Growing in God through Simplicity

During my last article, we discovered that we can grow in God through giving him our timetable.  Not just our timetable, but out time, period. We need to have intentional dates with God, so we are filled with love, and not just to utilize him as a filling station.  Our time with God is to deepen our relationship. Some of this time with God includes being still before him.  This is a simple, yet profound practice. Simplicity is something that I’ve been drawn to for years.  What is simplicity?  Simplicity cultivates the great art of letting go. Simplicity aims at loosening inordinate attachment to owning and having. Simplicity brings freedom, and with it, generosity. While I spent endless hours doing ministry, study and other things, I often burned out.  I loved variety and adventure, and yet would be refreshed by quietness.  I loved to do different things but was not content with what I had.  I was always longing for more, and I don’t mean just more of God.  I felt empty and wanted to just be filled.   My life felt so… complicated and chaotic.

At the same time, I was strangely drawn to desert spirituality, and the idea of simple living. I researched and loved the stories of the Irish missionary monks who lived from the time of Columba of Iona to the 11th century.    One day when I was helping lead a retreat, I was drawn to a special little book in the bookstore. The book is called “Simple Living” by a native American Franciscan sister called Jose Hobday.  It’s revolutionary.  I seemed to sense that I would need this book in a future downsizing stage in my life.  I tried to read it several times, but I didn’t understand it at the time.  I kept the book through my moves to British Columbia, back to Kanata, downsizing to an Ottawa condo, and then moving to South Africa.  I only had room to take a shoebox worth of physical books with me.  Books are heavy!  My first encounters of simplicity were when I worked with street people in Toronto, and on other mission fields.  I learned a little more when I visited the Open Gate in Lindisfarne, which is part of the order of St Aidan and Hilda.  They have Ten Elements in their Way of Life, including simplicity.

I’m not the only one who has had this irresistible pull towards simplicity.  Part of this includes actual downsizing.  In Canada, it’s a phenomenon for aging baby-boomers who decide to simplify their lives. They move into small houses, or apartment condos so they can avoid yard or house maintenance.

In 2013, I moved from Ottawa to British Columbia, on the other side of Canada, for a radio job.  I had to downsize as much as I could very quickly – especially books and clothes.  I could only bring one car load, since my car wasn’t strong enough to pull a trailer.  This made for hard choices. I trusted Tony to downsize other items and sell the house so he could follow me. But it didn’t turn out as expected.  By the time he arrived to help me move back, I actually had accumulated again. Many items were gifts that were unique to the area.  So I didn’t exactly learn about living simply, did I?  Yet, I am thankful for my time in that province. It gave me a love for mountains, learning to do things on my own, and the wonder of an amazing Christian community that does outreach to the homeless.

We discovered during our further downsizes that many Ottawans didn’t want to buy second hand furniture, which is completely different to the attitude in British Columbia!  We did garage sales, and church ‘car boot’ sales.  I began to fret about certain items that we couldn`t  fit in our condo, since the previous owner had left it nearly furnished! We eventually put cherished items, like a unique childhood dresser, on the front lawn. We offered them for free.  I prayed about the dresser and I decided to trust God.  I was relieved that Tony met someone who loved my dresser, and returned with a pick-up truck to take it home.  He helped the man lift the dresser into the truck, and told him, “I trust your family will enjoy this dresser – it is my wife’s pride and joy. But we just don’t have room in our new condo.”

After we had sold the house and fully moved into the condo, we left the country for a three month mission school.  On our return, we confirmed our missions call to South Africa.  We have noticed some missionaries have a turnaround from ‘home’ to long-term mission field within a few months.  With us, our last extreme downsize was part of the preparation process.  Tony spent months digitizing a very large music and video collection.  I scanned hundreds of photographs and sketches.  It took us 15 months of preparing and downsizing, to arrive in South Africa.  It could have easily taken 2 years.  The books were the most difficult.    When we came to South Africa, we felt free that we could live with the contents of our seven suitcases and two trunks. Since we do a lot of media work, art, music and Alpha ministry, we needed what we brought. There isn’t anything that we haven’t used – from medication to art pens.  However, something amusing happened when we were at our Paris stopover. We had six suitcases, one ‘wheely’ bag full of laptops, my backpack and Tony’s guitar. We had trouble finding a taxi to take us to our hotel.  The bag carriers made fun of me. They thought I was carrying all these bags to use on a holiday.  Our first guesthouse hosts in Cape Town thought the same. They visited us in our room so they could see my drawings, and were curious why we had so many suitcases – until they realized that we were moving to South Africa. We weren’t on holiday.  Then everything was clear.  However, people have moved with far less.

