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Archive for Simplicity


How Much is Enough? (Part 3)

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In Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline, the author offers 10 Principles for Fleshing out Simplicity for today. They are listed as follows:

1. Buy things for their usefulness, not their status.
2. Reject anything that produces control (obsessions, addictions) over your life.
3. Develop the habit of giving things away.
4. Be skeptical of the promise of gadgets.
5. Learn to enjoy things without having to own them.
6. Develop a deeper appreciation for your creation.
7. Refuse debt, no matter how tempting the payment plan or interest rate may be.
8. Obey Jesus instruction about plain, honest speech.
9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others.
10. Shun anything that distracts you from Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6:33.

Remember, internal realities are not real unless they have an external expression, and to exercise external expressions without an internal center produces legalism.


Simple Life

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One of the resources I used for the weekend series I recently concluded was Simple Life by Thom and Art Rainer. Simple Life is a companion piece to the book Simple Church, utilizing the same concepts except focusing them on one’s personal life.

Based on a research sample of 1,077 people, team Rainer conducted surveys and personal interviews to identify the struggles and concerns of our fellow Americans. The resulting research became the outline of the book addressing our lack of margin in four key areas of life: enough time to get everything done, finding balance in relationships, having enough money, and connecting with God.

The authors applied the same steps to help create simplicity in life that they applied to help create simplicity in the local church. These steps are described as ways to help create margin and space in our fast and cluttered lives. Step one is to establish clarity, which is to say that you have a plan and that the plan clearly states where you want to go. Step two is movement, which is the intentional step by step process that one takes to move forward down the desired path. Step three is alignment, which is the (sometimes) painful elimination of things both bad and good that will help one focus on the best. Finally, step four is focus, which is the diligence to say no to the good so that you can say yes to the best.

Simple Life is very practical. Though it is written by Christians for a Christian audience, it is not overtly theological. For those looking for some basic steps to bring order into the chaos that is their lives, the book will be valuable. For those looking for more of a theological foundation as to how to live life as God intended, they may want to look at Richard Foster’s Freedom of Simplicity.

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How Much is Enough? (part 2)

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Jesus devoted much of the Sermon on the Mount to a discussion about wealth and riches.
Matthew 6:19-33. In this lengthy text, Jesus advocated favoring heavenly treasures over earthly treasures. He gives three supporting reasons for his argument.
1. The world is an uncertain place (Matthew 6:19-20). Stuff will deteriorate, if it is not stolen by thieves first.
2. Whatever we fix as our treasure will obsess our entire life (Matthew 6:21). Your life will orbit your treasure.
3. Provision for our needs has already been made (Matthew 6:25-32). While we work and are encouraged to work, our work is performed in trust, not in anxious concern.

So how did we end up in so much trouble?

First, I believe we have become consumed by consumerism. Overconsumption results when we desire something beyond our reach. We reach because we feel incomplete. In order to complete the void in our lives we reach for “plastic saviors” that will help us create the image and identity that we want but is not real.

Second, we have failed to understand the biblical teaching of stewardship. The first step in understanding stewardship is to acknowledge God’s ownership of all things. We are not owners, we are managers of the gifts and blessings that God has entrusted to us to serve the world.

Third, we have failed to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). It has been said that purity of heart is to will one thing. But because we lack a divine center our need for security has led us to an insane attachment to things. If we do not seek the kingdom of God first we will not seek it at all. Seeking the kingdom first produces three core attitudes about wealth and riches: (1) What I have is a gift from God; (2) What I have is cared for by God; and (3) What I have is available to others.

No matter what our earthly treasures may be, we have to be careful about holding them too tightly because they will weigh us down and then let us down. Jesus challenge to us is to prefer eternal treasure that lasts forever.
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How Much is Enough?

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“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” (Luke 4:18-19, NLT)

Jesus sought to lift the burdens of people. He spoke repeatedly and pointedly about one of the greatest burdens they bore, the burden of money. In Jesus’ day, people were facing four challenges related to money and wealth.

