The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Bob Sitze's Blog

July 1, 2015

Simple enough: Sale!

Out here in the hinterland, this is the time of year when homegrown sales hatch like mosquitoes. Not just garage, yard, rummage, toy, used book or native-plant sales, but also some experiences that stretch credulity. (Today I saw signs for a "Hoarder Sale," presumably offering bargains on the purchase of these over-habituated stuffer/gatherers.)

I understand some of the wisdom of these sales. Previously used possessions are repurposed into others' lives. People with low incomes can obtain useful merchandise at an affordable price. The barter/cash economy thrives. Landfills don't fill so quickly. A kind of material redemption occurs and simple living is thereby strengthened.

What strikes me as questionable, though, is how many hours of time, gallons of gasoline and psychic energy are expended as some sales-seekers continue cruising among these events. Perhaps some unintended results: Saturday morning disappears, closets get stuffed a little more, disposable income disappears just a bit. Impulsive purchases are justified by ill-defined "needs." Other priorities for a person's time get shelved in search of "good deals." (Is it possible that "simplicity" is lost somewhere in the shuffle?)

What drives this bargain-seeking, this compulsion to buy something (or anything) at a lower price? I'm not sure, but I know that addictive brain mechanisms might be at play when sales signs become a primary motivator for entire systems of habituated behavior. Even though less harmless than maxing out credit cards, compulsive bargain-chasing could still be a sign of misaligned acquisitiveness. Still a niggling reminder of the power of stuff in our lives. Still not always the best use of precious time.

Without diminishing the value of purposed deal-seeking at these sales, I offer these thoughts for your careful consideration—especially if you find your pulse quickening and your wallet itching whenever you see "SALE" festooned on handcrafted signs.

Simple enough? 

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June 28, 2015

Simple enough: Freedom for what?

Coming soon to a holiday near you: Fervent exclamations about "freedom" and "liberty." In today's entry, I want to add thoughts to what you'll encounter in other places. Basically I want to ask the simple question: "What are freedom and liberty really about?" My simple answer: They're centered in giving, not taking.

From what I read and hear around me, many of the folks who speak of these two subjects at this time of year are quick to invoke their rights. And when they do, their words invariably indicate the sense that they deserve to take or receive whatever they name as desirable or necessary for their well-being. I get this idea: part of being good stewards is to receive the blessings God offers.

At the same time, I disagree with that way of thinking. My disagreement with insisent declarations of individual rights comes from understanding Jesus' life and teachings. He had "the right" to exist only as True God, but elected to become truly human as well. He chose to give up and give away much of what was available to him because of his birthright or cultural standing. (Let's not forget that he opted to be unemployed and homeless.) He understood his liberty and freedoms—such as they were—as platforms for a grateful, generous life. His days were filled with selfless leadership, kindnesses to undeserved others, crafty political wisdom for oppressed peasants and careful mentoring of his sometimes-hapless followers.

Jesus did not bask in his rights, his freedom or his liberty. Instead, he saw both as ways to give back to God and to other people what blessings he had already received. Jesus was a freedom-giver.

And you? How could you observe this coming national holiday? Perhaps as your own kind of freely giving person?

Simple enough? 

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June 25, 2015

Simple enough: Extra time coming soon!

Don't get too excited about this fact, but in the not-too-distant future, your life is going to be graced with some extra time. No, not some kind of time-saving tool or handy-dandy tip for being efficient. I'm talking about extra time here—actual time added to your lifespan! This is important, especially when you consider all the occasions when you've bemoaned how little time you have for living contentedly. Think of it: additional time to do what's truly valuable, truly human and truly simple. A blessing and a gift that you can hardly pass up!

To help you get ready for wise use of this extra time, I offer this list of suggestions that I have culled from my inner core as a Stewardship Guy:

  • Take a quick breath. Fresh air is good for you!
  • Giggle. (If you prefer, just chortle derisively.)
  • Stretch your fingers for added flexibility.
  • Blink purposefully.
  • Clear your throat so you can speak clearly.
  • Smile at a stranger for no reason at all.
  • Say "thanks" to God, preferably out loud.
  • Slow down the pace of others around you by infecting them with a simple yawn.
  • Look upward—it's good for your posture, your eyes and your attitude.

Let me add these small details to help you with this gift of time: On June 30, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service will add—get ready for this—a leap second to life as we know it. This will compensate for small variations in the Earth's rotation. And in case you missed it, a total of four leap seconds have been added to your life since 1999.

Please, no giggling or derisive chortling about this. I'm just trying to help you live simply—if only for a moment!

