At this moment in history, the world God loves is groaning under the weight of injustice and slowly being robbed of its capacity to sustain life. All around you, the people God loves are increasingly burdened by lifestyles they can't keep up for very much longer. You and your congregation are called to help turn that around.
Many members of your congregation yearn for simpler lives. They see themselves as just a little strange, moving against the mainstream of American consumerism, odd ducks in a world of too much, too fast, too many. In bringing simple lifestyles to the center of your faith-filled conversations, think of Jesus's own lifestyle, the things he said and did. The things he didn't do. Consider the fact that the human Jesus also woke up in the morning, yawned, scratched his beard, had a cup of fair-trade coffee, and tried to make sense out of his e-mails.
In concentrating only on Jesus-as-God, you may miss the fact that the very human Jesus chose a lifestyle that fit the mission he received at his baptism. The healer and preacher also had to think about his next meal, his friendships, his enemies. He faced danger, he laughed, he sat around and talked with folks. He walked everywhere he wanted to go. He criticized religious authorities and the government, and he listened to farmers. He went to big dinners with very important people. He observed spiritual practices but didn't spend lots of time at his local synagogue. The point here is not only that Jesus was human but also that in his lifestyle and career choices—yes, he made them just like you do—Jesus chose to live simply and joyfully in service to others.
It would be easy to think of simplicity as a lifestyle switch permanently fixed in the NO position. That way of living can be seen in the tenets of fundamentalism, which draws its adherents into frames of mind that fear, abhor, or avoid many elements of life. But lifestyles based only on "Thou shalt not" break down soon enough and lose their sensitivity to God's abundance. When any part of a law-only system—law enforcer, judge, jury, jailer—loses its power, law-based lifestyles can't fulfill their promise of a meaningful, purposeful life.
Part of the joy—and perhaps the lure—of simple living is that you choose to manage only what lies within the scope of your actual capabilities and not to live under the pretext of unlimited assets or "purpose-greed"—wanting to fulfill all God's commands for the entire Christian church. The result of that choice: A life that's possible, and a life that lasts.
One way you can measure your practice of simplicity is by answering this question: What holds your attention? Jesus put the matter nicely: "Your heart will always be where your treasure is" (Matt. 6:21). Here’s a little lesson in New Testament Greek: thesauros (treasure) denotes both valued things and the box or receptacle in which they are placed. The location of your treasure influences where your kardia (heart) is located. Heart was the first century way of describing the center of your will, understanding, motivation, purposes, intelligence, or affections. One way to translate Jesus's words might be: "The box in which you place your treasure is also the place where you put your brain."
Your attention is literally held by your treasure. (And for heaven's sake, don't misquote that passage so that "your treasure is where your heart is." That’s not what Jesus said.) Jesus understood that your mind has a way of being influenced heavily by your surroundings. Given the way your brain works, pleasurable stuff easily holds your attention. Your emotions and values also come along with your attention, as do your behaviors and even your identity.
For the most part, though, you can still choose where to put your treasure. Most folks call that choice "paying attention." The way your brain works is that you give that attention to only one thing at a time. After awhile, what you pay attention to gradually determines what you will not pay attention to. (Jesus again: "You cannot be the slave of two masters!" [Matt. 6:24].)
So as you consider the way you live, you can judge it as joyfully simple, satisfying, and manageable by the amount and quality of the attention you devote to various aspects of your life. (You can also measure the simplicity of your life by what you choose not to attend to.)
Here’s an example from my daily life: My wife Chris and I have come to see that dinnertime is a precious opportunity to converse together earnestly and quietly about what's important in our lives and our relationship. Because we want to hold each other's attention while we eat and talk, we do not watch television news, read magazines, answer the phone, or listen to the radio. Our conversations are graced by humor, depth, and honesty. We measure our dinnertimes not by an increased knowledge of world news but by the bonds of friendship, decision making, or shared wisdom that hold our attention during supper. We could describe our treasures and our hearts as the gifts of delicious food, delightful conversation, precious insight, and quiet laughter that are held on a dinner plate, the end of a fork, and the sparkle in each other's eyes. Our relationship, not our television, holds our attention.
Considering theological and practical fundamentals about living simply is a first step in starting simplicity conversations in your congregation. When you engage the people in your congregation, I hope you can characterize simplicity as more than a harsh attack on every aspect of life in the Western world. Instead, try to convey to others that this way of thinking and behaving is helpful, life sustaining, deeply spiritual, and eminently possible. In that way, you will help others see simplicity as it really is. You will help them find simplicity itself.
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Adapted from Starting Simple: Conversations About the Way We Live by Bob Sitze, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Conversations About the Way We Live
by Bob Sitze
In today's complex and busy world, people yearn for simpler lives. Bob Sitze believes conversations change us as individuals and that most important social changes take place through conversation, so in Starting Simple he invites us into heart-to-heart conversations about simple living.
A New and Right Spirit:
Creating an Authentic Church in a Consumer Culture
by Rick Barger
In a culture marked by a consumerist approach to nearly everything, it's little wonder that there is much confusion about who and what the church is supposed to be. Barger argues passionately for congregations to reexamine what it means to be an authentic church in a culture where authenticity is hard to come by. He exhorts leaders to turn away from the story of our culture and to return to the story of the church, which is grounded in Christ and the resurrection.
Learning the Way:
Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest
by Cassandra D. Carkuff Williams
In Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities, Williams explores early Christian communities and their practices in order to identify principles for discipleship formation. She then offers expert advice on how to approach modern-day issues of Christian education and discipleship formation based on the examples set forth by our earliest forebears in the faith. This book provides an overview of the past in order that we might take the proven example of early Christians and apply it toward our present and our future.
Reflecting with God:
Connecting Faith and Daily Life in Small Groups
by Abigail Johnson
Abigail Johnson offers a structured process for engaging in theological reflection by looking at a situation or event through a series of questions that are designed to help individuals and small groups to think through situations with the eyes of faith. She provides detailed instructions for group facilitators, making this book a valuable resource for any theological reflection leader.
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