First, people were broken by the effort to obtain wealth. They were vulnerable to the belief that it was their own responsibility to provide for their own needs. (cf. 1 Timothy 6:9-10) Second, people were crushed by their failure to obtain wealth. In the first century, wealth was believed to be the clearest indicator of God’s favor. Poverty, on the other hand, was believed to be the clearest indicator of God’s disapproval of their lives. Next, people were burdened by maintaining and keeping the wealth they had already obtained. In Matthew 13:22, Jesus refers to the “deceitfulness of riches.” The reason riches are deceitful is because riches tempt us to trust them. Finally, people were weighted down trying to make sure their futures were secure.

In many ways we are no different today. One of the resources I used for the Enough series was a book by Thom and Art Rainer titled Simple Life. According to their research, team Rainer published these frank, albeit not surprising statistics.

50% of Americans do not have enough income to pay their monthly bills.
46% of Americans believe they have too much credit card debt.
72% of Americans do not have at least 6 months living expenses saved in case of emergency.
51% of Americans believe they are underinsured.
73% of Americans do not believe they can retire comfortably.
60% of Americans say that finances are the major stress point in their families.

Tomorrow I’ll share what Jesus had to say about money from the Sermon on the Mount.

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Yesterday I posted three principles from God’s example of remembering the Sabbath. Today I want to finish with a couple of additional thoughts.

In Sabbath observance the Christian is encouraged to rest, reflect and rejoice. Those three steps lead us to a fourth principle: renewing our trust in God. In Genesis 1:29-30, Adam was reminded that God had made provision for his physical needs. Sabbath provides us an opportunity to remember that God cares for his children, the pinnacle of his creation. Sabbath is an act of trust in God’s provision. We are enabled to rest from our labor because at the end of the day we realize that it is God and not ourselves who meets our daily concerns. Our refusal to stop is a potential indicator of our distrust in God’s care for us and a confession of our dissatisfaction with his provision for our lives.

Finally, Sabbath allows us to realign our priorities with the priorities of God. Backing up even further, Genesis 1:27-28 expresses God’s purpose for Adam, summarized in two seminal statements: be fruitful and multiply and provide care for the creation. Sabbath allows us to re-establish the important priorities of life…those ultimate things of greatest importance.

Through last weekend’s message I strongly emphasized the importance of Sabbath observance. While we may not observe it in the strictest sense of the OT where we set aside an entire day of the week for these processes, I do believe we need to understand these principles and learn how to apply them to our contemporary lives in our current setting. We need to learn something about the pacing of life and the rhythm of life verses looking for means of escape. Sabbath is not escape. That’s why a day off or a vacation will not fix you or your life. It’s not about sleep or recovery. It’s about radically reorienting your life to the life God intended.

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While the command to remember to observe the Sabbath comes after the giving of the Law in Exodus 20, the concept of Sabbath is as old as creation itself. God instituted Sabbath on the seventh day following his creative work thus modeling it for all. What can we learn from the creation account that will help us understand the inner workings of Sabbath observance?

The first principle of Sabbath is rest. Genesis 2:1-3 states, “So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation” (NLT).

If you research any fitness routine or exercise regiment, you will quickly observe that they call for varying degrees of intensity. There are “heavy” days and “recovery” days. So when we read the word rest in the passage above, we naturally think of rest as recovery or recuperation after strenuous activity. The problem with that logic is that God didn’t rest on the seventh day because he was exhausted. The word for rest is menuah, which is a kind of rest that results from satisfaction, contentment, or completion. God rested because he was finished. Sabbath rest is the goal we are to move toward. But our cultural challenge to this principle is that we never finish anything. Let’s say as an example that you work hard at your job to finish a project. You are feeling satisfied and are pleased with your near success. The boss walks in and says, “Great job! You’re almost done! Here are two more projects for you to begin!” Think about the extra-curricular sports in our school systems. Before one season ends, another begins. We never finish anything. We just overlap new beginnings on top of things nearing the end. Some of this may be within our control. But ultimately, it is our insatiable appetite and unbridled desire for more that prevents us from achieving the menuah (rest from completion) of God that produces shalom (wholeness, completeness) in life.

The second principle of Sabbath observance is reflection. Genesis 1:31 reveals that “God looked over all that he had made.” When we pause to look around and reflect, we see the sanctity of God in everything. Purposeful reflection becomes the difference between the person who sees a beautiful sunset which blasts the sky with color and then reaches for a camera and the person who sees the same sunset only to report, “It’s getting dark outside.” When we reflect we are able to see God for who he is. It is not until we begin to see God for who his is that we can take steps toward discovering who we are, what we’re about, and why we’re here. When we reflect we see that what we have is not deserved or earned. Our lives and blessings alike are good and perfect gifts that come down from above (James 1:17).

