Simple Living

Sacred Ordinariness

"Ordinary time" in this season after Pentecost isn't only about "everydayness." Ordinary is the adjectival form of ordinal, which refers to a numerical sequence. It's a fitting description for a season that doesn't lead to Christmas or Easter; rather this is a season of noticing the days and weeks as they go by. Liturgically speaking, ordinary time gives us the space to kick back and consider the lilies of the field—literally. As writer Annie Dillard observed, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." It makes sense to get on with the ordinary—believing that if God is in the details, surely God also is in the broad strokes.

Mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz describes an understanding of the sacred that is imbued with ordinariness as "lo cotidiano." In From the Heart of Our People, Latina feminist theologian María Pilar Aquino builds on this concept by describing lo cotidiano as those "daily struggles for humanization, for a better quality of life, and for greater social justice" that give Christian faith meaning for so many of us.

Living in the ordinary through ordinary time makes social justice a spiritual discipline that can bring us to a new awareness of how God is above us, beneath us, and beside us.

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.


June 3
Organic Theology
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

I teach an undergraduate theology course in which we talk about God and the Christian life in "organic" vs. "conventional" terms. Organic theology grows from the good earth God created, the good earth Wisdom sings about in Proverbs 8.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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We Buy, Therefore We Are

Whenever I have occasion to tour the architectural and cultural landmarks of the Old South—the mansions of Natchez, the River Road plantations outside New Orleans, Washington's Mount Vernon, or the U.S. Capitol, for that matter—I have the same thought. "It's amazing what you can afford when you don't have to pay for the labor."

That was, of course, the problem with slavery. It oppressed its victims and simultaneously corrupted the people who benefited from it. Southern slaveholders grew accustomed to reaping the harvest of other people's labor—so accustomed that they began to think it was their right. Then they began to believe their economy would cease to function if they had to pay the true price of the things they used.

When we take a vehicle for repair, we get a bill that says something like, "Parts $55. Labor $300." What if the price tag of every item we bought broke down the cost that way? One of Karl Marx's more reasonable ideas held that the value of a commodity was comprised of the labor that went into it. Today we might add to that calculation the environmental damage. If we think of prices that way, when I confront a $300 personal computer or a $20 pair of blue jeans, I am witnessing a robbery. And when I buy it, I am an accomplice. But we rarely think about that because we have come to expect those everyday low prices as our American birthright and to believe that our consumer economy would grind to a halt if we ever had to pay the true price of our commodities.

Someday, if the earth survives our petroleum binge, people may look back at archived editions of early 21st-century consumer catalogs and think that same thought. "It's amazing what you can afford when you don't have to pay for the labor." Of course, our slaves are mostly in China, but the distance only makes us more vulnerable to the corruption of our unearned loot.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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The Art of Savoring

I’ve had the joy of visiting a small Christian community in California where—amidst the hustle and flow of daily life—everything stops 10 minutes short of sunset. Gathering in the small yard between houses, with celebratory drinks in hand, all faces turn west toward the coastal foothills to savor the setting sun.

Depending on the season, the sky may ignite in Pentecost reds and oranges above the resurrection gold of the chaparral or it may swirl in Advent blues, royal purples, and joyous pinks over hills wrapped in verdant winter green. The ceremony may last only a few minutes or may inaugurate supper, conversation, and a bonfire. Either way, it exemplifies the art of savoring.

“Savor” comes from the Latin word to taste or the ability to detect differences. It is a quality that appeals to the senses; something that is savory is flavorful. Etymologically, savor is related to sapientia or wisdom—sensible, judicious, the ability to discern fine distinction. It harkens to the poetry of Sappho. (“Here roses leave shadows on the ground/ and cold springs bubble through the apple branches.”)

Savoring is antithetical to the consumerist myth, which claims that individuals will be satisfied and successful through buying, owning, and consuming, in quick succession. The art of savoring is strategically discouraged in a capitalist market economy in which labor and land, humans and nature (and the enjoyment thereof) are subordinate to the hungers of the prevailing economic system.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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Tilling Word and Land

Tilling Word and Land

What I have learned as a farmer I have learned also as a writer, and vice versa. I have farmed as a writer and written as a farmer. This is an experience that is resistant to any kind of simplification. I will go ahead and call it complexification. When I am called, as to my astonishment I sometimes am, a devotee of “simplicity” (since I live supposedly as a “simple farmer”), I am obliged to reply that I gave up the simple life when I left New York City in 1964 and came here to Kentucky. In New York, I lived as a passive consumer, supplying nearly all my needs by purchase, whereas here I supply many of my needs from this place by my work (and pleasure) and am responsible besides for the care of the place.

