Sunday, January 27, 2008

Presentation re Simple Living

The following is a presentation Libby and I gave at a small gathering where the topic given to us was "Simple Living."

As I considered what to say to this group, it did not seem reasonable to attempt to summarize Arthur Simon’s excellent resource book (How Much Is Enough?). He has said it well, and the best thing to do with Simon’s book is read it and be diligent about what it means for each of us.

I thought it best to respond to the issue of living simply out of the context of the way I think and seek to express something of God’s truth (which I consider my primary gift and calling). This means, for me, getting a handle on how to understand what simplicity means in a distinctively Christian way.

There is an implanted desire for justice in every human being. We instinctively want what is fair (even if only for ourselves). There is a common urge to root for the underdog. We often feel anger when we are aware of abuse and oppression and seeing someone kicked who is already down.

And yet we are fallen. Sin entered this “very good” world God made in the beginning, so that everything is broken, including — and perhaps especially — human beings. There is a “power of sin” working in the world. This is the very reason the subject of justice needs to be raised. Human beings oppress other human beings. Some who seem to embrace evil intentionally do violence to others with nonchalance or even delight, but many people unconsciously harm others and would not like it if they knew it.

The power of sin is at work in us so that we often, if not usually, prefer not to know our sins. That is one way to understand “sin” — the desire we can so easily have for our own lives to be easy, convenient and comfortable. When the “world-spirit” is added to that — a willingness and sometimes a delight to use and abuse the weak for the advantage of the strong (a naturalistic world view can be used to justify this with the theory of “the survival of the fittest”) — we have a foundation for understanding the incredible violence done to the poorest and weakest in the world.

There is a spirit in the world that only wants to tolerate “good” people to a point. The world-spirit attempts to seduce people to keep true justice contained. This world-spirit ultimately seeks to persecute good people who cannot be bought — and the ultimate example of that is Jesus.

The ultimate example of how God intended us to live is seen in Jesus Christ. Paul told the Philippians (in what came to be one of the early canticles of the Church) that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant... and he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross (Phlp 2:6-8). And that is exactly the opposite of what the world-spirit tells people to do. In total opposition to the example of Jesus and the teachings of the Scriptures, sin tells people to exalt themselves, to think of themselves more highly than they ought, never to demean one’s self and, to the extent that circumstances can be manipulated, to let someone else always take the lower place and do the dirty work. Advertisements encourage us to indulge ourselves. “More” and “bigger” and “better” are our culture’s assumed values. The spirit of the world, especially in our culture, is one of seduction.

Christians have a different calling because we have, in Christ, a different identity. How often do we stop to remember that “Christian” means “one who is like Christ”? This is rooted in what God has been doing in his people from the beginning. Moses reminded Israel in the early words of Deuteronomy that God had called them to be a “peculiar” people. Peter uses this word in his first letter (2:9). This is the word used in old translations, and it is both good and bad. It is bad because “peculiar” has come to mean “weird” in a pejorative kind of way, but actually God’s people do seem “weird” to the unbelieving world. This is the true foundation of Christian simplicity toward which I am moving, but we need to see the larger framework.

The word “peculiar” is often translated today in a way that emphasizes possession — God’s own people — and this is true. But what is more true are the characteristics that are to mark God’s people because they are God’s people. Some appropriate contemporary words would be: different, distinctive, outstanding. What makes God’s people stand out so that they are distinctively different than people who do not take God’s truth seriously in their lives?

In a biblical-theological context it is the contrast I mentioned earlier. People who embrace the world-spirit are most concerned with ease, pleasure, self-promotion and having the means and power to do whatever they want to do. On the other hand, people who are called of God and follow his Son are people who are sensitive to others, willing to serve, willing to embrace self-sacrifice and to endure suffering in order to do good. Isn’t that what the world would call “peculiar?” Christians are to be different because Christians are people who follow Jesus and take seriously what he taught and modeled about God the Father.

Now in the context of what we call simplicity (in contrast to the arrogance and consumption of the world-spirit), note these words from the New Testament:

Paul told the Corinthians:
...the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away (1Cor 7:29–31).

In this context, Augustine once wrote, “Let us not resist his first coming, so that we may not dread the second.” How do we do that?

Paul wrote to Timothy:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1Tim 6:17–19).

So these are the words of our Lord in the Holy Gospel of Luke:
Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (12:15).

This is not a restriction from something that would make us happy. This is because Christian Faith enables us to see that being rich is this life is no guarantee of happiness. St Thomas Aquinas wrote, “The reason is that in this life no one can fulfill his longing, nor can any creature satisfy man’s desire. Only God satisfies, he infinitely exceeds all other pleasures. That is why man can rest in nothing but God. As Augustine says, ‘You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart can find no rest until it rests in you.’”

