Keep it Simple…(Stupid?)

The Malones are HGTV junkies. From Island Life to Fixer Upper, from Property Brothers to House Hunters, you can find us many nights as the evening winds down sitting in front of the television decompressing in front of one of HGTV’s offerings. One of the lessons we’ve learned from HGTV is that when you’re trying to sell your home you have to de-clutter. De-cluttering is getting all the non-essential stuff out of the house so it presents better to potential buyers.

Developing the habit of simplicity is about de-cluttering. It is about practicing the art of letting go of the “things” that too possess us rather than us possessing them. When I say “things,” I’m not only talking about material possessions. I’m also talking about some spiritual issues that impact our lives in negative ways. We live cluttered lives not only materially, but emotionally and spiritually. Our homes are cluttered, our calendars are cluttered and our hearts are cluttered. We live in a cluttered age, and simplicity is a means of grace God gives us to free ourselves of all that hinders us from the holy lives He calls us to.

SIMPLY NOT!

I want us to understand, first, what simplicity is not. Simplicity is not getting rid of all our stuff, quitting everything we’re involved in and living the ascetic’s life. Ascetics are those who have renounced material possessions as evil. That’s not simplicity, at all! God desires that all His children should have adequate provision. A simple lack of provision in many places in this world creates great misery, and forced poverty (where it exists) should be denounced as evil. The bible is consistent that creation is good, and that we are to enjoy it. Developing the habit of simplicity does not denounce possessions. It sets them in proper perspective.

Richard Foster, to whom I’m greatly indebted for the foundation of this blog, says that simplicity is the only thing that reorients our lives so that we can graciously enjoy possessions so they don’t destroy us. It is the habit of simplicity that keeps us from “buying into” the culture’s values of owning, but it also keeps us from a form of legalism that says you shouldn’t buy “that” car, or own “that” house.

A “RICH FOOL”

Jesus addressed some of the underlying issues that keep us from living in simplicity. One of those occasions was an encounter in Luke 12. A man comes to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, please tell my brother to divide my father’s estate with me.” Seems like a fair request to us. We know how family squabbles can be after the death of a parent, don’t we? Jesus, as he often does, doesn’t answer the question directly. Rather he tells a story about a rich fool. “Rich fool” sounds like an oxymoron to us, sort of like “jumbo shrimp,” or “clearly confused.” Those words just don’t work together, but the story indicates that Jesus is saying the rich man was a fool for focusing his life on the wrong things. The point, too, would have been clear to the man who made the request.

Jesus was not addressing the issue of wealth with this story. Wealth is amoral. The person possessing the wealth defines its morality. The Bible is full of godly people who possessed wealth—Abraham, David, Job, et.al. Jesus was addressing the condition of the man’s heart. Simplicity is first and foremost a matter of the heart, and simplicity starts in a right relationship with God.

The spiritual discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style. The inward reality will always impact how we live. Sure, we can go sell all our stuff, pare down to the bare essentials, but unless the reason to do it comes from the heart, it will simply lead to legalism, and rather than becoming holy, we’ll become “holier-than-thou.” We first have to de-clutter our hearts. There are two places we need to start. There are probably more, but I note only two.

DE-CLUTTERING OUR HEARTS

First, we need de-clutter greed. That was the real issue behind the man’s initial request. The ancient law said the eldest son received 2/3 of a father’s estate, and 1/3 was divided among the rest. We don’t know how many siblings were involved in this estate. It doesn’t matter. The man making the request felt that whatever amount, it was unfair. He wanted more, even if the more was his just due.

Second, we need to de-clutter fear. Perhaps we should see that fear is what leads to covetousness. The rich fool in Jesus’ story was afraid…afraid he’d lose his abundance. He was afraid his barns weren’t big enough. His affluence made him anxious. Tell me something: What’s the difference in worrying about our possessions if we have an abundance and worrying because we don’t? Fear is fear, regardless.

