Bob Sitze's Blog
September 29, 2014
Simple enough: Sustaining simplicity
Every so often I run across a resource that may have receded into the back-rooms of the church's memory—an important source for understanding the life of faith that has somehow been forgotten. Today I want to reacquaint you with a book that fits this description, one whose reading I strongly encourage.
I refer to Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal by freelance writer and journalist Anne Basye. This resource was produced by the ELCA hunger program a few years back, part of a larger effort to connect the "root causes of hunger" with the lifestyles of contemporary culture. Not confined to this purpose, though, Sustaining Simplicity tracks the author's wide-ranging reflections about her simple lifestyle over an entire year.
Full of spiritual depth, transparent and emotionally rich, this journal draws you into Basye's life in an urban setting. As you read the variety of entries she accumulates, you find yourself making comparisons to your own simplicity-seeking: Where do her circumstances match mine? What am I missing in my life? Where around me are there people like this author? Perhaps the most important question: How could my own journal be helpful or inspiring to others?
Presented in an attractive design and written in an approachable style, this journal can hearten you, provide you with practical suggestions for your life and encourage you to keep working at your sometimes-lonely lifestyle goals. Because it can hook your emotions and imagination, this book remains relevant, evocative and inspiring.
You can order Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal at the ELCA website, part of its treasure-trove of hunger resources. You might also develop accompanying materials that could help make this book into a congregational resource.
Have fun with your reading!
September 26, 2014
Simple enough: Weeding weather
You may experience in your climate zone what we junior meteorologists call "weeding weather." This is the time where outpourings or pilings-up of moisture make the ground soft and yielding. The end result? Weather that makes possible one of life's most pleasurable and rewarding tasks: Pulling weeds out of a yard, sidewalk, garden or unwashed ears.
It's a simple thing, this weeding, but it brings with it feelings that can color your entire day or personality. From my experience (yes, I am a flagrant weeder) come these thoughts:
- When the ground is super-saturated, weed roots of almost every kind release their tenacious grip on that soil and yield to your insistent tugging.
- As the weeds come free of their unsightly perches, your eyes feast on a space suddenly redeemed, clean or pleasing to the eye.
- Piled weeds seem almost eager to greet their next iteration: material for the compost heap. The weeds wilt even before their gentle placement into/onto their new home, as if waiting to decompose and turn back into soil.
- When you clear enough weeds, the satisfaction of restoring that space to an original state of beauty can also lift your spirits. The semi-depression that comes from a weed-choked space is now lifted, and endorphins take their rightful place in your now weed-free brain.
- If you are a gardener or other plant-lover, you may elect to replace the weeds with other growing things that don't cause hay fever, attract vermin or spread into your teen's overgrown bedroom. Botany shifts gears, and so does your view of verdant life.
Are there lifestyle metaphors growing here? Certainly. Are weeds still only plants that are unwanted in a particular space? Of course. Is weeding weather a time for thanking God? You got it!
Am I finished pulling word weeds?
September 23, 2014
Simple Congregations: Simple Stewardship (repeat)
The following set of entries, "Simple Stewardship," is a bonus feature just for you. Use these entries as part of your congregation's annual efforts at stewardship education or your preparations for funding God's mission in your congregation. Each entry is devoted to a single stewardship topic.
Who's a steward? (A little background on the term)
All of life (What "stewardship" includes)
Who's on first? (Choosing a stewardship ministry team)
A better starting point (Beginning with your assets in mind)
Giving is emotional (A key concept in generosity)
Stale bread (Communicating in fresh ways)
Proof-texting stewardship (Using the Bible wisely)
Avoiding asking (Detouring around the core task)
The perfect response method (Choosing a method for requesting contributions)
Fundraising (A good term with wise practices)
I hope these entries are useful for you, that they're simple to understand. And if you want to learn more, follow your denomination's stewardship ministry leaders to their resources, their wisdom, their helpfulness.
God keep you joyful in your stewardship!
To learn more about these and other stewardship concepts, visit http://bit.ly/oODN6v to view a set of whimsical animated movies about "Pig Boy" (one way of describing the Anglo Saxon term, "steward").
Simple stewardship: Who's a steward?
To start out with, let's get this "you're a steward" thing straight, OK? First, some Greek and Anglo-Saxon basics:
Greek: The "steward" (economos) the chief slave in first-century estates who knew and carried out the plan (economia) of the owner. This person did not just follow the "household rules" (an old translation of economia), nor was an economos simply a "caretaker" or "manager."
Anglo-Saxon: Even before the English language was regularized in writing, there were stewards. They worked in castles. The person in charge of the castle sty—the place where animals were cared for—was called the stywaerden, a fairly responsible position in the hierarchy of castle life. Over time—probably because of the faithful service of these sty-wardens—the "steward" was given charge of the great hall, then the responsibility for the economic well-being of the castle. Eventually, "stewards" became the Stewarts, rulers of Scotland and other kingdoms.
So when you use the terms "steward" or "stewardship" today, you're talking about someone who:
- Works faithfully to complete the plan of an absent owner, making decisions and taking action to fulfill the owner's expressed will.
- Works with both gritty, grimy realities and the big-picture elements of life.
- Gets the job done, whether or not the available rules require specific actions.
- Lives with a sense of responsibility regarding what he or she does not own.
In contemporary Christian theology, the designation "steward" is applied to every Christian. Each of us has the privilege and responsibility of serving God's will. Wherever we are, and using what's at our disposal, we accomplish what God has in mind: creating, redeeming, sanctifying, combating evil, forgiving, loving, leading, sacrificing for the sake of others.
In today's world, stewards are mature disciples who do more than follow the instructions left for them. Self-starters, stewards are pragmatic, can-do people who know that fulfilling the will of God for the world is a whole lot better than following their own whims, fantasies, imaginations, or egos. They look after the welfare of others, keeping in mind their once-lowly estate—remember the sty?
So you're one of those people, you and all the other members of your congregation. You have a joyful task in front of you, good stuff to work with, and wonderful outcomes to seek. God calls you, equips you, and sends you to accomplish God's will in the world.
Simple stewardship: All of life
You already know this, right? Stewardship is about all of life, not just your congregation's annual to secure commitments for funding its ministries. (The New Testament economos and the stywarden of the Middle Ages were responsible for much more than money.) If you took that premise to heart, what could "whole life stewardship" do to simplify your congregation's life together? These thoughts:
- You could choose from among a wide variety of topics and lectionary texts on which to preach and teach during the entire year.
