Simple Things

How many simple, wonderful things have you already enjoyed in your day today? Maybe you woke up warm, snuggled under layers of soft blankets. Perhaps you enjoyed a cup or two of freshly brewed coffee, probably thankful for the aroma long before you took that first sip. You may have shared a few sweet quiet moments with someone you love—two-footed or four-footed. Or maybe you looked forward to coming to meeting to be with Friends.

Most likely we all were fortunate enough to have at least a few choices for the clothing we selected to wear today. We chose what we’re wearing for some reason, because it had some simple quality that felt right—maybe the color, or the softness, or the warmth. There’s something inside us that says, “That’s the one,” when we’re looking over our range of choices. That kind of inner nudge happens all the time.

We all arrived here in one piece this morning, brought by transportation that, apparently, did its job. We have the blessing of being able to come to this beautiful place, to worship as we please, to believe as we feel so led, to grow spiritually in the manner of Friends, led and guided by God’s faithful, loving light. That’s a whole lot of blessing right there, isn’t it? And the day is just getting started.

Simple moments, simple choices, simple blessings make up the majority of our days—and yet for most of us, the peaceful times we’re thankful for get less attention than the problems and worries of our lives. Even though it’s likely that in any given moment we really have everything basic that we need—we are safe, and fed, warm, and mostly content—we are easily triggered by anything that seems to threatens our peace, short-term or long-term. Whenever chaos appears—even if it is way out on the periphery of our lives—our minds rush to it like moths to a flame, trying to figure out what’s happening so we can keep whatever it is from hurting us. Some days lately, there seems to be chaos all around “out there.” But hopefully not so much, “in here.”

I’ve had simplicity on my mind all week—simplicity as an ideal, a value, and a virtue we try to live by. It’s possible my inward call for simplicity is really a deeper yearning for rest and peace: When the world’s volume  gets too loud and I feel too caught up in the day’s events, there’s something inside me that says quietly, “Wait a minute–remember what’s real.” That’s when I know I need to rely on my spiritual eyes to seek and find God’s presence in my up-close everyday life, right here around me.

So I pull back from the stories and headlines; I put down my phone and close my laptop. I notice what I hear—like the sound of the pouring rain yesterday—or what I see—the vibrant colors of the forest behind my house or the stained glass around us now. Instantly I feel myself begin to come down out of my head and re-inhabit myself. The tangled mass of worries unknots. Just breathing and noticing and sitting quietly, I begin to reclaim my simple, personal life and feel comforted by the evidence of God’s presence around me. I find it in a million simple things.

In his book, Living the Quaker Way, Phil Gulley has a wonderful chapter on Simplicity (which, ironically, is the longest chapter in the book). One of his statements about simplicity really sticks with me. He writes:

“When life is not centered, we fall prey to the distractions of self-absorption, materialism, and shallow living.”

Shallow living, yes, that’s just what it feels like when I am anxiously looking at my phone 5 or 10 times an hour. I feel uncentered, vulnerable, worried. A sense of dread hangs over me, tempting me to believe all the stories that point out the worst parts of human nature. I don’t deeply believe that’s who we are—I believe in “that of God” in us all. But those feelings, that discouragement, the stress is a signal to me, letting me know I’ve gotten swept up in the drama of shallow living. And I recognize that I’ve wandered away from the core of quiet, the ever-nourishing stream of God’s peaceful presence. Like the poet Hafiz wrote, “I felt in need of a great pilgrimage so I sat still for three days.”

Our Old Testament reading today is one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture. It is so simple and so clear. The way to a good life is not a secret and it can be found in the here-and-now with precisely what we have, no matter what advertisers and travel brochures tell us. I remember being in my 30s when I heard a sweet, older Quaker woman named Barb Rogers speak out of the silence, quoting this verse:

 “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I sat there in the pew that day, enjoying that feeling of sweet truth that instantly embraced us all. When we care about justice, we do our part to create and preserve right order in the treatment of all God’s children—personal and planetary—the whole world over. If we love kindness, our lives automatically show compassion, generosity, and peace. They shine out as God’s own qualities, reflected in us.