Downsizing, moving, transition and simplifying your life is scary. Is it really all about living a simple life?  I believe simplicity is an excellent virtue. What is essential? What can we live without?  I learned to drop things in my life so I could have more room to be creative. Creativity gives me energy, since I was born to be creative. I also had to listen to my body to only do so much, otherwise I would be forced to stay in bed for a couple of days.  But one thing that does give me energy is my faith. So this is what I’ve learned from personal experience.  Let’s discover some of what others teach about simplicity.

The first place that I heard about simplicity is through the Community of Aidan and Hilda.  I already was drawn toward the Celtic Christian stream, due to my interest on Patrick, Columba, Aidan and Cuthbert in church history.  I first visited the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in January 2008, right after my second mission trip in Pakistan.  I returned multiple times with my mother, my husband Tony and again on my own.  Tony truly understood the pull on me, and even joined me on a special barefoot pilgrim walk we did on the mud flats, during low tide.  We also discovered the well balanced, beautiful form of Christian faith from this community.  While they include the special centres of Lindisfarne and Iona, they also have a world-wide community.  Their way includes three promises: that of simplicity, purity and obedience.  This is further expanded into ten elements of the Celtic way. Each of these elements deserves attention.  Yet I was most drawn to the ones I needed most: spiritual journey, rhythm of prayer, rest and recreation, simplicity of lifestyle and mission.

Their promise reads: “We are willing to be rich or poor for God, according to God’s direction. We resist the temptation to be greedy or possessive. We will not manipulate people or creation for our own ends. We aim to be bold in using all we have for God, without fear of possible poverty. However, if God demanded it of us, it would actually become a blessing.”  While this is not the vow of poverty that monks and nuns make, it is powerful choice not to let greed or fear of lack get in the way of a life calling.

Simplicity as a life-style is based on an understanding that our financial income, savings and possessions are not solely ours.  We are stewards of all we have: whether they are in our possession for a short time or a long time. It’s a matter of being in tune with creation.  “Our belongings, activities and relationships should be ordered in a way that liberates the spirit. We aim to cut out those things that overload or clutter the spirit.” It’s not a life of denial. There are times to feast and celebrate as well as to fast. “We stand against the influence of the god of mammon in our society by our life-style, by our hospitality, our intercession and by regular and generous giving.”  “We also feel that having a good balance in prayer, work and recreation usually also helps to keep things simple.  The more complex things become, the more stress we feel!”

These promises still ring in my heart. As I read these and other teachings, the process of simplifying didn’t seem simple at all.  It involves many different aspects of our lives, from what we buy, what we choose to keep and learning to hold everything we have in life lightly – whether it’s our possessions, time, or money.  As Christians, our life is not entirely our own anyway.  It’s God’s.  So let’s sift through the process of pushing away what distracts us from our goal.

The pull of our Western culture is to accumulate. The advertising on all kinds of media shouts this sentiment even louder. I had two pulls on my heart.  I do not worship money, but I found myself drawn by the advertising jingles that make me giggle.  Advertising is everywhere and part of every media. The message is repeated: consume, buy, get, then do it some more. Jose Hobday shares that “Gluttony is no longer a vice, it’s a triumph.  The two most used words in advertising are ‘new’ and ‘improved.’ The third is ‘Now!’ Everything must be instant and immediate. It does not allow for saving, pacing, waiting and setting goals.”

Richard Foster shares in his book ‘Celebration of Discipline’ some gems from Francois Fenelon.  He said, “Simplicity is freedom. Duplicity is bondage.  Simplicity brings joy and balance.  Duplicity brings anxiety and fear.”  To be pulled in two directions is like double-mindedness, and to suffer from a divided heart.  We are called to have an undivided heart with a single focus.  How rare that is.  When we see it, it’s a treasure.  Yet, if we allow God to work in our hearts, we can have this too.  We can learn to let go, in baby steps.  That was what faced me.  I thought, “Wow, this is great, but how do I begin?”  And I didn’t feel my baby steps were enough. However, I still had some momentum, which increased with the moves and forced downsizes.  Ecclesiastes 7: 29 tells us: “God made men and women true and upright; we’re the ones who’ve made a mess of things.”  We do make life far more complex than we need to. We get caught up in the details!  Adele Calhoun shares on the spiritual discipline of simplicity.  “Keeping it simple has fallen on hard times. And though we like the idea, we also like our choices.”