- Hearers and learners—and other members—might see themselves as stewards wherever their lives take them.
- Your congregation could have a wider variety of caring ministries. (For example, what if you explored the stewardship of expectant mothers or the stewardship of the arts?)
- Your congregation's mission statement could get shortened to: Together we accomplish God's will wherever we are.
- Members would see how their use of money helps them fulfill their yearning to do God's will in the rest of their lives.
- Because money follows passion, your annual funding programs could start with people's passions for their lifework inside and outside your congregation.
- Marginally involved members could find excitement and purpose in your congregation. (Think children, youth, "inactives.")
- Contributors could see your congregation's value for its members' entire lives. (For example, "This church helps you fulfill your calling as parents, students, truck drivers, and farmworkers.")
- Stewardship might replace discipleship as a focus for your identity as a congregation.
Yes, worship, witness, and Christian formation are also legitimate centers for congregational identity. But if may be difficult to connect those valued elements of practical theology with the daily lives of "ordinary Christians." It's possible that stewardship is a more easily understandable way for members to approach their entire lives in God's service. That's why "stewardship of life" has other names, like ministry in daily life, lifestyle stewardship or creation care. That may even be a reason why the term "stewardship" still attracts attention and energy in the enterprises of commerce and government.
So here's a question: How could stewardship—putting God's useful gifts to work in order to fulfill God's will—simplify your congregation's programs, attitudes or identity? One answer: This approach might prove to be a fresh and enjoyable way for you to conduct this year's annual mission funding appeal.
Willing to try this out?
Simple stewardship: Who's on first?
The classic comedy act of Abbott and Costello made famous a routine in which a miscommunication about nouns and pronouns results in total confusion about the names of the players on a fictitious baseball team. What may not be funny in your congregation—even though it could be a classic situation—is the matter of finding just the right "players" to serve on your congregation's team for stewardship ministry.
So in the interest of helping you with simple stewardship thinking, these few thoughts:
- Don't rely necessarily on the usual suspects or the obvious choices. Yes, bankers and financial planners know about money, but stewardship also concerns itself with lifestyle, greed, unemployment, care of the earth and difficult decisions.
- This wider view of stewardship ministry may suggest a wider view of who could best take leadership in these matters.
- Start your selection process with the view that this team is going to talk honestly with congregation members about decisions they make about their way of living. (Remember that giving is only one aspect of life stewardship.)
- Who in your congregation is straightforward, courageous, truth seeking and truth telling, curious, humble, hopeful or trustworthy? Being a steward isn't necessarily an easy task for anyone, so perhaps your team members are those who are working hard to make sense out of their calling in life, their present economic situation, or their attitudes about the future or parenting.
- Consider some unlikely candidates for the team, as a way of bringing fresh ideas and vigor to stewardship ministry. They might be teenagers, commodity traders, shut-ins, coaches, entrepreneurs, "inactive" members, people with disabilities, writers or artists.
- As you solicit participation, frame the tasks these leaders will undertake in terms of the time required, duration of the work, and expectations for outcomes. Share with prospective team members the specific personal qualities that attracted your attention as well as the benefits you hope will come to them.
- Invite individuals into this group with a personal invitation, preferably face to face. You are your most earnest and persuasive self when others can see your face!
You can fill a stewardship task group with a wonderful collection of interesting and eager people. They're out there in plain sight, waiting for your invitation. As they work together with you, you'll all come to see that there is joy and fulfillment in stewardship leadership!
From time to time, maybe some comedy too.
Simple stewardship: A better starting point
In my many decades of stewardship ministry, I've seen that stewardship too often begins with presumptions regarding great and continuing neediness. You probably know what I'm talking about if you've ever had to cajole your congregation into generosity by revealing the overwhelming problems facing the people of God. Here's another characteristic of this approach: an overwhelmingly depressing logic about the pervasive incapacities of this congregation. (My way of framing this attitude: "If we had some eggs, we could have some ham and eggs—if we had some ham.")
When you start with neediness, you get trapped into stress and fear. Both of these conditions elicit reactions like fighting, fleeing and freezing—hardly behaviors for congregations wanting to get God's work done! And stress chemicals mess up your brain's capacity for imagination, action, generosity, creativity and remembering.
A better place to start? What you already have that could be useful. (So, in the ham-and-eggs formula, you'd start with something like, "We have all this ham; what could we do with it?") The name for this approach is "asset-based planning and thinking," but don't let that term scare you. This is a much better approach, mostly because it leapfrogs over negativity.
Right now you may be thinking about how to fund God's mission or how to ask people to join in that task. Start your thinking and planning with your already-existing assets—God-given gifts that are useful. (Don't worry about objectives and outcomes; they'll show up later.) Take a careful look at all the skills, experiences, education, hobbies, and attitudes of your congregation that you might use in getting God's work done. And then put them together to forge approaches that start with strengths, not weaknesses.
I've seen this work in places where the only assets people could think of were their problems ("We're just a bunch of old people here") and I've seen this approach ignite excitement in places where all the assets seemed odd ("Most of us have lawn tractors"). In almost every setting, the assets are surprising motivators, because they've been hiding behind all the presumed neediness! And when they're exposed to the wind of the Spirit, the assets join together, generating innovation, energy and a can-do attitude that eventually succeeds. That's why I encourage you to explore you're the usefulness of all your gifts.
And by the way, you most likely have both the ham and the eggs!
Simple stewardship: Giving is emotional
Any decision to give is basically an emotional act, especially when it comes to contributing money. The research out there—philanthropy, altruism, behavioral economics—seems pretty consistent on this point. Because the emotions that underlie giving are fairly complex, they likely involve much more of the brain than logical-sequential thought. You know many of them: love for others, love for God, sympathy, empathy, fear/anger, hope, kinship, affinity, duty, admiration, joy, gratitude, generosity, surprise, delight, or humility.
When it comes to funding God's mission through your congregation, you may want to assess how much you rely on emotion—and how much on intellect—as the bases for your appeal. You might ask questions such as these:
- In what ways do your communications include language that acknowledges or invites emotions?
- How do you connect factual matters with emotions?
- How much do you look only to "proofs"—appeals to intellectual truths—as primary motivations for giving?Which emotions might you have overlooked?
