My conversations with students this week here in Austria have revealed that one of the great needs of our time is a recovery of simplicity as a central value. Young people, blessed with health, wealth, and education, are sometimes paralyzed by the near infinity of choices available to them. They stand, not at a crossroad, or even at an intersection, but at the base of an entire mountain range, with the need to choose a next step. This abundance of choice is a mixed blessing, because there’s lots of evidence showing us that having more choices actually creates a situation where we will either choose badly or not at all. (See this video, as well, for an excellent unpacking of this subject).
There are places in the world where people have few or no choices at all. Their path is set out before them and there’s no way to walk anywhere other than what is ordained. For them, the gospel offers a certain sense of freedom because Christ meets people in that situation and says, you may not be able to choose your situation, but come to me and I will enable you to live differently within the confines of your situation. I’ll infuse you with my life in such a way that right where you are, you will be able to be a person of hope, peace, joy. I remember meeting Christians in Rwanda and Uganda who had never traveled farther than five miles from their house. What Christ gives them is the capacity to be people of hope for those around them in life giving ways, to embody joy, generosity, mercy, right in the midst of the only life they have, rather than wishing things were other than they are.
But for those facing “First World Problems”, they must navigate different waters. Not only is our future uncharted, it seems that increasingly, the forces of wealth, materialism, and post-modernity have conspired to create a situation where there’s not even a map or destination. Sexual ethics: (live together or get married? Vocational Choices: (too many to mention)? Doctrinal nuances: (evangelical, emergent, post-modern, Calvinist, neo-Calvinist, progressive, fundamentalist, liberal)? Church life: (big church, house church, hip church, small church filled with old faithful saints)? Diet: (Paleo, Vegetarian, Vegan, Fast Food, Slow Food)? Politics: (Bash government with the right, or bash companies with the left)?
Wow. No wonder people are anxious, lonely, depressed, paralyzed, cynical, divided. Like walking through a carnival, there are barkers shouting us, telling us that this is the path we should choose. The barkers, called marketers, know that their well being depends on our brand loyalty, so together, they create an image based world to give the illusion that everyone’s happier, holier, healthier, than we are – or most people at least. Then they sell us products, lifestyle, and religious belief systems that promise deliverance from our insecurities, ushering us into the land promised land where we’ll have plenty; of security, or comfort, or self-esteem, or health, or whatever it is that we feel we need.
Lots of people are dropping out of the carnival, as evidenced by the minimalist movement. They’re fighting back, resisting a culture that reduces them to nothing more than mere consumers. I’m with them, but find that the only way out of the carnival for me is relentlessly pursue what the apostle Paul calls the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”.
One Pursuit: At one point in his life Paul says that every pursuit other than knowing Christ is, for him, ultimately as worthless as a pile of dung. I’m at my best, when that’s my perspective too. Don’t get me wrong. The wholehearted pursuit of knowing God hasn’t led to some sort of isolationist asceticism. Far from it, I’m struck with the profound realization that whether it’s skiing, reading the Bible, enjoying art, serving people, practicing hospitality, or enjoying a good conversation, there are endless pursuits that can, and do, help me know Christ better. My money, recreation, marriage and sexuality are all part of that which can help me know Christ better, if that’s the goal. At the same time, to the degree that this single pursuit is present as a foundation, there are lots of activities that I find myself doing less often, shedding pursuits and activities that are nothing more than diversions.
My favorite passage from the Bible is Jeremiah 9:23-24, because I heard it explained at a camp shortly after my dad had died. The teaching came at a period when I was deeply depressed, and in search of some way to crawl of the cave of complexity that my life had become as it seemed that every front (family, friendships, awakening sexuality, vocational choices, spiritual realities) was imploding. The pastor used this passage, along with the story about Mary and Martha to say that there’s really only one thing that matters, and that one thing is this: Know Jesus intimately.
Out from this single pursuit, I was told, will come a sorting of priorities, a “wisening” of the various areas of life, and the kind of joy that comes from saying: “I don’t need a big house. I don’t even need a house. I don’t need a fancy ministry, or a title, or the best clothes, or a reputation as “somebody” in this world. I don’t need much of anything, actually. If the greatest joy is to be found in intimacy with Jesus, then I’m certain I can find contentment with or without any of the things this world deems necessary. With such a perspective, even a wealth person can achieve peace, freedom, and generosity.
It’s Advent, and indeed, the hectic nature of the season has me longing, ironically, for the very thing Christ came to give us: Peace. It’s available to all of us to the extent that Christ becomes the One simple pursuit out from which all our activities flow.
Thank you Christ, for the inviting us to simplicity. We hunger for you, the more so in the midst of the frenzy that characterizes our days. Meet us in our turning, and we thank for the peace that comes from fixing our gaze on you, the Light of the world. Amen…