Simplicity – It’s Not What I Thought

“It is no bad thing celebrating a simple life” 

-JRR Tolkien

My word for 2020 is simplicity. I want to downsize our material possessions, living only with what I “know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. I want to clear out my inbox and take social media off my phone. I want to eat delicious, intentionally-prepared, whole food meals cooked at home. I want curb spending and prioritize paying off debt over impulse purchases. All of this is in an effort to simplify my life and be more present in the moment.

My hope is that all of these small tasks will give me peace of mind. But as I was planning out my year on the calendar, adding a spring cleaning here and a large debt payment there, I had a moment where I thought, “I could do all of these things and still not have the peace of mind I am looking for.”

In his book “The Life You’ve Always Wanted”, John Ortberg views a life of simplicity a bit differently than most of us do. Ortberg relays a story which takes place in the movie City Slickers:

“…Billy Crystal plays a confused, dissatisfied thirty-something character with a vague sense that life is passing him by. Jack Palance – ancient, leathery, wise to the ways of the world (‘a saddlebag with eyes’) – asks Crystal if he would like to know the secret of life.

‘It’s this,’ Palance says, holding up a single finger.

‘The secret of life is your finger?’ asks Crystal.

‘It’s one thing,’ Palance replies. ‘The secret of life is pursuing one thing.’

Somehow this resonates deeply with Billy Crystal’s character. His life is scattered. He is torn between his obligation to his family and his desire for career advancement; between his need for security and his appetite for excitement. He is divided somehow. His life is about many things, and so, he senses, it is about nothing.

So what is that one thing? Jack Palance can’t tell Billy Crystal. ‘You have to find it for yourself.'”

As read this, I felt the nudge of the Spirit, as if this was to be my pursuit as we begin this new decade.

But what is going to be my thing? Loving God? Loving others well? Being the best wife and parent I can be? Taking up a social justice cause?

You know when you start hearing a common theme in every book you read, podcast you listen to, and conversation you have? That’s what happened as I began to ponder my “one thing”.

And this is what I landed on (or, more likely, what the Lord impressed on my heart): Abiding in the vine.

In John 15, Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing…As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.” (John 15:5, 9-11)

In other words, we are to learn to live our lives in two places at once – washing the dishes and with Jesus, putting the kids to bed and with Jesus, driving to work and with Jesus. This is how we are formed and transformed into people of love.

The opposite of this “abiding” is what the New Testament writers called “double-mindedness”. One of the New Testament authors, James, calls the double minded person “unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8).

Ortberg shares that Soren Kierkegaard, a 17th century Danish philosopher and theologian

“saw double-mindedness as the essential disease of the human spirit. His book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing is a reflection on a statement by James: ‘Purify your hearts, you double-minded.’ The disease diagnosed by Kierkegaard is the failure to achieve simplicity – to have a life that is integrated, that is focused on one thing. It is the failure to make an ultimate commitment to what Kierkegaard calls ‘the Good’ – what Jesus spoke of as ‘seeking first the kingdom.'”

As humans, we all worship something. Worship is not a religious act, it is a human act. We all get to choose what we want to make our lives about, be it our career, our family, the pursuit of success, taking up the cause of the poor, gaining money or power, etc.

The beautiful thing about abiding in Jesus is that something will come of all of those other pursuits that I have chased. The ones that are amiable and good will come naturally as a result of being with Him, and the pursuits which are selfish will become less and less appealing. Jesus said, “I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2).

This all sounds wonderful and idyllic in theory, but the big question is how? How, in a world of distraction and hurry and busyness and maxed-out calendars do we “abide in the vine”?

My favorite little book on the topic, The Practice of the Presence of God, is a compilation of letters written by a 15th-century monk named Brother Lawrence. While working in kitchens of the Discalced Carmelite monastery, Brother Lawrence made it his aim to live every moment in constant awareness of the presence of God. He says,

“I worshipped Him as often as I could, keeping my mind in His holy Presence. Whenever I noticed that my mind had wandered, I brought it back to Him. I found this very difficult, and yet I continued in the practice, without feeling guilty when my mind wandered involuntarily. I made this my constant exercise all day long, whether it was the appointed time of prayer or not. At all times – every minute of every hour, even at the busiest time of my work – I drove from my mind everything that was capable of interrupting my thought of God.” (The Practice of the Presence of God, 30)

Sounds easy for a monk working in a monastery, right? What about those of us who are bombarded with distractions all day from our various obligations to our jobs, families, and social engagements?

Brother Lawrence offers this practical advice:

“Make it your practice, before beginning any task, to look to God, even if just for a moment. Look to God while doing any activity and also after you have completed it. It takes much time and patience to perfect this practice, so do not be discouraged by failure. This habit is only developed with much difficulty. Yet when it is achieved, how great will be your joy!”

I love that throughout the book, Brother Lawrence doesn’t avoid the fact that this practice is difficult! It actually feels impossible. But his constant encouragement is to just keep trying. If your mind wanders, bring it back again and again.

I highly recommend that you get your hands on a copy of this book and use it to help you actively pursue one thing: living every moment in the presence of Jesus.

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