One of my spiritual heroes is St. Francis. Francis was born in Italy, near the end of the 12th century. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant – so Francis grew up in wealth, ease and luxury. But, after a long illness, Francis experienced a radical spiritual conversion. After giving away some of his father’s expensive things to the poor, his father dragged Francis to the local priest, demanding Francis repent and stop. Standing in the middle of the town square, Francis stripped down to bare skin, renouncing his father’s wealth and possessions, living from that day in complete poverty. Francis shunned owning any property, beyond wearing a simple monk’s robe, dependent each day on God for his needs.
If Francis were alive today, most of us would likely think he was a crazy, homeless man. But, his way of life and his love for God drew followers by the thousands. Francis started a movement, that many believe was the salvation of the Church in the Middle Ages. And, that movement was based on simple living, and a simple trust in God.
Overly-busy, overly-committed, over-spent, over-drawn, over-timed, over-stuffed… overwhelmed!
What a contrast to our modern lives. Very few people, by choice, live simple lives. The vast majority of us are over-worked, over-burdened, over-scheduled, and overwhelmed by modern life. We have too much to do, too much stuff to take care for, and too many commitments. Our lives and homes have become cluttered. It’s become increasingly hard to keep up. And, the result, for many of us, is greater stress and anxiety, and less time, energy and space for the things that matter most – God, family, friendship, peace, joy.
In 1928, economist John Maynard Keynes imagined a world in which, thanks to advances in technological innovation, future generations would be freed to embrace a less “busy” lifestyle – perhaps only working three days a week. Can you imagine?
When Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1956, he envisioned a world where… “leisure will be abundant, so that all can develop the life of the spirit, of reflection, of religion, of the arts, of the full realization of the good things of the world.” Let me ask you – when was the last time you had abundant leisure?
The exact opposite has happened.
Americans are working longer hours than ever before. Somewhere around the end of the 20th century, busyness became a way of life and a badge of honor. I heard a radio show, last week, saying Americans are taking less vacation time than ever before.
We simultaneously attempt to do our work via conference calls, while maintaining multiple conversations via texting and social media, while shopping on-line, while driving, while applying make-up, while listening to the radio, while shushing the kids in the back seat while we take them to school, before we try to squeeze in multiple errands before heading to the office, including picking up an extra-large coffee, for the extra caffeine we need because we never get enough sleep.
We talk on our phones, while we workout, while we watch the news, before we pick-up fast food from a drive-through for dinner, followed by chores and a little television, checking how many likes we got on social media, before collapsing into bed, for a fitful night’s sleep.
A recent survey found that 38 million Americans shop on their smartphones while sitting on the toilet. We can’t even wait in a grocery line, or a red light, or for a doctor appointment without pulling out our smart phones.
One of the things I’ve noticed in Guatemala, when we break from our construction projects for lunch, is that the North Americans tend to rush through our meal and are ready to get back to work. Whereas, the Guatemalans eat more slowly, and take time for rest and conversation, and maybe a short nap, before heading back to work. And, by the end of the day, they always outwork us.
There is in our culture and psyche a compulsion to “go, go, go,” filling every minute of every day with activity and noise.
Due to our over-filled lives, Americans report that they’re too busy to register to vote, to date, to make friends, to take a vacation, to sleep, to volunteer, etc. Even church attendance is falling, due to people needing Sundays to get everything done!
Another study has shown that the compulsion to multitask is making us as stupid as if we were stoned. Many believe that our compulsive “busyness” has actually become the cause of greater ineffectiveness – not effectiveness. I think we all know that’s true.
And, like I said, it’s squeezing out the things that really make life worth living. Why work longer and harder for a bigger, nicer house, filled with more stuff, if we can’t enjoy it? Why fill our schedules with more and more activity, if those activities aren’t enjoyable and life-giving? Why have thousands of friends and followers on social media, but not have any real friends?
We’ve accepted the lie that we can have it all – we can’t. We’ve bought into the lie that efficiency, organization and time saving devices can give us more time to do things that matter – but, they don’t. We seem to think that activity and busyness and stuff is the meaning and purpose of life – it isn’t.
