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Simplicity Is Not Downsizing

Like so many before me, one thing that retirement did was force me (and my wife, Lissa) to think about downsizing or simplifying.

It began with the pastoral/theological library I accumulated over 40 years of pastoral ministry. To tell the truth, I actually had two libraries for most of those years—one kept in the study at church, the other at home. That was due mostly to limitations imposed by office space in the buildings of churches I served. Now that I no longer have a church study, those constraints relate to shelf space in the study in our home.

As a natural bibliophile this was no small task. It was easy with books related to church work, which I have little use for any more—they were boxed up first. Biblical commentaries were next. Since I accumulated such resources in computer software at home, there were few hard-copy editions I needed to maintain.

However, books related to spiritual formation and practices, and to my continuing ministry of spiritual direction, were obvious “keepers.” There also were books I call “old friends” that I couldn’t let go.

In the end, I gave away 15 boxes of books to be sent overseas to pastors and theological schools, and several shelves of books went to a seminarian friend and another young ministry colleague. Now I have all the books I need within the space available ... with a couple of feet of additional shelf space for an occasional new acquisition.

That wasn’t too bad, I told myself. Now we’ll have to turn our attention to what’s accumulated in our house for over 16 years.

Yes, friends, I hate to tell you it’s true. Like the Occamy, an aggressive serpent-esque creature with two legs and wings in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that will fill or shrink to fit available space (whether an entire attic or a single teapot), where there is space in a house, it gets filled—just like open space in our calendars will get filled. I suspect that this next step in downsizing won’t be so easy.

The dictionary definition of downsizing is “to reduce in size, esp. to design or produce in smaller size;” “to undergo a reduction in size;” or “to make (a company, business or organization) smaller by eliminating staff positions.”

Downsizing is usually driven by the pragmatics of shrinking resources – money, space, energy or opportunities.

However, I’ve discovered that downsizing is not the same as simplifying—which is a spiritual practice. Simplicity, while having practical implications, is driven by matters of spirit and soul.

Recently the weekly theme in my devotions was simplicity (from week 49 in The Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God, by Rueben Job, Norman Shawchuck and John Mogabgab ~ Upper Room Books, © 2013). That’s something I’m still meditating on.

In his book, Freedom of Simplicity, Richard Foster writes:

Simplicity is not about poverty, or a renunciation of possessions, or a set of dos or don’ts. 

Rather simplicity is a spiritual discipline that reorients one’s life by deliberately organizing it for a purpose. It is spiritual because simplicity deals intimately with the beliefs and views that lend shape and order to our lives. 

Simplicity is a discipline because we have to work at it and practice it in order to apply it in our lives. Adhering our life to a focused center reduces the fracturedness of our lives. Our priorities are aligned to the focus of our lives, and the way we live out our simplicity in terms of our time, energy, and money becomes a reflection of our inner beliefs. Each of our paths will be unique to our situations.

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun defines this significant spiritual practice as cultivating the great art of letting go. Simplicity aims at loosening inordinate attachment to owning and having. Simplicity brings freedom and with it, generosity. She sums up the goal of simplicity as, “to uncomplicate and untangle my life so I can focus on what really matters.”

This reminds me of “Curly’s Law” from the 1991 movie City Slickers in which the late, Jack Palance played a grizzled cowboy named Curly Washburn. It comes from a bit of dialogue with a ‘city slicker’ named Mitch (played by Billy Crystal) who’s out west to experience life at a dude ranch. Sitting atop his old horse, Curly turns to Mitch and says:

“Do you know what the secret of life is? This [and he holds up one finger].”

“Your finger?” replies Mitch.

“One thing. Just one thing,” says Curly. “You stick to that and the rest don't mean shit.”

“But what’s the ‘one thing’?" asks Mitch.

Curly smiles and says, “That's what you have to find out.”

Curly's Law: Do One Thing. That is simplicity in a nutshell.

Long before Curly, Jesus said it like this in the Sermon on the Mount: “... seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and everything else will be given to you as well (Matthew 7:33).

The one thing? To seek the Kingdom of God. To focus on Christ the King.

Jesus wants us to know that we don’t need all the things or experiences we think we do. What we really need is to keep first things first—Jesus and His kingdom. Life becomes much simpler when one thing matters most.

That’s not easy in our consumption-driven, achievement-oriented, and calendar-directed culture. In our world, to be “busy” is a measure of personal worth and importance.

It’s not easy but the benefits are many. For simplicity creates margin, space and openness in our lives. It honors the limited resources of our small planet. It holds out to us the leisure of being in and tasting the present moment. Simplicity asks us to release the tangle of wants so we can receive the simple gifts of life that can’t be taken away. Simplicity just makes our lives better!

However, as a spiritual formation practice, simplicity is about more than just making our lives more pleasant and easy. It’s also about others.

This struck me as I reflected on what Adele Calhoun says is the goal of spiritual formation: The goal of spiritual formation is to conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.

I’ve long believed that the goal of Christian discipleship or Christian spiritual formation is to become more like Christ, to be increasingly conformed to His image. That’s nothing new.

What hit me like a lightning bolt was the last phrase—for the sake of others. I.e., spiritual formation is not about me! And it’s not about you. It’s about others in need.