- On which emotions do you depend too often?Where in your appeals for contributions do you invent or amplify "emotions" that just aren't that strong or don't exist at all?
A caution here: Appeals to emotion can sometimes weaken the effectiveness of your annual mission funding emphasis. Why? Several reasons come to mind. Processing emotions requires a lot of brain power, making it hard to sustain that kind of mental work. Even though most decisions start in the brain's emotion centers, not every thought is completely and forever laden with emotion. Sometimes appeals to feelings backfire or become manipulative when the emotions start to run roughshod over every other legitimate thought process. (Think about pleas that rely only on sympathy for people who are poor.) And getting from motivation to action requires some logical-sequential thinking, especially planning.
But if your annual emphasis on securing contributions is primarily an invitation to intellect—"God tells us thus-and-so, and therefore we will do this-and-that" or "We should do our part to meet the budget"—you may be barking up the wrong tree, or at least appealing to only one part of givers' brains. And a purely logical approach to giving can become overloaded with information and thus cumbersome for the brain to process fully. That limited way of encouraging giving just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.
My encouragement for you: Consider including emotional appeals in your calls to members' thinking about funding God's mission. I think this could simplify stewardship.
Does any of this make sense to you?
Simple stewardship: No stale bread
For as long as I can remember, I've been struck by the willingness of some church leaders to serve "stale bread" in their communications and utterances. This has seemed especially true in the area of stewardship. Leaders who would never serve stale communion wafers or stale lemon bars at potlucks seem nevertheless content to serve up huge helpings of verbiage that may have passed its usefulness several football seasons ago.
I'm not entirely sure what makes one person's bedrock truth into someone else's stale bread, so I want to be careful here. But I also want to be honest: Some of our stewardship utterances may be musty mutterings or grand flourishes of ancient rhetoric that just don't carry messages very well any more.
Consider these examples:
- Is there a better way of saying, "time, talents, and treasures"? How about "useful gifts of God" or "God-given assets" or even "the stuff that makes life worth living"? (And be honest, is active alliteration attractive any more?)
- I don't know what do about "the giver's need to give." It seems to me that if we encourage or fill that need, we're primarily benefitting the giver, which feels kind of selfish.
- "Blessed to be a blessing" is true, but so is, "We get to do God's work together."
- "Give back to God what God has first given us" seems both stale and a minor heresy. Nothing in our lives belongs to us, so how can we give God anything? (Yes, I know those Bible passages.)
The solution is not to invent spanking-new expressions that call so much attention to themselves that folks get lost in our gosh-darn cleverness. Spiffy could also be silly. If stewardship is about serving the will of God wherever we are with whatever we have, though, it seems to me that the language of stewardship should be as delightfully ordinary as the discourse of everyday conversation.
So how does "stale bread" (not) work where you are? How have you been able to find fresh and honest ways to talk about things like money, generosity, God's will for your life, or being mindful of blessings? What would it take for you to start baking and serving what's clean, bright, and unsullied by overuse?
I wish you well in your consideration of these questions. And when you find good answers, share them with someone else.
May your stewardship be fresh and simple!
Simple stewardship: Proof-texting stewardship
My spiritual heritage includes the skill of proof-texting, using biblical material—even out of context—to bolster one's beliefs, values, attitudes, or actions. Inside the confines of Mother Church this ability was important, but when I stepped outside into the world, very few people saw my adroit quoting of Scripture as proof of anything.
A similar problem may complicate stewardship ministries. In some places, the legitimacy of a practice or truth is accomplished by slathering stewardship-related communications with Scriptures. Some stewardship leaders also believe that seasoning their invitations and arguments—about generosity, pledging, proportional giving, and so forth—with Bible passages will motivate others towards correct actions. It's not that simple, though. Proof-texting probably doesn't work well as a motivation for most people. Their gratitude and generosity are generated by other, deeper spiritual factors.
Proof-texting as a form of persuasion can also be marginally dishonest when Scripture is taken out of context. Twisting and tweaking the Bible to "prove" how we might behave as contributors to congregational ministries is no better than using God's Word to prove scientific facts. Let me share these possible examples:
- Many of Paul's exhortations about regular offerings refer specifically to the first-ever hunger/disaster relief program of Christianity. This is not the same as weekly offerings to support congregational ministries.
- The Old Testament seems to encourage three different tithes. One of them was devoted to funding a big celebration!Urgings to "sacrificial giving" that cite Old Testament references may overlook the fact that most sacrifices were payments for the misdeeds of God's people.Those same sacrifices provided God with a pleasing odor, but also ensured good eating for the priests and Levites.
- Jesus was likely not a regular contributor to his local synagogue.
- Newer exegetical tools provide possibly different meanings for some of the New Testament parables of Jesus that are frequently cited as examples of giving.
Let me say right away that the deeper meanings and practices of stewardship—gratitude, generosity, un-deservedness, giftedness—are amply illustrated and encouraged in the Bible. Most of them, though, are embedded in stories of God's people, in the utterances of prophets and Wisdom literature, or in out-of-the-stewardship-limelight passages. (For an example, see 2 Peter 1:3ff in the CEV translation.) Those are the wonderful places to seek God's wisdom for stewardship ministry. Look for these heartening encouragements as you continue to search the Scriptures.
That's proof enough for me.
Simple stewardship: Avoiding asking
I'd like to talk about what I think may lie behind some of the difficulties many of us face when it comes to funding God's mission in our congregation. I think it's really simple: We're afraid or embarrassed to ask other people to give money. (We may also be afraid of folks who might say "No!") Some of us may not be sure whether our congregation is worthy of people's contributions.
When we don't admit those fears, we hide behind getting the right theme or speaker, or we spend big bucks bringing in experts to do our asking for us. Our fears might drive other behaviors like depending on sure-fire techniques, crafting overwrought communications, or passing on vague euphemisms and metaphors. Another possible sign of avoidance: allowing meetings to slip into trivial or endless planning.
How to get around this? Admit together that you may be uncomfortable asking other people for their contributions. Take an appreciative look at the work of God that gets done because of your church. Think about how lives get changed by your congregation's programs and your congregation's members. People receive benefits such as:
- Courage to face the world every day at work.
- Honesty and integrity in the face of difficulty.
- Comfort, wisdom, and hope when times are tough.
- Lives that make sense.
- Reasons to keep on keeping on.
