Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Is God calling you to a simpler life this Lent?

The following is a little reflection I offered at church on Sunday for a small group of people. Perhaps it carries some suggestions that my readers might find helpful for a more meaningful Lent. There's nothing new here -- it's just a different way of thinking about some of these things, in a Lenten context. And if you're looking for more ways to simplify your life, not only for Lent, but all the time, click here.

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I’d like to begin by having us listen to Jesus’ invitation to us to try and live simply, more like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, but I’m going to read a different translation than we’re used to hearing, to get us thinking about scripture in a different way. This reading is a slight paraphrase taken from Matthew Chapter 6, verses 25-33 in The Message (which puts the bible in contemporary wording):


Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body.  Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description or any possessions, careless in God’s care. And you count far more to God than birds.
27-29 “Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the lilies. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the world look shabby alongside them.
30-33 “If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think God will care for you and take pride in you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting things, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know the way God works fuss over these things, but you know God. Steep your life in God’s reality, initiative, and providence. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.
Jesus is inviting us all to look at our lives, and to think about how we are living them.  And Lent in particular is the perfect time to do just that, to focus on the kind of simple life that Jesus is talking about, to consider how to go about simplifying our lives so we can live in a less hectic and more meaningful way. 

The fact is that our life in North America has become a lot more complex than it needs to be, for a lot of reasons that seem to be out of our control. Jesus’ words about the birds and the wildflowers apply to us even more than they did to the people of his time, and the interesting thing is that, like Jesus’ followers, we have the power to live more happily in many different ways if we choose a path other than the one our society sets out for us.

The path that society puts before us is also known as consumerism, or consumer culture. Here’s a quick look at eight messages consumer culture gives us through advertising and media, the internet, TV shows, movies, magazines, bill boards, etc. They’re messages that come at us all the time, maybe 3,000 times a day, and because we’re so bombarded by them, we tend to ignore them and don’t realize how much they really affect our thinking:

1 -- Economic growth is the bottom line – but we live in a finite world. Growth gone wild in the human body becomes cancerous, and if we look around we can see all sorts of cancerous things taking root in our world right now because of the idea that the economy has to grow -- everything from environmental degradation to outright war. But economic growth can’t be limitless no matter what consumer culture says, because of our planet's limits.

2 -- I am what I own – Am I really? I am God’s child, and beloved by God. That’s my truest identity. What I own is just possessions, not me.

3 -- More is better – But we only have so much room in our homes and lives. Too many possessions to keep track of and too many activities only stress us out.

4 -- Convenience is extremely important – but when convenience trumps care for our world and each other, disaster often strikes. There are thousands of examples, but remember the garment factory in Bangladesh that collapsed in April 2013? That disaster can be linked to greed and the North American desire for inexpensive clothing made offshore where we usually don't see the impacts of poor labour conditions.

5 -- I’ve gotta be on the cutting edge – Do I really? Will I die if I don’t have the latest gimmick or gadget?

6-- Every person is an island – Consumer culture wants us to think this way so we all have our very own snowblower. But cooperation, sharing and interdependence cut consumerism out of the way we go about meeting our needs.

7 -- The earth is for my use – It says so in the first chapter of the bible, doesn’t it? Genesis 1: 26 "Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
How different our world might be if the person who wrote Genesis used different words: Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air....”

8 -- I deserve the best – This sense of entitlement is huge. "I deserve a Mexican vacation." But if God loves everyone as much as God loves me, then we're all entitled to equal shares of God's love. I don't think Mexico has room for all of the nearly 7.3 people on the planet to go for a tropical vacation...

Consumer culture wants us to focus on possessing as much as possible and living an easy life, but that’s definitely not Jesus’ focus, is it? Can you imagine what he would say about consumer culture? I suspect it would be something like what he told the money changers in the temple when he turned over their tables! Another paraphrase:  "My world shall be a world of goodness, but you are turning it into a den of thieves!"

And Jesus isn’t the only one who wasn’t about consumerism. Most religions in world history have understood the importance of simplicity, and lived it with varying degrees of success. Probably one of the most effective leaders of the last 100 years who lived a life of simplicity was Mahatma Ghandi, and one of his followers, a fellow named Richard Gregg, came up with a definition of the kind of life Ghandi lived. I’d like to share it here because I think the founders of other faiths lived that kind of life too. Gregg’s definition contains the essence of the kind of life to which people of faith are called. He called it Voluntary Simplicity, and here's a summary of the concept:



Richard Gregg says that it’s up to each person to determine his or her life’s purpose, and to simplify accordingly so that the purpose can be achieved. As Catholics and Christians, we’ve heard many times that our purpose is to know, love and serve God, especially in each other and in the poor. The accumulation of possessions and the unbridled use of creation to satisfy our wants aren’t even mentioned!

