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July 17, 2012

craving the simple life

I am craving the simple life.

All this moving stuff, selling stuff, giving away stuff, packing stuff and sorting stuff...has reawakened a desire that already lived in me: the desire to simplify.

Some people would say that I already live a simple life. I've still never owned a cell phone, paid by myself for a hotel room or bought a house. I like homemade and handmade things. I'm fairly thrifty. But stuff still has a strong a hold on me, too. When I travel, I realize how much equipment I require just for one or two nights away from home, let alone six months or one year abroad. I'm tired of "needing" so much and want to take less on my upcoming travels. 

We are taught that stuff gives our lives substance and meaning. That we need it and that it will complete us. And we know that's not true, but...it's hard to live life in North America without accumulating stuff. Free stuff, thrifted stuff, purchased stuff, gifted stuff. It actually is rather shocking to me that after four months of purging, and semi-regular mini-purges before that, I still have way too much stuff.

What follows are some thoughts I've had as I've considered these ideas: How can I simplify? Why do I crave simplicity? How does this serve God?

Simplifying as an opportunity to identify and abandon your idols.
Are there objects that are too important to you? Simplifying can be an opportunity to identify this. As I have packed and purged, idols have come to the fore. I realized that I've had a closet full of idols....my clothes. I have sought to purchase an identity for myself with clothes. In connection with this, I've appraised myself and others based on appearances. As I packed, this became more obvious...it was (and is) hard for me to get rid of clothes. While this could be the subject of an entire post, suffice it to say that I am thankful that simplifying my life was part of what God used to show me that clothing had become a god to me.

Simplifying as a fruit of contentment.
Our culture is anything but a culture of contentment. For me, trips to the mall don't help me cultivate a simple attitude of contentment. Nor does too much social media. In some senses, Pinterest is a place for us to post what we crave. It's easy to think you need new things all the time, in order to keep up with what's trending. You don't really. If shopping, social media or other activities feed our desire to live over-complicated lives, we need to feed on them less, and on the Word more. Godly simplicity is ultimately an attitude of the heart: a fixation on things of lasting importance. "So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18).

Simplifying as an opportunity for generosity.
In my case, the accumulation of a lot of stuff was partially the result of a not-too-careful budget. Frankly, I bought a lot of things I didn't need. Simplifying is an opportunity to find joy in giving away things that will help others or meet a need. I heard of local church leaders encouraging their congregations to give not 10%, not 20%, but 40% to the Lord. To live simpler lives and use their superfluous income to change eternity. I know that a lot of believers would say that they can't do that. With their current income and current lifestyle, maybe they can't. But I wonder what God would surprise us with, if simple faith and simple living met. Quiet simplicity can be a catalyst for spreading joy.

When simplifying is selfish.
For many of us, our cluttered, complicated lives keep us from best serving others. But it is also possible to selfishly simplify. Ministry has a very earth-bound component; as Charmichael once wrote, "Souls are more or less attached to bodies." I have to remind myself of this sometimes, that some "stuff" is extremely helpful for serving others.

For example, one of the things that "clutters" my life is supplies for teaching kids. I have books, worksheets, curriculum, visual aids. If didn't have so many Sunday school supplies, my closets would be emptier, but my kids might not learn as well as they can when I am well-equipped with teaching tools. Hospitality as we usually define it requires a level of complexity, like extra dishes, spare bedding or even a bigger home. Friends of mine collect furniture to help needy students; to my friends it might look like a shed full of clutter, but to immigrants, those are Heaven-sent goods! Homemaking is on one level an earthly task that requires earthly objects. I believe that we can create lives that are so basic that we cannot minister to earthly needs. Unlike the above point, where excess keeps us from serving others, here frugality or over-simplifying keeps us from serving others.

Sometimes the idea of living simply is an idol to me, when the life God has given to me on this earth does require a certain level of "stock." Sometimes I have to remind myself of the reason behind the extra bedding, the candles in the pantry or the pile of Sunday school papers, when I'm tempted to bemoan having, packing or sorting extra stuff.

When simplifying is contrary to enjoying beauty.
God created us with earthly bodies that enjoy sights, sounds and colours. As a designer and a creative, I appreciate beauty and colour, and the little details that make life more beautiful. I like textured papers and interesting books. These things take up room and can cause clutter. I'm trying to learn a balance between enjoying these beautiful aspects of life without accumulating such stacks of stuff. (For someone who is organizationally challenged, like myself, this is a steep learning curve).

The Amish or old-order Mennonite sects have shown us a "plain" life that they consider to be more holy. But why a life without colour, pattern or design? Isn't God Himself creative? I agree with the likes of Edith Schaeffer, whose The Art of Homemaking is a treatise on using creativity and beauty in the service of God, especially in your own home. My goal is to learn how to enjoy beauty without making life too complicated.

Simple faith.
I think a lot about simplifying in relation to stuff, but I want to crave that simple faith, too. When my life is more organized and less complicated, I have more time to invest in the eternal. The simple life should not be an end in itself (idolatry), but a means of making ourselves more useful in the hand of the Master (true worship).

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