Our theme for this Advent and Christmas season is the gift of simplicity. It is beautifully pictured for us by the video on our website and it has already led to a number of conversations about what it means to simplify. Patrick remembered the year that he decided to resist the commercialism of the season and make simple gifts for his family – only to realize that it was a lot more complicated to make something than to buy it.
Patrick’s story reminds me that “simple” isn’t necessarily “easy.” Uncomplicating our lives can be very complicated. There are expectations to deal with and overwhelming intersections of need and our own good intentions and just plain old stuff. And it isn’t like we can go back in time. The truth is, those “simpler times” were a lot harder than we would like to imagine. We should remember that the modern experience of Christmas – at least in the U.S. – has a lot to do with World Wars and loss and the nation trying to find some way to celebrate something hopeful together. The ancient story of a poor family giving birth to hope in a shed and then ending up as refugees fleeing an oppressive government proved a good cultural backdrop. Neither of those could really be described as “simple.”
Susan Dohrmann sent me a David Brooks article from the New York Times titled, “The Evolution of Simplicity,” which is a very helpful historical look at the development of thinking about simplicity in our culture. He quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes saying that civilization is about the complexity (I have an old seminary professor who used to talk about “complexifying”) that honors depth, diversity and a “fuller and richer life.” But, even as we recognize the amazing complexity of the world and our lives, there is also an impulse to simplify. David Brooks observes that some of that impulse has turned into “just alternate forms of consumption” with its own market of books and magazines and services.
Simplicity isn’t easy and it isn’t something you buy. It isn’t nostalgia and it isn’t an excuse to hunker down in our own little world while that great big complex world out there spins out of control. If it is a gift to be simple, then it may have more to do with clarity, focus, uncluttered centeredness, and a sense of gratitude.
When the great African- American preacher and teacher, Howard Thurman, wrote his Litany of Thanksgiving, he starts:
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breathe,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
Simplicity isn’t ignoring the complexities of the environmental crisis or hunger or homelessness. But it is, at least, unencumbering our heads long enough to let those everyday gifts work their way down into our hearts because, while we may be looking for the great big gifts of a better world or world peace or unbridled joy or the universal experience of unconditional love, we might miss those simple gifts of hope, peace, joy and love that are all around us. The gift to be simple is a gift we give ourselves and each other this season by taking the time to slow down as the shoppers rush by; to eat less and buy less and worry less; to find some quiet amid the noise; and to celebrate the candlelight kind of beauty that too often gets lost in the harsher light of our days.
The old Shakers have it right: “It’s a gift to be simple; it’s a gift to be free; it’s a gift to come down where you ought to be.” That unique religious community experienced God in the gift of “coming down” from the temptations and addictions and hubris of life into the freedom and joy and gratitude of simply being. According to that ancient Christmas story, that’s where God meets us. And that IS a gift. It’s the gift we want to give each other this season in these weeks of Advent and Christmas.