living very seriously, and so we pledge to find a few lifestyle objectives in that book we read last year and post them on our refrigerator.
  • I want you to know that I take very seriously the fact that I haven't balanced the checkbook in months, and promise a complete audit of our finances when I find it.
  • I assure you that we here at WigginsWorks LLC take overworked employees very seriously. I pledge my complete cooperation with the local coroner in the event of any unfortunate incidents.

I take very seriously that you may not see this matter as very serious, so I give you my assurance that I will stop writing about cheap accountability as soon as I finish this penitent sentence.

Simple enough? 

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January 26, 2015

Simple enough: Digital hoarding

A new problem (or curse) has emerged in TechnoLand, one that demands your attention. It's called "digital hoarding," and it could create big trouble in your digitized life. Stick with me here so you can understand a looming pox on your house.

Here's how this works: Let's say you engage in several forms of digital interconnectivity. They include the apps on your smartphone, your email boxes, your social media accounts, your stored digital history on all the websites where you do business or browse. The problem is twofold: In each of these places the information is piling up, and you're responsible for keeping it down to a manageable size.

What you do instead (this stuff is virtually invisible, right?) is to ignore the digital material that crowds your hard drive, an anonymous server farm in Idaho or a cloud that's getting heavier and darker every day. Instead of managing your accounts (whoever thought of that idea, hmm?) you let the digitized stuff just build up, higher and higher. You and most of the rest of us!

Sooner or later, this kind of hoarding will be as overwhelming and destructive as the garden varieties that involve old newspapers, old clothing, old food or old pets. At some point, one of your hard drives will reach its capacity, no matter how many terabytes you offload. Sooner or later "The Cloud" will demand more electricity than an entire metropolis. Passwords will stumble over each other (see Strong's Law of Small Numbers), and "unique" user names and social media handles will do the same. Unfortunately, the only feasible solution to this problem is also the worst: Build more storage capacity, faster processors, more intuitive programs and apps. Yes, bigger barns.

Didn't Jesus once have something to say about that? 

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January 23, 2015

Simple enough: Brain-numbing substances

In my volunteer work at an assisted living facility—and from my experience with aging parents—I have noticed the side effects of a drug cocktail that claims to arrest the slow deterioration of dementia. People who enter this regime are helped, certainly, but the side effects (let's just call them "brain-numbness") are really sad to see. People who used to converse with me now have trouble putting words together, folks who used to walk well are now afraid to fall, and the quickness of thought that used to characterize them is gone. "Hollow" comes to mind.

I write this prologue not to criticize the medical benefits of these drugs, but to shift my musings over to the other places in life where any of our brains are numbed by something we ingest or experience regularly. I may be wrong, but I'm certain that some parts of our lifestyles may anesthetize or deaden our brains. We become unresponsive to important inputs, we speak haltingly about our deepest feelings. We are hollowed out by the relentless intake of the "drugs" of modern life.

Examples? I'm not sure, but they may include television, stress, imminent burnout, toxic relationships, even some parts of our faith life. Where we hope for lively, radiant days, we get dull, listless or apathetic instead—numbed to what's good as well as to what's painful.

At a metaphorical level, the solution to the numbing would be to stop ingesting "the drug," whatever it is. Cold turkey. Risk the possible effects of eliminating the supposed benefits. Deal with the pain of reality so we can relish daily joys. Maybe the first step is just to admit that we're living numb lives, and that this is not good for anyone or anything.

No, this isn't simple. Sorry. 

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January 20, 2015

Simple words: Kitsch

(This entry begins a new occasional series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and impress your friends. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)

One of the more perplexing vestiges of hunter-gatherer genes is the continuing tendency of too many to collect stuff that is "cute" (and also entirely function-free) in our homes, workplaces and under the backseat of our spiffy autos. A word that describes this accurately is the Yiddish-derived expression kitsch. In that venerable vernacular, kitsch is like trash, gewgaw finery or gaudy visual vulgarity.

