The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Bob Sitze's Blog

May 23, 2015

Simplicity's children: 'The Conversation(s)'

At some time in your children's lives, you will have "The Conversation," most likely focused on matters of emerging sexuality. You begin this perhaps-uncomfortable chat as a way of preparing your children for life experiences that will eventually occur. "The Conversation" is probably also necessary in matters of simplicity. Let me suggest here several conversations you might want to have with your children about lifestyle experiences that will eventually take place.

No one owes you
Help your children understand that "deservedness" is an imaginary, elusive factor in life. Very little of the good life can be earned—and much of it, even though actually deserved, will never come to roost on your children's doorstep. Because they are existentially beggars, anything they get/have is a gift!

Things will be tough
With the realities of global warming, shriveling economies, diminished natural resources and increased conflict among nations and people, it is highly likely that your children will get to deal with perhaps unimaginable personal difficulties as part of their future. How well are they learning to cope with smaller, manageable problems now?

What's right will last
In this conversation, you assure your children that justice will prevail, principled living will bring its own rewards and loving relationships will remain a bulwark of contentment. What's also true: Righteousness-seeking people will find and strengthen each other.

You are capable
In many ways your children have—or will eventually have—all the personal equipment they need to prevail and prosper even in the worst of times. As they grow more skilled and more wise, they are taking advantage of the legacy you will leave them—another undeserved gift!

From these few examples you can probably imagine other topics, other heart-to-hearts. In all of these conversations, no matter how awkward, show a loving, hopeful spirit.

And enjoy the experience! 

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May 20, 2015

Simple enough: Simple integrity

As I write, a work crew is waterproofing our home's basement. In the economic equation "Price/quality/service—pick any two," we picked this company for the ways in which their reputation for integrity permeated all three elements of their work. That attitude and practice start at the top of this company and show up as valuable, high-quality workers.

Practiced integrity is compelling because it's simpler than the alternatives. I include some familiar maxims to show how integrity keeps life manageable and sustainable.

You are only as good as your word.
Part of integrity is simply doing what you say you will do, proving by your actions what you believe, especially when the going gets tough. In business or in personal relationships, your reliability carries you farther than glitz.

Trust is a priceless commodity.
You earn trust over time, and it's always a two-way street. Regaining lost trust is a complicated matter.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Integrity works both ways: If you expect to get quality service, you must be willing to pay a fair price. "Bargains" may exist, but someone—workers, competitors, suppliers—eventually pays the price.

Pay now or pay later.
Another way to say this: "Do things right the first time." However you think of your work or relationships, taking shortcuts eventually results in higher costs that come back to bite you.

Treat your workers/colleagues/family right.
Because you hold others in high esteem, you also offer them dignity, fairness and appreciation. When tested by circumstances, those relationships will hold together tightly.

When life gets unmanageable, you might want to check how well you're practicing personal integrity. Where necessary, ask for forgiveness and recommit yourself to what's right and righteous. Be thankful for others who bless your life through their sturdy trustworthiness.

Simple enough? 

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May 17, 2015

Simple enough: A little honesty

During the past couple of months I've been thinking how it must feel for refugees in so many places in the world to live involuntarily simple. Forced by war, disease or environmental disasters to relocate, these folks have been pushed into simplicity and now live with even less than the bare essentials. They are dependent on the consciences and largesse of the rest of the world to sustain themselves in stress-tunnels that seem to have no end and no light.

To be honest, I've also imagined how it would feel to be a parent in these difficult settings. I could see that, however dire the circumstances, perhaps the worst part of life as a refugee parent would be that hope was carved down to its smallest sizes. Although these scraps of the future would be hard to find and even harder to hold onto, refugee parents somehow remain determined to return to their former lives.

The last part of my wondering is what happens when they see or hear about American lifestyles, especially the worst parts of how we live. I can imagine how they could begin to name some aspects of our living as wasteful, selfish or sinfully unjust. I can understand how a young child, teen or adult could, out of desperation, want to seek revenge against people who seemed impious or degenerate.