More benefits? Consider how contributors can gain an identity that's more than self-idolatry; the life-truths and joy that come in sermons; the support of other, like-minded souls; and the thrill of being part of something bigger than you. How about forgiveness, love, trust, delight—human commodities available to all comers? Because of your congregation, God's work gets done here at church and out in the world.
Understanding the value of your congregation—fund-raisers call this a case statement—you can face potential contributors with the assurance (for them and for you) that they receive and offer benefits because of this congregation.
One other thing: If your congregation includes marketers, advertisers, salespersons, or business owners, ask them to train you in the good and godly arts of asking! These are folks who do not apologize for asking or hide behind modesty or false humility. They believe in what they do, what they offer, who they are. You can learn from them.
Now are you ready to ask others for contributions without looking down at your shoes?
Simple stewardship: The perfect tesponse method
Here's a classic urban/suburban/rural myth of stewardship ministry: There is a perfect response method. In the minds of some stewardship leaders, you find the magic method, do what its developers tell you to do, and watch those pledges roll in like grain into a silo!
The truth? No such thing exists! Some reasons:
- One person's goose is another person's grain silo. No method works perfectly for everyone.In stewardship ministry,
- "Be like me and, verily, ye shall be successful" can be another way of saying, "Buy my snake oil."
- "Perfect" doesn't mean easy.Clever slogans and flashy graphics aside, all methods boil down to a predictable series of steps you probably already know.
- The fundamentals of generosity are based on spiritual and personal relationships. Most response methods help generosity and relationships become the foundation for people's best thinking.
How do you find a response method that works well in your congregation? Stewardship leaders generally agree on these principles:
- Start with your already-existing capacities or assets, and examine how they fit possible response methods. For example, if you have just five talented and committed people on your team, and the method you choose requires dozens of volunteers, you're moving away from what's possible towards what's difficult.
- Instead, match the method you choose to the assets of those five people!Think about how the response method brings you closer to the contributors you hope will support the mission of God in your congregation.
- Quick-and-dirty methods may get pledge cards smoothly in and out of family mailboxes but may not strengthen faith relationships.
- Watch out for cute and clever. Most folks know when they're being hustled, and they don't like it. Catchy aphorisms and marketing techniques may work well for businesses, but you're trying to build long-term relationships, lives of generosity, hope, and loyalty—stuff that you can't trick people into.
- Make sure the method doesn't bury people in communications, concepts, or contacts. Information overload doesn't help anyone.
My favorite method? Visiting every member where he or she lives, works, or plays. Why? Face-to-face conversations change lives. Yes, they consume time. But chasing saddlebags around your congregation or making follow-up calls to the people who didn't attend the congregation's fundraising dance can take even more time!
I hope these thoughts help you choose a response method that is simple, direct, and effective.
And maybe even perfectly enjoyable!
Simple stewardship: Fundraising
In some quarters, "fundraising" is a term that carries some negative shading, perhaps deservedly. When they substitute for joyful, generous giving, some kinds of fundraising can diminish stewardship to a market-based interaction—"You contribute some money and I'll give you a car wash." I get that. Some of us also have memories of fundraising professionals who were a little less-than-ethical, a little more-than-persuasive and a little slicker than a rogue salesperson. I get that too.
But when you look at the values and practices that are currently part of professional fundraising, you may have to soften too-quick condemnations of the art and science of philanthropy. Let me illustrate:
- Fundraisers know how to ask. Directly, honestly, eye-to-eye. No apologies or false humility.
- Philanthropic research—based on behavioral economics—is fairly accurate about the inner workings of people's minds when they are invited to become contributors.
- The fundamentals for building a donor base can work in any organization, including your congregation.
- Most fundraising practices today are donor-centered, honoring the callings and mission of contributors.
- Even secular fundraising professionals understand the decidedly spiritual nature of any act of giving.
- Fundraising specialists have a rich vocabulary of words and concepts that communicate effectively with those who wish to contribute.
What's this mean for your congregation? At the very least, you might want to ask what you and other stewardship leaders could learn from professional fundraisers. Most of them are filled with the same sense of lifework that compels your stewardship leadership. They want good to flourish in the world.
Within your circles of influence and connectivity, you are likely surrounded by people who know and practice the philanthropic arts. They might not work full time as fundraisers, but they have enough training and experience to offer wisdom to your congregation. They're likely part of nonprofit organizations, leaders in organizations or the kind of visionaries who are two steps ahead of most everyone else.
One caution, though: You have to be able to put aside your fears or distaste about the kind of fundraising that you might have experienced decades ago. You also have to humble yourself to the possibility that your congregation's approach to funding God's mission is basically ill-informed and ineffective. Perhaps hard to admit?
As for the car washes and bake sales, I'm still not sure about this form of stewardship.
Maybe you have some thoughts?
September 20, 2014
Simple enough: Killdeer lessons
I spent a good share of several weeks this summer watching the behaviors of a killdeer couple that had decided to nest in the sandy soil of our front yard. I figured that this front-row seat to ornithological behavior might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the nesting/hatching/parenting parts of the remarkable killdeer's life cycle. I was right.
For those not familiar with this bird, it's a ubiquitous variety of plover that loves sandy or marshy areas, nesting directly on the ground (no twigs or mud) camouflaged and hiding in plain sight. Its name comes from one of its frequent calls. Among its unique talents is feigning a broken-wing injury that draws intruders away from its nest. (I observed this tactic working consistently on deer, quail, ground squirrels and rabbits!)
Watching this plucky bird duo, I noted their insistent presence on the nest in order to keep the eggs at the right hatching temperature. Both the female and male shared these duties, trading off regularly when it was hot. They worked as a team when it came to warding off invaders of their nesting territory. After three weeks, the fledglings emerged but required no parental feeding. The babies immediately began walking around, nibbling at ants or other bugs. For two days, the hatchlings periodically returned to the safety of a parent's enfolding wings. Eventually the family (absent one unhatched egg) walked into the bushes.
Why tell you all this? To encourage you to engage in careful observation of nature. The object of your scrutiny doesn't have to be anything amazing or rare. The important thing is that you set aside time to look appreciatively at some part of God's natural world. What you'll discover will be surprising, heartening or even instructive—wonderful attributes of a life well-lived.
September 17, 2014
Simple enough: Dry thoughts, Part 2
"Dry" is an attention-getting metaphor because its real-life analog always deals with life-and-death matters. Today I continue simplicity-oriented meanderings inside the images of drought, dryness and God's precious gifts.