To walk humbly in our faith means we give Spirit room to move and work and lead in our daily lives. We do our best to remain teachable, to stay porous, so God can show us the truth about ourselves and inspire us to open to more and more love. This kind of thing takes time and willingness—it means seeing things in ourselves we’d rather not see and trusting God to lead and guide and heal us. Humility is not an easy path for most people, but it brings something so sweet we would gladly trade all the shallow blessings in this world to get it: true intimacy with God, which opens our hearts more truly to each other and to the world, and gives us that deep knowing of abiding grace that never leaves.

Our Quaker testimony of simplicity fits perfectly with Micah 6:8, giving us the means to live a life that is useful, good, and true. Simplicity as we Friends approach it doesn’t ask us to conform to some kind of set standard—to downsize our houses, to drive old cars, to avoid buying things we like—like a cute new pair of shoes–out of some drive toward self-denial. Instead, choosing to live simply reminds us that we have an alternative to the fast-moving consumerist culture we are swimming in. We can exercise our power to choose—and choose something different, something real, something that has true value for us. Simplicity frees us to keep what’s most important right at the center of our lives.

In Doug Gwyn’s book, A Sustainable Life, he quotes a statement from North Carolina Yearly Meeting that affirms this idea of keeping first things first:

“The heart of Quaker ethics is summed up in the word “simplicity.” Simplicity is forgetfulness of self and remembrance of our humble status as waiting servants of God. Outwardly, simplicity is shunning superfluities of dress, speech, behavior and possessions, which tend to obscure our vision of reality.” (I want to underscore that point because that is precisely what happens when we get dragged into shallow living: our vision of God’s reality gets obscured.) “Inwardly, simplicity is spiritual detachment from the things of this world as part of the effort to fulfill the first commandment: to love God with all the heart and mind and strength…

Simplicity does not mean drabness or narrowness but is essentially positive, being the capacity for selectivity in one who holds attention on the goal. Thus, simplicity is an appreciation of all that is helpful towards living as children of the Living God.”

That’s why taking time to notice and appreciate the simple things in our lives brings that feeling of space and peace and freedom. We are unshackled by the worries in our heads. We discover that God is always there, if we give ourselves a chance to notice, present in the space in which this is all unfolding; present as the Light that shows us the beauty of this world; inspiring the very sense of gratitude we feel when we become aware of and awed by the uncountable number of blessings—in peace and goodness, love and hope—that pour into our lives every single day.

In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he is both encouraging them and commending them because they have already created a vibrant and loving community of faith. They are doing well, and he is pleased. In the passage we heard, Paul invites them to challenge themselves even further, to take things up a notch: to love more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind their own affairs, to honor the simple work of their hands. In other words, stay rooted in the deep blessing of your lived, daily relationship with God and the distractions and temptations of shallow living won’t be able to draw you away from the truth of God’s presence.

This is a recipe for a good and loving life, a strong community, a changed world. And it echoes the wisdom Micah offered. We can know and deeply love God in the simplest things in our days. The simpler the better. Breathing in and out, we remember that life is a gift and say thanks. Kneading bread, we are thankful for provision and strength. Looking out the window, we marvel at the masterpiece of this season’s colors and feel grateful that God provides it simply for our joy. Sitting in silence, we sense boundless freedom and ease and open our hearts to God’s Light, always here.

We find God in thousands of simple moments, proved each day in our very own experience. In closing, I share one of my favorite poems, Pushkin, written by Marjorie Kowalski Cole. It says something important and tender about the powerful, loving bonds of connection that form when our hearts understand the blessing of simple things:

The old cat sleeps
in the newly arrived sun. One more spring
has come his way
dropping a solar bath
on failing kidneys, old cat bones.
I check for the rise and fall of breath.

Once he stalked hares
across the yard, tracked down
chicken hearts with split-lentil eyes.
Fearless, disinterested, a poseur, a demi-deity.
He and the dog are strangers still
after years of eating side by side.

I remember times of wailing
into my couch, alone
and utterly baffled by life,
when suddenly a cat
would be sitting on my head.

Last week I pulled him snarling
from under a chair in Dr. Bacon’s office,
held him while she examined his dull coat,
felt his ribs. Pressed where it hurt.
Eight pounds of fur and bone and mad as hell
but “He’s certainly less anxious in your lap,”
she murmured, astonishing me.
I had no idea. Old cat, old friend,
have I reached some place inside,
added to your life
as you have to mine?

 

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