Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to live simply and why it’s important. The YAV program places a considerable emphasis on the virtues of living simply, and my local church is currently teaching a Lenten Bible Study on the topic. Although my views on the subject are evolving and my personal struggle with simplicity is ongoing, I wanted to share some thoughts with you.
First of all, living simply is not about being miserable and not having enough. It’s about being aware of what you actually need, using your resources intentionally and wisely, investing in what’s important to you, making sure your values match your behavior, not living extravagantly while others are struggling to meet their basic needs, and minimizing your environmental impact.
That being said, I do believe that living simply involves consciously making sacrifices.
We live in an age of consumerism. We are constantly bombarded with messages about products that will make us happier/healthier/prettier/less-stressed/more-organized/etc. We’ve been tricked into thinking that we need to constantly upgrade, replace, or add to what we have in order to be satisfied. More than that, we define success by material wealth and judge one another based on the quantity of things that we’ve accumulated. It’s easy to get caught-up in the mentality of wanting more. After all, our possessions can bring us joy, and we often feel as though we’ve earned them.
As Christians, we’re called to live differently. Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those imprisoned. We are called to take care of one another, and there’s no shortage of need. Around the world, 842 million people do not have enough to eat. Poor nutrition causes 45% of deaths in children under five—3.1 million deaths each year. One in four children have had their growth and development stunted by malnutrition. (World Food Program) Furthermore, more than 3 million people die annually from vaccine-preventable diseases, and 1.5 million of these deaths are in children under the age of five. (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) The list goes on and on.
The good news is we have the power to help alleviate the suffering of others (as we are called to do). The bad news is, in order to do so, we must re-examine our priorities—which are often demonstrated by our allocation of resources. Our spending expresses our values and, compared to much of the world, we lived extraordinarily extravagant lives. Furthermore, our “needs” are far different from those of our neighbors around the world and greatly influenced by our inflated expectations regarding what we deserve.
Living simply involves recognizing the importance of each purchase and considering it an expression of your values. Some things to consider when contemplating a purchase: Do you need it? Can you borrow it? Could you buy it used? Is there a fair-trade alternative? Do you approve of the manner in which it was grown, made, or sold? Who is benefiting from your purchase? Who is harmed by your purchase? What is the environmental impact of your purchase? Do these answers match your core values? Do you value that purchase more than an equal monetary contribution to (insert the name of your favorite charity here)?
If foregoing a fancy cup of coffee enables you to donate a few dollars to a friend’s fundraising campaign (thus supporting a good cause and showing your friend that you care), isn’t that worth the “sacrifice”? Every 60 seconds a child dies from Malaria. If you can provide a lifesaving mosquito net for $10, isn’t it worth skipping the movie in theaters and waiting until it’s available to borrow on DVD? If $50 can provide a student living in poverty with lunch for a year, isn’t it worth it to “sacrifice” that new _________?
I began this piece by stating, “living simply is not about being miserable and not having enough,” and I stand by that. I believe that it is okay to treat ourselves on occasion. After all, God wants us to be happy and enjoy life. However, I also believe that, upon careful examination of our lives, we will realize that our (seemingly insignificant) daily allocation of resources often results in fairly extravagant lifestyles. The problem is not that we’re treating ourselves on occasion; instead, we’ve developed unrealistic expectations about the things that we need in order to feel happy and fulfilled.
I understand that each reader will have a different response to this post. Some readers likely scoffed and stopped reading after the first paragraph. Others will finish reading the piece but disagree with the value of living simply. Still others will begin to question their own practices and how simple living coincides with their faith or values. Honestly, this is all that I’m hoping for. I do not believe there is a singular formula regarding the “right” way to live simply. On the contrary, I believe that it is a lifestyle that must be chosen by the individual and developed to suit their needs. It is an examination of priorities and a series of choices. I hope that you will choose to join me in further exploring what it means to live simply.
This past week, my boss called me at the office to let me know that his car broke down while he was waiting at a light. I grabbed a couple of the other interns, and we went to go lend a hand. Upon arriving at the scene, we discovered that we’d need to push his car through the light and merge into the right lane so that we could get it out of the way and onto the shoulder. There was a lot of traffic and cars were passing us pretty quickly. In order to get into the right lane, we needed a driver to stop and provide a buffer zone so that we had time to get over. I knocked on the window of the first vehicle in line—a large SUV. The driver listened as I explained our predicament and then he rudely told me that as soon as the light changed, he was going to drive through it. Fortunately, another co-worker pulled up to the light (a wonderful coincidence) and offered to help. I returned to the car and discovered another man had joined our team. He’d been collecting money along the side of the road and decided to give us a hand. With his help, we got the car moved out of the way without any trouble. For whatever reason, his act of kindness really touched me. To be rejected by someone society deemed “acceptable” only to later be rescued by a homeless man—it was a truly humbling experience.
