The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Bob Sitze's Blog

April 21, 2015

Simple enough: Disenumerate now, Part B

Yesterday I ranted about society's puzzling affection for enumeration: our dependence on number-crunching for decision-making. Today I want to temper my fulminations with thoughts about how to mediate this Babel-like tendency. I use the nonexistent word disenumerate to collect those ideas in one place.

The most necessary task: name the limits of data's usefulness. For example, researchers have now determined that scores on college-admission exams have no relationship to life success or satisfaction. (Yes, these researchers use numbers to secure their conclusions. Point taken?)

Another question: What happens to organizations or individuals when data-based conclusions push aside trust or wisdom as dependable currencies of truth? What then?

A third matter: Risk-seeking is the foundation for any entrepreneurial venture. Pilgrims venture into uncharted territory; new products emerge from doodles on napkins; risk-takers move more nimbly and quickly than cumbersome, time-consuming data-gathering processes; and "failure" is frequently the source for the learning that predicts later success. It's hard to see how data-crunching strengthens these necessary qualities.

A first step: If you live in an atmosphere ruled by unhelpful data-gathering, challenge the assumptions that guide those practices: What's the (real) cost for shifting into numbers-based management styles? How trustworthy are the data-gathering techniques. How broad is the scope of if/then decision points in the algorithms that govern a decision? What bridges (relationships, vision, efficiency) will be burned by this approach? You may need to be insistent in your questioning, but it needs to occur.

Finally: Hold dearly to the places—surprises, wisdom, emotions—where data can't discolor your life with "proof." Cherish the times when you really don't know what is true, nor what will happen next. Live or work in anticipation of satisfaction and delight. And remember: Others count on you because you are trustworthy, creative, mindful, prescient and wise.

Simple enough? 

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April 20, 2015

Simiple enough: Disenumerate now, Part A

"How do I love thee?" asks poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But then she answers her question with statistical proof: "Let me count the ways!" With that simple turn of phrase, Browning legitimates the quantifying of emotion—and perhaps our current enumerating of almost everything else.

We live in a world in which numerical data is presumably superior knowledge, especially when the data coalesce into algorithms that assess present-tense truth ("I love thy purchasing patterns") and future-tense predictability ("I love the odds that thy long-term goals will fit with my company's interests.") Increasingly numbers are the proof of any pudding—and the tasting of that confection is an afterthought already foreseen by the metrics of past encounters with similar substances. Numbers, when precisely gathered and patterned, are presumed to be über-reliable, even when they cluster around uncountable phenomena.

I am one among the growing number (!) of people who are beginning to question the ultimate value of our society's rush toward counting—and then carefully analyzing what we count. I'm certain that the testing mania that stalks the halls of schools does not advance what's important about learning. I am aghast that algorithm-inventing machines, not people, drive the financial markets. I worry when churches forsake intuitive wisdom in favor of "proven metrics of church-growth strategies." And I am incredulous that otherwise-rational leaders are succumbing to the notion that, because "numbers don't lie," number-priests are smarter than the leaders themselves.

Our society's devotion to counting seems to be an unstoppable force that can trample over other forms of thought, other ways to plan, other ways to name what's desirable, encouraging or trustworthy. I wonder when there will be a time, perhaps soon, when the house-of-counted-cards will crumble under the weight of unforeseen or uncountable reality.

Stay tuned ....

(Tomorrow: Curbing the counting) 

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April 17, 2015

Simple words: Haywire

(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also make friends among dictionary-lovers. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)

Direct from the gold mine of etymology (I'm talking about farm life!) comes today's simple word: haywire. In its literal sense, haywire is/was the thick wire used to bale hay. In some parts of this great nation, haywire was one of the most common substances found on any farm. Its ubiquitous presence and utility were legendary. You could repair most anything with a strand or two of haywire, in that instance now termed "baling wire."

Sadly, though, when things went wrong with a baling machine, the wire could get snarled or twisted into unpredictable shapes—some of them dangerous when the ends of the wire poked out at you. In this case, "haywire" now designated that something was horribly wrong, perhaps intractably so. The dependable fix-all substance now became a nearly insolvable problem.

