I’ve been strolling through Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster during this season of Lent. Not the whole book as I’m not much for re-reading entire texts. But I’ve found places in his pages to park my mind. Particular chapters summon my attention. And in an effort to articulate some of what I’ve read and to share a few insights, I’ve posted thoughts on the spiritual disciplines of meditation and service.
This week, after returning from a mostly quiet vacation in Southern California, I’m all about the spiritual discipline of simplicity. Foster begins his chapter about simplicity by quoting Ecclesiastes–one of my favorite books of the bible, btw.
“God made man simple; man’s complex problems are of his own devising.” Eccles. 7:30
This speaks to me. Because, it seems of late, that I’ve gotten pretty good at mental self-flagellation. I read books, blogs and news stories and then scold myself because I don’t write as well or as much as others. As penance, I devise rigorous work schedules so that I might somehow measure up, improve my craft, and write something somebody gives a fat frog about. I do the same thing when it comes to exercise, cooking, cleaning and parenting. What I am isn’t good enough. It’s too simple. I must make it complicated, arduous, worthy.
Here’s an example of how this tedium plays out in my pea brain: When we arrived in CA, I looked over a list of local amenities and activities and immediately began making mental notes of all the things I should do:
- 7:00 a.m. yoga
- 9:00 a.m. walk/run to some gourmet café
- 10:00 a.m. enjoy an exquisite breakfast at said swanky café
- 11:00 a.m. take stacks of books and my laptop to the pool for hours of “achievement”
- Eat only fruits and vegetables. Play tennis. Shop fresh farm stands for items to make a nutritious dinner. Or dine out someplace as swanky as the breakfast place. Rinse. Repeat.
What I really did…
- 7:30 a.m. wake up, lie in bed, shrug off yoga, make a pot of coffee, pour a cup and take it out to the patio, sit in the sunshine, sip my coffee in peace, watch ducks goof around on a pond, watch gardeners cultivate a nearby golf course, breathe, be still, get a second cup of coffee. Let the day unfold however it may. Keep my laptop shut–mostly. Sit by the pool and watch my kiddos play catch with a Nerf football that arcs like a rainbow over the water. Eat fruits and veggies but also burgers and nachos. Play a little tennis. Rinse. Repeat.
When Foster discusses simplicity, he mostly cautions against chasing wealth and accumulation. When he says, “We should take exception to the modern psychosis that defines people by how much they can produce or what they earn,” he strikes smack on the funny bone of Western culture. A prophetic sandwich board call to introspection and repentance that surely should be marched up and down the streets of suburbia.
But for me, simplicity is more about letting go of measuring my worth by my achievements and feeling like the only thing worth doing is “doing.” Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about your life,” and yet, I create things to be anxious about. This is not simplicity. This is a sickness.
In Against the Grain, author Ray Waddle says Ecclesiastes 4 is about work and how we distort it. And how “oppressive overstimulation distracts from the present moment.” I used to think I was one of the lucky ones, not as busy as the rest of humanity, not over-committing my time or my family’s time to every available event or activity. Content to live a simpler life. But then, over time, my well-intentioned desire for self-improvement, to live a useful life, may have muddled my mind with thoughts of “never good enough.”
So how do we re-set? How do we practice the discipline of simplicity and silence the roar of “more”? Foster says, “The central point for the discipline of simplicity is to seek the kingdom of God and the righteousness of his kingdom first and then everything necessary will come in its proper order.” He then lists several useful habits. A few of the habits that speak to me right now are…
- “Buy/Do things for the purpose of usefulness, not status.” Many musicians who dream of stardom often play to near empty rooms. They wonder if it’s worth playing a show for little or no audience. Being a writer can feel similar–like I’m playing to an empty room, wondering if no recognition or applause is worth the effort. But if I write to be useful instead of trying to prove my worth, then the number of readers matters less and the work becomes its own reward. Simplify.
- “Reject anything that produces an addiction in you.” A friend once said he believes people can get addicted to being busy. I think he’s right. The busier I get, the less I’m able to relax, thus a self-perpetuating generation of chaos ensues to feed my addiction. Busy does not equate to time better spent. Simplify.
- “Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God. It is so easy to lose focus in the pursuit of legitimate, even good things. Job, position, status, family, friends, and security–these and many more can all too quickly become the center of attention.” Simplify.