Contemporary culture would leave us trapped in a maze of competing attachments. We fill our homes with “stuff” because we have the resources to do so. Advertisers tell us we need the latest, the best, the brightest, the newest. Culture tells us we need the latest fashions. Last year’s fashions simply won’t do. Oh, I’ve got 50,000 miles on my car. I need a new one.

We fill our calendars with activities, too. We run from event to event, afraid we might miss being seen in the right circles, with the right people. We’re afraid we might miss the one life-changing experience that’s waiting in the next conference, or the next job, or the next relationship. Or, we crowd our children’s schedules with activities because we’re afraid they won’t have every experience necessary to help them succeed in such a competitive world. Richard Foster says, “It’s time to awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.”

ONE LOVE

How do we break the cycle? How do we begin to live into this inward grace of simplicity? Jesus gives us the clue. Immediately after he told the story of the rich fool, he turns to his disciples and unpacks the dangers of fear and worry. He talks about ravens and flowers and God’s care for them. He talks about worry and its effect on life, and then he gives a summary statement in 12: 31—Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need.

Simplicity starts when the heart focuses on one thing alone—the Kingdom of God. everything hinges on maintaining the first priority of life. Nothing can come before the Kingdom of God. Not spouse, not children, not job, not recreation…not even the desire to live a simple life. Even that can become an idol. We’ve got to be like Cane’s Chicken—we must have “one love,” and that one love is God and God’s Kingdom. The rich fool never once mentioned God. Ten times he made a personal reference to himself, but never once thought of God.

THE RIGHT ATTITUDE

The inward reality of simplicity is reflected in three inner attitudes. First, to see everything we possess as a gift from God. Yes, we work, but God provides. We live by grace when it comes to air, water and sun. When we are tempted to think that what we own is the result of our personal efforts, the first drought or little accident shows us how utterly dependent we are for everything.

The second attitude that reflects inward simplicity is to know that it is God’s business to care for what He’s entrusted to us. God is able to protect what we possess. Yes, we put locks on the doors, but even then we are able to acknowledge that locks are for honest people. Precautions are necessary, but if we believe the precaution itself will protect us or our belongings, we will live in fear.

The third attitude that reflects inward simplicity is to have our possessions available to others. This is generosity. If we’re unwilling to make our resources available to the community when it is right and good, then Foster says we’re dealing in stolen goods. The rich fool was worried about tomorrow, so he thought he could build bigger barns. He never, ever considered giving the excess away.

Jesus lived and told this story in a fairly simple agrarian culture. If Jesus warned of the duplicity of the heart in such a simple time, how much more do we need to hear and heed his message in our complex culture?

MAKE IT REAL

I want to offer some practical ways we can begin to practice outwardly what God is doing inwardly. Remember, though, every attempt to give specific application to simplicity runs the risk of taking us from holy to “holier-than-thou.” It is a risk we must take, otherwise it all stays theoretical, and theory is great, but we need practical. Let me offer us five ways.

First, buy things for the usefulness, not their status. The question to ask is not, “Why am I buying a new car?” The question should be “Why am I buying THAT new car? Friends, we don’t need more clothes. Never buy new clothes without first getting rid of some older ones, or consider that last year’s styles are okay. John Wesley wrote, “As for apparel, I buy the most lasting and , in general, the plainest I can. I buy no furniture but what is necessary and cheap.” Buy for usefulness, not status.

Second, develop a habit of giving things away. Hey, if there’s something we’ve become desperately attached to, we need to seriously consider giving it away to someone who needs it. Have a yard sale, but not to take the proceeds and go buy more stuff. Take the proceeds and send them to a missionary, or give them to a project at the church. Generosity is at the heart of simplicity.

Third, resist the latest and greatest gadgets. Do we really need to run out and buy the iPhone 8 when our iPhone 7 still functions adequately?

