The Power of the Simple Life

Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) is remembered for being one of the most powerful and influential Pope’s in Catholic church history, but he is also known for promoting and organizing crusades against Muslim rulers in Spain and in the Holy Land, and against heretics in southern France. This is not a great feat to be known for, but something about this Pope goes mostly unspoken of, is that he once had a vision.

During a meeting Pope Innocent III had with John Bernadone, he recounted this vision where the Lateran basilica (a basilica dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist) was almost ready to fall down. It is then that he saw this little poor man, small and scorned, who was holding up the church with his own back bent underneath it, so that it would not fall. “I’m sure,” said Pope Innocent III, “he is the one who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he teaches.”

This little man, dressed in rags, who lived a simple life, was the model of reform Christ had for His church in the 13th century, who was also known as St. Francis of Assisi. This simple man who lived a very simple and unassuming life style, established the Order of Friar’s Minor, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the 3rd Order of Saint Francis for men and women who weren’t able to live lives of being itinerant preachers, which was later followed by the Poor Clares. Many of those names might not mean much to most of our ears, but what all these orders represented were safe havens for the poor and for those who desired to care for the poor. This was before social services was popular and goodwill was highly dependent up on the goodwill of neighbors. St Francis was a good neighbor. All of these orders serve Christ’s body in simple ways, devoting their lives to serving the poor, the sick, and the dying.

Now fast forward with me over 700 years, and meet a women named Agnes Bojaxhiu, who joined a Catholic order for women that was birthed because of the simple work St. Francis committed himself to. In 1928 Agnes left her home at the age of 18, and joined the Sisters of Loreto, never again to see her mother or sisters.

Agnes was a teacher, and a good one at that, but she became more and more disturbed by the poverty that she experienced in her new home town. When a famine came to her city, death and misery followed, and violence broke out between Hindu’s and Muslim’s, leaving her city destitute, along with the people who lived there. This was the beginning of her next “calling within a call” to live simply, care for the sick, feed the poor, and befriend the dying as they await their last breath. All this was done with simple, unassuming means, and in the name of Christ.

Years later, and throughout more than 120 countries, her work is living and active, and lives beyond her life. Agnes is also known as Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, and leaves a legacy of simplicity, with a passion to be Christ to the vulnerable, the sick, and the marginalized. Mother Teresa inspires us all to find a way to translate our spiritual beliefs into action in the world.

As I remember the lives of John Bernadone and Agnes Bojaxhiu, I am left with ambiguity, and I question the world view that has been erected in Western Christendom, where the victorious and prosperous church is given more prestige than the poor and suffering church; where Christian ministry is often a movement toward relevance, popularity, social acceptance, and power; where numeric growth is more celebrated than sacrificial living and solidarity with the poor.

Yes, Christian ministry is always wrapped in good deeds and god intentions, but the glamour of ministry and the lure of success seems to get more attention than the Catholic Cherokee Hermit-ess Midwife who most will never know, but lives simply and profoundly influences many people on the margins of society. These stories make us remember that more is often done with less. Bigger growth happens as we become smaller. More radical change happens when we work with less, and have less to distract us. But this is not in our DNA, and we are left asking the question, “How has one small poor man, and one small poor woman accomplished so much?”

The “Christian” answer is “By the power of God, of course,” but God’s power empowered this man and this woman to live a simple, unassuming life, stripped of ego and desire for worldly gain, with a posture of humility and listening as they served others.

Simplicity. Through a very brief observation of two very popular Catholic saints whose legacy’s go far beyond their lives lived on earth, we learn that simplicity of life is a powerful tool in the hand of God to bring about great change in any generation. Names of men and women who had great power but used it for sordid gain, are men and women who you and I have likely never heard of. But saints who have lived simple lives, serving others and caring not about material gain, are known and spoken of worldwide as a model of Christ-likeness.

Let me be clear, I am not advocating a movement towards poverty, and I’m aware that some will only see that. What I am advocating for is a life that is committed to living simply in the midst of so much ‘stuff.’ The age of global advancement is among us with opportunities of great wealth and power, as well as the technology age that gives us access to so much information and opportunities to fill our time in front of a cyber-world-lit-screen.

Consumption is over the top in the West. The good economics of Capitalism has been exploited and used for selfish and evil purposes with seemingly no boundaries. In this unchecked system, life has become complicated and the power and wealth that was given to bless, has been turned inward. Church growth has been more focused on building a healthy budget, acquiring the right property, in the right neighborhood, with the right building space to set one church up for more growth of “butts in seats,” since the business model trumps the Jesus model (no pun intended). I see the simple life as a means for Christ to be truly seen and known in an increasingly self-centered, complex, consumeristic church life.