Jesus teaches us that freedom is found neither in having or doing. Rather, it is in keeping God first.  He shared in Matthew 6 to not store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal.  Instead, store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal.  Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will be. Jesus wants us to know that we don’t NEED all the things and experiences that we think we do. What we really need is to keep things first: Jesus and his kingdom.  Life becomes simpler when only one thing matters most.  This doesn’t mean that we are to be beggars in the street.  It does mean that we are called to be free of the grip of these ‘things’ on us.

Even Jesus dealt with a rich seeker who came to him seeking eternal life – yet he also loved money.  Matthew 16 shares the seeker’s plight.   He asked, “Teacher, what good things shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” So Jesus shared with him the top commandments, including loving neighbours. The young man replied, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” 21 The answer was “If you wish to be [complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”  But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.”

The man’s wealth wasn’t the problem. His attitude and attachment to it was.  In his case, he really DID need to give away his wealth.   Orphans and those who have an orphan spirit, feel that they need possessions and hoard them. They also become chained to what they have or don’t have.  They don’t realize that who we are is not based on what we have or what we do.  Their fists are closed so they cannot receive what they really need. They are living in fear of going without.  Those who are living by consumerism alone have the very same outlook. To begin to let go of things and give them away requires faith.  We discover what we really don’t need.  Barbara Sorenson shares that “choosing a simple life is not a cookie-cutter philosophy. Each one of us lives it out in our own circumstances and situations as we accept the grace to do so. Voluntary simplicity does not mean we all have to sell our homes. It doesn’t even mean we can’t have nice things. It may mean that we can’t have all of them.”   So consumerism, leave the room.  Now we’ll deal with what to do with all we have.  Most of us have too much.

There is a song that goes, “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.” Simplicity requires discipline but it is also a gift of God.  Our longing to be simple is often the sign of the presence of this grace. Once we are free from the pull of consumerism, we can remember to share what we have.  We are no longer bound by things, so we can pass them on to others who need them more than we do.  This is freeing.  As Elizabeth Ann Seton says, “Let us live simply, so that others may simply live.”  So we need to think about our use of resources.

In the West, we use an excessive amount of precious fossil fuel just to live.  It is a destructive pattern. We don’t have a global view of our consumption patterns.  We have little realization of our degree of spending. In 1998, North America was 5% of the world’s population, consuming 82% of the world’s raw materials. [Figures from Simple Living by Jose Hobday.] This figure may have fallen with the rise of  China and India, but still we have the same attitude. “Our mindset finds it hard to understand that less can be more.”

Jose Hobday shares that simplicity is one of those great words that can’t be defined easily.  But it can be described and it can be distinguished from things that just look little like it.  If we persevere, we can recognize simplicity when we experience it in others and, more importantly, when we practice it. This now goes beyond resources to all aspects of our lifestyle.  Simple living is not about elegant frugality.  It is not really about deprivation.  It is not about harsh rules. To live simply, one has to consider priorities more than variety. Simple living is about the freedom to choose space rather than clutter. It’s choosing open and generous living, instead of a hoarding mentality that imprisons you.  Freedom is about choices:  Freedom to choose less rather than more. It’s about choosing time for people and ideas, and what makes you grow. It’s not about keeping, guarding and possessing what you have.  Simple living is about moving through life rather lightly, delighting in the plain and the subtle.”  When our friend Maggie moved from England to South Africa in months, she was moving more freely than we were. But we also learned.

Simplicity also is welcoming.  We need to live in a way that all people feel welcome in our home.  When they come to visit, they don’t have to worry that they might soil good furniture, or break expensive glassware, or leave fingerprints on something precious.

Simplicity includes the rhythm of nature.  Life does not stop. Neither does the universe around us. We are always moving forward in cycles and seasons.  Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 mentions this fact. This was picked up by Pete Seeger in his song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  So the secret is to be carried by the harmony and rhythm of all creation.  Enjoy quality of life around you! This mystery is celebrated in the Celtic Christian stream I mentioned earlier. If you don’t move forward, you become stuck – and out of step. Simplicity keeps you walking with what is real.  Hobday says, “Simple living forces you to attend to value, insisting on quality over quantity.”