When you think about living simply, what's abundant and ever-present can also be a knotty problem, obstinate in its mulish refusal to be corrected. So, for example, a convenient credit card can build up a mountain of debt, your family car can create a tangle of repair bills or easily available fast food can cause super-sized medical problems. In each case, what was dependably useful might turn into a major disruption of simple living.

Luckily, solutions abound. You guessed it: baling wire! The cause of a mess can become part of its solution. Your bad credit can be converted into an impetus for better budgeting. The junker car can convince you to downsize your transportation needs. And your medical problems can morph into a wake-up call about your eating habits. Using the practical wisdom of farming life, you can fix anything with some (metaphorical) haywire and a little spit.

Yes, haywire that goes haywire can be redeemed by baling wire.

Enough simple words? 

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April 14, 2015

Simple enough: Pay no attention to me

Imagine yourself as the participant in a never-ending cocktail party during which everyone is trying to impress everyone else. People are listentening, but only so they can respond to others in a way that makes them appear elegant, urbane, intelligent or witty. Most of the time the partygoers are looking to get a word in edgewise so their viewpoint or knowledge are heard. When they aren't being listened to, participants use handheld devices to broadcast their opinions past the walls of the gathering. A dismal existence.

In some ways, that description fits much of what transpires in day-to-day interactions that you and I might have at work, at home, among friends or at church: too few people paying too little attention to too much information. This is a world in which everyone craves or seeks attention any way they can get it. All of us talking at once, but few of us listening well. Blogs like mine fit that description, as does much of social media. Bloviators blow their endless opinions out into the mindless ether 24/7. The sophistication of word processing programs makes everyone a writer, and information floods through perpetually unreceptive minds. Given our need to savor the attention we gather—and think we truly deserve—it's probably true that few of us have the time or inclination to attend to anyone else. A dismal existence.

That's why I'm announcing here that you do not have to pay attention to these words. I hereby release you from any real or imagined duty you may feel in that regard. I have no expectation that you will share any of what you read here, nor do I hope for your agreement or adulation. I'd prefer to pay attention to you! An enjoyable existence ....

Simple enough? 

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April 11, 2015

Simplicity's children: Basic life skills checklist

Someday your children may have to depend on some basic lifestyle skills. I hope the following checklist helps you in your parenting. Depending on the ages and physical abilities of your offspring, this simple checklist might be a way for you to gauge your children's ability to prosper later in life, without the benefit of adult supervision.

Basic lifeskills checklist
One or more of my children can:

  •  Start and maintain a cooking fire.
  •  Take their own temperature.
  •  Use knives safely.
  •  Tie a variety of secure knots.
  •  Find their way home in the dark.
  •  Summon emergency help.
  •  Carry on a meaningful conversation with an adult.
  •  Apply a bandage or simple dressing to a wound.
  •  Clean or wash clothing.
  •  Pray.
  •  Read and follow directions (on packages, devices, etc.).
  •  Use hand-operated kitchen utensils and tools for their intended purposes.
  •  Read and follow a simple recipe.
  •  Distinguish healthy food from among competing choices.
  •  Engage in regular physical exercise.
  •  Maintain rudimentary personal hygiene.
  •  Keep our home clean. (e.g., trash disposal, sweeping).
  •  Make purchases with cash, accounting for correct change.
  •  Use gardening and yard tools efficiently.
  •  Use hand tools (e.g., saws, hammers, wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers).
  •  Ask for and follow directions to a destination.
  •  Write, address and mail a letter or package. 
  •  Employ basic self-defense techniques effectively.
  •  Pack a backpack or suitcase for a longer stay elsewhere.
  •  Dress appropriately for existing or impending weather conditions.
  •  Explain their present physical or emotional state to an adult.
  •  ________________________________________.
  •  ________________________________________.
  •  ________________________________________.

Add to this list those items that you consider to be basic to self-sufficiency. Begin teaching your children these skills alongside your children. Enjoy the shared learning! 