Simple enough? 

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June 22, 2015

Simplicity's children: Allowances redux

Moms and Dads and Other Caregivers: Don't look now, but many of the answers to your questions about allowances for your children have now shifted over to the digital realm. A variety of apps as near as your tapping thumbs now offer you help in this sometimes vexing matter. All that's required are a few smartphones, an Internet connection, a banking account and quality time to work with your child on financial matters.

Going by names such as Allowances Manager, Virtual Piggy, iAllowance, Famzoo and ThreeJars, these apps actually help your children learn how to think about and manage money. These online and mobile applications seem to promote underlying philosophies that support your best intentions for your children's and teens' financial acumen and skills. In most cases, the apps can be downloaded at no cost.

Visiting this part of the digital nanny world, parents and children can learn how to set up bank accounts, track their balances and make decisions about spending/saving/sharing. In some cases, these sites are aimed at younger children; in other cases the target audience is slightly older. Some of the sites connect children's chores with "earning" their allowances. (You may want to think carefully about the wisdom of this viewpoint.) Other apps help your children reckon with matters such as using credit cards and "bill" payment

Depending on your views about allowances—and your considerations about your children's time and reliance on digital devices—these apps may be helpful in the sometimes-difficult matter of teaching your child to be wise about financial matters. Working alongside you, the apps could provide additional impetus for continuing conversations about the broader questions of stewardship, generosity, materialism and personal responsibility.

And to those who choose NOT to rely on digital assistants for basic parenting tasks: I understand completely!

Simple enough? 

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June 19, 2015

Simple enough: Simple flow

One of life's most satisfying experiences is "flow"—those times when you are so deeply immersed or intertwined in a task or a moment that you lose track of time and place. (Think "runner's high" or "the zone.") Although they require physical and mental effort, flow experiences are rewarding for your mind and body, perhaps because you sense that everything inside and around you seems to be in sync. (Yes, meditation and prayer qualify.)

I'm not sure about the scientific basis for the following theory, but I wonder whether flow experiences are more likely to occur when simplicity is part of these moments. To phrase this matter as a positive question: "How can you get lost in the flow of simple living?" This idea seems to make sense: Flow probably requires that the stresses of multitasking or attending to multiple stimuli are simultaneously shut down or bypassed. "Slow" accompanies a simplicity-seeking mindset, so more of your mind is available for the synchronicity and inner calm that comes with flow. The sabbaths of zoned-in times seem more possible when your life isn't bound by constant chaos.

I'm also not sure how you could test out this possibility. During a time of repetitive-and-enjoyable physical activity, such as weeding a garden or engaging in a worship ritual? When you're deep into your thoughts during a ride on public transportation? At those lingering moments when you are engaged in conversation with someone you love deeply? When you are joyfully imagining your way through difficulties that others see only as problems?

One thing I'm sure about: You should seek and savor flow experiences, in whatever circumstances they might occur. However they are connected to your simplicity-seeking, these natural highs can soothe your soul and make you glad to be alive!

Simple enough? 

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June 16, 2015

Simple words: Comeuppance

(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also enables you to rouse jealousy among bystanders. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)

Rarely do I find a time-honored word with such a thin etymology as comeuppance. (No Latin or Greek heritage, no curious root story, no techno-jargon parentage.) But because comeuppance is probably a shirttail relative of the justice family of words, it deserves examination.

The etymological freight of this word seems to derive from "coming up." In previous centuries this was a way of describing one's appearance before a judge or tribunal—perhaps even an informal court of justice. Inferred in its current usage is the idea that the judgment one receives is deserved. So a comeuppance is usually considered as a turn-for-the-better when a previously unpunished malefactor is punished. Heads nod and tongues wag when comeuppance takes place: "He got what he deserved!"

If you were to adopt this expression into simplicity-seeking, you might create some problems. "What he deserved" is sometimes only a values judgement, sometimes based less on legal precedence and more on public opinion. (Street justice or trial by media come to mind here.) So a profligate, wasteful spender faces bankruptcy, a type A dad becomes a stranger to his family, or the child of an acquisitive parent grows up to be selfish. The taste of shared, societal vengeance can be sweet: When "she got what she deserved," the matter is finished. We can all go about our righteousness-seeking lives.

Some difficulties might arise from our behaviors: The person receiving the comeuppance can no longer live simply—life remains complicated by our lasting punishment or disregard. Those of us who mete out—or participate in—these judgments run the risk of us deserving our own comeuppances: People misjudging our lives and subtly punishing us.

So perhaps the best etymology for this word might be: "'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord" (Romans 12:19).