Simplicity also involves our time. In Africa, time is elastic. It is not pinned to specific tasks or events.  Relationships are more valued.  This view of time may drive task-oriented people crazy, but the simplicity of waiting is actually a good thing.  Too many times we try to fill every moment with activity, like I used to fill my academic papers past the regular margins. I did not think simply.  My professors could not explain things simply. Some things are difficult to share in only a few words – and simplicity is one of them.  When you are in a hurry, it is terrible to wait. But in a simple life, we might think about what we can do with the space of waiting five to thirty minutes.  The space can give us a sense of openness, fullness, and a keen sense of delight.  We suddenly have much more time to stand and look, to appreciate, enjoy, think and feel.  We can read another chapter of that book we love. We become less time-conscious.  Instead of fretting, ideas and desires and possibilities come to mind. You become creative.  If you also create empty space in your calendar and give it to God, you are creating a container for God to fill.  It is an empty space or margin on the page of your life.  You can breathe, because you have chosen to focus on priorities.

Downsizing in quantity reminds you that your priority is quality. This is more than simplifying your lifestyle, finances, possessions, and timetable.  They include space to just breathe and know your dreams, and your heart. It may seem trite that less clutter is easier on our soul, but it really is easier on us.

Yet when you are ready to downsize right, go in steps. Hobday takes an inventory:   Note your items in categories like food, clothing, shelter, transport and work.  Then you itemize them further into must have needs, what is helpful, what is your preference and what is luxury in each category. Go through each category, with a separate list. When you’ve finished each list, pray over them. Ask yourself questions. Do you need this in home, or work?  Is this helpful? Do you actually wear this blouse?  When was the last time you wore those shoes?  Is this a luxury?

Hobday says it is fine to have luxuries, but just once in a while.  Each person has different needs, so don’t just copy someone else.  What is the Holy Spirit whispering to you?  Are you to give a certain item away?  Have you met someone who needs that item?  One time when I was listening to a friend play her drum, I was given an image in my mind’s eye of one of my percussion instruments.  Was I meant to give her that drum? I asked if she had been looking for more drums.  It turned out that she was.   So I gave her the drum.  Sometimes it is that easy.  And other times, it is hard.

So to downsize, we must take actual steps. Choose the area of your life that you would like to simplify first. We must physically clear out the excess, we must take steps to prevent accumulation.  We can’t do it in our heads. Simplicity is not just an idea, it is practical.  Use your list, but be kind to yourself.  It took Jose Hobday TWO YEARS to simplify after she became a Franciscan nun.  So at the start, pray.   It will make the process easier. You need to take small steps in progression. Let Holy Spirit guide you on what to discard. If you do, it will also bless areas of your inner life. It will give you discernment. Living simply is not about looking poor, or depriving yourself of something you really need.  It’s about less is more.  Jose shares that “true simplicity teaches us joy with less.” The “stuff” you don’t need is no longer in your way. But say you discover that something you really need has to be replaced?  Then replace it.  Do you need to keep it, or give it away?

Discernment shows you the difference between being simple and stingy. Stinginess is self-centred and narrow, just the opposite of the expansiveness of simplicity.  Stinginess doesn’t share. We hoard out of fear, just the opposite of faith.  Stinginess is selfishness, but simplicity is real love for ourselves and others.” Simplicity gives. Stinginess is greed, and clutters our lives.  Simplicity is to look carefully at what is needed, while still being generous.

Jesus’ call to simplicity is a call to complete contentment in him that overflows into every area of our lives:  our prayer life, our shopping habits, our schedules, and our comforts we run to when we are stressed. All of this should carry the flavour of Jesus.  So as I was reading all these wonderful truths from various writers, it seemed overwhelming. So I sought for some truths to sum up what I believe about simplicity.

Simplicity is about honouring God first with an undivided heart, and to use your resources as tools for the kingdom of God. Either you can give away what you have, as Jesus advised the rich young ruler who struggled between God and money, OR you can use it as God directs.  Simplicity is about honouring others with your hospitality and not looking down on them.  It includes sharing resources and identifying with other humans. It is humility with grace.

Simplicity is honouring the simple Gospel and not being distracted by fashion or advertising.  Simplicity is knowing that you are a child of God, without having to hoard things as if you were an orphan.  Your things are not just for you.  Simplicity is harmony with creation and to not let cultural difference and view of time shock you.  Be flexible. Simplicity is a focused discipline and requires work. And simplicity is so much more, including being content.  The Apostle Paul writes in Philippians 4  that he had learned to be content whatever the circumstances. He said, “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. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

May we too learn that source of contentment, as we ask Holy Spirit to help us learn the simple life step by step.

If you would like to hear the audio version of this article, go to the podcast page, and scroll down to #16

Blessings, Laurie-Ann Copple
Worcester, Western Cape, South Africa

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