When you don't have a lot of something valuable—let's say a lake filled with pure water—you are more easily satisfied with its slightest manifestation—the trickle of water from under a patch of snow. "Abundance" cuddles inside of just-enough-for-now. Your thirst is slaked, not by burying your face in deep waters but by sipping the precious drops that fall on your tongue. So, too, with any of the gifts of God that you receive—and use—as part of your lifestyle.
If it continues to the end of its natural course, dryness will kill you. Death creeps up on you stealthily, like credit card debt or the emptiness of having too much stuff. Weakened, inured or fooled by what seems to be your continuing survival in the face of no moisture (I'm speaking metaphorically) you may not see death's hands until its grasp is inescapable.
One result of dryness is desiccation—the shriveling of something formerly alive into a small and horrific replica of itself. In the driest conditions, your carcass soon becomes dust. No longer recognizable, you are no longer remembered. Not what you want for your legacy.
You're getting the picture, right? "Dryness" is not just the absence of water in a Western landscape. The concept applies to any aspect of your life where an essential source of life is diminished. Generosity, happiness, spirituality, friendships—all can dry up, leaving you without a lifestyle of any kind except desperate acquisitiveness.
So where's the "water" in your life and how are you going to keep seeking it? Always a good place to start: God's wisdom!
September 14, 2014
Simple enough: Dry thoughts, Part 1
Soon enough, the drought that continues in the Southwest will be described in "biblical proportions"--an allusion that may also elicit a new direction for Bible study! (Elijah as rain-bringer or farmer's friend?) The continuing water shortage also sharpens other kinds of thinking. Based on my personal experiences this summer in the Sierra Nevada, the following observations.
After at least three years of below-average moisture, the West is parched and dry. It's also shriveling toward desolation. Fields and forests, grasslands and croplands, mountains and deserts—each feature of the landscape totters toward slow destruction. It doesn't take much thinking to realize that water-dependent humans also face that same slow death. (Most of our body weight is comprised of water; we die from a lack of water sooner than we die from a lack of food.)
In these settings, the wasting of water—for whatever reasons—may constitute a new level of craven sinfulness. Those who have legal rights to water can hide behind decades-old laws but can't escape the glaring truth that their misappropriation of those rights results in the erosion of others' well-being. Water-selfishness looms large as a cause for civil strife.
Understandably, the simplest uses of water bring enjoyment, as this precious gift of God becomes available for life's necessary tasks. A glass of water becomes something to savor, and a periodic bath/shower accentuates the joy of being clean. The water-endowed taste of vegetables and fruits makes meals into exquisite experiences. Clouds become emblems of almost-miraculous relief.
The simplicity connection? Deprived of life's most necessary elements—in this case, water—you have the choice to grab, hoard or misuse what you name as yours. OR you can renew your commitment to living simply and gratefully, mindful of those around you.
Mindful of God, on whose creation you depend.
September 11, 2014
Simplicity's children: Yucky learning
Today I'd like to help you equip your children to handle what's gross, slimy, dirty, odiferous, nauseating or otherwise disgusting in life. My logic is simple: Hermetically sealed, bubble-wrapped lives won't be the norm when your kids grow up, so part of your parenting responsibility is to acquaint your children now with what's physically revolting. Some yucky-learning observations:
- To introduce "slimy" as an acceptable experience, involve your children in from-scratch cooking or encourage their playing with or in mud.
- Think carefully before you make every inch of your yard, your children's clothing or your home pristine and antiseptically clean.
- Introduce your children to the richness of trash by including garbage-related chores as part of their responsibilities. You might want to include cleaning out garbage cans as one facet of the experience.
- Your public library may have a (secret?) selection of children's books written especially for this purpose. The keywords "yucky," "gross" or even "poop" are good starters.
- When the need arises, help your children increase their yucky vocabulary past "Gross!" or "Eeeeww!" (What are some acceptable synonyms for unpleasant body functions?)
- Should your children start to describe everything in yuck-based terms, take the time to show them that inside of what seems revolting are counterbalancing realities such as beauty, function or necessity.
- If you have a young baby in the house, ask your other children to assist in some of the physically unpleasant tasks of parenting. (Boys and girls, can you say "diaper"?)
- In your spoken depictions of life around you, be careful not to name as unpleasant or repugnant what may actually be worthy of appreciation.
However you accomplish this task, its rewards are great: Adult humans who, because of you, will be lucky to see past yucky.
September 8, 2014
Simple enough: The well-tethered life
As children return to schools and schoolyards, many of them are looking forward to recess time, when they get to play tetherball. Good for kids' well-being, of course, but have you ever thought about the ball's viewpoint? Pounded by one player, the ball swings wildly in one direction around its anchoring pole, only to quickly reverse its course when struck by an opposing player. Back and forth the ball goes, until the game is won by the child(ren) first able to get it most tightly wound around its tethering pole.
"Pounded back-and-forth, but always tethered." These words might also characterize your lifestyle during this time of year. Beset behind and before, you reverse your directions regularly and are never free from the perhaps-invisible fetters that keep you from living as you might hope. Some examples:
- You're bound to a soccer parent life, hindered from managing your calendar because of the team's exhaustive (travel?) schedule.
- Your family is handcuffed to a unsustainable budget because of the cost of maintaining your too-big home.
- You've given up thinking for yourself spiritually because it's easier to go along with what your church requires.
- You are chained to a car that always needs repairs but whose current-year model costs too much to purchase.
- Permanently attached to your hands or clothing, your electronic toys impede your abilities to take in and appreciate the world right in front of you.
If you feel like your life is more tethered than you'd like, perhaps you can remember why or how you originally chose to be chained. Perhaps it's time to think about cutting yourself free from what constrains you from living a manageable life. Maybe you need to re-connect to your spiritual core. To God's calling, to God's freedom.
Perhaps it's time to take a recess?
September 5, 2014
Simple enough: A noisy quiet
It's amazing how quiet can sometimes be boisterously engaging, how a calming mini-vista can be full of energy and life. (A friend recounts delight in watching the movement of clouds, bats and birds on a quiet summer evening—a scene full of sights and sounds that could have easily passed as ordinary.)
As I move through life, I am captivated by the benefits of quiet. When I experience lingering moments in which noise and motion are stilled, my senses seem to expand to fill my brain to capacity with the fullness of the smallest sounds, the slightest movements, the fewest molecules of an odor. (Today, in the quiet of an early morning, the smell of wet-dog wafted into my nostrils from who-knows-where!)
