Finding Simplicity

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Finding Simplicity

 Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11:28-29

We live in complex times. We enter the world simply enough, needing only food, sleep, shelter, and love. We leave the world simply enough, taking nothing of the earth with us (although sometimes the hours, days, and weeks leading up to death may be among the most complex and expensive of our lives – but that is a topic for a future Life Note). In between birth and death, however, our lives become complicated well beyond any reasonable need.

Certainly, raising children ratchets up the complexity meter as parents provide for the needs of the child through various stages of growth. As we go through life, we tend to accumulate stuff that was useful at one time, but has set dormant for years. Unless we are obsessive about purging on a regular basis, our unused stuff can overtake our living space, further complicating our lives. We forget that there are costs to hoarding. The physical and financial cost comes from having to store, move, and care for our possessions. The human cost is borne by those who could use what we hoard.

Our possessions are only one area of life’s complexity, however. In fact, our possessions are both a result of and a cause of unnecessary complexity. Something I have noticed in my limited experience in third-world countries is the comparative lack of complexity. Many people do not have cars, televisions, access to the internet, big homes, or multiple sets of shoes and clothes for different seasons and occasions. While they would be considered underprivileged in the West, it is considered the norm for them because it is a common state of being in their culture. And many of them live happy, fulfilled lives without the necessities of the West. Another difference is that friends, family, and God seem to be real and present parts of their everyday lives – much more so than in the West.

A simple life, in my view, is one where there is freedom to do what calls to us in the moment. Granted, most lives are too busy to drop everything to answer to the whims of the moment, but a simple life has the ability to do so at least part of the time. That could be an intimate visit with a dear friend, taking a long drive, going for a contemplative walk, curling up with a good book, or writing a letter to a shut-in.

Even this Life Note on simplicity is overly complicated. I only wanted to encourage us to enjoy uncomplicated time with friends, family, and God. Spending unhurried, unpressured time with friends is one of life’s richest blessings. To rest in God’s presence without feeling the need to prepare in a particular way, be in a particular place, or come up with only eloquent words to say is a sure-fire way to remain centered.

One of the simplest ways to encounter God is by paying attention to our breath. Our first and final act in this world is to take a breath. Most breaths in between are done unconsciously. In the Genesis creation story, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”[1] The Hebrew word for wind is rauch, which also means breath. It also means spirit. Every breath we take is a renewal of God’s original and on-going breath of creation. It is God’s spirit flowing through us. Focusing on our breath necessarily calls forth God’s presence in a completely natural and simple way.

The Hebrew word translated as Lord in the Bible is YHWH, which in English is pronounced Yahweh. The Israelites believed this holy name was not to be spoken. Some believe the reason it was not to be spoken is that it was to be breathed: Yah (as an inhale) – weh (as an exhale). In fact, this is a contemplative practice called the Yahweh Prayer – breathing the name of God. Seen in this way, calling the name of God is our first and final act on earth, as well as every act in between.

Paying attention to our breath is a simple and accessible way to open ourselves to God’s presence, even when we only have a minute. Building simplicity into our lives is a way to ease our burdens and find rest for our souls.

This is the 10th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Genesis 1:2

How Did I Miss That? Part 4: Our Possessions Possess Us

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 4: Our Possessions Possess Us

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.  

Matthew 6:19-21

Front yardMy wife and I are blessed to live in a large house on 5 acres of land. It is located in the rolling hills south of Lawrence, Kansas, among a beautiful mix of field and forest. We enjoy stunning sunsets on a regular basis and can view much of the night sky that is invisible to our city brethren. Even when our children were home, we had plenty of room for everyone and everyone’s stuff. Musical instruments, clothes, books, music, furniture – you name it, we probably have it.

As I age, I notice that much of what I was excited to possess in earlier days requires an amount of time and resources that is disproportionate to its current value to me. So many things I simply had to have in my younger years now have me wondering I was thinking. Even trying to thin out the excess, however, is a difficult process. First, one never knows when something might come in handy – or when a friend or family member might need it. Second, there is sentimental value in much of what we have. It is difficult just to throw that away. Third, passing things on to others means cleaning, moving, and organizing. It is often easier to hoard (or to leave the problem for my children).

Jesus warned us not to store up for ourselves treasures of the earth. Actually, I think his point has to do with what we value, more than what we possess. If we keep things we do not need, however, we are assigning a value to them – even if only the value of not having to get rid of them. There are reasons, however, that holding onto stuff in excess of our need is inconsistent with Christian teaching. First, there are those who really need some of what gathers dust in our homes. Second, there is a maintenance cost associated with everything we keep, and those costs are resources unavailable for other, more important uses. Third, and most important in my opinion, our possessions possess us.

In too many ways, I am a slave to my possessions. When I spend my weekends maintaining my large yard or trying to keep our big house clean, I have neither time nor energy to dedicate to other needs of my family, friends, and community. If I must first rearrange my old stuff to make room for new stuff, I accomplish nothing of value – for myself or others. If my heart – my time, my attention, and my God-given resources – is consumed in caring for my stuff, where, when, and how can I have a heart for others? It is a challenging spiritual dilemma, and one I will likely wrestle with the rest of my life.

Our possessions possess us. How did I miss that?