A couple of Sundays ago, I was in church and heard a sermon that really resonated with me. The scripture basis was Matthew 4:12-23—when Jesus invited two fishermen to follow him and “fish for people.” Now, this is a story that I’ve heard preached from the pulpit on numerous occasions, read on my own at least as many times, and even lead Bible studies on. The faith and trust of the disciples is nothing less than extraordinary—that much is obvious. However, I can’t seem to stop thinking about the story’s other implications.
At one point, the pastor said something along the lines of, “If Jesus showed up in the pulpit this morning and said, ‘follow me,’ we’d listen to him.” He said this to exemplify the absolute faith of the disciples—who knew little or nothing of Jesus but followed him anyway. Obviously, we are in a much better starting position in regards to knowing about Jesus and his good works. However, my first thought upon hearing this was, “Would we? Really?” After all, Jesus’ message to us in the scripture is pretty straightforward:
Again, Jesus is pretty clear about what he asks of his followers. Yet far too often we limit ourselves to following him when it’s convenient, comfortable, or easy. Is that a little harsh? Probably. However, I’m rather fond of the quote by John Wesley—questioning whether he’d even preached the Gospel if he wasn’t kicked out of town immediately after he spoke. I believe that there is incredible truth in this. After all, what Jesus asks of us is both incredibly challenging and often difficult to hear. He is asking us to make radical changes to our lives and the way in which we treat others. This is best exemplified by the words of Jesus himself; however, I believe Woodie Guthrie and Shane Claiborne do an excellent job modernizing the sentiment: “‘If Jesus preached in New York what he preached in Galilee, we’d lay him in his grave again’ (especially if he did it on Wall Street).”
Naturally, our gifts and abilities vary and result in a different call for each of us; however, at the same time, each of us can do more and do better. Studies indicate there is little difference between Christians and non-Christians in terms of giving and volunteerism (Barefoot Church, page 100; Brandon Hatmaker). This should bother Christians. While there are plenty of non-Christians being incredibly generous—donating their time and money, society as a whole could be doing much more, and Christians should be leading the way. We are called to follow Jesus, which means making a commitment to live differently. Today, far too often, when people think of Christians, they reference one of the Church’s failures rather than the love and compassion of their Christian neighbor. If that’s not indicative of our need to do better, I don’t know what is.
For the record, I don’t claim to have it all figured out. If nothing else, my year of service has reminded me of my own flaws. When it comes down to it, I’m stubborn, impatient, cranky when tired or hungry, overly opinionated, and often uncomfortable with change. If you asked my family and friends, I’m sure they could expand upon that list. However, I’m aware of these shortcomings, what is being asked of me, and how I need to evolve to better follow Jesus. Most importantly, I’m trying. Moving forward, I invite you to join me in being intentional about tiptoeing (or leaping) out of your comfort zone and following Jesus—even (especially) when it’s hard.
As usual, things have been SUPERRR busy at Workers Defense Project; however, that just means that I have lots of exciting updates to report on.
This past weekend, the organization hosted a statewide convening for construction workers from five major Texas cities. I was responsible for coordinating the event, so my last few weeks have been full of arranging housing, food, transportation, activities, volunteers, and materials for the various workshops. The weekend itself was super intense—over 30 hours of work in three days—but a huge success. We had a really great turnout, and there was tons of energy and excitement. More importantly, we gained considerable momentum in regards to our collaboration goals. My favorite part of the weekend was driving to and from the rally with a van of workers from another city. It was really amazing to talk with them (in Spanish!) and hear about all the incredible work they’re doing in their own city.