Let's return to "cute" as a way of allowing and excusing our devotion to these "objects of almost art." It occurs to me that we gather kitschy things as a simple and small way of surrounding ourselves with little pieces of imagined beauty or pleasure. So a nice piece of bric-a-brac on a subtly lighted glass shelf offers just a bit of comfort because "it's nice to have that little porcelain cat looking at me when I finish shaving in the morning." As a shorthand for actual beauty, kitsch can be both inexpensive and outrageously priced. It invites short gazes or touches, not lingering observation or consideration. And when kitsch-thinking takes over enough neuronal circuitry, its objects take over space, time and money. As in, "Look at these four walls that hold my collection of paintings of big-eyed children looking soulful." (Trophy pets and children may also fit in here.)

And when kitsch shows up in print (this entry?) or in our ways of thinking "cute" triumphs over substance, it gives us a quick jolt of pleasure and then moves on to tempt someone else into believing that (empty) style can always trump substance.

A simple ameliorative for kitschy stuff and thinking? Spend your time immersed in and surrounded by what's truly beautiful, what's truly valuable, what's truly worth examining carefully and lovingly. (For example, durable parchment versions of dozens of these blogs, suitably framed in gold leaf.)

Enough simple words? 

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January 17, 2015

Simple enough: Simple things to say now

Among truly wise people—whose insights I can't cite now because I lost their truly wise quotes somewhere—it is said that, at the time of your death, you will probably want to convey just a few important thoughts or feelings. (The examples I recall: "I love you" and "I forgive you.") These truly wise people also suggest strongly that you ought not to wait until your deathbed to express these sentiments or truths.

This got me thinking about what I might want to say about simple living to people I love—way earlier than at my death. Some possibilities occur to my partially wise mind:

  • I love you for being wiser than me.
  • Thanks for understanding how "simplicity" is my life mission.
  • I hope you get over your worries about money.
  • Your good friends and I want you to slow down.
  • You are such a gift to the people you help.
  • Please stop piling up stuff and responsibilities.
  • I wish you could see how richly you're blessed.
  • No one will ever take away from you what God has given you.
  • Your thriftiness all these years has made our family truly rich.
  • Forgive me for talking more than I listened to you.
  • You've made my life fun.
  • Without your insistence, I'd have turned out fat and lazy.
  • I'm so satisfied with our ... (life together/friendship/working together).
  • Could you stop standing on my oxygen tube?

You get the picture, right? Now think about your loved ones and what words you might use to express your most fervent thoughts. Promise yourself to get those ideas into their ears soon, so the words can do something better than rattle around inside your head. And be ready to listen as these beloved family members, friends or colleagues return their words to you!

Simple enough? 

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January 14, 2015

Simple congregations: Respite centers

(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)

Every day, probably out of the range of your attention, hundreds of people in your community engage in daily schedules completely devoted to the care of a loved one. Just like Jesus, they give freely of themselves—usually at great personal cost—so someone who is disabled, frail, vulnerable or even dangerous to others can find love, safety and purpose. Because their work often continues throughout every hour of every day, caregivers can burn out over time, putting their well-being at risk or losing some of their capabilities to offer high-quality care to their loved ones.

This is where your congregation can step in. You can become a "respite center" for these admirable folks, offering them rest and simple times for recuperation or regeneration. Some possibilities follow.

Substitute caregivers
Using the talents and experiences of congregation members who have retired from caring or helping professions, you could provide substitute caregivers. Similar to substitute teachers, teams of these individuals could spend a day in care-receivers' homes so caregivers could have time to themselves.

Service providers
Full-day caregiving for profoundly needy individuals can require every moment of time and every ounce of energy. Consider how congregational volunteers could provide simple services such as housecleaning, laundering, food preparation, yard maintenance, small repairs or income tax preparation.

