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Learning from the Legends: George Fox Teaches us Simplicity

Philippians 4.10-20

How many of you all are familiar with Marie Kondo? She has taken the world by storm with what [she calls] the KonMari method of tidying up our homes. According to Kondo, we need to all clean our homes and purge them of a bunch of our stuff. We don’t need all the stuff in our lives…we need to live more simply. She suggests that we need to sit down at take a look at all of our stuff and for each item ask, “does this give me joy?” If the answer is not immediately “yes,” then we need to get rid of it. How many of you have done this in your house. I actually think it is a pretty cool idea, and think that our house could probably handle a little KonMari! To live more simply and with less stuff seems pretty attractive to me.

But whenever I think of the KonMari method, I imagine what it would look like if Marie Kondo met… my Granddaddy. I imagine this showdown between the two of them. You see, my Granddaddy grew up in the Depression, and he lived a life of want, of never quite having enough. So, by the time I knew him, he had become an expert at whatever the polar opposite of KonMari was. He never threw anything away. They bought a house in a little town in Illinois, and promptly filled it with stuff. So they built a patio on the back, and filled it with stuff. Then a workshop…stuff. A plant room…stuff. Then during my growing up years, they built “The Boonie.” The Boonie was a huge Morton building that they built to store more stuff.  They put their RV in it, their boat next to the RV, a bunch of bales of straw for the strawberries they raised, and then the shelves. Shelves and shelves and shelves for…stuff. Tools and fishing tackle and boxes of half-broken clay pigeons because, “there are a lot of good ones in there, and the broken ones aren’t too broken.” I just want to see a showdown between Marie Kondo and Granddaddy.  I can see it now, “you bet your butt that that box of 30-year old plastic fishing worms brings me joy, now put it back where you found it.” And he would have meant it. Having that stuff meant for him security and safety and throwing it away meant painful wastefulness. There was a level of joy to having that stuff around.

All this goes to say that simplicity isn’t, well, simple. The reasons why we have stuff or get rid of stuff is actually pretty emotionally and psychologically complicated. I can stand up here and say it is immoral to have too much stuff, but people like my Granddaddy would say the opposite, that it is immoral to waste things! And sure I can say we should have less stuff, but how would that be heard by 2/3 of the world that lives in poverty and needs more to survive, even more to flourish? They would probably laugh at the privilege of being able to say “stuff doesn’t matter.”  “Sure it does, if you don’t have it!” The way we talk about simplicity is, ironically, kind of complex.

 

Which brings us to Paul. How many of you felt a little lost by today’s passage? Paul is thanking the people of Philippians for a gift of money that they sent him, but at the same time, he tells them he doesn’t really need it because he has learned to live without it.  The worst thank you note ever. If you were Paul’s mother and he wrote this, you’d make him go back and start over, right? But simplicity isn’t simple. Paul is walking a tightrope here. He wants to tell them that he is thankful for the gift that they gave him, but he also wants to let them know that he is fine without it. A tough balance, to teach them something about gratitude, but also something about simplicity, all at the same time. He needs stuff—money, resources, a place to live, etc.—and he appreciates the stuff that they gave him. But at the same time, he wants to tell them that stuff isn’t the most important thing. Again, there are a lot of emotional and psychological realities at play here.

Let me suggest that there are a lot of reasons to live more simply. A lot of good reasons, in fact:

  1. Make yourself richer. Think about it. If you don’t need the latest iPhone and the prettiest car and the house in the fanciest neighborhood, you can come out looking pretty good financially. Often times, frugality is used as a synonym, or at least a parallel to simplicity. If you aren’t buying stuff, then you have more money. But then again, if you live like Granddaddy, you don’t want to live in want, so you don’t simplify your stuff…you duplicate it, triplicate it, etc. If you follow this rule, it’s no guarantee that you’ll be richer at the end of the day.
  2. Make yourself happier. I think this is Marie Kondo’s point. Stuff equals worry. Stuff rarely gives us joy. Stuff stresses us out. Not only visually, but emotionally. You get stuff, then you have to worry where to put it, then you have to make sure it is safe so you build a building for it, then you have to buy an alarm for the building. Just have less stuff, and that isn’t a problem, right? Perhaps.
  3. Be more self-sufficient. “Look, I don’t need all that stuff, because I am strong enough without it.” There is something basic to this one, isn’t there? Think of the child who throws out the pacifier, or doesn’t want diapers anymore, or doesn’t need mom or dad’s help. “I’ll do it myself. I don’t need all that baby stuff.” And a lot of us keep that self-sufficiency as we grow into adulthood. And there is a lot that is good and healthy about it. This is, by the way, the argument that was popular in Paul’s day. The philosophers called the Stoics preached this idea. It is where we get our word “stoic.” We can be emotionally self-sufficient, physically self-sufficient, relationally self-sufficient. We don’t need all that stuff because we can do it our own.

But, none of that is what Paul seems to be talking about here. Because, if you aren’t careful, all of these reasons put our values a little askew. See, these things still put our money (1), our mental health (2), our sufficiency (3) at the heart of the matter. Do you see the common word here? It’s still all about us.

 

But Paul seems to throw all of that out. He chooses reason number 4. Instead of self-sufficiency, he chooses “God-sufficiency.” Look again at the passage: “I’ve been well-fed, I have been hungry. I have had plenty. I have been in need. But when it comes down to it, it isn’t about the amount of stuff that I have. In fact, it isn’t about me at all.  It is about God. It is about how God cares for me. I have learned that whether I have stuff or not, it doesn’t matter: I have God, and God has me. “I have learned the secret,” he says, in comparison to the philosophers of the day. The secret is this: God is taking care of me. All my needs are met.