On Thursday, Workers Defense Project is hosting a brunch for local religious leaders interested in exploring the relationship between faith communities and worker justice issues. The event will include lots of food, several speakers, and a short brainstorming session about how WDP can support faith communities in caring about these issues. I’m super excited about the event for a number of reasons. First of all, I came up with the idea, designed the agenda, worked on the invitations, and arranged the speakers. You might say I’ve invested a bit of time in it. =]
However, beyond that, I’m incredibly excited about reaching out to and engaging with faith communities. Everyone knows that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a rock star for all of his work addressing racial inequality in the United States; however, many people are unaware that MLK dedicated the last few years of his life to worker justice issues and economic inequality. This past fall, I read “All Labor Has Dignity,” a collection of King’s speeches on these issues, and was absolutely inspired. In the past, faith communities have been so instrumental in bringing about social and economic change and, in many ways, they still are. That being said, recognizing that all major world religions incorporate worker justice themes, I would like to see even more local involvement with faith communities. There’s such incredible potential!
Finally, I’ll close with some wise words from MLK (since there’s really no better way to do it):
“You are doing many things here in this struggle. You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”
I don’t go to the movies often. Quite frankly, I find it a little silly to pay $10 (or more) to see a movie when you can rent later for $1.50. That being said, I went to see the new “Hunger Games” movie last night, and I’m incredibly glad that I did. In fact, at this point, I’d pay another $10 to see it again. It was that good.
"Catching Fire" was not an easy movie to watch. On the contrary, there were several times when I felt physically ill and considered leaving the theater. It also made me cry. Again and again, all I could think was, "WOW. This is so incredibly messed up." Then, I realized that’s the way it should seem. After all, it’s a movie about children being forced by their government to fight one another to the death as part of a broadcasted "game." It should make you cringe.
As I began to think about the film as a form of social commentary about the nature of violence and war in particular, my discomfort only intensified. We live in a world where governments base their foreign policy on greed rather than justice, and true cost of violence is ignored by those profiting from it. On a personal level, our patriotism blinds us from seeing the ugly realities of war or the humanity of the enemy.
Unlike many films, “Catching Fire” does not glorify violence. Instead, each death is viewed as tragic, cruel, and unnecessary. The majority of the game’s participants are not depicted as calculating killers but as victims. Most important of all, the lines between the “good guys” and “bad guys” are blurred by the fact that they are all humans and unwilling pawns of their government.
"Catching Fire" forces you to reconsider the motivations of the government, necessity of violence, humanity of the enemy, and existing power structures. Beyond that, it invites you to recognize our society’s failings and decide whether or not you will be a part of the solution.
There is something truly incredible about the power of intentional community.
Unfortunately, it seems that many Americans have forgotten this over the past few decades. Many studies (including a fascinating one about the use of pronouns in literature) indicate that individualism is undoubtably on the rise in the United States. I recognize that there are certain positive aspects of this trend—motivation to succeed, personal responsibility, and self-reliance are all important traits; however, I am also concerned that we, as a society, have lost something invaluable.
The first community that most people experience is that of their family. In many ways, I consider the evolution of the American family to be a blessing (women are no longer limited to the roles of wives and mothers, multiracial families are much more widely accepted, and same-sex couples can now adopt in some states). That being said, other changes to the family structure are much more troubling. The last fifty years have seen a dramatic rise in divorce rates. Children of divorce, who are twice as likely to experience divorce themselves, experience a breakdown of community on a very intimate level. Obviously, this is not to say that children of divorced parents do not experience community; however, their view of community is certainly impacted by their parents’ relationship. Beyond that, one must also consider the role of technology in today’s family. Children and teens are spending more and more time engaging with a screen rather than directly with one another. They are literally being raised by technology. While reading apps and other gimics are cool, they will never compare to curling up in your mother or father’s lap to read a book. Think about the sense of community that is lost when children are plopped in front of a tv or staring at their computer screen all day.
Neighborhoods (used to) account for the next level of community that people experience(d). Once known for block parties, conversations over the back fence, kids racing down the street on rollerblades, and borrowing a cup of sugar, many neighborhoods are now places where people simply co-exist, occasionally bickering over lawn care, rather than truly engaging with one another. I can think of several reasons for this phenomena. First of all, as mentioned above, kids don’t play outside as much anymore. While working as a summer camp counselor, I was astonished by the number of children who’d rather watch tv than play tag with their friends. When children do play outside, it is typically under the watchful eye of their parent—limiting their range, social engagement, and ability to problem-solve for themselves (but that’s a whole different story). This brings me to my second point: Americans are fearful and distrusting of their neighbors. We live in a society where the media warns us of danger lurking around every corner; kidnappings, shootings, rapes, and murders are sensationalized. Obviously, these crimes are very serious and do occur; however, while it is practical to take certain precautions, it is essential to recognize that, for the most part, people are good, well-intentioned, and trust worthy. Finally, people are simply too “busy” to make the creation of a neighbor community a priority. After all, in a world of PTA meetings, soccer practices, and piano lessons, who has time to venture beyond the property line?