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April 8, 2015

Simple enough: Lives of quiet desperation

I'm a people-watcher. What I notice is frequently encouraging and instructive. Sometimes, though, what I witness saddens me. This entry comes from that attitude.

It doesn't take but a few moments to see that many of the people I encounter live in quiet desperation. They are at the end of their ropes, close to the bottom of a steep dive, trapped in box canyons, maybe even sick and tired of being sick and tired. For some of these folks, a difficult lifestyle is the result of bad choices they've made. Others are living with circumstances not of their own making. In all cases, it may be hard for these people—all of them beloved of God—to find anything but broken pieces of what constitutes "the good life."

What's perhaps most sobering about these folks is that they shoulder difficulties—sometimes beyond description—in quiet obscurity. Few around them know about their physical ailments, their financial burdens, their deep sorrows, their resolve to better themselves or their loneliness. In a world of glitzy fun, these quietly desperate people disappear into a sea of inattention—their small boats of despair nearly lost in a vast expanse of disregard.

Still, God can and does offer rescue—sometimes temporary and at other times the sure first step out of desolation. Small resurrections of spirit or circumstance that shine hope on life. Kindnesses that come unexpectedly, grace-filled moments of nonjudgmental listening or tangible help that reignites quiet joy—acknowledgements that even difficult lives are still worth living.

As you encounter people who live in quiet desperation today, take a moment to put them inside your prayers and thoughts. And if you can be part of God's rescue—even in a small way—consider those tasks as part of your lifework.

It's a quiet Easter thing. 

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April 5, 2015

Simple enough: 'Sursum corda'

Smack-dab in the middle of the liturgy comes a set of three versicles (greetings or encouragements) that elicit responses from worshipers. One of them, sursum corda, feels like a good way to characterize Easter's emotions and meanings. A moment of your Easter Day time, perhaps?

As it is adaptively translated from the Latin, sursum corda comes out as "Lift up your hearts." (We respond with something like "We lift them to the Lord.") These words encourage us to ramp up our gratitude or joy in anticipation of receiving forgiveness in the eucharist.

Something else might also be happening. About that point in the worship we may need a reminder about how we approach God, especially in the liturgy's every-Sunday re-enactment of the Easter story. Because worship happens in the middle of life and this greeting happens in the middle of worship, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to think of "lift your hearts" as a tipping point for worship that raises our spirits for daily living.

And how do our hearts—actually our minds—get "lifted up"? Not by our own reason or strength, as if we are the major agents in cranking up our thanks and praise of God. And not because we are gosh-darn positive people, for whom "lifted hearts" is a preferred emotional state.

Instead, it may always be true that every Sunday's replay of Easter—and Easter itself—hangs on this versicle/mantra that also encourages us toward thanks. Hearts lifted, we head for the table to receive forgiveness. Hearts lifted, we exit the door of the church, ready to face the places where the going gets tough. Hearts lifted, we are not afraid of death, assured by Christ's resurrection. Hearts lifted, we renew the courage to serve God in simple lives.

A lifted-hearts Easter to you all! 

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April 2, 2015

Simple congregations: Don't brand your church

(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.)

The idea of "branding" has assumed some credibility in the church. I write this entry to disabuse you of that notion: Don't brand your congregation! Some of my reasons follow.

The source of the term
The etymology of "branding" doesn't fit well with the idea of branding churches. Originally branding meant that your hooved possessions were rendered theft-proof because a mark of ownership had been burned into the flesh of your bovine, porcine or sheepish chattel. This action was aimed at identity, but danger-aversion was its emotional underpinning. Even though your possessions could wander aimlessly through meadows, they still "belonged" to you because of that branding iron.

Only a symbol
Brands are, by their nature, only metaphoric symbols that hint at other qualities. So a slogan ("Looking forward in faith") or a symbol (a cross with an olive branch) are vague marks that require further explanation.

A past-tense practice?
Current marketing philosophy and research have determined that the brand names of products are no longer a strong motivation for purchases or loyalty. Brands just don't carry that much weight anymore, especially in a world in which supposedly everyone is her or his own brand.