These wonderings aren't difficult to imagine—perhaps you've thought along similar lines. Perhaps we need to be honest with each other about these thoughts before we condemn the behavior of people who have had their lives stripped bare and their hopes smashed into the mud.

Perhaps the desperate circumstances of refugees can become a compelling motivation for us to amend our sinful lives, while at the same time offering bountiful assistance and understanding.


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May 14, 2015

Simple enough: Redeeming losers

One of the reasons for hyper-consumptive materialism could be that too many of us think of ourselves as losers. However we define the term, we measure our lives as essentially empty, going nowhere. Coming up short in too many places, we choose to distract ourselves by gathering extensive collections of expensive possessions—"toys" by another name—so we don't have to face the loser-truths that we can't shake off.

So we festoon our garages with wheeled machinery, our lobbies with hobbies or our bodies with fitness sentries. We interact endlessly with what's shiny, fast and buzzworthy. We chase new and improved. We do whatever it takes to avoid self-examination, repentance or confession. Even though we might pursue never-ending distractions, we still know that out there somewhere—at the end of a rope or a lifetime—our essential loser-hood still awaits us.

What might deliver us from lives of low self-esteem and high accumulation? Lives of meaning and purpose! Extending ourselves into others' lives, picking up the banner of worthwhile causes, giving ourselves away for the sake of a greater good. Taking up burdens that aren't our own. Reveling in friendships, rejoicing about ordinary things, tuning into the delights of everyday events. Relishing what we have instead of wishing for more and more.

I'm pretty sure that most of us could knock down our pile of distractions and rip off the loser nametag by remembering that, by any objective measure, we are all losers of one kind or the other. Instead of avoiding that label, we might accept it and then look for all the places in life where, as a redeeming gift from God, we also experience grace, love, forgiveness, acceptance and admiration.

And we could let possessions go ruin someone else's life and be grateful for every moment of life.

Simple enough? 

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May 11, 2015

Simple enough: Reigning cats and dogs

It seems as if our society is literally going to the dogs (and cats). In the past month I've encountered "news" stories that featured dogs and cats who rescued people or were themselves rescued. They found their way home from great distances and they drove cars. Cute dogs and cats had visual appeal as puppies and prize-winners at shows. They appealed to humans even when they were ugly. Cats and dogs foiled robbers, exhibited human-like intelligence, did unusual tricks, worked for a living, went to church or workplaces, and served as TV network mascots. Sadly, they were also mistreated, hoarded, kidnapped or sold like cattle.

What's going on here? Certainly dogs and cats sell soap—products, supplies and ideas. But perhaps something else is happening to our culture: We may be having trouble distinguishing between what's important and what's trivial. Perhaps we are transferring our emotions about other people (it's called "empathy," I think) to animals. (Easier or less-risky?) Knowing that dog and cat stories are safe entertainment fare, perhaps our media handlers are tired of getting angry letters about substantive issues. Having a newsworthy pet may also constitute a bedrock element of the good life we hope for ourselves. "Cute" may take our minds off our own ugliness, failures, inferiorities, defects or sinfulness. This banality may cure the blues.

When so much of what we encounter every day is overwhelmingly jarring, unsettling, fearsome and stressful, perhaps this overattention to our canine and feline friends is a sign that we can't deal with reality any more. Even though this phenomenon costs us money, time and energy—and sucks attention from the rest of our priorities—dogs-and-cats attention may just be easier.

Or maybe dogs and cats have taken over our minds and I'm the last guy to find out?


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May 8, 2015

Simple words: Nightmare

(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and enables you to astound onlookers. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)

In my professional life I've had to reckon with dystopian realities interwoven with world hunger, so it makes sense that from time to time I would have disturbing nightmares. This might help explain why I've chosen nightmare as the "Simple word" for this entry.

First, some etymological background. The word has a French derivation and has nothing to do with horses. In fact, this term has much more ominous roots. Arising about 1300, nightmare denotes the presence of an evil female spirit. The cognates for mare occur in several North European languages, all of them describing a goblin who causes disquieting, frightening experiences during sleep. In some linguistic traditions, this incubus danced or trampled on the chest of the slumbering victim, infecting that person with mental harm.