It is with sadness I confess that even religious “communities” have been failing at what the name suggests. Perhaps I am simply bitter about the state of the suburban church—Sunday morning worship spiced up with a pinch of occasional volunteerism; however, my confidence that we can do better has resulted in a nearly-constant state of warring frustration and hope. In no way do I doubt the good-intentions or meaningful-contributions of religious groups. Beyond that, I consider attending church to be invaluable. However, it is my respect for the institution that makes me want more from it and for it. That being said, it is important to note that the changes I desire cannot come from the top—after all, many of the necessary structures have already been created. Rather, I want to see people invest in the lives of those they worship with, overcome petty arguments, welcome “undesirables,” support one another, engage with the church more than on just Sundays, become serious about service, and—most importantly—love one another. I want to see MORE potlucks, Bible/prayer/discussion groups, social events, carpooling, babysitting, service opportunities, sharing of resources, and serious conversations about what it means to be community.
While I do not believe that the United States of America has the same potential for intentional community as smaller groups, I do believe that the nation itself is worth mentioning. To make this point, I feel that it’s necessary to highlight the attributes of a successful community: recognition of the importance of community and a willingness to sacrifice for the its benefit, shared values and priorities, a variety of talents, and concern for the success and well-being of each participant. I love my country; however, it is clear to me that we are failing. In regards to our nation’s children—educating/feeding/housing/protecting them—we are failing. In regards to our nation’s workers—paying/insuring/employing them—we are failing. In regards to our nation’s veterans—employing/healing/housing/supporting them—we are failing. In regards to our nation’s racial, gender, and religious minorities—accepting/protecting/including/respecting them—we are failing. We are not behaving as a community, because we are not prioritizing the success and well-being of those living in this country. More importantly, we cannot simply pass the blame to politicians, since we’re the ones who elected them and allow them to remain in office. We cannot simply apply a band-aid to the problem, donating to a local food bank or volunteering at a homeless shelter, because our systems fail to recognize the value of our citizens.
Over the past few years, I have spent a considerable amount of time living in intentional community. While working as a camp counselor (and later director) in New Jersey, Honduras, and New Mexico, I lived with my co-workers. During college, I lived in a volunteer program house my junior year and then in the Spanish language suite my senior year. Now, I live in an intentional community in Austin, Texas with 2 other Young Adult Volunteers of the PCUSA and 5 AmeriCorps volunteers. These experiences have taught me several things about community:
1) Living in community is not always easy.
2) However, it’s absolutely worth it.
3) True community does not just happen on its own, and intentional community is something that you must work very hard to create/sustain.
4) Our nation has lost sight of the value of community.
5) I’m not sure how to re-create the forms of community that we have lost, and I don’t have any quick solutions for the failures that I’ve mentioned; however, I’m willing to devote my life to bringing about community.
For another writing project, I recently composed a list of my “resolutions” for the new year and found the exercise to be both therapeutic and enlightening.
At first, I was amused by how stereotypical certain elements of my list sounded (get back in shape/sleep more/travel someplace I’ve never been); however, the more I worked on my list, the more I realized that it is essentially a list my priorities in life. More than that, it is a portrait of who I’d like to be.
Discernment is a big part of being a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV). I’m in Austin, Texas to serve but also to figure out my calling (or, as someone famous once said, “where your passion meets the needs of the world”). Unfortunately, I haven’t yet figured out my calling; however, I figure that recognizing my priorities and intentionally evolving to become who I’d like to be is a pretty good place to start.
So, without further ado, here are my New Year’s Resolutions for 2014:
Moving forward, I challenge you to create a list of your New Year’s Resolutions—using it as an opportunity to examine your priorities and evolve to become who you’d like to be.
I’ve never been a huge fan of America Ferrera. I mean, I’ve seen and enjoyed several of her movies; however, I never really gave her a second thought. Today changed that. Ms. Ferrera was kind enough to attend a rally at the University of Texas in protest of the Young Conservatives highly-offensive “Catch An Illegal Immigrant” game. At the event, she spoke passionately and eloquently about the need for immigration reform. While her words were certainly inspiring, I was most impressed by the fact that she showed up at all. By attending today’s event, Ms. Ferrera showed the city of Austin that she’s more than just a talented actress; she’s also a dedicated activist. I have to say, I’m impressed.