Principle three of remembering the Sabbath is rejoicing. Genesis 1:31 informs that after God looked around, he “saw that it was very good!” Reflection should result in rejoicing. When we experience Sabbath, we should celebrate the provision of God with thankfulness. The Rabbis of Jesus’ day taught that on the day of judgment we will give an account for all the times we did not stop and celebrate the gifts of God.

Rest, reflection and rejoicing are the first three principles of Sabbath observance. Tomorrow I’ll finish this series by posting the final two companion principles.

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Mary and Martha

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Thinking about Sabbath and time and pressing schedules reminded me of a great story in Luke’s gospel. In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus is visiting in the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. It’s a simple thing, probably just conversation about the Old Testament Scriptures or the Kingdom of God or something like that. The scene is one of Jesus and Mary deep in conversation. In the kitchen, Martha is scurrying around to prepare a meal.

Martha was task oriented, like most of us are I suppose, but she couldn’t stand the fact that Mary had stopped all activity in favor of talking with Jesus. She was so upset she went to Jesus and demanded that he encourage Mary to get up and help. Jesus must have smiled as he lovingly rebuked Martha for being so concerned about her temporal provisions and feeble attempt to impress.

Thinking about this caused me to realize that Martha’s question is not about Mary. Neither is her concern about Jesus. It’s all about Martha.

I think it’s our self absorption that hinders us from achieving simplicity. Much of our time is spent creating an image that says we are successful, we have it together, and above all, we are not slackers. We look down on others who we don’t perceive as working hard. We hold them in contempt and label them as unmotivated and unproductive. Sabbath is designed to help us break the cycle of self importance and image projection. Choosing to apply the principles of Sabbath into the pacing of our lives allows us, like Mary, to choose the greater things.

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Living the Sabbath

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One of the benefits of my education has been the wonderful people I have met along the way who have been superb resources to me in ministry. One such person is my friend of nearly 30 years, Dr. Ken Gore, chair of the Department of Religion at Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. When I outlined my present sermon series, one of the things I wanted to do was preach a sermon on creating margin in our schedules, and the basis of that thought was the Old Testament teaching on Sabbath. So when I needed a good resource on the subject, I called Ken and shared my thoughts.

Ken recommended a very fine monograph titled Living the Sabbath by Norman Wirzba. Wirzba serves as the chair of the Department of Philosophy at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky. Thanks to my friends at Amazon, I held it in my hand in four days, and must confess it was money well spent.

I had supposed that Sabbath would be an excellent foundation for teaching about God’s perspective on time, but I quickly discovered that Wirzba had much more in mind than how Sabbath influenced Hebrew thought about calendars and schedules. Wirzba takes the Sabbath principle to a fuller, more rounded expression about simplicity, inclusive of perspectives on time, family life, education, the environment, possessions, and of course, worship.

Having stated the obvious concerns at hand in our modern culture in the preface, the author deals systematically with the meaning of Sabbath from both a biblical basis as well as from Rabbinical tradition. Not only does Wirzba handle the Old Testament texts, he moves across the aisle to the New Testament and provides some helpful understanding of how to apply the principles of the Sabbath to our Christian worldview.

I have much I could say about this book, but will limit my thoughts to two excellent contributions offered by the author. First, I was impressed by Wirzba’s insistence that we understand and apply the Sabbath in principle to our present setting. Sabbath is an important aspect to achieve and maintain a sense of pacing and rhytmn to every day life. Application of the Sabbath, in the writer’s words are, “a matter of life and death.”

A second contribution of value is his explanation of rest. Sabbath rest (shabbat menuah) is not the rest of recovery from some strenuous or exhausting physical exertion. Rather, menuah is the delight and celebration that is achieved after the completion of a purposeful activity (cf. Genesis 2:1-3). That thought alone was worth the price of purchase.

I would highly recommend Living the Sabbath. It’s scholarly, yet readable. It’s theological, yet practical. Most of all, it’s simply helpful.

