My Dear One,
I recently made the decision to give away about half of everything I own. This is prompted partly by an upcoming move and other life circumstances, but also partly by something long at work within my soul.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
- Jesus (the Gospel according to Matthew 6:25-26)
Jesus once spoke these words into a world of people who lived hand to mouth. Whatever security or comfort they enjoyed was by the toil of their own hands.
How do these same words apply to our immensely more complicated, busy lives that are largely defined by what we do? Can this message to “not worry about our lives” hold a candle to the barrage of advertisements that say we should be worried and then offer us security and prestige in the form of new cars, fancier phones, cheaper insurance and magic tape that can repair a boat sawn in half?
The call to simplicity is perhaps the most counter-cultural aspect of Jesus’ teachings for our consumeristic, capitalist, fear-driven society. In America especially, we wear our busy-ness, our over-scheduled calendars and work-related stress as badges of honor. Unless you are busy, stressed, and tired, you are not pulling your own weight. Having long abandoned the notion of setting aside a day each week for rest, we’ve succeeded in turning even our vacations (a time for re-creation) into fast-paced, hectic “see all we can see and do all we can do” affairs. We come home complaining with a sly smile to our coworkers that we need a vacation from our vacation.
This is a deeply sick way of being in the world. It should not be treated as a sign of significance but of a person who is in desperate need of help finding balance and negotiating priorities. If we are not taking time to care for ourselves, in regular and life-giving ways, we are neglecting our call to tend to the precious gift of life.
In the face of this illness, we have a Jesus who teaches that God is a god of abundance and that scarcity is an illusion bred not from the limitedness of God’s provisions but rather from our own prideful hoarding and greed. He is the one who said:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (the Gospel According to Matthew 6:19-21)
And again, Jesus says: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” He then tells a story about a rich man whose fields produces so much abundance that his barns could not hold it all. So he decided to tear down those barns and build bigger barns in which to store his “abundance.” He foresaw years and years of relaxed living ahead for himself. What he did not know was that he would die before the sun would rise again. God comes to him and says, “‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (the Gospel According to Luke 12:13-21)
There is another way of living, taught by Jesus and powerfully exemplified over the years by many who have gone before us, both known and unknown to history. In my own journey, it has been shown by the life and ministry of the beloved saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. Francis spoke at length of his love of “Sister Poverty.” These words sound so foreign as to be perverse to our modern sensibilities. Poverty is something to be eliminated, not embraced. As someone who has advocated and worked both locally and globally for the alleviation of extreme poverty, I concur.
But what Francis is suggesting is not that we all live in extreme lack but rather in extreme abundance. He teaches us to see what we have not as “not enough” but rather “more than enough.” Having grown up the son of a man who worked hard to build his family’s wealth through the trade of cloth and acquisition of foreclosed upon land, Francis desired another way. He publicly stripped himself naked and walked away from it all to live with the people whose land his father had acquired by shady business dealings and the lepers whose personhood was denied by society.
“Pure holy simplicity confounds all the wisdom of this world and the wisdom of the flesh.”
- Saint Francis of Assisi (the Writings of St. Francis, Salutation of the Virtues)
There Francis created a community built not on competition but on cooperation. It was founded not on a desire to acquire but rather to give away as much as possible. He heard God’s call to “rebuild my church” and thought first to do so by rebuilding an abandoned church building. As he lived into this call more, he came to see it meant also rebuilding an abandoned gospel.
His simple way of life, which very closely resembled Jesus’, was so counter-cultural and shocking that many people found him repulsive. But many others were drawn towards, rather than repulsed by, his commitment to love his neighbors, his enemies, and work to build up the community rather than assemble bricks to build his own barns.
Many today find their hearts being pulled towards such a life of simplicity. People are seeking to live closer to the land that sustains them, caring for creation as Francis did. People are seeking to put the needs of others, especially the most vulnerable, over their own as Clare did in caring for the lepers and the sick. People are drawn towards a commitment to community over consumption and a pace of life that leaves time for the living of it.
We are not building monasteries of brick as others in the past have. We are instead choosing to build a monastery of the soul. We are working to create sacred space and time in which to devote ourselves to prayer, meditation, and simple acts of service - prioritizing the giving of self in acts of love over the taking of others for “love” of self. Inspired by places like Northumbria, Taize, Plum Village, and Iona and the communities of simplicity built around them, we are seeing anew the meaning behind Jesus’ admonition that:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (the Gospel According to Matthew 6:24).
It seems a small act in the larger scheme of things. I have only one back to clothe. Why do I have so many shirts? I can read only one story at a time. Why do I have so many books? I can play only one instrument at a time. Why do I have so many guitars? I can feed only one mouth at a time. Why do I have so much food?
At some point it is the abundance of possessions that looks ridiculous, not the lack of them.
Recognizing the people around me who do not have what I have, as meager as it might appear to some, I’m choosing to share. It started a few weeks ago when I pulled up to the local Goodwill, stepped out of my car, handed the man at the receiving bay a box of items and then took off the coat I was wearing and handed it to him. He said he’d never actually seen someone do that before.
He thought it a great act. It didn’t seem all that revolutionary to me. I was about to get back in a warm car and I had another coat waiting. Perhaps it will be a great act if someday I don’t have either of those.
How will giving away half of my possessions change my life? I’m still not sure. But I don’t need to know. It’s the giving that is that gift.
What worry or possession might God be inviting you to lay aside? How will you more fully embrace a life of simple abundance?
following The Way,
This week's video: Happiness
Art is one of the greatest resources we have to get at and speak to and about our deeper truths. I'm particularly fond of a great short cartoon. So this week I wanted share with you Steve Cutts' wonderful (and slightly R-rated) cartoon Happiness. The irony shouldn't be lost on any of us that YouTube will probably make us watch a commercial first.
www.becomingminimalist.com The blog that first engaged me in reading about minimalism.
Simplicity: the Freedom of Letting Go by Richard Rohr https://amzn.to/2rN92Vk
Freedom of Simplicity: finding harmony in a complex world by Richard Foster https://amzn.to/2Bucysf
(These are affiliate links to Amazon. Any purchase you make will help support following The Way. Thank you.)
Question of the Week:
We often speak of our “possessions” as things we own. But the reverse meaning of the word is also true. They are things that possess us. What are some of the things that have held sway over your life at one point or another? What are some ways you might try to exorcise their power over you? Share your own thoughts and reflections in the comments below.