For renewal to be a reality in the midst of out-of-control globalization, lives of simplicity must rise up all over the world. In our churches, there must be those who commit to living simply; those who are committed to slow and patient discipleship that helps lead and develop men and women to be a holistically alternative community within the machine of global advancement; those who are stepping out of the mainstream view of success, advancement, consumption, and individuality; those who live with less food, less trinkets, consume less resources; those who take seriously Jesus’ call to follow him.

In an excerpt from “Three Temptations of a Christian Leader,” Henri Nouwen prophetically states: “Jesus asks us to move from concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry, and from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people… The leader of the future will be one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deeper solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and bring the light of Jesus there.

 

We must challenge our Western notion of what it looks like to be “leaders.” To follow Jesus in a culture committed to over-consumption, individualism, financial success, and “fast” everything, I believe it’s imperative for the simple life to be mainstream again, as people begin planting roots in particular neighborhoods, living radically different lives that are alternative to the Western story, and more in line with God’s story.

This simplicity must penetrate the church systems and forms that arise in this next era of church planting, business development, and city engagement. The simple life has a powerfully corrective voice to those who only have one eye open to the problem of consumerism, materialism, and globalization. Jesus counter acts oppressive systems through small, simple acts of small, simple people.

This section is best summed up by the words of Tolkien via Gandalf, as he responds in Rivendale to Lorien’s question, “Why the halfling?” for the journey with the Dwarves:

“Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small things… everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I’m afraid and he gives me courage” (From the motion picture, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”).

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A Path Towards Urban Renewal: Simplicity

Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) is usually known for being one of the most powerful and influential Pope’s in Catholic church history, known for promoting and organizing crusades against Muslim rulers in Spain and in the Holy Land, and against heretics in southern France. This is not a great feat to be known for, but something about this Pope goes mostly unspoken of, is that he once had a vision.

During a meeting Pope Innocent III had with John Bernadone, he recounted this vision where the Lateran basilica (a basilica dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist) was almost ready to fall down. It is then that he saw this little poor man, small and scorned, who was holding up the church with his own back bent underneath it, so that it would not fall. “I’m sure,” said Pope Innocent III, “he is the one who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he teaches.”

This little man, dressed in rags, who lived a simple life, was the model of reform Christ had for His church in the 13th century, who was also known as St. Francis of Assisi. This simple man who lived a very simple and unassuming life style, established the Order of Friar’s Minor, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the 3rd Order of Saint Francis for men and women who weren’t able to live lives of being itinerant preachers, which was later followed by the Poor Clares. All of these orders serve Christ’s body in simple ways, devoting their lives to serving the poor, the sick, and the dying.

Now fast forward with me over 700 years, and meet a women named Agnes Bojaxhiu, who joined a Catholic order for women that was birthed because of the simple work St. Francis committed himself to. In 1928 Agnes left her home at the age of 18, and joined the Sisters of Loreto, never again to see her mother or sisters.

Agnes was a teacher, and a good one at that, but she became more and more disturbed by the poverty that surrounded her in new home town. When a famine came to her city, death and misery ensued, and violence broke out between Hindu’s and Muslim’s, leaving her city destitute, along with the people who lived there. This was the beginning of her next “calling within a call” to live simply, care for the sick, feed the poor, and befriend the dying as they await their last breath. All this was done in the name of Christ.

Years later, and throughout more than 120 countries, her work is living and active, and lives beyond her life. Agnes is also known as Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, and leaves a legacy of simplicity, with a passion to be Christ to the vulnerable, the sick, and the marginalized. Mother Teresa inspires us all to find a way to translate our spiritual beliefs into action in the world. How has one woman accomplished so much?

The Christian answer is “the power of God,” of course, but God’s power allowed this woman to live a simple, unassuming life, stripped of ego and desire for worldly gain, with a posture of humility and listening as she serve the poor, the sick, and the dying.

Simplicity. Through a very brief observation of two very popular Catholic saints whose legacy’s go far beyond their lives lived on earth, we learn that simplicity of life is a powerful tool in the hand of God to bring about great change in any generation. Names of men and women who had great power but used it for sordid gain, are men and women who you and I have likely never heard of. But saints who have lived simple lives, serving others and caring not about material gain, are known and spoken of worldwide as a model of Christ-likeness.