We are humans, limited by time and certain mental, spiritual, and emotional capacities. At some point, we become overloaded.
Have you ever noticed that Jesus didn’t have many possessions, he didn’t keep a calendar, and he frequently left the crowd to pray? Is there a reason we think we can handle more commitments and stuff than Jesus?
The only way to make space for the things that matter most is to simplify, which means reprioritizing our lives, learning what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to. And, frankly, we need to say “no” a lot more often!
John Michael Talbot writes, “Simplicity is the time-tested tool that we can use to prune our lives… It seems that if ever there was a time when the virtue of simplicity was desperately needed, it’s in our own fast-paced, consumer-oriented, information-overloaded era.”
Do not worry…
Though the world in Jesus’ day was much different, it was still filled with reasons to be worried and anxious. In Matthew 6:25-30, Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. 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? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
But, we do worry. Americans are taking an unprecedented amount of a prescription medication for anxiety and depression. Modern-day compulsions and concerns have produced unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression, marital and family dysfunctions, road rage, workplace shootings, and addictive behaviors.
Again, John Michael Talbot writes, “Clearly, something is out of balance when millions of people are wracked by stress and medicated against despair.”
The birds & the flowers…
Jesus provides very simple advice. Don’t worry. Trust God. As an example, he points to the birds and the flowers. “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?” Why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”
Jesus is asking, “Don’t we trust that God will take care of us? Don’t we trust that God will provide what we need?” Don’t we trust that God knows best?”
Simple logic – if God cares about birds and flowers enough to provide for their daily needs, won’t he take care of us!
Instead we worry about the stuff we have, and the stuff we think we need. We worry about protecting and preserving what we have, and acquiring more. We accumulate, in fear of it all going away. How much of our time and energy is consumed in the acquisition and care of stuff that we don’t really need, don’t really want, and doesn’t really bring much joy to our lives?
Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us, this day, our daily bread.” Jesus asks, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’… your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”
So, how do we do that? According to Jesus, the answer is priorities. “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Jesus is being clear. It’s about real, actual priorities. Do the first, most important things first, and, if we trust him, everything else will work out. But, focus your life on compulsive consumption and busyness, and you’ll never get around to what really matters.
Here’s a simple, and probably familiar, illustration. Imagine that a large jar represents your life – your time, energy, focus. Imagine that several tennis balls represent the important things in life – health, family, service, spirituality, joy, generosity. This is the stuff that Jesus was talking about when he promised us “abundant lives.” Imagine marbles representing all of the little tasks that have to be done – getting gas, brushing your teeth, doing the laundry, etc. There are usually a lot of these. Now imagine that sand represents all of the stuff that might be enjoyable, but isn’t really necessary or important, and isn’t really necessary, but, if we aren’t careful, can take up a lot of time and energy – social media, watching television, checking email, texting, wandering the mall, online searches, 24-hour news reports, etc.
If you fill the jar starting with the sand, then the marbles, and last with the tennis balls, there’s a good chance that the tennis balls won’t fit. That’s the way a lot of us live our lives. We will fill our lives with the least meaningful/helpful/important stuff first, and by the time we have reached our full capacity of time and emotion, there’s no room for the stuff that really matters.
But, if we make sure we put the important stuff in first – if we “seek first the kingdom of God,” there tends to be room for the other stuff too. If the tennis balls go in first, then the marbles, and then the sand, it might all fit. Most importantly, the most important stuff fit.
Practically, how do we do this? We have to make the most important things the top priorities. Taking care of your family, your health, and your spirituality are most important. Connecting with God and real friends really matters. Serving God and giving really matters. Give those things first priority in your schedule and in your budget. Then, do the marble sized things. Then, if it still matters, do the sand-sized stuff.
But, let me be clear. We don’t seek God first in order to fit more in. We seek God first, and the things God calls a priority, because they matter most!
The secret to a happy, fulfilling, joy-filled life is the exact opposite of what the world says. The secret is simplicity.