Jonny Rashid often calls me a monk, which is more than a little bit true. It is very true that I admire the Christian radicals who created intentional communities in reaction to fellow-believers getting swallowed by the empire, and I admire how they multiplied monasteries when the Roman Empire fell apart. Believers gathered around Jesus and formed an amazingly creative response to the utter chaos and violence around them. They responded to their challenges with radical simplicity. As a result, their network of intentional communities preserved the truth about Jesus, provided a social safety net, and formed centers of creativity and charity that were rare points of light in Europe for hundreds of years. I think they flowered with Francis of Assisi. All the values that held the communities together: poverty, chastity, and obedience are extremely unpopular today. So people often ask the question, “Do we need to think about simplicity?”
You might like to start with my favorite movie: Brother Sun, Sister Moon. In this clip [link], Francis and his newly-minted band of monks are working in the fields outside Assisi and dealing with the new poverty they have chosen. I like the heart of what they are doing, especially the way Francis receives the bread he’s begged with radical gratitude. His single-minded focus turns the hot, impoverished day into worship.
I don’t know what you think of these monk people: scary maybe, from another planet, embarrassing, quaint. Regardless of how you feel about them, they are successfully working on being simple. God did not give it to me to be a monk, but it was given to me to be simple, same as the rest of us.
The heart of simplicity
To get started on disciplining ourselves for simplicity, we will one main thing. That is, we focus on Jesus and let everything else follow who we follow. Jesus said,
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy (or single), your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (see Matthew 6:19-24).
That is probably the key teaching on simplicity. Simplicity is about being basic, unclouded, whole. Simplicity is about being radically centered, not just frugal or generous. Simplicity is not mainly an economic matter. The pure in heart, the simple, the single-minded, will what they do from one reality: faithfulness to Jesus, no matter what their circumstance. That willingness is the character trait upon which simplicity skills are founded. Eternity is centered in our hearts so that reality gives our hands their focus.
We usually think of simplicity in terms of money. We are living in the United States, after all — and those people care about money! Not that everyone in the world isn’t pretty much obsessed with it, too, but Americans are schooled to see themselves as part of an “economy” and to see their consumer choice as an expression of their “freedom.” No matter how many times we are instructed that the president can’t really do all that much about the economy, the presidential election is going to be about jobs, when it should probably be about drones.
We need simplicity skills because our relationship with money (and with most everything else about us) is not so simple. We are at the center of a schedule that cannot be juggled properly; we are at the center of a communication system that overwhelms us — we can’t even figure out how to use the machines we have to use to run it; we are expected to be the center of an enterprise that sells our time, our communications, and our future — in terms of debt. The decisions we have to make are weighty.
Here are two ideas that I find important as part of my own simplicity skills for dealing with money. I wouldn’t say they are easy, but they are basic skills for using the tool of money in a radical way.
Be frugal. Budget with a vision. James 4:13-17
We should not construct our budgets as if our lives came from ourselves and as if the future were in our hands. This is basic Christianity. We say things like: “If I live, I live to the Lord. Whatever is at the heart of God, that is what I want in my heart.” I don’t think anyone writing the New Testament is sitting around waiting to find the perfect choice to make so they don’t mess up eternity. God can be trusted for the future. They are moving with the Spirit and focused on that one thing.
I have had the distinct pleasure of walking with people who are getting married this year. Some of them have already talked a lot about their finances and others almost not at all. Some are easy-going about how to organize their budget and assets and naturally want to share. Others are quite nervous about how sharing is going to work out and are naturally protective. Maybe that reflects how they first attached to mom and felt she was generous or withholding. Who knows? But how we handle our money as partners and as a community is important.
A basic simplicity skill is budgeting our money. We should know what we have, what we usually spend, what our goals are. We should not have to go to the ATM to find out what we have before we buy a snorkel for our vacation. We should not put it on the credit card and fix things up later. We should have a radical strategy for how we spend so our money is used for eternal purposes.
Be focused. Know when to kill the fatted calf. Luke 15:29-30
Throwing a lot of cash at an over-generous party might seem like the opposite of having a disciplined budget and being aware of how one is spending down one’s assets. If we did not live in eternity, scarcity would, indeed, be a huge problem. If you kill the fatted calf too often, there isn’t another calf to eat! You know about the calf, right? If you are a subsistence farmer/cow raiser, the succulent meat of the cow you fed a special diet to plump it into shape is a very rare treat. You don’t eat it until you are celebrating the Eagles winning the Super Bowl, or your sister finally gets her BA.
Simplicity is also about knowing when it is time to kill the calf and celebrate. Simplicity is not all sweating in the field being poor. It is sharing our bread and praising God. Of course, some of us kill calves we don’t even own yet, hoping we will get some joy out of it — that is a little backward. The skill is to have the joy of eternity in our hearts and to celebrate it, not to celebrate in order to get some joy. We might see some joy looking backwards, but we get it by living forwards.
Maybe we should all have a “fatted calf fund” as part of our budgets. Some of us may be living under our means already, so we always have money with which to bless others. But some of us have not mastered money-making and spending yet, so we might need to deliberately put some money away for the time when we need to buy the piece of jewelry, or send someone on a trip, or take a friend to dinner, or buy a forty dollar piece of meat or a wonderful carrot at Vedge. That’s radical budgeting, too.
I hope my two suggestions spur your imagination for how you can be simple in practical ways, in that you discipline your money, and other things, to move with Jesus in this wild world. One person told me, “Wow! Being simple is complex!” Well, I guess so. But the heart of all that disciplined living is simple. The main thing is being faithful to the Lord who is so single-mindedly devoted to us.