You and I live in a world in which commotion of any kind is a default attribute of life. But in biological terms, we're probably not hardwired to encounter the din that comes at our senses each day. Our pace of life is probably measured better by our at-rest heartbeats than the needles on our speedometers or exercise machines. Our brains do better when they can process a moderate amount of input than when our fight/flight/freeze stress mechanisms are overwhelmed by uninvited clamor and speed. Like other creatures from God's generative hand, we're built for stillness first and only secondarily for sound-and-fury.
Any broad view of simple living starts with quiet—both a physical and metaphorical reality. Slow living—a descriptor of more than just cooking or eating—probably starts with quiet living. Lingering is probably as valuable as coping. Lying on your back, looking at clouds, is likely more life-giving than staring at a smartphone in a semi-crouched posture.
So here's my blessing for your day: Carve out some quiet, and exult in its joys.
September 2, 2014
Simple enough: On whose terms?
National park rangers and other naturalists get frustrated when people encountering the natural world presume that that environment will conform to their terms (requirements, context, laws, order, realities). As in, "Our dog is part of the family and loves to play in that meadow where all the birds are nesting, so why can't we let Sniffy off her leash to run wild the way God intended?" Clearly these folks don't understand that, when visiting the wild outdoors, humans and their dogs must live within the terms of that setting. Requiring nature to conform to human needs or foibles seems to be a dishonoring of God's creation and an arrogant view of human preeminence.
It occurs to me that any simplicity-seeking might always require answers to the question, "On whose terms ...?" For example, on whose terms:
- Will your family's monthly budget be decided?
- Might you seek your children's well-being?
- Do you engage governmental rules or regulations?
- Are medical issues defined or dealt with?
- Might the benefits of your vacation be determined?
- Should job or career changes be sought?
- Should your aging parents be cared for?
- Are lifestyle matters considered to be wrong or sinful?
- Might your congregation determine its identity?
The answers to any of these questions rest on matters of your presumed authority: In what situations do you have the prerequisite, preeminent right to set the defining parameters for decisions? To say that another way, when do your "terms" start to reek of self-idolatry or worse? Conversely, when does the common good preempt your real or imagined self-interest? How do you know about all the other "terms" that you might consider as you make decisions? These are important questions for you to consider as you make lifestyle decisions.
Sniffy, the birds and the rangers are waiting for your answers.
August 30, 2014
Simple enough: Dusting off
Want an easy way to have fun that could last a while? Consider dusting off some of your former skills, interests or relationships—or if you're younger, adding a little polish and verve to what you've set aside for a while! Here's my thinking on this wonderful possibility.
This may be easier, simpler and less expensive than pursuing the vaunted "bucket list" approach to finding new pleasure in life. Your old clarinet, binoculars or toolbox are probably still in a closet somewhere, your collection of vinyl records or CDs is still waiting to be cataloged, your Spanish-speaking skills are still available somewhere back in the linguistic part of your brain, your address book (excuse me, "contact list") is still filled with the names of folks who would love to reconnect with you. Nothing new to buy, no lessons/courses to complete, no rearrangement of your self-concept or identity. No starting from scratch, no fretting over doubts about unknown capabilities, no embarrassment about possible failure.
Yes, there's work involved. You're sharpening synapses that will need some coaxing to remember what they used to be capable of doing. You're reconnecting to emotions about these former skills, experiences, interests or relationships. And you're playing inside of the tension that comes when your now-older brain and body have to deal with the reality that this dusting-off might not return you to the luster of your younger days.
I speak from experience. Just today I reconnected with my hobby of twig-gathering, amassing several cute little piles of dead mountain willow branches and imagining their use in coming campfires. (OK, OK, you can safeguard your hobbies. I enjoy burning mine!)
One caution: If your former capabilities include either brain surgery, skullduggery, rocket science or world domination, disregard this blog and go frolic inside your bucket list!
August 27, 2014
Simple enough: Simplicity effigies
Consorting with simplicity miscreants and anarchists as I do, it's only a matter of time before I/we hang someone in effigy. Like voodoo dolls, this ancient practice—in Europe, going back to the 1670s—has weird roots, perhaps in magic or sorcery. The basic idea? If you construct the likeness of something or someone and then hang/burn/harm that replica, those actions may inflict similar pain (at least shame) on that person or thing. While I'm not sure there's any science behind any of this, my fellow radicals and I (you too?) might be on to something if we apply "hanging in effigy" to matters of simplicity. Here's how it might work:
- We build the crude model of a management structure that sucks employees dry, and we torch it on Administrative Professionals Day.
- We invent a large-sized logo for "running behind all the time" and hose it down in public.
- We fashion a huge graphic organizer chart about "necessary stuff," and then write and distribute a ritual that mocks the concept.
- We construct a large mosaic comprised of advertising slogans that tempt us to buy what we don't need. And then we hold a big rally where we edit each slogan into oblivion.
- We erect a large paper sculpture comprised of our overstuffed calendars, burn it to a crisp on New Year's Eve and use the ashes for Ash Wednesday.
And when we've destroyed or expunged all these examples of what's wrong in the world, we will all go home, make little clay effigies of ourselves, weep over our own sinful natures and bury the self-replicas in our yards or cat litter boxes. Only then can we understand that each of us creates some portion of a sad world that remains unmanageable and unsustainable.
You in on this?
August 24, 2014
Simple enough: A puzzle
I'm a Jumble® fan and proud of it. Every morning I match wits with the clever and puckish creators of these word-oriented puzzles, sharpening the word-finding capabilities of my brain in an enjoyable way. This daily activity—unscrambling words, then recombining circled letters to form the answer to an illustrated riddle—might also be one way to think of an approach to much of life, especially the simplicity-finding part of it.
Unscrambling, recombining, solving visual riddles—these might comprise a metaphorical construct that describes the metatasks of any of us who attempt to find simplicity in our lives. Let me try to parse the Jumble comparison for you.
Unscrambling: Sometimes all the elements of daily life seem like a mess, hard to decipher and even more difficult to sort or prioritize. One of the jobs you might undertake each day is to tidy up the tangled jumble of tasks that regularly come at you.
Recombining: One possible way to bring order out of the chaos you encounter is to reclassify the components of your daily living into new groupings, new definitions. For example, you might use back-to-school bargain shopping as one of the many ways you plan, converse and celebrate with your child(ren). Recombining calls for creativity, but it also sparks surprise and imagination.