So, with that long introduction behind us, how can we go about applying simplicity to our lives this Lent? How is God calling us to a simpler life? How can we know and love and serve God, each other and the poor in a simple way?

Living simply isn’t always easy, but it is very satisfying to know that in living a simple life, we are doing our best to leave our planet in better shape for our children and the generations to follow. We are also living in closer solidarity with those who have less, we are cutting down on the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global climate change, and we are creating community through interdependence with friends and neighbours. Basically, we are respecting God’s many gifts to us by not taking them for granted, but rather, by using them as wisely as we can. It requires effort instead of taking the convenient way out, as consumer culture has conditioned us to do.

One of the first things my husband and I did in putting voluntary simplicity to work in our lives was to take inventory of our life as a family and how we are treating God’s creation. There are many ways to do it, but if you’ve never taken a detailed look at your life, click here for one you might consider checking out... it’s a tool designed to help us calculate our ecological footprint. The link leads to a map of the world and lets you plug in information, as much or as little as you choose, about your life. There’s lots to learn on the website by changing the values, trying different possibilities. It helps us to see whether we are using our fair share of the earth’s resources – or not. If you have time, it’s a most interesting exercise, and it carries all sorts of suggestions for simplifying our lives and reducing the impact we have on God’s creation.

Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty of finding God’s will for us in a simpler life.

There are hundreds of possibilities. Most of the one's I've chosen to list here have to do with ways that God might be calling me to declutter my interior and exterior life so that I can see and hear what I’m called to do as God’s beloved.

Could God be calling me this Lent to recognize my true riches – to be more aware of the relationships that are important to me? It’s easy to take them for granted, to assume they’ll always be there and engage in those things that entertain us for hours on end. In our “plugged-in” society, Lent might be a good time to unplug from the TV, computer, or smart phone and actually engage in face-to-face time. Or in silence, with God.

Could God be calling me this Lent to be more mindful of the many gifts I’ve been given through God’s goodness? We take so much of life for granted. One example is food. How often do we really sit down and savour what we are eating?

And how often do we think about where our food is coming from? I’d like to suggest, as a Lenten practice, to start a little pot of herbs that can grow on a windowsill. By planting a little basil or oregano, we can observe and appreciate God’s work of making things grow, and we can participate in the production of a little bit of food, from soil to table. I like to grow sandwich sprouts all winter. And maybe it would be a good time to try a few more vegetarian meals, because animal products cost our planet much more than vegetables.

Could God be calling me this Lent to consider my brothers and sisters who aren’t as fortunate as I am, and to share my good fortune and well-being with them somehow? Lent is a good time to learn about the programs offered by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (see www.devp.org) and to support their efforts to assist the small family farms that feed 70% of the world’s population.

Could God be calling me this Lent to engage in more just and equitable consumption when I do have to buy and use things? Could this be a time when I learn about where the things I buy come from, and whether the labour practices involved in their production are fair? Lent is a good time to choose only Fair Trade coffees, teas, sugars, etc. To shop in stores that engage in fair treatment of their employees both here and abroad. To support small businesses and buy local. To remember that cheaper is not better if it’s doing local business people out of their livelihoods.

Could God be calling me this Lent to give serious thought to the way I use the earth’s resources, especially water, electricity, and fossil fuels? Do I waste more than I should? Lent could be a good time to install devices that help me save resources, to look into green energy, and to use public transportation, walk, or carpool instead of driving an SOV (single occupant vehicle). I could also pay closer attention to what I throw away, because there is no “away” – everything the garbage guys pick up has to go somewhere. And everything I waste is a bit of God's creation that hasn't been properly appreciated, forcing the earth to have to work harder to produce more. As a Master Composter/Recycler volunteer, I often say that waste is the forgotten social justice issue.

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These are just a few possibilities, twenty minutes worth, really, that I shared with a small group at church. I'll bet you can think of hundreds more. The bottom line is that we only need "enough" to live a happy life, and that really, simplifying our lives is what makes room for the love that satisfies our deepest needs. 

As St. Teresa of Avila liked to say, God alone fills us.

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