The hint of desperation?
It's possible that your self-conscious branding process telegraphs a message you don't want to spread: "We're branding ourselves so you'll pay attention to us now." People around you might easily pick up the quiet desperation in your over-the-top efforts. "Trying too hard" comes to mind.

Wearing a special brand
If you think you can find a unique identity or character by virtue of a branding process, you may be missing an important detail: Most "branding" of church-related enterprises runs in cycles of oft-repeated mimicry. Look at the various congregation names emerging these days and see how many are truly special or how many names communicate an easily recognizable identity.

Wearing someone else's brand
If you give to others the right to affix their brand on your congregation, you are dependent on the strength of that brand, not just your congregation's unique characteristics. Your attention-worthiness then rests primarily on the qualities of that other source. Yes, the other's qualities may be attention-worthy, but may not be the assuredly attractive identifying marks you hope for.

Is the work worth it?
When you've finished a branding process, you've likely expended considerable time and money in refashioning your congregation's identity. Now you have to apply the supposed meaning of the brand on every other element of your congregation's life. It may become possible that the brand is driving your mission.

Other ways to identify yourself
Your essential hope for branding is that your congregation will attract attention. So why not spend more time determining the strengths and qualities that could be attractive to others? A new coat of paint is a good place to start! So is recapturing your congregation's character in fresh language. Another certain identifier: photos or stories about the daily lives of congregation members. And perhaps the best brand—the one first applied to Jesus' followers: "See how they love each other."

Your congregation's actual "brand" is what's visible or otherwise discernible: You belong to God's mission in the world. You exemplify Jesus' life and teachings. You come out from behind slogans and symbols to walk alongside people in your community.

Your actions will be your brand! 

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March 30, 2015

Simple enough: Making Lent simple

No matter where you land on the continuum of Lenten disciplines, you may wonder how you could observe this season's piety in a simple form. Today I want to suggest something I learned from the old (black-and-white) Martin Luther film: Observe Lent in your body postures.

A word of background first. In my mind, the value of Lenten practices comes from a change in bedrock presumptions about my life. Things like my deep sinfulness; my incapacity to extricate myself from the messes I've made; my total dependence on God for anything good to come from my life; and my deepest faith in Jesus' actions to bring rescue to the whole world. Deep stuff and hard to cram into a lifestyle that's busy or crowded with other thoughts.

What might work is a change in body postures (I'm back to the Luther movie). Try kneeling and spread-eagling yourself, facedown. You can kneel at the side of your bed or outside where God's good Earth brings hints of new life this time of year. You can lie facedown, completely emptied out, on your bed or even the floor (like Luther). The sheer physicality of these body postures might allow or drive you to the deeper thoughts that Lent invites: After awhile, kneeling hurts—and what thoughts does that suggest? And from the first moment of face-to-the-floor spread-eagling, your completely extended torso is vulnerable and defenseless—a good way to approach God, hmmm?

I won't try to suggest what else you and I might consider as we kneel or lie supine, but my guess is that the direction and quality of our thoughts will lead to Lent-focused self-examination. Some of that will be sorrowful and penitent, but simple joy (in being heard and protected by God) is also possible.

Simple enough for Lent? 

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March 27, 2015

Simple enough: Empathetic you

Today I want to give you some simple hints about appreciative behaviors so you might understand how it might feel to be inside someone else's self-identity.

Look deeply at faces
Without being obvious, look at the faces of other people as they're talking or moving. Without being creepy, try to drink in the tiniest details of their facial musculature, their eye movements and the way they smile. Notice their wrinkles and blemishes, the hints of handsomeness or beauty that have not been dimmed by age and the emotions that seem evident. If you're face-to-face, look into other folks' eyes for more than the usual split second so you can appreciate what lies deep within them.

Ask imaginative questions
In almost any situation where you encounter people, look for small clues that might suggest how their day is going, or what joys and sorrows they might be carrying. Notice their gait, posture and clothing and imagine how they feel about being able to move through space, how their clothes add to their self-image, how they experience their body weight. Try to appreciate what it might take to do their job, to manage their relationships, to stave off their worries, to garner attention from others. Wonder with awe about their self-confidence and their positive relations with others. Think about their hopes for a good life, and about the people who depend on them.

