Sunday, November 18, 2012

Simplicity (Not as Easy as It May Seem)

Today, during Meeting for Worship, we discussed the idea of Simplicity. All who shared ministry appeared to have very different, very personal definitions of a seemingly straightforward (even simple) concept.

What may motivate us in our efforts to de-clutter our lives is the concept of Asceticism, or self-denial. This may be well and good, in theory. Yet, what we seek to remove from our own lives is rarely uniformly applied from person to person. A related idea is that of purity, one which religious groups have been wrestling with for centuries. Which of us is as true to the original intent of some cherished principle as another? Or does it depend upon the person?

I visited the Meeting for Worship of a small group of Conservative Friends a couple of years back. Back-to-the-land adherents, they purposefully decided to live the way Quakers from two centuries ago once had. Beginning in the 1970's, this motley group of Friends purposefully adopted plain speech and plain dress. They built a Worship space on the former site of a cow pasture. Like the Amish, they intended to make their living from Agrarian pursuits. This is how they defined Simplicity. This is how they sought to simplify their lives.

Henry David Thoreau's paean to self-denial, Walden, speaks to this idea.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

When whim and popular sentiment overtakes us, our motives for Simplicity move from personal to fashionable. We shop at thrift stores because self-denial is trendy. We seek to reduce our carbon footprint because it makes us seem like good stewards of the environment. We express a kind of appreciation for people on an aesthetic course of one sort or another, removing things and beliefs in an effort to become better people, even more Godly people. Even if this is something we never intend to do ourselves, we quickly nod our approval.

The Gospel of Thomas, one of the rejected Gospels not part of the regular canon, puts these words in Jesus' mouth.
Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Do you not understand that he who made the inside is also he who made the outside?
Concentrating solely on pleasing other people achieves nothing. Concentration on internal change automatically produces external change. May we dare to look inside ourselves for the necessary reforms we believe must come to pass.

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