Solving visual riddles: It's possible that many of the brain-teasing matters that you encounter every day may be less "problems" and more like riddles. (By definition, the answers to riddles are usually found inside the puzzling questions themselves!) What would happen if you could approach lifestyle difficulties with that understanding: The way out of a vexing situation could be contained in the problem itself, hiding in plain sight!
Perhaps life's quagmires could be more enjoyable if you thought of them as pleasurable puzzles.
August 21, 2014
Simple enough: A rare species
This summer I have had the good fortune to observe an admirable human subspecies. These sometimes rare beings carry with them enormous loads of gear and dress in camouflaged clothing that doubles as storage for their supplies. Sometimes subjected to the ridicule of other cohorts, this genus can be found throughout the entire U.S.
I am talking here about birders, of course, a remarkable part of the larger fellowship of natural historians. Their behaviors come from their passion for observing the winged ones among us. Too-easily parodied for their commitments to find, photograph, and protect birds and bird habitats, birders go to great lengths to bring you and me deep appreciation for natural beauty.
I have watched birders stand in one spot for hours, their cameras weighted with telephoto lenses the size of eagles, just to capture the sight of a rare woodpecker fledgling emerging into the sunlight. I have seen gaggles of these folks walking silently through meadows just to catch a glimpse of a kestrel patrolling for prey. I have heard them chirp among other flock members about strange and wondrous sounds and sights that they will enter into notebooks or databases.
You can find the results of these folks' commitment in the astounding images of birds that you might encounter in books, smartphone apps or PBS specials. Your appreciation for the simple joys of nature comes as a result of their personal steadfastness to preserve this one wondrous part of the natural world. Your simple pleasure—seeing birds up-close-and-personal—comes because of their unswerving devotion to what they consider a nearly spiritual duty.
So the next time you see people gazing into a tree or bush with awe—and cameras—thank them for their faithfulness to God's created world. They deserve it!
August 18, 2014
Simple enough: The simplicity selfie
(With thanks, today's blog forms itself around a sermon preached by the Rev. Rebecca Watkins of Community Presbyterian Church in Lee Vining, Calif., on July 6, 2014. The sermon set the day's New Testament lesson, Romans 7:15-25, inside an evocative invitation to consider both law and gospel as worthy guides for a Christ-following life.)
The "selfie" — now thoroughly embedded in contemporary techno-jargon — is certainly a way to get your face in front of people. Not just any face, it turns out. Because of the wonders of modern image-capturing, you can manipulate your smartphone camera buttons as many times as you like, until your soon-to-be-shared image is just right. Just the right smile, the right lighting, the right background, the right look in your eyes. Not necessarily the real you — warts and all — but the person you want others to consider as most truly you. Thus the selfie skews your image toward only the most flattering or attractive self-portrayal.
When it comes to knowing — and picturing — yourself honestly, the selfie of face-flattering technology yields to the scrutiny of law and gospel. Seeing deeper than the lens of any camera, the selfie of Scripture serves as a necessary (and perhaps welcome?) personality check. Peering to the core of your faith life, the words and word of God both accuse and assure: Your simplicity-seeking is flawed and comes up short compared to God's will, but this lifework of yours is also blessed by God and powered by the Spirit. By grace.
The good that you want to do? Confounded by the wrong that you don't want to do. Your best work? Stained and smudged by sins and shortcomings. Your lifestyle? Two tacos short of a full plate. The seemingly obvious conclusion? Give up, because you'll never get simple living right.
But as you keep framing and taking snapshots of your life, you'll notice that every selfie always includes someone else besides you: the God who loves you in spite of how you look and act. The God in whose image you were created. The God who keeps looking at your picture and keeps being pleased.
August 15, 2014
Simple enough: Willing partners
Recently it struck me that you might find simplicity partners in your congregation among those who have taken or are about to embark on a "mission trip." For the moment, I'll withhold judgment about what makes a mission trip a worthwhile experience and concentrate instead on the thought processes that occur inside the minds of participants. The short story: These folks are ready to learn from—and teach—you!
In my experience, people who participate in service learning opportunities come back home ready to talk about more than poverty or injustice. Due to their experiences they are hungry for conversations about what's important—specifically, the changes in their lifestyles that now seem to be required as a result of what they have experienced. Some of this seeking can be motivated by guilt ("It's not right that we have so much, and they have so little!") but something deeper also moves within their souls. During the trip these folks (in my congregation they're really savvy teens) have questioned almost everything they've taken for granted. If they've prepped for the time away, they're also able to articulate the dimensions of that searching.
How to engage these traveler-seekers? Ask better questions! For example, "How was Rwanda?" is going to get you a shallow answer, but "What's different about you now that won't change soon?" will help the other person put words to as-yet-unspoken thoughts. You present yourself to the traveler as someone ready to learn. Soon the subject of lifestyle-here-and-now will emerge, and that's when your conversations can lead to even more essential answers.
So look around, and see who in your fellowship has—or soon will—be part of a mission trip. And be ready to find a worthy colleague in your continuing life of simplicity-seeking!
August 12, 2014
Simplicity's children: Out in the wild
Today I'm asking you parents and caregivers to consider this invitation: What would happen if you took your children to a place that's wild? Read on ....
You may be pleased that your children explore local backyards or show interest in birds, rocks or dinosaurs. But think what might accrue to your children's lasting well-being if they spent time in places where they got dirty, where animals ruled, where weather was both lustrous and looming, where they faced nature in its fierce and foreboding forms. What could they learn from exploring parts of the natural world that didn't feature identifying plaques, docents or media presentations? (Nothing wrong with any of these, of course!) And what might happen if your children experienced true darkness, the sounds of the night or the sight of the Milky Way?
Facing untamed elements of the natural world, your children could increase in self-reliance, humility about their place in the world, understanding of both fear and courage, unbridled curiosity and respect for the power of nature. They might learn about predation, beauty, camouflage, interdependence and danger.
You don't have to travel to mountains, deserts or oceans to provide your children this experience. Patches of woodlands, streams, lakes and prairies may be within one day's drive. Federal, state, county and local parks dot the landscape. And most cities and suburbs include overgrown areas where nature has taken back its territory from buildings and asphalt. These settings might offer some of the same benefits as backpacking trips or adventure camps. The key requirement? That the setting be wild. (You define the term from your own adventures growing up!)