It’s so obvious when we think about it, but it is amazing how many Christians have not given explicit thought to this: A person who claims Christian Faith should model faith being exercised in that person’s life. This means accepting as true — believing — what Jesus and Paul and the other Apostles said in contrast to the spirit of unbelief that characterizes this sinful world. “Christians are people who believe in Jesus.” Yes! — but that needs to be unpacked. Christians are people who exercise faith by believing (and the only true belief is what is acted upon) that a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. And what does a person do who believes this. Such a person does not have a life characterized by an abundance of possessions.

This does not necessarily mean a believer will not have an abundance of possessions. Abraham was a godly man with great possessions. It means that possessions is not what comes to mind when people see and think about a Christian who lives up to the Name. Instead of possessions, others will see and think of... a servant... someone who is unusually kind... someone whose life is marked by utmost integrity.... a person who does not complain (especially if there seems to be good justification for complaining)... a person whose commitment to Jesus Christ marks his or her life.

This kind of commitment to Jesus was instilled in my wife and me from childhood. When any issue came up, we were taught to ask ourselves: What does Jesus want me to do? What will honor God in this situation?

This meant that, as soon as we were married, we were united in a mutual commitment to tithe our money. This is a great first step in simplicity. It is a way of saying, in faith, that we can live on less than full the amount of our earnings, and we can believe this because of God’s commands and promises. (This does not mean that if we give a tithe, we can be careless with the rest of the money and God will bail us out!) From the beginning of our life together (and also before, when we were teenagers and working our way through college) Libby and I tithed.

In the mid 70s I was out of both college and my first grad program and had begun pastoring a small church in 1974. This was not too long after the hippy counter-culture had started (and many of the true “hippies” embraced simple living). It was the time of the Jesus Movement, and I discovered some periodicals written by former hippy/Jesus movement people that caused me to begin to think seriously about the world beyond my own circle of familiarity. These writings led me to what some have called Radical Christianity, and part of the roots of Radical Christianity go back in Church history to the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. In whatever way Catholicism has viewed the ecclesial communities that broke away from the Church, some of the people who initiated the “radical” part of the Reformation had lives that modeled an incredible witness to the character of Jesus (if these people had stayed in the Church they would have been another movement much like the Franciscans). I discovered this stream of Christian expression and it called me to take seriously the call to Christian simplicity.

And yet the world-spirit was always at work on me. I like nice things. I can get hooked on some new interest or hobby and there is always money to be spent on whatever. I am also an only child, and I did not learn sharing and consideration for others the way children with siblings usually do. God graced me with a wife who always cared very little for “things,” and she had a great moderating influence on me (although at times I gave her reason to doubt that!).

After my second Masters degree I was invited to be on the staff of a campus church. It had a significant number of professionals among the congregation, and it was easy for me as a pastor to rationalize “upwardly mobile” aspirations that, in hindsight, had more to do with the culture’s image of “success” than reproducing the image of Christ in my life.

About that time I embraced a hobby that offered opportunities for ever increasing extravagance. (It is incredible how much money can be spent on temporal obsessions we embrace.) In time I met friends with that interest who were quite wealthy compared to me. It was always tempting to “move up” and “get more” and it was easy to rationalize because my expenditures were so small compared to those around me. As I compared myself among others in my own circle, the “little” I was spending seemed, to me, justified.

Without belaboring this further, there came a point where the Holy Spirit caused me to see that I had allowed my avocational interest to become so important to me that it was compromising my vocation — my calling to be a minister of Jesus Christ above everything else. This led to my seeking God in a fresh way, and ultimately it is what brought me into the Catholic Church (with a lot of other steps and issues along the way).

Libby and I have friends who model simplicity better than anyone else I know. They can stretch a dollar beyond anything I can conceive. They have learned to do it by necessity, but they do not live “simply” in a joyless, meager way. They have learned to celebrate without the celebration depending on material extravagance. They have learned how not to waste. The wife cooks from scratch, serving healthier food and sparing the expense and the waste of processed and packaged foods. This is something she wrote recently:

I think simple living is more attitude than anything — I always find expectations the biggest struggle to our simple living. I can remember having company (years ago) and preparing spaghetti at that time and I didn’t have any Italian bread.. I was trying hard to live simply at thtat time and running out to the store at the last minute would use gas, complicate things and make it all rushed. So I decided (after arguing with myself for 10 minutes) to make baking powder biscuits — it was really hard to do with company coming because I wanted everything to be nice and spaghetti requires Italian bread..... But it worked fine and life was much simpler since I was willing to change my original plan.

I have conversations in my mind, too. Sometimes I take inventory: What is your most prized possession? What if it were lost, stolen or destroyed? If it endures to the end of my life, what happens to it at my death? Will anyone else care about it? Will it cause fights over who gets it?