Simple enough? 

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June 13, 2015

Simple enough: A life of little kindnesses

Tucked away in my office is a small framed poster that proclaims: "The best portions of a good person's life are little countless acts of love and kindness." (The person who gave me that reminder lives this way, which strengthens the message even more!) Let me try to tie that message to your simplicity-seeking.

Like me, you probably look for simple ways to measure the worth of your life. Simplicity-seeking is one, certainly, but simple living may be hard to define or find because it may be invisible. Perhaps the little poster on my wall might provide a helpful insight.

The little kindnesses of which the poster speaks are probably not so little after all. Kindnesses of any kind—especially the vaunted "random acts of kindness"—are sometimes rare in a society awash in incivility and anger. But when the receiver of your kindness does not expect it (because of a persistent feeling of unworthiness?) the size and meaning of any kindness is magnified many times over. These acts—small moments of grace, favor, accompaniment, forgiveness, mercy, help, support, pleasure or appreciation—can transform someone's entire day. Simple at their heart (think of your ready and welcoming hug), little kindnesses require not much more than your living as the best person that God knows you to be.

By God's grace and favor—the kindnesses you receive from God are sometimes overwhelming—you have the motivation, proclivity and ability to show kindness to others. Not just to those who can reciprocate with kindnesses of their own, but also to those who rarely experience kindness. And not just once, but continuously, as an ongoing part of your outlook and your actions as a follower of Christ. Think of it: Little acts of kindness could become wall posters in your mind!

Simple enough?

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June 10, 2015

Simple enough: One person's lint

Sometimes I like to watch birds' behaviors—you can learn a lot from your feathered friends. (Full disclosure: Jesus thought of this idea first!) Today I want to invite you to think about how birds redeem what we discard. To be more specific, how birds repurpose lint.

First, let's broaden the definition of lint to include more than the collections of fabric fuzz that accumulate in a washing machine or clothes dryer. At a metaphorical level, you could think of lint as any part of your discarded life that gathers together in small stockpiles of detritus, usually in out-of-the-way places. (Small pieces of string and other filaments, paper and food scraps, and yard waste might all be subcategories of lint.)

Back to the birds. In their nest-building—a metaphor for housing, security and home?—birds redeem lint. Carrying and ferrying twigs, straw, paper and actual lint, birds are able to construct their residences for themselves and their broods. Their nests are examples of how God's creatures make something useful out of what you and I throw away. ("One person's house lint is a bird's lint house.")

At a wider level, this simple practice is something to be thankful about. People who conduct garage or estate sales, trash pickers, metal recyclers, dumpster divers—these folks help redeem the created world. Alongside birds, they find the useful in what other people call junk. They diminish the effects of wasteful behaviors and attitudes. They see possibilities where others see uselessness or dead-ends.

Perhaps your local bird population could help you learn other, related attitudes: To be thankful for what you have and to be shrewd about the value of your possessions. Maybe the birds could teach all of us to be appreciative of the worth of lint-like people for God's purposes!

Simple enough? 

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June 7, 2015

Simple things: Soil

(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 the many elements of our lifestyle that are wonderfully ordinary, yet may be startlingly rare in some parts of the world.)

An introductory note: This entry isn't focused on dirt! Instead, I use the word "soil" carefully to designate topsoil, on which so much of our well-being depends.

It would be easy to mistake soil as something that sometimes inhibits a pleasant lifestyle (think "muddy shoes"). If you live with a hyper-antiseptic worldview, you could even consider soil as a health problem to be avoided (think "germs on my skin").

A more accurate and appreciative view: Soil contains the stuff of life. Composed of living and inert substances, soil contains the nutrients on which plant life depends. As you travel up the food chain, you come to the realization that without rich and abundant topsoil, there would be few crops to sustain you. Some ingredients of a healthy life—e.g., drugs and chemicals—can be found only in certain soils.

I'd like to invite you into an experience that could help you appreciate the beauty and necessity of soil for your life. Follow these directions: Using string, cordon off a square foot of soil on your lawn, a pathway, a vacant lot, city park or garden. With a magnifying glass or pocket microscope, examine this small part of the planet, one square inch at a time. Look for what's obvious (living things, plants, environmental detritus) but also try to find what's not apparent (signs of death or destruction, unique substances and varieties of particles). Dig in this soil, running it through your fingers, perhaps even smelling it carefully. Spend enough time with this small patch of soil so you begin to see its lively richness!

Today, consider the ways in which you can help preserve the blessings of soil for those around you, and those yet to be born. Thank God for the earth. Literally!