In this post, I am not advocating a movement towards poverty, and I know some will only see that in this post. What I am advocating is a life that is committed to living simply in the midst of some much ‘stuff’. The age of global advancement is among us with opportunities of great wealth and power, as well as the technology age that gives us access to so much information and opportunities to fill your time in front of a cyber-world-lit-screen.

Consumption is over the top in the West. The good economics of Capitalism has been exploited and used for selfish and evil purposes with seemingly no boundaries. In this unchecked system, life has become complicated and the power and wealth that was given to bless, has been turned inward. I see the simple life as a means for Christ to be truly seen and known in an increasingly complex life.

For urban renewal to be a reality in the midst of out-of-control globalization, lives of simplicity must rise up all over the world. In our cities, there must be those who commit to living simply; those who are committed to slow and patient discipleship that helps lead and develop men and women to be a holistically alternative community; those who are stepping out of the mainstream view of success, advancement, consumption, and individuality; those who take seriously Jesus’ call to follow him.

We must challenge our Western notion of what it looks like to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. To follow Jesus in a culture committed to over-consumption, individualism, financial success, and fast-paced everything, I believe it’s imperative for the simple life to be mainstream again, as people begin planting roots in particular neighborhoods, living radically different lives that are alternative to the Western story, and more in line with God’s story.

Renewing Urban Renewal

Urban Renewal is a phrase that, for the last 50-60 years or so, has referred to the government program that wanted to revitalize urban slums. The renewal process included demolishing old or run-down buildings, constructing newer housing, or adding in features like a theater or stadium. Urban renewal is usually undergone for the purposes of persuading wealthier individuals to come live in a particular area where land owners, years earlier, left the neighborhood but held on to their property.

In the 1940’s this government program became a nationwide push to clear, rebuild, and redevelop slums. Although there has been good things that have come out of this program, critics of the urban renewal project have contended that although they bulldoze slums, urban renewal programs often have led to their replacement by office buildings and apartment homes for the well-to-do. The critique with hindsight has seen that “renewal” was seen through the lens of a Westerner Capitalistic mindset that paid little attention to culture, personal needs, and aesthetic beauty.

For instance, you may have heard of the phrase, “the projects” when referring to government housing in a “rough” neighborhood. These are apartment buildings intentionally built to be simple, same, and lacking any character at all. The plan was to demolish old buildings and houses, move out the poor, and build them new buildings without the frills. In some cities, you can see “the projects” built in rows, almost like corn fields, where all the people who were part of the crime and poverty of one neighborhood, were relocated to “the projects” (lower income housing) to start a new community.

The idea was that a new place with a new building was going to stimulate the neighborhood’s poor to live differently. This has not been the case. The projects, in many ways, have been a terrible project that have not only uglified neighborhoods, but has destroyed cultures of so many diverse groups. This is because when renewal is understood to be brought about by new physical buildings, we have terribly misunderstood the heart of what renewal is. It was also a bad project because no matter who the people are, when any neighborhood is made for only those who have little to no resources, you will always end up with a “ghetto”.

An older mentor of mine who has lived in the “ghetto” most of his life shared with me a dream he had one night. He said that he was speaking at a large church in a wealthy part of town, and he asked every one who has a broken family to stand up (divorce, abuse in the family, chemical addiction, porn addiction, addiction to needing material things to feel happy, homelessness, etc.). The whole church in all of it’s courage rose to their feet, and then he declared, “The ghetto is everywhere my friends!”, then he walked off the stage and sat down. Sounds like a profound dream to me; the ghettos is indeed everywhere.

The motivation behind this post is a desire to share my heart for true urban renewal, which has some to do with material things eventually, but has more to do with learning to address the issues of the ghetto, the issues that find their origins within all of us: namely, issues of prejudice (racial, social, cultural, political, spiritual, etc). Renewal begins with us; renewing what we think, desire, and believe in.

I believe urban renewal must address the whole person, the whole neighborhood, and the whole city, and all the issues that come with people, neighborhoods, and cities. But the starting place is confronting within ourselves the presuppositions (our worldviews, what we think and believe), the lenses that we interpret life through. No one has a neutral lens. So renewal begins with us, asking ourselves, what kind of people do we need to be in order to resist the destruction that our prejudices create? What are the virtues of true renewal?

In the series of posts to come, I want to make a case for the kind of thinking/believing/desiring that I think must take place in our minds and hearts if we are to ever experience the renewal in our lives and cities that we are longing for. I will spend more in-depth time talking about the virtues of peaceableness, justice, compassion, hospitality, simplicity, community, and wisdom. Here’s to renewing what urban renewal was always meant to be.