This doesn’t mean “God is pampering me.” Jail. Beatings. Oppression. This isn’t the life of one who is walking around his house wondering about what stuff to take to Goodwill. This is one who is suffering greatly for the truth that he proclaims.  And yet, he sees that through all of it, God is walking with him. Paul has learned contentment in the midst of struggle.

That’s what he means when he says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” This is a verse that gets taken out of context pretty often. I know that I have. I remember when I was in college, going to a Christian college, this was a favorite verse. “I have a test coming up…I can do all things.” “I’m going to ask that girl out…I can do all things.” I had a friend who used this verse for his weight-lifting mantra: “I have to bench press 200 pounds…I can do all things.”  But, of course, all of those still keep us at the center. The verse isn’t saying, “I can get or achieve or accomplish all things that I want,” but instead, “I can survive or exist through or be joyful regardless of all things that happen to me.” Why? Because God is sufficient. Not me. God. The focus is on Christ’s strengthening no matter what happens to me, not on my list of things that I want to do.

That is simplicity. In its purest form. We need God. The rest sorts out in the wash.

Paul had learned this simple truth, and it made him able to survive and thrive in the most difficult of conditions. So, this is why he is so complicated in his thank you note. He wants to say “yes, I am thankful that God used you to take care of my needs.” Again, his mother might not be happy if he wrote that in the thank you note. But he wants to balance both the gratitude and the simplicity lesson here all at once. “You did good. But remember this is about the Gospel, not about money.” That’s why he ends the passage the way he does. It’s a doxology. “Thanks for the money, but really THANKS BE TO GOD!!!” It all points back to God-sufficiency.

 

I wanted to find an example of simplicity from the Society of Friends – the Quakers – because they are known for living and preaching a simple life.  So, I started at the beginning, with the founder of the Quakers, George Fox.  Fox lived in the 1600’s in England, where there were pretty clearly defined rules for how you were supposed to live and practice your faith. Fox broke all of them. He argued for a simpler, more peaceful, more “God-sufficient life.” And it—like Paul—got him rejected by society, thrown in jail, attacked verbally and physically, and all kinds of good stuff.  But for Fox, he came back to this truth, whatever happened: we need God. The rest will get sorted out in the wash. He began the Society of Friends because he believed this and felt like all of us have access to God in this way. So, today, a few lessons in the simplicity of George Fox.

One, don’t own things for the sake of esteem.  This is a tough one for us. We want to be valued, and so we think that our value comes from the esteem of others. So, we buy the nice car or house or jewelry or clothes. In the time that George Fox lived, there was this assumption that in order to be trustworthy in the faith, you had to have a degree from either Oxford or Cambridge, be well-educated, and belong to the religious establishment. Fox threw that out the window. Instead, he began a religious movement that has caused ripples through history, all with very little education. He pointed to folks like the Baptists who suggested that our authority comes from God, not from others. So, he didn’t bother with esteem much. His argument is that God gives us what we need, and so that is how he lived. He didn’t spend his energy trying to impress others He didn’t need the status symbols of his time to be content. Perhaps that is a word for us, as well. Richard Foster, a Quaker author and a part of the legacy of Fox says this well:

The Christian Discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle…. Because we lack a divine Center our need for security has led us into an insane attachment to things. We really must understand that the lust for affluence in contemporary society is psychotic. It is psychotic because it has completely lost touch with reality. We crave things we neither need nor enjoy. We buy things we do not want to impress people we do not like.

Ouch. Truth, from Fox and his legacy. But freeing, isn’t it? To know that you don’t have to be a slave to esteem!

Two, enjoy things without needing to acquire things. This one would make Marie Kondo sing, wouldn’t it? Fox would remind us that owning things, controlling things put us upside down with God. God owns everything. We are participating in God’s ownership.  Like Paul, who knew plenty and want, Fox went from town to town, indeed country to country, preaching and receiving prophetic words from God. His was not a world of owning, of controlling, of acquiring, but receiving. So many of us try to create our own little kingdoms, our own little fiefdoms, but the more we try and control and protect and take, the less joy we have. Enjoy things as they come, without the need to possess them. After all, God who is sufficient owns all anyway! Why not live that way? Again, Fox frees us from the need to pretend to own and control.

Three, appreciate God’s creation. For Fox, this was not just a practice in gratitude, but a reminder of the sufficiency and creativity and beauty of God. When we are inside, in our own human-made worlds, we can start living by human made rules. But when we get out of those walls and start to see the beauty of God’s creation, how God cares for the buds on the trees or the little microorganisms that crew up a downed limb, or the strength and size of a mighty sycamore tree, we are reminded of God’s sufficiency. Fox writes as much in his journals…

He is the living God, that clothes the earth with grass and herbs, causes the tress to grow and bring forth food for you, and makes the fishes of the sea to breathe and live. He makes the fowls of the air to breed and causes the buck and the doe, the creatures, and all the beasts to bring forth whereby they may be food for you. He is the living God, that causes the sun to give warmth to you, to nourish you when you are cold. He is the living God, that causes the snow and frost to melt and causes the rain to water the plants. He is the living god, that made heaven and earth, the clouds, causes the spring to break out of the rocks, and divided the great sea from the earth. He divides the light from the darkness, by which it is called day and the darkness night, and divided the great waters from the earth, gathered them together, which great waters he called sea and the dry land earth. He is to be worshiped that does this. He is the living God that gives you breath, life, and strength and gives you beasts and cattle whereby you may be fed and clothed. He is the living God, and he is to be worshiped.

A reminder that the beauty of creation can be our guide, our teacher, can point to the sufficiency of God. May this be our peace, our comfort, and our catalyst toward a live of simplicity.

 

 

 

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