Fourth, avoid as much credit as possible. Credit deepens our bondage. We know most people can’t save enough to buy a house, but we can save enough for a good down payment. Follow the Dave Ramsey philosophy of paying off debt as quickly as possible, and then building wealth so you can live generously. In the Dave Ramsey world, the paid-off home mortgage is the status symbol of choice.

Finally, shun anything that distracts us from the seeking first the Kingdom of God. The pursuit of good things can distract us from pursuit of great things, and pursuit of better things can distract us from the pursuit of the best thing. Jobs, position, status, family, security—these things, while all good, can too quickly become the center of our attention.

May God give us the courage, wisdom and strength to seek first His Kingdom—to keep the main thing the main thing. That is the essence of the habit of simplicity, and it is grace. By developing this habit of grace, may we grow in the likeness of Jesus Christ, and in so doing, become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Amen!

Until next time, keep looking up…

R & R…

I thought I needed to post some random thoughts (more like observations) on a recent rest and recreation trip the wife and I took. Before I begin I need to offer a disclaimer (may I refer you to the name of the website?). I went to a casino. There, I’ve said it. I could insert the phrase “Don’t judge me!” here, but that would be pointless because some of you already have, and the rest of you may before you get to the end of the blog. But, there exists the reality that I could probably use a little judgment in my life (we all could, probably–might be what’s missing in our world today), so I won’t insert that phrase. Go ahead! Judge me! I went to a casino, and it was quite an interesting trip.

casinoThe only time I’ve been to a casino previously was when a church member invited me to a buffet for lunch. He wanted to take me to lunch. That’s where he wanted to eat (something about a military discount). I like food (my favorite food is free food), so I figured if anyone saw the pastor at a casino, at least they’d see me with a church member. I could legitimately call that a ministry opportunity. That trip was a few years ago. This most recent trip was last week.

I should also add that I’m not judging those who choose to go to casinos (hint: when someone says they’re not judging, they probably are). I’ve simply made it a practice throughout my adult life not to waste my money in THAT way. I waste it in a lot of other ways, but I figure why waste money on a losing proposition. I mean, really? Where else does a person walk in the door saying, “I’ve got $20 to lose”? I also need to add that I didn’t gamble while I was at the casino. Seriously, how good would it look if someone saw the preacher sitting at a gaming table (like what they call it?) with cards in front of him? Can you see that picture on Facebook?

So, how did we get to a casino, anyway? Well, I was invited by a couple who attends the church I pastor to officiate their wedding. It was being held in a Gulf Coast community known for its gaming opportunities. It was the week after Easter (always a good time for pastors to take a little R & R), so Vanessa and I thought we’d go down a few days early since it was a community we’d never spent time in before, and it was on the beach (the beach is my happy place). The only accommodations “on the beach” were the casinos. It wasn’t until after we arrived that we discovered “on the beach” does not mean access to the beach (that’s probably the reason the bell hop looked at us funny when we asked him to put our beach chairs on the luggage cart!). I guess management figures if they allowed access to the beach, people might spend more time on the beach, and the whole point is to keep people in the casino. Not only are the casinos the only properties “on the beach,” but they’re also the most elegant properties in town. We wanted nice accommodations “on the beach,” so we figured, let’s stay at a casino (not to mention I got bonus points on my credit card for booking through their travel site at this casino–take that Dave Ramsey!). Now you know how we ended up at a casino.gambling

Here are a few things I noticed while at the casino:

  • First, I thought I was at a Hoveround Scooter convention! I couldn’t believe how many old people were there. Everywhere I looked there were people on scooters, canes and walkers (yes, walkers). I asked one of the staff if there was an old-folks convention (I’m not making fun of old folks–I hope to be one myself someday) at this casino. He answered, “No, it’s this way all the time.” I didn’t know so many old folks went to casinos. Is this what retired people do? And, these old folks came to gamble, too. As I walked around the casino floor watching the action, most of them were pulling the one-armed bandits, but many others were sitting at the table games throwing chips at numbers and making bets. I just scratched my head, wondering “What gives?”
  • On the opposite extreme, I was struck by the number of families there. It was a spring break week, and I never, ever thought of taking my children to a casino for spring break. But, there were children everywhere…even on the casino floor. I didn’t actually see any playing the games, but there was a big arcade at the end of the “retail promenade” (nothing like getting them started early in life). Yeah, there was a nice pool, but there are nice pools in lots of places. I just scratched my head, wondering “What gives?”
  • Apparently, it’s still legal to smoke indoors in public places in this particular town. The lobby of the casino was very pleasant in its atmosphere, and there was an overwhelming scent of perfume. Once leaving the lobby, it quickly became apparent to me why. People were smoking…everywhere…the hallways, the casino floor, the restaurants, the pool, you name it. The only place I didn’t encounter anyone smoking was in the fitness facility. Now, that would have been a paradox. We were worried about packing up our dirty clothes in the suitcase. We didn’t want our suitcase to end up smelling like smoke. I just scratched my head, wondering “What gives?”
  • Take your wallet to the casino! I guess that’s the whole point, though. The only thing they gave away at the casino was air to breath (smoke-filled as it was), and water by the pool. Everything else carried a charge, and that was in addition to the $10.70/day resort fee (what is that for anyway?) that was charged in addition to the rate paid for the hotel room. Not even in-room coffee was complimentary. Really? I can get in-room coffee at Super 8 for a whole lot less money, though I’ll say nothing about the quality of the coffee I might get at Super 8. I’ve rarely spent so much money to spend three days at the beach, and we didn’t really spend a lot of time on the beach! I just scratched my head, wondering “What gives?”

As I’ve re-read what I’ve been writing, I’m wondering why I’m even writing this blog. Perhaps it is to assuage some guilt I’m feeling for having gone to a casino. I’m sure I’m not the first pastor who ever went to a casino, and I’m certain I won’t be the last. I hope when I get to the pearly gates, the Lord doesn’t ask me why I went to that casino. If he does, I’m sunk! I don’t think “because I wanted to be ‘on the beach'” will be an acceptable answer. (No! He probably won’t ask me that question.)

I find myself wondering if anyone who knew me saw me there, would my presence become a stumbling block to them in their faith, and I also wonder if my writing about it might become a stumbling block, too. Perhaps I’m over-thinking it (Vanessa says I do that), and I should just chalk it up to another experience lived. Who knows? It could even be that I’m hoping to stave off the potential problems that will arise should a picture of me surface on Facebook at some time in the future. I’ll say, “Sure, I wrote a blog about it.” Of course, I could simply say, “I was trying to experience life as my congregation experiences it.” After all, I hear my congregation members saying all the time they went to the casino. I’m just simply trying to share their faith journey. I’m almost certain if Jesus were around today, he’d probably spend time at a casino. There is a lot of brokenness in places like that, you know?

I’m sure I’ll get some negative feedback for writing this blog post. I’ll get some folks who’ll say what a bad witness it is for a pastor to be in a casino, and that I should be ashamed of myself for going to such a place. I know all the arguments against gambling, and as a pastor, should my community ever reconsider the possibility of legalized gambling (I’m sorry–gaming), I’ll stand in opposition to it. At least, now, I’ll have some frame of reference from which to legitimately speak.

There’s really no judgment or condemnation intended toward anyone who chooses to spend their time and money in a casino. If judgment or condemnation is to come, I’ll save that for the Lord to do at the appropriate time. I can honestly say now that I’ve had the experience (no, I didn’t buy the T-shirt), it’s not likely I’ll ever go back again. I’ll not say “never” because I’ve learned to never say never, but as of now, I don’t plan to return to a casino any time soon. It was an interesting experience. It was an enlightening experience. And, it was a challenging experience. If you’ve never had that experience, there’s nothing about mine that would encourage me to encourage you to go to a casino. You’ll be wasting your time and your money. But, hey! It’s your time and your money, so…I’ll just scratch my head and wonder, “What gives?”

Until next time, keep looking up…