Weekly @Switchfoot Song: Chem 6a

Here’s the next song on Switchfoot’s first album The Legend of Chin: “Chem 6a”. Apparently, Chem 6A is the intro chemistry class at University of California, San Diego. This is one of the classes Jon (the lead singer) took while he was in college, before he dropped out to pursue his dream of playing music full-time. Here’s the lyrics:

Nothing but a chemical in my head
It’s nothing but laziness
Cause I don’t wanna read the book
I’ll watch the movie
Cause it’s not me
I’m just like everybody else my age

I think I’d rather play around
And I think I’d rather watch TV
Cause I don’t wanna face my fears
I’ll watch the movie
Cause it’s not me
I’m just like everybody else
I’m just like everybody else

Because I don’t wanna be here
I don’t wanna see this now
It’s all wrong but it’s alright
And I don’t wanna be here
And I don’t wanna study now
It’s all wrong but it’s alright

I don’t know what love is
I don’t know who I am
And if I ever want to find out
I’ll watch the movie
Cause it’s not me
I’m just like everybody else my age

I don’t wanna change the world
And I don’t wanna be someone
I don’t wanna write the book
I’ll make the movie
Cause it’s not me
I’m just like everybody else
I’m just like everybody else

I don’t wanna be here
I don’t wanna see this now
It’s all wrong but it’s alright
And I don’t wanna be here
And I don’t wanna study now
It’s all wrong but it’s alright

I must say this again, as I have said it before, and will likely say it many more times, music (and the arts) are universal and powerful precisely because, unlike many other pieces of literature, most forms of the arts leave open-ended meanings to the work that is enjoyed (not all, but most). So allow me indulge on what this song has meant to me. This song speaks to the reality of having to conform to what the world around me says I need to be, or to do, to be successful, to be somebody, or to fit in. It speaks to the person who isn’t motivated to work at a fortune 500 business, start an online business, or just work a 9-5 job sitting in a cubicle. This speaks of the person who is tired of living in the rat race just to keep up with all the things that will give you a “good, steady job” so you can keep up with all the bills that have been acquired in the name of having a good time, and living the American dream.

It also speaks to the person who has lost themselves in this life, and don’t want to open that door to find out who they really are. The person who knows something’s wrong with the status quo, but they don’t want to know, so they just stay like everybody else, watch the same movies, believe the same news reels, and never find who they truly are. We live in a fast paced culture that has made consumption “king”, which has caused a sickening system that has allowed capitalism to be the new religion, and has allowed it to be almost completely unaccountable.

This unchecked capitalism has conformed many of us “Christians” to it’s image more than we are being conformed to the image of Christ. We say this is not so, but our lifestyles betrays us. Us ‘Westerners’ are the all-consuming-mouth-of-the-world, consuming products and people. This unchecked, unaccountable capitalism has created a way of life that has made the bottom line (financially) the most important discussion. This has turned creative citizens, into crazy consumers. We are told to keep consuming, or our way of life will not be sustainable. So we strive to keep up, lest we be forgotten… and the result is that we lose ourselves. We become one with the people, or the systems, that we never believed in, but we’re like everybody else, so that makes us feel okay.

For Christians, or may I say “holy ones” (fun fact side note: the Greek word hagios often translated ‘holy ones’ or saints’ is used over 60 times in the New Testament, compared to the Greek word Christianós or ‘Christian’, only being used three times), this unchecked capitalism has been detrimental to the identity of the ‘holy ones’. Instead of living as citizens of heaven, we have become consumers of heavenly feelings.

Consumerism has become such a way of life because of unchecked capitalism, that even the church now is addicted to consuming religious goods, services, and leaders. We consume worship. We consume entertaining preachers/leaders. We continue to consume more and more, but feel better about it because we have put “Jesus” on the product, or have deemed it a “Christian” product. But in the midst of this rat race, we have forgotten that over-consumption in the problem, so we keep consuming “Christian” things. And while we do it, we long for more comfortable, trendy venues to do our consuming.

I think all of this sets us up for a big let down in life; we lose who we are, life becomes disappointing, everything’s wrong, but we say, “It’s alright, because I’m like everybody else.” The American way of life has become a chemical in our heads. We were created for so much more.

The Loser

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Switchfoot has a song called “The Loser”, and one of the phrases in the chorus says this: “If I haven’t already given it away, I’ve got a plan to lose it all.” I preached at an Episcopal church this weekend where a friend of mine is a priest and this past Sunday was the final Sunday of Epiphany (the season of the church calendar that is focused on revealing and proclaiming Christ) that gives way to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season (if you want to learn more about the season of Lent, check out my friends blog post on it).