Say something
Think of one or two sentences that might communicate your empathy in a helpful way. Not just compliments, but also acceptance, camaraderie or encouragement. Choose your words carefully so they are easily understood.

Send a prayer or two
Embed in your appreciative observations a quick prayer that wraps up these moments of empathy by commending these people to God's loving providence.

Pretty simple, hmm? 

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March 24, 2015

Simple words: Great Scott!

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

Today I will offer you an extremely acceptable and spiffy way to express devotion or praise during a church service. I'm talking, of course, about the expression "Great Scott!" Lest you doubt the spiritual utility of this nearly archaic bit of spoken Americana, let me unravel its etymology and suggest its usefulness in your setting.

In the early 20th century, German immigrants would greet each other—usually enthusiastically and with a bit of relational fervor—with the expression "Grüss Gott!" Its literal meeting was "greet God," but by derivation the term came to encourage the piety of people greeting each other so its truer meaning became "praise God!"

Those living around these immigrants—obviously not familiar with the sound of this linguistic tongue—heard something quite different: "Great Scott"! And so those who overheard the hearty greetings of enthusiastically pious and friendly German settlers assumed that "Great Scott!" could be used whenever one was amazed or enthused about almost anything that deserved high emotion or wonder. (So looking at a brilliant shooting star, watching a double rainbow emerging from a passing storm or witnessing a thrilling catch off the left field wall—each could elicit "Great Scott!" and would invite others into one's astonished appreciation.)

So what I'm proposing—for the next time you lead worship—is that you substitute "Great Scott!" for the usual "Hallelujahs" that might become too easily voiced or sung. If your church is given to great enthusiasm most of the time, you could intersperse some "Great Scott's!" among the "Amens" and "Preach it!" exhortations. Instead of passing the peace, you could high-five each other with an added "Great Scott!" And, of course, "Great Scott, From Whom All Blessings Flow" could be a good way to end any service!

Enough simple words?

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March 18, 2015

Simple enough: People of last resort

In the caring systems that surround you, there are "people of last resort"—individuals who are the last stop for folks who live in desperate straits or with overwhelming difficulties. These folks have bounced around among other caregiving efforts but still aren't doing well. Last-resort people apply their training and caring in situations when no one else has been able to find a cure, solve a problem, derail a dysfunction, bring healing or offer realistic hope.

People of last resort are all around you: occupational therapists, probation officers, medical specialists, hospice nurses, special education teachers, assisted living workers, politically moderate legislators, counselors, pastors and CEOs. In some enterprises, the last-resort people may be unseen and underappreciated—they're secretaries, custodians or unofficial mentors who keep a company or organization operating well by virtue of their loyalty and relationships. Sometimes the person of last resort is a beloved friend who won't let go of you, a parent who keeps loving you or a colleague who sticks up for you through thick-and-thin.

You may be one of these people. In that case, part of my reason for writing this blog is to thank you—I've been at the end of some ropes in my life, and someone like you has helped me immeasurably. And by these written comments I encourage any readers to express your gratitude to the last-resort people who have rescued you.

The other reason I bring up this matter: To remind you—as a person of last resort—that Jesus did the same thing. Yes, your work resembles his own rescuing and picking up and defending and instructing of people who were down-and-out, on their last legs, emptied of hope and wondering why God had left them behind. Today you carry on Jesus' last-resort ministry.

God bless you!

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March 15, 2015

Simple enough: Coffee cup wisdom

Sometimes lifestyle wisdom looks you square in the eye and says, "Use me!" That's what the gift of a new coffee cup has offered me: common sense that adds to the search for a manageable and sustainable life. (Thanks to the good folks at YourTrueNature.com for the wisdom soil—perhaps God's word on a coffee cup?)

Find your path
From the natural world comes the directive to choose a path before we start walking it. Simple living is the trail we've chosen, you and I, and we can be glad to have made that choice!