Simple enough? 

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June 4, 2015

Simple congregations: Whither topical preaching

(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)

Sometimes pastors can get tempted to forsake textual preaching—dependent on an ancient lectionary that recycles every three years—for the imagined benefits of topical preaching. In this entry I ask why topical preaching may eventually wither as a form of proclamation. Some of my questions come from neuroscience, some from practical considerations and the rest from theology.

Neurobiological thoughts
A topical preacher presumes that the strength of the topic—its principles, organization, its logic—is sufficient to carry the message into hearers' minds. This creates a possible problem: Because it involves the logical/sequential functions of the brain, topical preaching may not be a whole-brain experience. Primarily a forebrain activity, topical preaching may diminish or discourage other valuable spiritual activities of the brain such as imagination, creativity, poetic expression, curiosity, doubt, mystery or awe. Thus the brains of listeners are confined to a narrow range of interactivity with the word of God.

If the sermon devolves into a "teaching," the sermon might feel like a lecture, one of the least-likable experiences any brain encounters. Could large-scope concepts—with strings of complicated details trailing along—overwhelm listeners' capacities to process information? Even with printed/projected outlines, the sermon could become an example of information overload: easily ignored and forgotten.

Topical sermons seem to suggest that assent to a set of ideas is sufficient for faith, that "knowing truth" is the essence of spirituality. That a list of talking points can motivate the brains of listeners to confess sins, break habits or take action. Does this mean the process of conversion itself is reducible to the accumulation of knowledge?

Practical considerations
Unless a topical preacher is truly brilliant, clever or creative, his/her treatment of the topic at hand can easily become an exercise in mastery of the obvious. Is it possible that this approach is boring or insulting to hearers? This phenomenon could become especially poignant when a preacher tackles a supposedly contemporary topic, not realizing how many other channels of information-giving have already covered the subject. Does ad nauseum come to mind?

The proposition that a series of topics will somehow attract attention may also suffer from these logical inconsistencies:

People who are not present every Sunday will miss important concepts and thus not benefit from the intricacies that a longer series promises. In present-day culture, attention spans wane quickly. Does series-preaching assume that the opposite is true? There may be a limit on the number of appealing series names. When locked into a preaching schedule, series of topics could also shove aside what might be fresh and compelling in current events, in listeners' experiences or in surprising developments. Although any concept can be expanded into a wealth of subtopics, it's also true that serializing a topic may result in microscopic examination of only miniscule matters.

Another thought: Given the interconnectedness of all information, how can the promise of "covering a topic" ever be fulfilled? To fit into the available time, a topic has to be truncated or cut off from its many connections. Or the preacher adds to the length of the sermon!

Theological questions
In my experiences with topical preaching, I find that some of these sermons lack truly intellectual rigor—that is, the actual exploration of a topic. Instead, preachers are tempted to offer only topical aphorisms—their own or those borrowed from others—that touch only the small surfaces of a subject.

Even with ample scriptural references, topical preaching can morph away from proclamation of God's word toward the presumed wisdom of the preacher. "Scripture as source and norm" may not work so well with this kind of preaching. A connected idea: Topical preaching can encourage cherry-picking Scriptures so they collect around a chosen idea. This could result in exegetical damage to some texts.

How does a topical preacher help listeners encounter God in his/her sermon? Where and how does that occur when the topic requires only intellectual unpacking? Where are the engrossing stories of God's actions, God's nature, God's invitations? When God's grace shows up as a topic, how can it dig deep into listeners' experience? How does a topical sermon engender a sense among listeners of being God's people together? Where are the emotional attachments that come from knowing God, from seeing Jesus' life and teachings up-close-and-personal? Do those ideals enter the deepest parts of our minds as mere topics?

For these reasons, I wonder whether topical preaching will be able to sustain the attention or interest of worshipers. Those who come to encounter God may not be satisfied with more information. Those hoping for inspiration, comfort or wisdom for their daily lives may instead leave worship with outlines, a surfeit of complicated ideas and an empty spot in their souls.

To my friends who have grown weary of topical preaching, this hopeful observation: As difficult the work to prepare a textual sermon is, it still stands strong as a means by which the Spirit cuts through conceptual haze into the deepest parts of brains.

And the deepest parts of souls ....

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June 1, 2015

Simple enough: Unspoken and invisible

In the past few months, the good people of Florida and Wisconsin have been underwhelmed by bureaucratic decisions that eliminate any references to global warming or climate change in any governmental communications or presentations. This laughable development—Hello, Big Brother and the Word Police!—recently attracted the bemused eye of Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke, whose astute observations give me encouragement for the musings that follow.