Special experiences
The daily routines of in-home caregiving can devolve into routines that might not offer surprise, delight or joy. Your congregation could invent and offer opportunities for pleasurable outings, unusual experiences or changes in daily habits. (Think field trips, festive meals, thank-you events, shopping trips, entertainment or cooperative projects.) Both caregivers and care-receivers could find these experiences beneficial and joyful.

Group support
However they are constituted, support groups can provide an opportunity to do more than encourage steadfastness or share troubles. Regular conversations can expand the vision of caregivers, offer creative approaches to care or a review of recent research. Participants can serve as recipients as well as teachers and leaders.

Formal respite ministry
With some effort, your congregation can marshal its resources to set up a ministry that formalizes care for some cohorts of care-receivers. You could establish a drop-in center for people dealing with dementia. You might offer a regular evening counseling service for caregivers. Your congregation could serve as a free-loan site for special equipment or supplies. You could organize area-wide events—training, celebration, evaluation—for caregivers. In any of these cases, you might want to consider cooperation with other congregations, perhaps setting up a separate nonprofit to enable funding and increased capabilities.

As you ponder the possibilities of being a respite center, remember that your congregation is likely rich with assets that could enable this ministry to others. Knowing the value of sabbath rest—time away to restore energy and utility for service—your congregation can care for caregivers.

Just like Jesus! 

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January 11, 2015

Simple enough: Get off my back

(This note is intended only for my digitized electronic nannies, who I know are monitoring my communications and lifestyle, and who will pay close to attention to what I write here.)

Let me be direct: Get off my back—"get out of my face" is more like it—and stop telling me what I should/could be doing at any moment. You're just a collection of non-sentient algorithms, I know. But just in case you've achieved "The Great Emergence" and haven't told your nanny-handlers yet, a little secret: I don't like you to tell me how to live my life.

InkedIn, I don't need to congratulate everyone I know on their birthdays or their work anniversaries. Credit card mavens, you already get my payments automatically, so why remind me that you're going to debit my account? Same with you other automatic bill-payer munchkins. And Everymachine, who actually wants me to update my account information "for my benefit"? I feel your pain, but it's my pain too.

What's the big deal? You're robbing me of my ability to remember or choose how to spend my precious time. You already distract me with sales pitches and clever neuromarketing tricks, I know. But this "remind me" thing is robbing me of brain power. You're notifying me into dodderhood before I'm ready. So could you just cut out all the notices, OK?

Well, except for my foot fungus repair appointments. And the chance to "Save big now" by buying early for Christmas. Oh, and that thing where you want to remind me that the ink in my printer is turning over in its grave. That's OK, I guess. But the rest of the ....

Say, could you remind me again what I was so huffy about just now ...? 

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January 8, 2015

Simple enough: Playing with the big kids

When I was about a fifth-grader, we played softball at recess. From time to time, the seventh- and eighth-graders—the big kids—would ask some of us to be part of their team. It was an honor because they saw in us the capacity to play at their skill level, and a responsibility because we had to step up to their expectations.

Since you've been reading these blogs for awhile, I want to invite you to "play with the big kids" in this simplicity thing. It's time. (And let's get this straight: I'm not one of the big kids when it comes to living simply, so I'm inviting you on their behalf!) Here's how that might work:

  1. Ramp up your reading levels regarding simple living. My recommendations include Anne Basye's Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal (ELCA, 2007) and Duane Elgin's Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (Quill, 1998).
  2. Join some organizations, social media or blog communities that might take your simple living to a more challenging intensity. Two come to mind immediately: www.simplelivingworks.org and www.newdream.org. Your discerning Internet-surfing can yield others.
  3. Start your own blog or social media site, and see how quickly "the big kids" find you!

Why not here? If you've been reading these blogs, you know that these 300-word sharings don't allow for much depth or breadth. You also know that I invite you to explore only the edges and niches of simple living. The heavy lifting—your further knowledge and behaviors—begins beyond my words. You've been reading these blogs and know down deep that you're among the few who can take this subject deeper into your soul, your daily living, your relationships and your identity.

From the big kids, then: Would you like to play hardball with us? 

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