I also think about the nature of acquisition and ownership. There is a compulsion that hits us, telling us we need to “own” something truly to enjoy it. If we enjoy the beach or the mountains, it’s easy to want to own our own place there.

There are a few practical things we consciously do. We try to find good “pre-owned” vehicles in order to avoid the huge up-front depreciation of new cars. We try to make eating out a special event instead of doing it carelessly and too-often. We recently put pellet stoves in our home; the fuel is cheaper and is environmentally friendly.

[Libby had been asked to give some perspective and at this point she gave the following]
David gives the bigger picture and context from scripture for everything, so now I'll add a little more personal experience from our lives.

I could go back to the early years of our marriage when David was in seminary and we lived as cheaply as possible... ate lentil soup, cooked the skin from a chicken for broth, belonged to a food co-op to buy basic groceries in bulk at a cheaper price, shopped slowly and carefully using coupons, ate whatever the store's specials were that week, and other money-saving things like that. But there have been more recent changes in our family that has helped us focus attention on an attitude of simple living.

David had prostate cancer over two years ago, and the reality of the uncertainty of this life hit us in a fresh way. We began to pray for God to let us live for Him with all our passion for the rest of our lives no matter how long that might be (with the possibility of a shorter time) or how that looked.

God took us seriously and began to bring spiritual renewal and change our outlook about life so that we couldn't be content just to "live" apart from seeking Him with all that we are. He began to call David especially to spiritual renewal through Catholic prayer and worship - and eventually we knew it meant resigning the pastorate after 30-something years and stepping into a whole different life. We had no idea what would happen but took the first step of resignation (which meant giving up David's job and 2/3rds of our income) and kept telling God we'd follow and obey if He'd open the way.

I assure you it was easy to pray without ceasing. At first David checked into several regular jobs - valid vocations like nursing home chaplaincy or teaching Bible, but pursuing a real job just didn't feel quite right. He kept coming back to an idea and began to realize that God was indeed calling him to begin a nonprofit ministry which would let him use his gifts for those things which were closest to his heart - offer spiritual direction to Christians, teach and preach whenever possible.

The ministry Heart for God was initiated as a tax exempt umbrella for ministry, and a group of people (mostly from our old congregation) believed that God was calling us to work in various ways to call people to spiritual growth and renewal, and several of them began to contribute to the ministry each month and support us in this faith venture.

We knew there were some things we could do, starting with using the equity in our house, and we began to get the house ready to sell and downsize to drastically cut expenses. A friend who's a realtor took us to see a little ranch house built in the 50's, and she said it could work if we did some remodeling - then she and her husband offered us the money to buy the house until we could sell the other one. Several months of hard work followed as we made improvements on the house for sale while renovating the ranch house at the same time.

I began to record everything we spent for groceries, gas, eating out, and home improvements, and we consciously tried to review our spending for ways to cut back - we stopped the daily paper, I quit going to the more expensive hair dresser, we checked into lowering the cost of cable and internet. I'm still not exactly sure how (apart from God's help), but things are working out so far. David's days have been filled with people who come for prayer and counseling, and he has time to respond to questions by e-mail and prepare for retreats or classes - and we've been able to cut our expenses in almost every category.

All the time we keep praying for God to do with us ANYTHING He wants - we pray that each morning and night. And it's exciting to watch Him open doors for ministry already that we thought might only happen years from now. I've always paid the family bills and done all the worrying and figuring with money, and it's as though God's given me a new gift - even though we have much less income than before and I have no idea what's ahead, all the worry has been taken away. We're at peace that we're being obedient to follow Jesus, and there's this new confidence that all our needs will be met. I know beyond doubt that this is God's loving assurance that He really IS in control.

Our story won't be anything like yours, I'm sure. Many of you have probably found ways to sacrifice and give that would put us to shame in comparison. The basic motivation for us living more simply is so that we can obey God in ministry while yours could be a strong awareness of the world's poor and hungry. All of us can pray for God to take over our lives in such a total way that we give everything we are to Him and tell Him He's free to do ANYTHING He wants with all that we are for the rest of His lives for His glory. He longs to live in and through us and will delight in our desire to obey His call to simple living so that we're free to live not for self but for Him.

[a short conclusion, DLH]
There are probably many things we should be doing but are not. And there are probably many things we should not do, but we do. I find that trying to live life by a long list of rules is frustrating and ineffective. Again and again I bring myself back to a way of looking at the world and our existence that is rooted in what God has said to his people through the Scriptures, and most of all, what God has modeled for us in the life, death and resurrection of his Son. Simple living can, I think, be best summed up by “simply living totally unto Jesus Christ as Lord of all.”

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