So I'm thinking about the benefits of eliminating from these entries any untoward references to frenetic materialism, overstuffed lifestyles, harried schedules, unsustainable acquisitiveness, addiction to possessions or purpose-greed. I could become only positive in all my utterances. These blogs would provide wonderfully gooey doses of necessary saccharine thoughts. Absent mention of anything related to lifestyle difficulties, readers' brains would be flooded with dopamine and serotonin. My (nonexistent) "Letters Box" would be filled with compliments and gratitude for being so positive, helpful and appropriate.

When it became necessary to hint at not-so-positive warnings, I could easily invent euphemisms that would be gentler and easier on the eye (and conscience). For example, joyful accumulation, efficiency-packed calendars, deserved pleasure and dopamine-enhanced habituation would frame my thoughts. Surefire feel-good words like sunny, self-forgiveness and aw-shucks would take the place of my formerly surefire meanness.

The end result of all this? Just like the good people of Florida and Wisconsin, readers could go about their days in sublime joy, not beset by the possibility that their lifestyle bubbles could burst. Previously worried about the consequences of their actions, readers could now join climate deniers, science haters, freedom-lovers and patriotic consumers in lives of continuing bliss.

My special, positive thanks to the officials in these fine, fine states, who have by their example showed that the best way to make problems disappear is by never speaking of them!

Simple enough? 

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May 29, 2015

Simple words: Reverie

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

Sometimes it may seem that simple living requires especially heavy-duty brain work— mental activity that makes your head hurt. Today I want to reintroduce you to the possibility that reverie, a word (and activity), might bring you some pleasure in living simply.

The 14th-century originating Old French term for reverie denoted revelry, frolicking and wild delight. Raving, delirium and impetuous speaking were implied in the original definition. (Here imagine yourself at an early-Renaissance celebration in a small French town! Your thoughts would brim with barely contained joy, your body ready to dance, your spirit wanting to embrace others as dear friends and fellow citizens. However long it lasted, your reverie would be thoroughly enjoyable, infecting your outlook for days afterward.) By the 17th century, reverie found its way into formal English. Its emotional meanings had settled down to mere daydreaming, with the understanding that these periods of solitary thought were also positive, joyful and otherwise pleasurable.

As one who spends considerable time in quiet reverie, I think that both meanings of the term could be helpful descriptors of a life lived simply. It may be a good thing for those of us who seek simplicity to balance our earnest endeavors and dutiful tenacity regarding lifestyle principles with reverie. Whether sitting quietly with a glass of wine at the end of a day or engaging in rowdy and wild rejoicing about just being alive, you might be able to shift your soul-searchings toward gratitude. You might be better able to share with others how good you feel about life. You might fill your justifiable simplicity ravings with a delirium that was packed with joy instead of anger or fear.

And you could live your daily walk with God with the assurance of God's own loving reverie about you!

Simple enough? 

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May 26, 2015

Simple enough: An economical solution

A startling bit of economic news rattled news outlets recently: The CEO of a successful high-tech firm announced an increase in his workers' wages to a minimum of $70,000 per year. To achieve this goal, this CEO reportedly lowered his salary to approximately the same amount. One result of his action: highly motivated and loyal workers. Another: positive publicity for his company.

This got me thinking about what might happen if other CEOs—some earning six- or seven-figure salaries—would adapt this example to their situations. Great benefits could accrue to these bosses, their companies and society as a whole. The results of these simple actions might include the following:

  • The CEOs would garner workers' trust, appreciation and gratitude, all essential features of an effective workforce.
  • The CEOs would be freed from societal disdain and condemnation over exorbitant compensation packages.
  • Across the economic spectrum, workers would have more money to spend, save and invest. This would benefit the entire economy.
  • Stock values would increase, thus ensuring that the stock-focused parts of executives' packages would actually hold their worth.
  • Increased revenues from higher-paid workers' income taxes would benefit the government's financial health.
  • CEOs would live with less fear and stress, allowing wisdom a stronger place in their minds.

No legislation would be needed under this arrangement, no forced-generosity or governmental oversight. CEOs would simply do the right thing, substituting fairness for greed and garnering goodwill at no cost. Profitability wouldn't suffer, and a long-term view of economic justice would supplant the current shortsighted view of economic well-being.

It's clear that this exemplary boss has chosen a better path toward economic well-being. Which makes me think: How could I suggest this kind of behavior to CEOs who are within the circles of my influence.

Maybe I just did ...? 

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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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