Is it a Gift? A sermon on simplicity

Story: “The Secret of Happiness” by Paula Coehlo, from The Alchemist 

Sermon: “Is it a Gift?”
When I started to think about music for this month with this theme of simplicity, I immediately thought of”‘Tis a Gift.”

This is a song I have come to appreciate, but I definitely didn’t start there. For a long time whenever I heard – “‘Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, ’tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.” I thought – really? It’s a gift? Is it really? I just wasn’t convinced.

And maybe some of you share my skepticism – maybe you too aren’t sure that simplicity is a gift. Or that coming down to “where we ought to be” is a worthy goal. Or maybe intellectually you may appreciate simplicity, but then when you go to practice – something in you resists, and sabotages your efforts.

One of my favorite pieces of wisdom my mentors have offered me is, “Don’t resist the resistance.”Mostly they say it as advice about congregational health – noting that when there are voices of resistance to a vision or ministry or initiative, the wisest course is not to become in turn the resistor to these voices; but instead, try to understand them. Listen to them. Resisting the resistance usually only increases their resistance, makes them dig in deeper.

“Don’t resist the resistance” can also be applied to individuals, particularly in spiritual practices. In meditation, for example – you might find yourself resisting the practice, the quiet, the breath work – whatever. Rather than resisting this resistance, the helpful practice is to explore the resistance itself.  To remain curious about inner tensions or judgments. Then the resistance simply becomes a part of the experience, allowing you to more fully participate in the moment itself.

All this is to say, this sermon is what happened when I stopped resisting my resistance to “simplicity,” not just about the song, but about the concept more generally….
and instead started exploring it.

In her book, Your Money or Your Life, Vicki Rubin tells the story of two novice Zen monks arguing about whose master was more evolved. One claimed that his teacher was so powerful that he could stand on one bank of a river and write his name in the sand on the other shore. “That’s nothing,” the second one said, “When my master is hungry he eats. And when he is tired, he sleeps.” And with that, the second one won the debate.

We laugh, but really – how many of us sleep whenever we are tired? Or eat when, and only when, we are truly hungry?

Something in us resists this simple logic – we read books about health and happiness, research and attempt many different formulas, but really, there is this simple formula that would probably go a long ways – sleep when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry.

But we resist, and go looking for the more complicated answer.

Liberation ethicist Miguel de la Torre offers one possible explanation for our resistance. In his book, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins, de la Torre questions the value that traditional religion has placed on simplicity, arguing that values of selflessness and humility were established by those with privilege.

As he says, “Those who formulated these [dominant] ethical precepts may have wrestled with the prideful sin of self-centeredness, [but] the marginalized have instead suffered from a lack of self-identity.” (29) The traditional religious values of simplicity or selflessness have been used as tools of oppression for women, the poor, and people of color.

Rather than lifting up continued simplicity or “bending and bowing,” de la Torre says a more liberating message would be to encourage a stronger self-hood, dignity, and self-worth.

And so perhaps our resistance comes from an acknowledgement that simplicity is not always a good thing.Definitely not a good thing for everyone, particularly not for those who have not chosen it, but rather have had it thrust upon them by way of poverty or racism, or other marginalizing forces. There is a big difference between “voluntary simplicity” and “involuntary poverty.”

As John Yemma writes in a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, “People in subsistence cultures rarely see simplicity as desirable. They hunger for more food; cleaner water; better schools; greater access to electricity, health care, transportation. Won’t affluence and choice just make their lives more complicated? Yes, please….”

He goes on to remind us of one of our own spiritual forebears, Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who we often point to as a model of simplicity. Yet as Yemma acknowledges, Thoreau’s simplicity relied on an underlying complexity – “he could always stroll into town for a warm meal from Mom and a chat with his pals.”

Whereas we often lift up the saying, “live simply so others may simply live,” Yemma points out the ways that individual simplicity sometimes depends upon a whole network of other people’s willingness to greater deal of responsibility and complexity.

For a somewhat extreme example, I offer the reality show “Island Hunters.” This is like the “house hunters” series you might be more familiar with, but in this case, they are shopping for an island. That they can buy, for themselves.

Inevitably, as the prospective buyers share about their intent, they acknowledge their desire to simplify. To escape the hustle and bustle of modern life. They want to get away from it all, and spend every day on the beach – that they own. It sounds – awesome. Right?

Except that think of all the people – all of us – who have to live non-simple lives – to make their simple life possible.

Now, I’d call all of this stuff I’ve been talking about so far – mostly intellectual resistance. But there’s something less analytical, more intuitive, that is an even bigger source of my resistance to simplicity, and maybe you can relate. It’s the resistance that shows up when I try to put into practice – in real life – some new habits of simplicity.

It’s the resistance that acknowledges – this isn’t easy. Simplicity, as the saying goes, isn’t simple. For one thing, complexity, busy-ness, acquisition of stuff and ideas – these things come by way of effort. And we like efforting. It is self-rewarding.

We work hard, we feel good.  We work hard, we feel our worth. But simplifying requires we live into that principle we say we affirm – our inherent worth – that has nothing to do with how much stuff we have, how much work or to-dos we get done, how much we know, how much we help or care for others, or even how many hours of volunteering we put in.