This song “The Loser”, in my opinion gets to the heart of the lenten season (40 days), that is marked by fasting and preparing oneself to celebrate the resurrection of Christ at Easter in a fresh new way. Losing it all is not on the top of anyone’s list, as we live in a culture that is climbing the ladder of success, even if it’s the ladder of a “successful Christian life”. We want to be on top, we want to have access to power, we long for prestige and accolades, we labor to gain more and more possessions, as small little trinkets fill our lives and homes.

The Lenten season reminds me that the winners in this life are really the losers, the ones who aren’t holding on to anything, who freely lose it all. Think of those who we glorify in the religious realm… it’s those who lost everything to care for the least of these. Jesus spoke about the blessings for the poor and the weak ones. He saved His kindest acts for the sick and the despised ones. He attacked those who lived well off lives while ignoring the injustice of their wealth. Jesus led by an example of selflessness which has never been seen since.

In Jesus, God has entered our humanity and made the divine understandable, and if we are honest with ourselves, the way in which Christ invites us to encounter Him doesn’t seem productive: fasting, weakness, humility, submission, brokenness, confession, suffering. It looks at times weak and very unlike the concepts of human power and authority which we live by every day, but weakness is where the Christian sees Christ more clearly. Losing it all makes room for more of the One who gives all.

This is my plan this Lenten season, to lose all that has kept me too full and busy to hear the voice of God, to receive in a fresh new way, the risen Savior, and to experience more fully the resurrected life.

What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas

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Las Vegas is famous for many ‘riskay’ things, and this phrase has become the trademark of the city’s gambling sector: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. This is implying that what you do here in Vegas won’t hurt your wife, husband or loved ones, as long as they never find out what you do here. Worse yet, there is a belief that illicit behavior won’t even hurt the person doing it.

This same thinking is wrapped up into the old adage that goes like this: “What we don’t know, won’t hurt us.” When I was a kid, I used to talk about things like, “What if the fast food worker spit in your hamburger?” or “What if your hamburger was dipped in the toilet?” You know… things that everybody worries about, right? I remember talking and thinking about this every now and then when we would eat out. The conversation always ended, in my mind at least, “As long as I don’t know, I’ll be fine.” I was a garbage disposal as a kid.

I was thinking about all of this when my brother showed me this picture of a McDonald’s sign in California. Some of McD’s food is hazardous to your health, so much so, that California McD’s, by law, must post this warning in their stores. My brother told me that even though this sign has been posted, sales have not been hindered. This made me rethink the old adage and I began wondering what it takes to change people, even though they know something will cause harm to them.

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Eating a McD’s big mac that has so many preservatives bugs or mold won’t even eat it, or going to Vegas and giving your soul away to someone who is there just to pay rent and cover their bills, have caused so much damage to our bodies, but we still do them. Seems strange that this belief of what we don’t know won’t hurt us is still allowing us to ignore dangers and toxins in our lives.

We didn’t know so many toys were made with lead, but they hurt many people. We didn’t know certain foods were infected with salmonella, but it got us sick. We didn’t know building products with asbestos were bad, but they’ve been very toxic. We didn’t know that porn was destroying our minds (it’s scientifically proven that sex addicts destroy their brains, literally), but now we have a sexually addicted culture that consumes and marginalizes predominantly children and women.

What we don’t know can and has hurt us, but what’s even more disturbing is that this McD’s picture reveals to me is that even though we know things hurts us, even destroy us and others, we still do them; we still offer them to others. Not only that, they are some of the most profitable industries in our ‘sophisticated’ culture (fast food, porn, and cheap consumable products). What we desire, we get. So the problem is that we have desire issues.

What we desire, we get. So merely saying, “I want to act differently” or “I want to stop doing those things” isn’t enough to get people to stop the foolishness. We are still eating cancer causing food, we are still performing sexually illicit, brain damaging acts, and big industries are still producing cheap consumable products for a profit only to waste our resources and environment, because we consumers buy them.

Our desires are what need to be challenged and changed, and this doesn’t happen by mere will power or behavior modification. It happens by realizing and owning that we’re all part of the problem, and as hard as humanity tries, as ‘sophisticated’ as we get, we can’t solve the problem of evil and illicit human desires.

What we need is to desire something or someone who is not corrupt, and will not corrupt. What we need is people who are willing to submit and surrender, not to their desires, but to the only One who is not corrupt, and will never corrupt.