As you think about the life-lessons you want to offer your children, consider the benefits that come from them encountering nature by its own terms, with its own rewards.
August 9, 2014
Simple things: Sprinklers
(This entry continues a mini-series within the larger "Simple enough" blog family. The premise: It's important to look appreciatively and gratefully at some of the elements of your lifestyle that may seem ordinary, but are still precious.)
Water sprinklers come in all sizes and shapes, some replete with technological wizardry and others as simple as a pattern of small holes in an end-of-hose mini-dam. Sprinklers are the simplest part of a water-sharing ethic that embraces drip irrigators, hoses, nozzles, ditches and aqueducts. The lifework for sprinklers is straightforward: get water to more places quickly. Evenly.
Before there were sprinklers, water could be carried or channeled to distant locations with great effort. Buckets and hand tools made that possible. But with the advent of the sprinkler — dependent on water pressure coursing through hoses — water could now be distributed equitably over large swaths of the landscape. Plants could flourish far from the source of water and children could enjoy mini-fountains in their yards. (And the concept of "yard" might well be a derivative of sprinkler-ness!)
In the heat or wind of a day, of course, sprinklers are inefficient distributors of water, giving away large percentages of their benefits to the sun or wind. But their intended use is always founded on generosity and sharing — water for all who lie within the sprinklers' range.
Yes, there's a simplicity thought hiding in this, one you can see easily through my writing-mist: However we receive the blessings of God in our lives, it's always good to spread the benefits around generously. To sprinkle others with grace, to scatter smidgeons of hope, to pepper conversations with humor.
For fun, the next time you use a sprinkler of any kind, spend a few moments looking at it. Imagine a strong jet of water being splattered into smaller streams, each with its now-gentler arc through the air, each headed for its specific life-giving mission. Thank God for the ingenuity of sprinkler-inventors and recommit yourself to sharing God's blessings.
August 6, 2014
Simple congregations: The way forward
(This entry is part of a continuing series of occasional blogs that apply simplicity ideals to congregational life. These slightly longer entries can complement any program or planning process.)
As you may have gathered in reading these "Simple congregations" entries, the way forward for churches can be framed in some simplicity propositions that might seem counterintuitive. Try out some of the following.
MORE doesn't live here anymore
Many "future church" options are based on presumptions of continual growth in membership and contributions, and are subtly based on the false premise that expansion is always possible, that "abundance" is about more. Another shaky proposition: Growth is dependent on the work, skill, personality and spiritual depth of church leaders. What's more likely instead: The world is entering a (new) epoch of limits that have to be reckoned with. This viewpoint is also filled with spiritual depth and biblical precedents or proof.
Living with less still works
Hard work lies ahead, taking what you have — probably a little less than you've been used to — and making something good and godly with it. Many congregation members have discovered they can live with lowered incomes and fewer possessions, so perhaps leaders have to learn from those who have found joy in living with less.
Surefire techniques might overpromise
Best-practices systems of planning, vision-setting, reorganizing, leadership development, fundraising all may have value, but probably not to the degree they advertise. Matters of change, especially when it comes to the core values and identities of groups of people, don't come with guarantees attached. Core principles probably still apply, even when surefire tactics don't.
Expect and embrace the mess
God's first creative act was to create the primordial clutter (see "the formless void" of Genesis 1:2) that only later God ordered into night and day, etc. It makes sense to honor first that act of creation by taking on chaotic messiness as something normal and even good in congregations. To be patient with the time it takes to slowly sort through the seeming disarray of competing possibilities. To be comfortable with risk and ambiguity. To forgive each other when the hodgepodge of congregational life doesn't present itself well. As with the moments and epochs of God's second creative acts, your formless voids will order themselves. The Spirit still "moves on the face of the waters."
Beware time-wasting tautologies
Self-proving circular arguments and activities can suck up precious time and attention. Be aware that much of what passes as "new-and-improved" congregational structure and programs may be an old/failed way of thinking that's gussied up in a new uniform. (Your congregation's older members can be helpful here.) As you look at the future possibilities for your congregation, be ready to see if propositions find their supposed utility only in self-reinforcing logic. (A likely sign: Use of the words "ought" and "should.")
Pay attention to God's other kingdom
In "two kingdom" doctrinal formulations, God's realm outside the church is also important and truth-revealing. God operates powerfully and effectively there too. As you seek the future, it makes sense for you to spend time parsing out what's happening in so-called secular arenas. Science, business, government and other enterprises are all part of God's working so you might expect to find wisdom, vision and actionable knowledge in those God-blessed arenas as well.
These few examples can help you sort through competing propositions about the future of the church. As you consider your personal knowledge and practice of simplicity, you'll probably find other ideas that fit well with congregational life.
Moving forward, simply — propositions you already know!
August 3, 2014
Simple enough: Nixing metaphors
The more I read the more I am convinced that we church people don't do ourselves any favors by much of what we write. To be direct, much of our writing about spiritual matters is overburdened by metaphorical constructs.
Nothing wrong with metaphors — biblical prophets and poets, Jesus and Paul all used them. But it may be true that we churchly writers/speakers fall back on metaphors when we think we can't find other language for expressing matters of faith. What's worse: We think we're communicating directly into the parts of people's brains where faith lives and grows.
The opposite is probably true. Churchly metaphorical constructs (e.g., the realm of God, feasting on eternal manna, discipling or being enfleshed for missional identities) all beg the question, "What in God's name are you talking about?" Or less politely: "Huh?" Among listeners and readers not steeped in churchly language, eyes glaze over, attention wanders, our relevance dissipates and our relationships wither. We slather our communication with mysterious/magical verbal constructs and fail to realize how few people speak, read or write in that fashion.
I'm prone to this communication breakdown, too, and would be less-than-honest if I didn't tell you that it's easier that way. (Just as it was easier for the pastors of my childhood to end all their sermons with a favorite hymn verse, or for some preachers today to gesture in sermon-conclusion toward the altar or baptismal font and murmur something about "these life-giving and hope-fulfilling sacraments.") It feels simpler to rely on metaphorical formularies than it is to grapple with the best-fitting words.
So what seems uncomplicated — piling up the jargon of spiritual/biblical metaphors — actually creates complexity: People who don't know what we're talking about or who we really are. Who God is ...!
Is it time to be quiet yet?