In our times we've learned that nightmares are simply another kind of dream, nothing more nor less than the brain resetting itself—perhaps reviewing or reorganizing its experiences—so we can arise in the morning refreshed and ready for what we might encounter.

I'll go with that explanation, certainly, but I also will continue to wonder why end-of-the-world famine and anarchy would be the content for my occasional nightmares. I don't think any of my dreams are prescient, but the consistency of these dream sequences tells me that simple living brings me to thoughts that are perhaps too difficult to consider when awake. Perhaps I need to pay attention to this goblinesque visitor and see what the dreams suggest about my fears.

I'm always grateful that, upon waking, I greet another day with joy and expectation for useful service to God. Perhaps more honestly, I acknowledge that for millions of people around the world, what are only nightmares for me are the stuff of their daily lives!

Not simple enough .... 

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May 5, 2015

Simple congregations: Cognitive scent consumption

(This slightly longer entry is part of a continuing series of occasional blogs that apply simplicity ideals to congregational life. These entries can complement any program of congregational transformation)

Don't look now, but your friendly local merchant-of-choice is being plied with the possibility of assisting you in your purchasing behaviors by applying the insights of "cognitive scent consumption," the newest dart in marketers' quivers. The idea is simple: Using neuroscience and secret technologies, marketers can now pump a product or a store full of odors whose presence assures greater acceptance and purchase of said product. (This is science, boys and girls, not wishful thinking!)

Because I am a totally with-it, fab gear kind of guy, I will now use the remaining words in this entry to suggest how you might make your congregation a place where cognitive scent consumption could enhance the membership experience. (Excuse the scent of my tongue in my cheek.)

New incense
Instead of the frequently overdone smokiness of myrrh or frankincense, try the delicate odors of blooming cherry tree, freshly mown grass or baby powder. (The idea of "prayers rising as incense before you" would take on fresh meaning.)

Odiferous meetings
Well in advance of any meeting, spray new-car scent into the room. See how quickly participants' spirits will pick up, how they will be driven to positive thoughts and have the inclination to stay longer.

Scratch-and-sniff worship books
Were the pages of worship books ("songbooks" for you contemporary worship folks whose projector screens fell off the wall) to be embedded with significant fragrances, think what would happen if the mere touch of a page would release the scent of palms, moist soil, wool clothing or sandals, burnt offerings or other biblically inspired odors!

Quick ideas
To invite worshipers to the before-annual-meeting potluck, you could pipe the bouquet of tuna casserole and Jell-O gelatin through the air-conditioning system. Homebound members could receive communion wafers that smelled like actual bread. Your annual report would have the whiff of fresh $100 bills. You would call pastors on the basis of their preferred perfumes or after-shave applications. Your congregation's reputation would be based on its scent: "Say, have you noticed how those Lutherterians smell nice—like pizza and beer?"

You can easily see how cognitive scent consumption could make your congregation a unique place for people to gather together and enjoy olfactory delights. No longer greeted by the wafting aroma of old coffee and wood polish, visitors would know you not only by your love, but by your aroma!

Remember: the nose knows—even down at church! 

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May 3, 2015

Simple enough: Ad hoc lives

In the last few weeks I've been struck by the number of people I know and love whose daily lives are hardly ever routine. One way to describe this style of life is ad hoc, which denotes dealing with things as they occur. In practical terms, ad hoc living means that a day's schedule or commitments are subject to change at a moment's notice, that no one day is like any other. Expectations or plans are always tentative. Those who live this way become nimble at tasks like preparing meals, honoring commitments, following through, taking time off. Some ad hoc folks get into imagined multitasking or frenetic activity in order to hold together something resembling an ordered life.

It would be easy to excoriate this way of living as unacceptable. Instead, I want to call attention to the blessed reality that some folks must live this way in order to fulfill their callings. They hold together the edges of civil society for the good of all. (Think tradespeople, medical personnel, therapists, parents of special needs children, emergency response workers, armed forces personnel and probably pastors.) These are people who have chosen responsive callings, where their work comes at them continually. They walk alongside others, shouldering burdens, soothing, protecting or supporting. They give up assured routines and predictable schedules in order to be present at a moment's notice, to give away their personal calm so others are calmed.