Simplicity requires a deep trust of our inherent worth, worth that is there regardless of any of these things.

And secondly, there is a certain habit to having and doing a lot. A hard to change habit – to moving quickly, to not being able to fit it all in.Changing these sorts of habits can mean upending years of ways of being, changing the energy in you, and in the way you interact with your friends, family, co-workers……

Simplifying requires new habits, difficult habits – like…saying no. And meaning it.Saying no – even to things that might be fun – to do or to have – even to people who you might love and cherish.

It means acknowledging your limits, and knowing that the only way to say YES to your most important YES of life is to say NO to nearly everything else.

Which brings me back to the story from Paulo Coehlo’s book, The Alchemist.This mini-tale we heard focuses on the question of the secret of happiness, but set in the context of the book as a whole – which is about finding your life’s purpose, I hear this story less as a lesson on how to achieve individual happiness and more as instruction on how to live in a way that is aligned with your purpose and place in the greater web of life.

What’s interesting to me about this story is the drops of oil. And specifically, that it’s just a couple of drops of oil the boy needs to protect.It’s not like when I used to wait tables and someone would order a martini, and I’d have to figure out how to get the order delivered without losing half of it – that was impossible. But this – this is just a couple drops.

And I think that’s important.

Because it turns out, even a few things are difficult to keep in your spoon as you attempt to travel through this life – we might think of that spoon as the space of your heart, the hours in the day, the attention and contemplation of your brain.

Everything you add – every little drop- requires more and more attention to protect it.

More attention on the spoon in turn means less attention to the bigger picture – the marvels of the world, what we might call – the view all around – the view in our lives in the daily sense, but also the view in the bigger picture – who we are meant to be and become, how we fit in the greater web, in all its beauty and terror- our impact, and interdependence.

I was thinking about all of this last week when I was away – this story, and my resistance to simplicity, the two drops of oil – all of it, when my family took a day long trip to the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which is sort of like our discovery museum, but on steroids.

We spent the whole day there, and didn’t see everything.

My kids were quickly going from one thing to another, and often I’d be trailing behind, reading and learning at each exhibit – it was all really fascinating.

One display invited you to watch a video, where there were two teams – one wearing all black, and one wearing all white.

They each had a ball that they were playing catch and bounce with – and you are instructed to watch, and count how many bounces the white team made throughout the whole video.
At the end of the video, it says, did you get 12 bounces? And I thought – yes, I did count 12, and I felt good.

Then it asked, did you see something strange happen in the middle of the video?

No, I hadn’t. What was it?

The instruction said, watch again, but this time, don’t try to count.

I thought of the boy, and his second time through the kingdom.

I watched again. This time, I saw that in the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla suit walked out in the middle of the game and danced around, and made a big fuss. It was completely obvious, and the first time – so focused on the counting task – I saw none of it.
I was too focused on protecting my drops.

Like most things, it seems to me that what we need here is the middle way. Simplicity need not be about doing away with everything, saying no to everything, romanticizing having fewer options or fewer possessions – or even about living in a certain prescribed way. Instead, it can mean listening for, and understanding – what is your way? The way of your own life’s purpose, your life’s calling, if you will.

What will be your drops of oil?

What tasks, commitments, stuff, people – what goes in your spoon, those things you’ll protect, even though it’ll require concentration and will distract you from the bigger picture?

Which doesn’t mean you don’t care about the rest – it just means they aren’t yours to carry. I think of Sister Simone’s caution about progressives – that we think we have to do it all – and when we can’t do it all, we don’t do anything. She says, the world relies on you simply doing your part. Simply.

For whatever you put in your spoon, if you actually plan to hold on to it – the holding on will keep you that much more away from seeing and experiencing all that beauty.

So this month, or maybe even start with this week, my invitation to you – and to myself – is to consider one or two things that aren’t things you need in your spoon, and to let them go.

What comes to mind right now, it’s probably right. Go with it.

Consider first that question “What’s right about keeping this in my spoon?” Because that will surface your competing commitments – the commitment that makes you keep protecting that thing. Remember, don’t resist the resistance, be curious. Acknowledge it.
It’s all part of the practice.Maybe tell someone you care about that you’re letting this thing go. Ask for their help. And, try praying about it.

If you struggle with prayer, I suggest this one:

Help.

And then say, Thank you.
Say it every day.

Don’t worry too much about to whom you are addressing this prayer. This is one of those times when the saying that “prayer doesn’t change things, prayer changes people, and people change things” applies. We’re trying to create new brain patterns, new life patterns. Repetition is good. Singing it would be even better. Singing is where the real change happens. Why do you think all ads have music?

Along the way, let’s tell each other how it’s going – how are we doing on letting go of the oil that isn’t ours, that is taking up room in our spoon, keeping us from looking up and paying attention to all this beauty. Little but little, perhaps we will find that middle way, that will allow us to see and experience all of this life, even while carrying our worthiest commitments and relationships. And this, I think we can agree, would be a real gift.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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One Response to Is it a Gift? A sermon on simplicity

  1. Pingback: Three Things (or, simplicity redux) | Another Possibility

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