(Message given at NFC 10/7/12)
Life often comes at us with a ferocity that defies description. We often feel pulled and stretched like taffy….with demands and responsibilities, interests and opportunities, all tugging us in a thousand directions at once. Bowled over and internally turmoiled, our circumstances and our divided loyalties cause a fog to descend over our eyes as we look forward in our lives.
We long for a straight path, for road signs to lead us somewhere…well, not just somewhere, not just anywhere, but to a place of contentment and significance where we feel like we have done something worth doing, not just been bruised and buffeted by the winds of life.
This tension point of tugging is where I want to begin exploring simplicity. Not as if simplicity is a nagging “should”; not as a stern task master calling us to better stewardship of our planet. Not as yet another demand pulling at us, yanking us, screaming that we must become more simple.
I want to start with the tense, anxious, awkward tug of war we so often feel about so many things in life. Never enough time. Never enough money. Never enough significant things to accomplish. Never enough clarity or direction or vision to see a way forward. And in that turmoiled reality, I invite us to see the call to simplicity as a rescuer–as a centering point in the storm.
Because the world is so complex, many of us long for things to be simpler. Sometimes that comes out in a desire to go back to a time when things seemed easier. We long for things to make sense, wish for that one little key that will unlock the world to us and make everything crystal clear. It’s a theme that shows up in many books and movies.
I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy when I was in Jr. High. That’s almost 30 years ago, and the books were almost 30 years old then. I even found a picture, thanks to the magic of Google, of the same edition that I read several times (although they put them in the wrong order; Second Foundation is actually the last book in the trilogy).
The premise of these books is the allure of simplifying life by being able to predict the future. It’s the hope that in the middle of an entire universe of growing complexity, one man is smart enough to see through it all and figure out the key to predicting the future. Asimov invents the character Hari Seldon, who creates something called “psychohistory”. At the heart of psychohistory is a simple idea-even though each individual has complete free will and their choices are random and completely unpredictable, if you could get a big enough sample size, all those random individuals begin to smooth out in a beautiful bell curve that you can predict with probability. It extrapolates the idea from science, that while you cannot predict the path or activity of a single molecule, the properties of a mass number of molecules ARE able to be figured out with a high degree of accuracy.
So Hari Seldon looks at the entire universe of humanity sometime way in the future, and is able to come up with equations that predict the future. That simple idea that the world can be reduced to equations understood by SOMEONE (even if it isn’t me!) is wonderfully reassuring to many people in these books.
We live under the…I’m not sure what to call it…the belief? hope? delusion? that life can be simplified and figured out, that we will see through all the mass of confusion around us to a simple clarity. The classic movie “The Matrix” plays into that delusion and hope. The premise of the movie is that all of humanity is actually living in a fake, computer generated “matrix”…that they live all of their existence in the unreality of a virtual computer world. But there are a few who fight, who resist, who are working toward freedom. And Neo becomes the one who sees through it all, who, at the climax of the movie, can literally see the 0’s and 1’s of the computer program. He then is able to alter the reality…well, the virtual reality…that all of humanity is living in.
Watch this climactic scene-it begins with bullets, but remember, they’re just imaginary, virtual bullets. 🙂
He sees through it all! And after this, he transforms and bends the virtual reality to make it do whatever he wants.
Who wouldn’t want to see through life so clearly and simply? I’m not sure what to make of the fact that this theme is woven through so much of our literature and entertainment. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that the longing for simplification of the complexity of the world is so universal. But on the other hand, it causes one to wonder. Is it all a sort of fantasy or fiction to imagine that simplicity could happen, could be achieved?
As believers in Christ, we stand in a company of people who claim to actually be able to live a simple, single-minded life of obedience to God. Throughout history, there are voices which call us to the center, to a life of devotion and purity of focus on Christ that leads to a different kind of life, one that is calm in the midst of circumstantial storm. Can it be?
Jesus teaches many times that it CAN be! He does it when he says to Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed-or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41) Jesus is telling Martha…and he is telling us…that an answer does exist to navigating and surviving the multitude of things which cause us worry and upset. It is to place listening to Jesus in a place of supreme importance in our lives.
Jesus teaches it to the rich young ruler, who is longing for certainty of his status with God. Jesus says, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) Follow me, casting all other pursuits and possessions aside. Follow me.
Or when Jesus stands in front of thousands on a mountain, teaching, and he says: “Do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:31-33)
It appears that Jesus is holding out hope of a way out of the madhouse, out of the taffy-pull of life as we know it. Jesus is offering a way of freedom from the worries and anxiety that the modern crush of life seems to bring.
I wonder…where are you most in need of hope for change? What area of life tugs at you constantly, that you wish could be simplified? Relationships? Time? Work? What are the areas of your life where you most long for simplicity, for Jesus’ promised hope of lack of worry and anxiety?