Some of these people are my dear friends. Maybe yours too. So today might be a good time to let them know how you understand their life-giving presence, and how much you appreciate their sense of calling for the sake of others.

As for those who live this way for no reason at all—I remain calmly silent!

Simple enough?

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April 30, 2015

Simple enough: The leaky-battery life

Recently the phone that I call "smart" has been running out of energy too quickly. The battery takes an electrical charge OK, and the phone performs its intelligent functions with efficiency. But there's probably a leak in the battery—some place in the wizardry of the device where energy escapes rapidly. Not good, because this leakiness detracts from the phone's usefulness.

I'm thinking that "leaky battery living" might be a way to characterize our lives when we aren't able to function fully over the long haul. We may get the energy we need through love, time, money, attention, maybe even sleep. But those necessary stores of power don't last long. The rigors of our lifestyle prohibit us from sustaining our usefulness. We may even notice that the vim and vigor we need to make life worthwhile disappears faster and faster with each day. In some situations, we have to recharge ourselves more often—perhaps growing desperate for attention, money, love or happiness. In that state of mind, leaky-battery living doesn't work so well.

My intelligent communication device couldn't be fixed, so I had to swap it out. The other option was completely disassembling the trusty tool and inserting a new battery. How's that work in real life? Since we don't get to exercise option A, the second choice might make sense: "A new battery," which might mean a different/new way of thinking, where energy (see above) remains within us for smart use over time. Where our capacities aren't depleted every day, where we remain cognizant about overuse or overcharging. Where simple living fills us with energy again.

I hope "leaky energy living" doesn't describe you today. If that's true, take time now to slow down. Take a breather or a mini-sabbath.

Whatever it takes to be smart! 

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April 27, 2015

Simple enough: The gift of time

What lies at the heart of a chaotic lifestyle is the stark reality that there's not enough time for what needs to be done. To help solve that problem, think what might happen if you organized a group of people (perhaps retirees in your congregation) to offer "the gift of time" to simplicity-seeking folks who are harried by time commitments they might not be able to control. The following possibilities illustrate the basic idea:

Life coaching seminar
Without getting overwrought about a particular system, offer a basic course about how to use time efficiently and with joy.

Quick cleaning
Gather a group to descend on the home of an individual or family and—with their permission—clean out their yard, garage, car, basement, closets or pantry. Keep the scope of tasks manageable and be doubly sure your gift doesn't actually require more of the gift recipient's time.

Chore school
With parents' permission, bring together a small crew that can show the family's children how to do basic household maintenance chores. (Here the savings would occur as children gradually assumed time-intensive tasks perhaps automatically done by a parent—most likely Mom!)

Repair rabbits
Getting things fixed is one of those vexing lifestyle tasks that either soaks up time or just doesn't get done. Taking a clue from online, for-fee chore services, gather together a group of fix-it pros who could come into homes and make small repairs—e.g., mending, replacing parts, deep cleaning, taking items to fix-it shops.

Practice partners
You could help parents with the necessary task of supervising or guiding their children as they practice musical or sports skills. "Practice partners" could visit homes on a schedule, offering half-hour segments of monitoring or coaching.

Yes, I know: If you had time, you'd come up with your own ideas! 

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April 24, 2015

Simple things: Rugs

(This entry continues a mini-series within the larger "Simple enough" blog family. The premise: It's important to look more deeply, appreciatively and gratefully at some of the elements of our lifestyle that are wonderfully ordinary, yet startlingly rare in the rest of the world.)

In homes almost anywhere in the world, a rug is a prized possession. Especially in places where a floor may be cold or dirty, a rug fills several valuable functions. Today my gratitude for simple possessions focuses on these ubiquitous inventions—and to the people who make them.

A rug is constructed of plant or animal fibers of several kinds, and takes considerable time and skill to weave, construct or assemble. Tightly bound together, these fibers serve as a separation from what may be unpleasant or unseemly. In many places, the artisans who make rugs also offer beauty to rug-owners: The dirt of a floor is transformed into a work of art by a rug. The rug's artistry might also capture the essence of a visualized story.