No long ago, I read the story of Jesus’ encounter in with a man who asked him,“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus said, “You know the commandments: ‘Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t defraud. Honor your father and mother.’”

He responded, “Teacher, all these I’ve kept from my youth,” as if to say, “So, what am I still missing?”

The gospel record tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him; and then said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

However, in response to Jesus’ invitation, the man was “disheartened” and “went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions” (see Mark 10:17-31).

What I saw was Jesus, first, asking him to simplify so that he could be about one thing—Following Jesus. Anything that got in the way of that, had to go.

Furthermore, it’s not only about the man. Jesus tells him, “Sell all that you have and give to the poor, ... then come, follow me.”

What Jesus saw in him was that no longer did he have great possessions but the great possession had him. I believe it was Mark Twain who said: “If there’s anything you own that you cannot give away, you don’t own it, it owns you.”

That’s Jesus’s point: be free ... and be free for the sake of others—give to the poor, don’t just sock away the proceeds for a rainy day or a nice weekend at the shore. That’s simplicity. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Let us learn to live simply, so that others may simply live.”

~ ~ ~

So, that leads me to ask myself (and you)—so how do we do it? How do we simplify?

How ironic if simplifying were complicated! Yet, much of what I've read seems to suggest thats is so until I came across an article by Daniel Silvestre of called "What Are Some Ways to Achieve Simplicity?"

“It’s not about what to discard, it’s what to keep,” Silvestre contends as he suggests a three-step process.

Step 1: Know What You Love

Grab a pen and some paper, he says. This is where you’re going to list everything you love starting with Things, then Work and Leisure.

On the first page, write “Things” at the top. Then, start listing everything you own that you love. It can be clothes, gadgets, pots, collections, etc. Everything you own that’s physical and brings you joy every time you use it. It could even be something that holds joyful memories for you whenever you see it. Don’t go around looking for things to love, he says. Just write down what comes to mind. Then, repeat the exercise for work and leisure, each on a separate piece of paper.

Next, for work, Silvestre tells us to list down everything we love about what we do—these can be tasks, places, colleagues, things, location, etc. Leisure refers to the activities you do in your free time.

Writing about simplification from a business/productivity framework, I believe that Silvestre skips over one critical aspect of life for people of faith—our relationship with God in Christ! What brings you joy in Christ? This can include things personal, corporate (church, small group), ministry/service, etc. Like first three, write down on a fourth piece of paper whatever comes to mind that you love in your faith-life with God in Christ.

Step 2: Remove What You Don’t

It’s time to know what’s cluttering our lives, says Silvestre. “Here’s the secret: Everything that you didn’t write down on any of those lists doesn’t bring you joy.” Some might make your life easier (or at least not complicate it), but they do not bring you happiness. If they did, they would be on the list.

To be perfectly clear: it does not mean you hate everything else. It just means that those things don’t bring you joy—these are the things to remove from your life. Here’s what Silvestre suggests:

  • For Things: sell, donate or throw away. [I would add this advice from William Morris: “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” ~ rhh]

  • For Work: can you delegate/delete what you hate? For dreaded tasks, find a way to automate or delegate. If it’s meetings (on my list; after all, who loves meetings anyway?), try to ask your boss if your presence is necessary, say no or schedule something critical right after. For things related to work, see the advice on Things.

  • For Leisure: how you can have more of what you love? Maybe you could set a bro-night every week with your best friend. Or signup for a newsletter to get news on the best shows in town. Or you could join a club to get back into tennis.

I would then add: for Faith: learn to say “no” to whatever seems to drain spiritual vitality from you and to whatever doesn’t fulfill God’s call to you which, as Frederick Buechner says is“The place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And then, selectively say “yes” to that which both brings joy to your heart, is in line with your calling, and meets the needs of others in the church and the world. I.e., recognize that you can’t do it all and that you are not the whole body of Christ.

Finally, Silvestre says That’s it. There’s no step 3.

This process reminds me of what I’ve read and re-read related to pilgrimage ... both literal travel with a spiritual purpose and symbolic of our brief life’s pilgrimage through this world on our way “home.” From Phil Cousineau’s book The Art of Pilgrimage ~

"How we pack our bags defines our journey. We always have a choice. ... the venerable tradition of traveling with one satchel or bag symbolizes the fundamental philosophy of pilgrimage: Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” (p. 77)

“What can I do to lighten my burden on this journey?” (p. 77)

“If you listen hard, you can hear the ancient advice: Pass by whatever you do not love.”(p. 85)

I want to learn to simplify not just downsize. That’s where the joy and vitality is offered.

~ ~ ~

In everything, love simplicity. ~ Saint Francis de Sales

“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth.” ~ Leo Nikolaevich Tolstov

Purity and simplicity are the two wings with which man soars above the earth and all temporary nature.” ~ St. Thomas áKempis

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Terri Domitrovich
Terri Domitrovich
Oct 25, 2018

Just what I needed today! You're not sounding very retired ;), though! This takes a lot of work!!!


Jean Kunkel
Jean Kunkel
Oct 19, 2018

.Thank you Dick, great article with pertinent information, particularly timely for me.

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