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The Principle of Sabbath Rest

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“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God.” (Exodus 20:8-10, NLT)

My generation will probably be the last that remembers “blue laws.” Up until the 1960’s, most businesses in my hometown were required by law to close on Sundays. Department stores, supermarkets, and most service stations shut down as an attempt to impose Sabbath sanctity on the operation of businesses. At best, a few restaurants in town stayed open in order to accommodate the after-church diners, although some congregations refrained from patronizing such establishments on Sunday.

But life in general proceeded at a more peaceful pace then. Not only did we observe a day of rest, we didn’t have interstates, fast food, and non-stop organized activities for children. My family had strict rules about what behaviors were unacceptable on Sunday, such as housework, yard work, or physical activity such as sports. Such customs were a way to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. We understood, of course, that the Sabbath was a Saturday, and Sunday was “the Lord’s day.” We just observed Sunday as the New Testament application of an Old Testament standard.

But times have changed. Sunday is now just like any other day of the week. We use it as a day to catch up. If you’re sedentary during the week, you seek physical activity. If you didn’t get a chance to do the laundry, the dishes, the lawn, the shopping—you catch up on Sunday. In the 21st Century, Sunday has become a day to catch up on what we didn’t get accomplished in our over-crowded lives and to forget all of our problems from the previous week. We use Sunday to reconnect with our spouses and children because we’ve been too busy during the week to see them. And we attend worship if we don’t have a better offer. Whatever it is, it is not about remembering. Though we may not realize it, we are teaching our children to be busy. During the earliest stages of life we are molding their minds to sense that free time is wasted time.

The value of time is not lost on our culture. We value time more than money, evidenced in our willingness to spend significant dollars to be more efficient and save time. But living without margin in our schedules is having a profound impact. Research shows that 44% of Americans believe that if they continue to live life at its current pace they will face major health problems. Another 40% of Americans admit to being on the emotional edge because of their schedules, and 84% of Americans say they need to spend more time with their families.

The fourth commandment was given for a purpose. But that purpose was not legalism. The religious leaders of Bible times counted 39 words in the fourth commandment, and then took 39 times 39 and came up with 1,521 prohibitions for the Sabbath day. It was strictly enforced, and became a litmus test for piety. So what relevance does Sabbath observance have for us in the 21st century? What does God think about time? Why has he established the principle of rest for his children?

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Eliminating the Competition

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Martin Luther once said, “Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that properly is your God.” During the preparation of this sermon last week my mind turned to the infamous church of Laodicea found in Revelation chapter 3. God put a thermometer in their heart and discovered they were “lukewarm.” Not quite dead, but not fully alive. That’s an great illustration of how idols impact our ability to connect with God.

If you’re feeling a little lukewarm, there are some ways to detect the presence of idols in our hearts. I believe one of the functions of the classic spiritual disciplines is to help us to identify impediments in our relationship with God. Let me share what I mean. For example, the discipline of solitude helps identify people we have placed before God. The discipline of silence helps identify thoughts we have placed before God. The discipline of simplicity helps identify possessions we have placed before God. And the discipline of serving helps identify times when we place ourselves before God. Another way to look at this is to think about the discipline of fasting. In fasting, the heart may be tested for areas of dependency revealing any objects of worship. Still another way to go about it is to simply evaluate your checkbook and your calendar. How you spend your time and your money may be as informative and revealing as any reagent you apply. Finally, you could simply ask a friend who loves you enough to tell you the truth concerning any idols they may observe in your life.

So what if you do the inventory and you don’t like what you see? What should you do? The biblical response is to ruthlessly eradicate the idols from your life. 1 Corinthians 10:14 says we are to “flee from idols.” 1 John 5:21 adds to “keep yourselves from idols.” This is important for us to catch, because God doesn’t demand prominence. He demands pre-eminence. In Isaiah 42:8, God says plainly, “I will not share my glory with another.” Unplug from the idols in your life. You may be able to multi-task, but you cannot multi-worship. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters.”

During World War II, Martin Niemoller was arrested and placed in a Nazi concentration camp for refusing to bow to Adolf Hitler. He wrote a book describing his experience titled, “God is my Fuhrer.” In the book, Niemoller makes the following observation: “It is not enough to say ‘there is a God.’ You have to say, ‘You are my God’.” When we unplug from the idols that promise much and deliver nothing, the result is freedom. Freedom to connect with God and to relate to him as he intended.

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