Where medical care is minimal, people are born and die on rugs. Hospitality takes place on rugs, when strangers are invited to sit and partake of food and conversation. Prayers and meditation take place on rugs, which transform any space into a de facto place of worship. At night rugs offer shelter and warmth for sleeping souls. Rugs cover what is ugly or what needs to be kept safe. Because they are portable, rugs travel with families whose lives are in flux. Rugs become the essence of "home" in places where houses have given way to tents, caves or rubble-strewn buildings.

What's most humbling about rugs is that many of the world's best rug-makers are also among the world's poorest or most-frequently displaced. For them, rugs may be redemptive and life-giving, minimal-but-certain symbols of former or coming prosperity. Perhaps rugs even offer identity and justifiable pride.

I am grateful for the rugs in my home—especially those from other cultures—and assign them a prominent place in my list of blessings!

Simple enough? 

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April 21, 2015

Simple enough: Disenumerate now, Part B

Yesterday I ranted about society's puzzling affection for enumeration: our dependence on number-crunching for decision-making. Today I want to temper my fulminations with thoughts about how to mediate this Babel-like tendency. I use the nonexistent word disenumerate to collect those ideas in one place.

The most necessary task: name the limits of data's usefulness. For example, researchers have now determined that scores on college-admission exams have no relationship to life success or satisfaction. (Yes, these researchers use numbers to secure their conclusions. Point taken?)

Another question: What happens to organizations or individuals when data-based conclusions push aside trust or wisdom as dependable currencies of truth? What then?

A third matter: Risk-seeking is the foundation for any entrepreneurial venture. Pilgrims venture into uncharted territory; new products emerge from doodles on napkins; risk-takers move more nimbly and quickly than cumbersome, time-consuming data-gathering processes; and "failure" is frequently the source for the learning that predicts later success. It's hard to see how data-crunching strengthens these necessary qualities.

A first step: If you live in an atmosphere ruled by unhelpful data-gathering, challenge the assumptions that guide those practices: What's the (real) cost for shifting into numbers-based management styles? How trustworthy are the data-gathering techniques. How broad is the scope of if/then decision points in the algorithms that govern a decision? What bridges (relationships, vision, efficiency) will be burned by this approach? You may need to be insistent in your questioning, but it needs to occur.

Finally: Hold dearly to the places—surprises, wisdom, emotions—where data can't discolor your life with "proof." Cherish the times when you really don't know what is true, nor what will happen next. Live or work in anticipation of satisfaction and delight. And remember: Others count on you because you are trustworthy, creative, mindful, prescient and wise.

Simple enough? 

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April 20, 2015

Simiple enough: Disenumerate now, Part A

"How do I love thee?" asks poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But then she answers her question with statistical proof: "Let me count the ways!" With that simple turn of phrase, Browning legitimates the quantifying of emotion—and perhaps our current enumerating of almost everything else.

We live in a world in which numerical data is presumably superior knowledge, especially when the data coalesce into algorithms that assess present-tense truth ("I love thy purchasing patterns") and future-tense predictability ("I love the odds that thy long-term goals will fit with my company's interests.") Increasingly numbers are the proof of any pudding—and the tasting of that confection is an afterthought already foreseen by the metrics of past encounters with similar substances. Numbers, when precisely gathered and patterned, are presumed to be über-reliable, even when they cluster around uncountable phenomena.

I am one among the growing number (!) of people who are beginning to question the ultimate value of our society's rush toward counting—and then carefully analyzing what we count. I'm certain that the testing mania that stalks the halls of schools does not advance what's important about learning. I am aghast that algorithm-inventing machines, not people, drive the financial markets. I worry when churches forsake intuitive wisdom in favor of "proven metrics of church-growth strategies." And I am incredulous that otherwise-rational leaders are succumbing to the notion that, because "numbers don't lie," number-priests are smarter than the leaders themselves.