The statement from our Faith and Practice that we are looking at today begins with these two sentences:
As Friends we have a long tradition for adhering to scriptural injunctions for plain living. In this respect, we are encouraged to work toward transforming the values of our culture rather than conforming without question…
It goes on to narrow that focus of simplicity and plain living to stewardship of our resources-but I’ve been led to stay here in the broad picture this week. How do we transform the values of our culture, rather than conforming without question? Our culture values production, doing, money, reward; and especially, our culture values MORE. More of all of the above. As Friends, it says, we believe in the plain living that the bible teaches. That kind of plain living comes out in those biblical examples that I mentioned earlier, where Jesus is calling us to himself, calling us to sift through all of the other things which pull at us and make things more complex. We’re invited to find a quiet, plain center where Christ’s voice is heard and obeyed.
Obedience. Holy obedience, Richard Foster calls it, when we deal with life’s complexity with a single-minded, whole and holy obedience to Jesus Christ.
“Holy obedience is the single eye that bathes the entire personality in light. It is the purity of heart that can desire only one thing-the good. It is a God-intoxicated life that can embrace wealth or poverty, hunger or plenty, crucifixion or acclaim with equal ease at the word of Christ.” [Freedom of Simplicity, p. 94]
Paul describes this life in his letter to the Philippians. “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12)
This comes through a beautiful trust that God truly loves us, that God truly will care for our needs. Trust is part of a simple life. Not a simplistic “smile and everything will be ok”, but a real kind of simplicity that looks into the hard realities of life and sees through them, as Neo did in the matrix, to the underlying realities and truth that supports it all. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believe in me will not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
In that kind of simplicity, that kind of trust, God takes ownership and responsibility for our lives. We loose the grip, prying our finger tips from the steering wheel of our will and allow God to direct, guide, and even control. We live in holy obedience.
Looking into the depth of the riches of the bible is part of gaining this kind of trust. The bible reminds us the truth about God’s care for the world and for us. It pulls the pieces of this chaotic world together by painting a picture for us of God’s power and goodness laying the path straight before us.
It shows why we can trust.
And when we can look with trust into the eyes of God, the power of God’s self-sacrificial love begins to do its work on us, peeling away our veneer of control, sliding our hands off the rudder, and trusting that God truly does know best. Looking into the face of God truly does make all the old things pass away.
Thomas Kelly was a Quaker educator who lived in the first part of the twentieth century. He died unexpectedly in 1941, but left behind written words that open us up to the wisdom of Holy Obedience. Kelly captures so powerfully how looking into the face of God blinds us to the complexity that is weighing us down.
“Humility rests upon a Holy blessedness, like the blindness of [she] who looks steadily into the sun. For wherever [she] turns [her] eyes on earth, there [she] sees only the sun. The God-blinded soul sees naught of self, naught of personal degradation or of personal eminence, but only the Holy Will.” (Testament of Devotion, p. 69. See also William Penn Lecture, 1939 “Holy Obedience” )
Can it be that simple?
In some ways, yes…in other ways, this takes a lifetime to live. Such a rich phrase and image Kelly uses! The avenue through the complexity of life is a “God-blinded soul.” It is to become a person who looks so steadily at the real and present God, that we become blind to everything else. Greed and striving and people-pleasing and status-chasing become invisible as we fix our eyes on the holy presence of God.
Here at our church, we sent a big class of high school graduates out into the world last spring, and they are now scattered across the country. One of those is my own flesh and blood; but I’ve found myself thinking and praying for many of them, even writing to them as they are in this overwhelming time of life when everything is new, fresh, exciting…and daunting and scary and overpowering.
I’ve wrestled to try and communicate the things of which Thomas Kelly and Richard Foster speak so eloquently. I’ve thought back to my own struggles in college; remembered the time when God met me on the track in the middle of the night when I was anxious and overwhelmed. I’ve even shared with some of these recent grads how that encounter with God did center me and calm me and make all the other voices lessen their incessant screaming for my attention.
And I realize what it comes down to is this: in some of my worst moments, and some of my best; in times when I’ve been seeking, in times when I have been blindsided; in high anxiety and dull depression and vacant boredom, I too can testify that the Almighty, the Center, the God of the Universe has encountered me. These moments have been as blinding as the sun, blocking out the voices and things which clutter up and clamor for my attention.
What I long to be able to do is pour my experience out on these young adults. I want to give it to them! While I might wish to, it is not in my power to bottle up the presence of the Divine and hand it to others. In a sense, that would just be adding to the clutter. Even if I could bottle it up and give it to you, it would just be one more thing, a “spirituality pill” that you would then have to work into your already complex life. The package would just be one more thing to hold, one thing added to the stress.
It is not in my power to package Christ and hand him over to you. I cannot offer you, I cannot offer myself a simple solution to achieving simplicity in our complexly crushing world.
What I can offer to you and to myself is a testimony and a reminder.
God is the life-giving light at the center of the universe! Christ is the center of the gravity well of the cosmos, drawing all things to himself. The Holy Spirit is blowing constantly, scattering distractions and pushing us toward home.
Look for God. Seek Christ. Listen for the Spirit.
Survival is not found in simply trying harder, in managing more things. We live as we were intended to live when all things are placed in their proper perspective, their intended order-when our Creator is at our Center, and we obey each leading in holy obedience. When Christ’s voice is the single voice I am listening for in my noisy soul and our noisy world.
May Christ be your blinding sun! May God become your defining Center! Seek Christ! And all these other things will fall into their proper place.