Stretch your limbs
Simplicity-seeking draws us past comfortable and easy. Risky at its heart, a life of simplicity stretches us in every way. And we grow stronger.

Start from the ground up
It would be so easy to think that we can jump into a life of simplicity whole-hog and in short order become proficient and wise. "Not so," says my coffee mug. "Set your feet on the ground, and grow slowly from a simple start."

Branch out
How easy it would be to collapse all that we hold dear into only one life-focus, one approach or one role. Simplicity can encourage the opposite: new and blossoming friendships, fresh buds of enjoyment, the greening of what seemed to be dead. Spring-like at its core, simplicity-seeking can be lively and lovely.

Root for others
One of the most enjoyable things we can do is build up and embolden other folks—their outlook, their skills, their opportunities—to live well.

Today, wisdom is peeking or poking at us—from coffee mugs, T-shirts, ads, bumper stickers, billboards—waiting for our appreciative eyes and ears. Best of all: We might be someone else's coffee cup, their source for wisdom that's short-and-sweet!

Kind of makes you want to look around, hmm?

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March 12, 2015

Simple enough: Mind-reading

Don't look now, but very smart computers can assess with chilling accuracy your emotional state. "Chilling" because you may not want a computer to know your emotions. "Accuracy" because already-in-use software can assess micro-changes in your facial architecture in microseconds and determine on an ongoing basis your underlying emotions with reliable consistency. "Don't look now" because this technology has been in use for a number of years, assessing the emotional appeal of advertising.

You can find details in Raffi Khatchadourian's "We Know How You Feel," a dispassionate account in the Jan. 19, 2015, issue of The New Yorker. His reporting takes readers inside Affectiva, a fast-growing startup which has developed algorithms about face recognition that make the technology useful. (To be objective, Affectiva's original intent was to use its software to help people with autism navigate the sometimes difficult terrain of human emotion. The trajectory of its work has drawn it toward commercial applications, but the overall intent of the company's founders still focuses on the wider use of this technology in all of society.)

Some simplicity implications: The science and art of marketing will become more reliable and predictive. Those who rely on knowing the emotional response of clients, customers or worshipers could become more accurate in assessing the effects of their work. Our society might shift toward more honesty and transparency about the emotional basis for lifestyle decisions. Consumers or participants in any enterprise might garner more respect or power. Perhaps "emotional intelligence" will be better taught and learned.

In any case, the next few years will see the rapid spread of this technology. Your emotions will become important to even more people. Your lifestyle may make an even greater difference.

Don't look now, but you might want to be aware of where you're looking now.

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March 9, 2015

Simple enough: The simplicity conspiracy

For all those who thought it was safe to come out from your caves, a warning: The real conspiracy that has governed almost every facet of human existence over the centuries is called Simplificadus Confidentus, and its adherents are still among us. To help you deal with this awesome fact, I will now cite evidence I have found on the Internet or made up. I hope you will be convinced.

  • Before they disappeared into the dust of Eastern European history, the Knights Templar entrusted all their riches to a Polish gardener named Bortman the Bold, with this sacred anointing: "Use the spoils of our plundering to defeat all plundering henceforth." (Having seen the error of their ways, the Knights knew  the world would be best served by lives unfettered by greed or mindless consumption.)
  • About the same time, in an unnamed location within the Austrian Empire, the Illuminati crafted their plan for world domination in "The Arts of Simplicity," which details their prophetic vision for how this frame of mind could be insinuated into the lives of families worldwide.
  • Masons—always part of any significant conspiracy theory—were formed as a secret guild of bricklayers and wall-builders. In undisclosed locations around the world, they built humbly disguised fortresses where their leaders could safely train adherents who would later infiltrate all the world's major religions.
  • The Trilateral Commission, in its recent meeting in Switzerland, elected to subject the world economy to a slow collapse whose eventual end will be a greater sharing of the world's resources among all the world's people.
  • These blogs are actually written by a computer program, The Illumined Bortman Arts, distributed by a worldwide fraternity of anonymous followers of The Way.

And here you thought you were just part of something small and insignificant! 

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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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