Our society's devotion to counting seems to be an unstoppable force that can trample over other forms of thought, other ways to plan, other ways to name what's desirable, encouraging or trustworthy. I wonder when there will be a time, perhaps soon, when the house-of-counted-cards will crumble under the weight of unforeseen or uncountable reality.

Stay tuned ....

(Tomorrow: Curbing the counting) 

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April 17, 2015

Simple words: Haywire

(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also make friends among dictionary-lovers. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)

Direct from the gold mine of etymology (I'm talking about farm life!) comes today's simple word: haywire. In its literal sense, haywire is/was the thick wire used to bale hay. In some parts of this great nation, haywire was one of the most common substances found on any farm. Its ubiquitous presence and utility were legendary. You could repair most anything with a strand or two of haywire, in that instance now termed "baling wire."

Sadly, though, when things went wrong with a baling machine, the wire could get snarled or twisted into unpredictable shapes—some of them dangerous when the ends of the wire poked out at you. In this case, "haywire" now designated that something was horribly wrong, perhaps intractably so. The dependable fix-all substance now became a nearly insolvable problem.

When you think about living simply, what's abundant and ever-present can also be a knotty problem, obstinate in its mulish refusal to be corrected. So, for example, a convenient credit card can build up a mountain of debt, your family car can create a tangle of repair bills or easily available fast food can cause super-sized medical problems. In each case, what was dependably useful might turn into a major disruption of simple living.

Luckily, solutions abound. You guessed it: baling wire! The cause of a mess can become part of its solution. Your bad credit can be converted into an impetus for better budgeting. The junker car can convince you to downsize your transportation needs. And your medical problems can morph into a wake-up call about your eating habits. Using the practical wisdom of farming life, you can fix anything with some (metaphorical) haywire and a little spit.

Yes, haywire that goes haywire can be redeemed by baling wire.

Enough simple words? 

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April 14, 2015

Simple enough: Pay no attention to me

Imagine yourself as the participant in a never-ending cocktail party during which everyone is trying to impress everyone else. People are listentening, but only so they can respond to others in a way that makes them appear elegant, urbane, intelligent or witty. Most of the time the partygoers are looking to get a word in edgewise so their viewpoint or knowledge are heard. When they aren't being listened to, participants use handheld devices to broadcast their opinions past the walls of the gathering. A dismal existence.

In some ways, that description fits much of what transpires in day-to-day interactions that you and I might have at work, at home, among friends or at church: too few people paying too little attention to too much information. This is a world in which everyone craves or seeks attention any way they can get it. All of us talking at once, but few of us listening well. Blogs like mine fit that description, as does much of social media. Bloviators blow their endless opinions out into the mindless ether 24/7. The sophistication of word processing programs makes everyone a writer, and information floods through perpetually unreceptive minds. Given our need to savor the attention we gather—and think we truly deserve—it's probably true that few of us have the time or inclination to attend to anyone else. A dismal existence.

That's why I'm announcing here that you do not have to pay attention to these words. I hereby release you from any real or imagined duty you may feel in that regard. I have no expectation that you will share any of what you read here, nor do I hope for your agreement or adulation. I'd prefer to pay attention to you! An enjoyable existence ....

Simple enough? 

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April 11, 2015

Simplicity's children: Basic life skills checklist

Someday your children may have to depend on some basic lifestyle skills. I hope the following checklist helps you in your parenting. Depending on the ages and physical abilities of your offspring, this simple checklist might be a way for you to gauge your children's ability to prosper later in life, without the benefit of adult supervision.

Basic lifeskills checklist
One or more of my children can:

  •  Start and maintain a cooking fire.
  •  Take their own temperature.
  •  Use knives safely.
  •  Tie a variety of secure knots.
  •  Find their way home in the dark.
  •  Summon emergency help.
  •  Carry on a meaningful conversation with an adult.
  •  Apply a bandage or simple dressing to a wound.
  •  Clean or wash clothing.
  •  Pray.
  •  Read and follow directions (on packages, devices, etc.).
  •  Use hand-operated kitchen utensils and tools for their intended purposes.
  •  Read and follow a simple recipe.
  •  Distinguish healthy food from among competing choices.
  •  Engage in regular physical exercise.
  •  Maintain rudimentary personal hygiene.
  •  Keep our home clean. (e.g., trash disposal, sweeping).
  •  Make purchases with cash, accounting for correct change.
  •  Use gardening and yard tools efficiently.
  •  Use hand tools (e.g., saws, hammers, wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers).
  •  Ask for and follow directions to a destination.
  •  Write, address and mail a letter or package. 
  •  Employ basic self-defense techniques effectively.
  •  Pack a backpack or suitcase for a longer stay elsewhere.
  •  Dress appropriately for existing or impending weather conditions.
  •  Explain their present physical or emotional state to an adult.
  •  ________________________________________.
  •  ________________________________________.
  •  ________________________________________.

Add to this list those items that you consider to be basic to self-sufficiency. Begin teaching your children these skills alongside your children. Enjoy the shared learning! 

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April 8, 2015

Simple enough: Lives of quiet desperation

I'm a people-watcher. What I notice is frequently encouraging and instructive. Sometimes, though, what I witness saddens me. This entry comes from that attitude.

It doesn't take but a few moments to see that many of the people I encounter live in quiet desperation. They are at the end of their ropes, close to the bottom of a steep dive, trapped in box canyons, maybe even sick and tired of being sick and tired. For some of these folks, a difficult lifestyle is the result of bad choices they've made. Others are living with circumstances not of their own making. In all cases, it may be hard for these people—all of them beloved of God—to find anything but broken pieces of what constitutes "the good life."

What's perhaps most sobering about these folks is that they shoulder difficulties—sometimes beyond description—in quiet obscurity. Few around them know about their physical ailments, their financial burdens, their deep sorrows, their resolve to better themselves or their loneliness. In a world of glitzy fun, these quietly desperate people disappear into a sea of inattention—their small boats of despair nearly lost in a vast expanse of disregard.

Still, God can and does offer rescue—sometimes temporary and at other times the sure first step out of desolation. Small resurrections of spirit or circumstance that shine hope on life. Kindnesses that come unexpectedly, grace-filled moments of nonjudgmental listening or tangible help that reignites quiet joy—acknowledgements that even difficult lives are still worth living.

As you encounter people who live in quiet desperation today, take a moment to put them inside your prayers and thoughts. And if you can be part of God's rescue—even in a small way—consider those tasks as part of your lifework.

It's a quiet Easter thing. 

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April 5, 2015

Simple enough: 'Sursum corda'

Smack-dab in the middle of the liturgy comes a set of three versicles (greetings or encouragements) that elicit responses from worshipers. One of them, sursum corda, feels like a good way to characterize Easter's emotions and meanings. A moment of your Easter Day time, perhaps?

As it is adaptively translated from the Latin, sursum corda comes out as "Lift up your hearts." (We respond with something like "We lift them to the Lord.") These words encourage us to ramp up our gratitude or joy in anticipation of receiving forgiveness in the eucharist.

Something else might also be happening. About that point in the worship we may need a reminder about how we approach God, especially in the liturgy's every-Sunday re-enactment of the Easter story. Because worship happens in the middle of life and this greeting happens in the middle of worship, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to think of "lift your hearts" as a tipping point for worship that raises our spirits for daily living.

And how do our hearts—actually our minds—get "lifted up"? Not by our own reason or strength, as if we are the major agents in cranking up our thanks and praise of God. And not because we are gosh-darn positive people, for whom "lifted hearts" is a preferred emotional state.

Instead, it may always be true that every Sunday's replay of Easter—and Easter itself—hangs on this versicle/mantra that also encourages us toward thanks. Hearts lifted, we head for the table to receive forgiveness. Hearts lifted, we exit the door of the church, ready to face the places where the going gets tough. Hearts lifted, we are not afraid of death, assured by Christ's resurrection. Hearts lifted, we renew the courage to serve God in simple lives.

A lifted-hearts Easter to you all! 

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April 2, 2015

Simple congregations: Don't brand your church

(This entry is part of a continuing series that applies simplicity ideals to congregational life. These slightly longer entries can complement any program of congregational transformation.)

