“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19)
“Rare bird alert!” Pat could barely contain her excitement as she announced these words early one morning. Social media for Ohio birders was chirping with the news that a Le Conte’s sparrow had been sighted in a swampy field some thirty miles to the south. In a birding culture that thinks nothing of driving across the state on a moment’s notice to see an uncommon bird, this was like having it in our backyard. And thus a few hours later we found ourselves trudging across a wet field on a vague tire track of a path to find and study this wayward sparrow. Our “hunt” was successful and after several fine minutes of watching it through our binoculars we retreated to the car for the drive home. The bird was colorful, the weather fair, and the search exciting so all in all it was a lovely time.
Lovely, that is, until we returned to the car and discovered scores of “hitchhiker” seeds from the field had attached themselves to our pants and socks. These were not a few stray pieces of dead grass that clung to us, but seeds of a much more tenacious sort. The kind with invisible curved barbs that burrow into clothing for a long-term relationship. The kind that cling to their host with a seriousness of purpose that seems to defy conventions of the natural world. These seeds do not take kindly to being removed, requiring minor surgery as one by one they must be extracted from the fabric. Even then, if they are casually thrown to the wind, they often turn in their free fall as if by some magical force and swoop back for an encore visit.
Upon reflection, I am struck by the similarity of these hitchhiker seeds to our stuff. Now by “stuff” I am referring to stuff. You know, artwork and decorations on walls, clothing in closets, tools in the garage, books on shelves, kitchenware in cabinets, knickknacks on bureaus, electronic gadgets just about everywhere, and piles of papers crammed into desk drawers, boxes, file cabinets, and wherever. When I look around at all of the stuff I have accumulated, I am about as surprised as when I discover an army of hitchhiker seeds on my socks after walking through a field. Where has it all come from? I really can’t say. And getting rid of it – well, this is much harder than removing several dozen hitchhiker seeds.
To be clear, I am not talking about a few selected items of personal history, but a crush of goods cleverly concealed to create the illusion of order and control. For in reality, what is visible in our homes is often a deceptive fraction of our possessions – the bulk of which are hidden up in attics and down in basements, on top of shelves and under beds, behind doors and inside drawers, hanging in garage cabinets and tucked into tool sheds – wherever there is space we have stuff to fill it. And as often as not we run out of the former before the latter. Indeed, we Americans have so much stuff that our houses are not big enough to hold it. For relief we have turned to self-storage units, and in a big way. Estimates are that there is roughly 2.5 billion square feet of self-storage in the United States – the equivalent to about a hundred square miles. That’s room for a lot of stuff! For the truth is we are a nation of hoarders.
And so this month consider the virtue of simplicity.
At the outset I confess to being undecided whether or not simplicity is a virtue. Certainly Jesus words seem clear enough, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matthew 6:19-20) Jesus also tells a parable about a rich fool who builds more barns to store his stuff, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:20-21).
In Christian tradition simplicity is a spiritual discipline – something that is practiced to help free us from worldly entanglements that impede our inward growth. But is it a virtue? In other words, is simplicity an end in itself – a behavior that is inherently good and right from God’s perspective? For example, does God care whether I have a closet with clothes I never wear? Does He mind whether I have shelves of books I never read? Does it matter to Him if I have tools I haven’t touched in years?
For me, these questions are rhetorical – I hear God’s call to simplify. And this brings me to the crux of the matter, which is how to reorder my life and possessions to bring them into line with God’s will. This is a big undertaking – the deacquisitioning of my stuff. But it is a job that will eventually fall to someone someday, if only in one final estate sale, trip to Goodwill, and/or the dump. And perhaps the final impetus I need to simplify my life is knowing my stuff is potentially a burden for my children.
For others of you, the matter may not be settled – God may not be speaking into this area of your life. He may well be more interested in other aspects of your spiritual growth. In which case, I think it would be wrong to devote efforts to simplifying your life at this time. The question for all of us Christians is whether we are seeking first the kingdom of God, or whether we are being distracted by time and energy being put into acquisition, maintenance, and security of our stuff? If our things are inhibiting our spiritual growth, then perhaps we should start paring down.
For me, simplicity is a desirable state, but I am cautious not to overstate its importance. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster warns about the danger of the discipline of simplicity by stating, “Of all the disciplines, simplicity is the most visible and therefore the most subject to corruption.” As he says, the key is always to seek first the kingdom of God. In so doing we are seeking three inner attitudes: 1) to receive everything we have as a gift; 2) to allow God to care for all we have; and 3) to make what we have available to others. When we cultivate these attitudes the outward behavior of simplicity will follow.
The LeConte’s sparrow is small with an orange face and dark streaks on its otherwise yellowish sides and flanks. It is subtly beautiful, but rare to see even in its normal haunts because of its shy and retiring nature. I wonder that simplicity in the present age may well be as rare as this elusive and colorful little sparrow. That said, I have no doubt that living simply is no less beautiful to God because of these words of Jesus, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26)
Let me know what you think.