The idea of "branding" has assumed some credibility in the church. I write this entry to disabuse you of that notion: Don't brand your congregation! Some of my reasons follow.

The source of the term
The etymology of "branding" doesn't fit well with the idea of branding churches. Originally branding meant that your hooved possessions were rendered theft-proof because a mark of ownership had been burned into the flesh of your bovine, porcine or sheepish chattel. This action was aimed at identity, but danger-aversion was its emotional underpinning. Even though your possessions could wander aimlessly through meadows, they still "belonged" to you because of that branding iron.

Only a symbol
Brands are, by their nature, only metaphoric symbols that hint at other qualities. So a slogan ("Looking forward in faith") or a symbol (a cross with an olive branch) are vague marks that require further explanation.

A past-tense practice?
Current marketing philosophy and research have determined that the brand names of products are no longer a strong motivation for purchases or loyalty. Brands just don't carry that much weight anymore, especially in a world in which supposedly everyone is her or his own brand.

The hint of desperation?
It's possible that your self-conscious branding process telegraphs a message you don't want to spread: "We're branding ourselves so you'll pay attention to us now." People around you might easily pick up the quiet desperation in your over-the-top efforts. "Trying too hard" comes to mind.

Wearing a special brand
If you think you can find a unique identity or character by virtue of a branding process, you may be missing an important detail: Most "branding" of church-related enterprises runs in cycles of oft-repeated mimicry. Look at the various congregation names emerging these days and see how many are truly special or how many names communicate an easily recognizable identity.

Wearing someone else's brand
If you give to others the right to affix their brand on your congregation, you are dependent on the strength of that brand, not just your congregation's unique characteristics. Your attention-worthiness then rests primarily on the qualities of that other source. Yes, the other's qualities may be attention-worthy, but may not be the assuredly attractive identifying marks you hope for.

Is the work worth it?
When you've finished a branding process, you've likely expended considerable time and money in refashioning your congregation's identity. Now you have to apply the supposed meaning of the brand on every other element of your congregation's life. It may become possible that the brand is driving your mission.

Other ways to identify yourself
Your essential hope for branding is that your congregation will attract attention. So why not spend more time determining the strengths and qualities that could be attractive to others? A new coat of paint is a good place to start! So is recapturing your congregation's character in fresh language. Another certain identifier: photos or stories about the daily lives of congregation members. And perhaps the best brand—the one first applied to Jesus' followers: "See how they love each other."

Your congregation's actual "brand" is what's visible or otherwise discernible: You belong to God's mission in the world. You exemplify Jesus' life and teachings. You come out from behind slogans and symbols to walk alongside people in your community.

Your actions will be your brand! 

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March 30, 2015

Simple enough: Making Lent simple

No matter where you land on the continuum of Lenten disciplines, you may wonder how you could observe this season's piety in a simple form. Today I want to suggest something I learned from the old (black-and-white) Martin Luther film: Observe Lent in your body postures.

A word of background first. In my mind, the value of Lenten practices comes from a change in bedrock presumptions about my life. Things like my deep sinfulness; my incapacity to extricate myself from the messes I've made; my total dependence on God for anything good to come from my life; and my deepest faith in Jesus' actions to bring rescue to the whole world. Deep stuff and hard to cram into a lifestyle that's busy or crowded with other thoughts.

What might work is a change in body postures (I'm back to the Luther movie). Try kneeling and spread-eagling yourself, facedown. You can kneel at the side of your bed or outside where God's good Earth brings hints of new life this time of year. You can lie facedown, completely emptied out, on your bed or even the floor (like Luther). The sheer physicality of these body postures might allow or drive you to the deeper thoughts that Lent invites: After awhile, kneeling hurts—and what thoughts does that suggest? And from the first moment of face-to-the-floor spread-eagling, your completely extended torso is vulnerable and defenseless—a good way to approach God, hmmm?

I won't try to suggest what else you and I might consider as we kneel or lie supine, but my guess is that the direction and quality of our thoughts will lead to Lent-focused self-examination. Some of that will be sorrowful and penitent, but simple joy (in being heard and protected by God) is also possible.

Simple enough for Lent? 

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