My point is that when one passes from any abstract order, whether that of the consumer economy or John Crowe Ransom’s “Statement of Principles” or a brochure from the extension service, to the daily life and work of one’s own farm, one passes from a relative simplicity into a complexity that is irreducible except by disaster and ultimately is incomprehensible. It is the complexity of the life of a place uncompromisingly itself, which is at the same time the life of the world, but also the limitations of one’s knowledge, intelligence, character, and bodily strength. To do this, of course, is to accept the place as an influence.

My further point is that to do this, if one is a writer, is to accept the place and the farmer of it as a literary influence. One accepts the place, that is, not just as a circumstance, but as a part of the informing ambience of one’s mind and imagination. I don’t dare to claim that I know how this “works,” but I have no doubt at all that it is true. And I don’t mind attempting some speculations on what might be the results.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2005
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Ecology, Ethics, and the Making of Things

 

When architectural historian Vincent Scully gave a eulogy for the great architect Louis Kahn, he described a day when both were crossing Red Square, whereupon Scully excitedly turned to Kahn and said, "Isn’t it wonderful the way the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral reach up into the sky?" Kahn looked up and down thoughtfully for a moment and said, "Isn’t it beautiful the way they come down to the ground?"

If we understand that design leads to the manifestation of human intention, and if what we make with our hands is to be sacred and honor the earth that gives us life, then the things we make must not only rise from the ground but return to it, soil to soil, water to water, so everything that is received from the earth can be freely given back without causing harm to any living system. This is ecology. This is good design.

We can use certain fundamental laws inherent to the natural world as models and mentors for human designs. Ecology comes from the Greek roots oikos and logos, "household" and "logical discourse." Thus it is appropriate, if not imperative, for architects to discourse about the logic of our earth household. To do so, we must first look at our planet and the very processes by which it manifests life, because therein lie the logical principles with which we must work. And we must also consider economy in the true sense of the word. Using the Greek words oikos and nomos, we speak of natural law and how we measure and manage the relationships within this household, working with the principles our discourse has revealed to us.

There are three defining characteristics that we can learn from natural design. The first is that all materials given to us by nature are constantly returned to the earth without even the concept of waste as we understand it. Everything is cycled constantly with all waste equaling food for other living systems.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2005
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Less is More

While the rich and famous may be able to afford expensive solar panel installations or hyperefficient $

While the rich and famous may be able to afford expensive solar panel installations or hyperefficient $2 million homes, even those of us with (much) less money can make a dent in the amount of energy we consume. What follows is a small list of steps almost every one of us can and should take to reduce our energy use. Our particular motivation - to walk more lightly on the earth, to live more frugally, or to direct more money to humanitarian organizations rather than large utility companies - isn’t as important as is making some change. While up-front costs for some of these steps can seem daunting, your investment will be recouped in later energy savings.

Putting the heating and cooling of your house aside for a moment, the next two biggest energy hogs in the average U.S. household are lights and the refrigerator.

Lights. The first real step for many of us is to change our mindset: Turn lights off as you leave a room. No exceptions. Never leave a room lit when you aren’t in it. That’s simple and free.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2005
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When Enough is Enough

The contrast between consumerism and simple living at first glance seems fairly straightforward:

The contrast between consumerism and simple living at first glance seems fairly straightforward: Consumerism is about having more stuff, simple living is about having less stuff. Consumerism seems to be a permutation of the age-old vice of avarice, whose "special malice," says the Catholic Encyclopedia, "lies in that it makes the getting and keeping of money, possessions, and the like a purpose in itself to live for." As the old vitamin commercial from the ’80s so bluntly put it, "I want MORE for ME."

Avarice, however, does not really exhaust the phenomenon of consumerism. Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else. It is not buying but shopping that captures the spirit of consumerism. Buying is certainly an important part of consumerism, but buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies it. It is this restlessness—the moving on to shopping for something else no matter what one has just purchased—that sets the spiritual tone for consumerism.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2005
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The Zambia Experiment

Mutale,

Mutale, a 40-year-old Zambian peasant farmer, was standing in front of his two hectares of maize (corn), smiling broadly. He had just finished explaining to me that despite poor rains, he was able to raise a good crop to feed his family and to sell a bit of surplus for some extra cash to meet household needs. He looked so very different from the other farmers I had spoken to only a few days earlier. They were his neighbors, worked soil similar to his, and had experienced the same dry season. But they were not at all smiling! No good maize harvest for them.

The difference was that Mutale had planted his maize field using an organic agriculture approach, not relying on heavy doses of chemical fertilizer as his neighbors did. The organic agriculture approach - using cattle manure and decayed materials from nitrogen-rich plants such as legumes - was both much less expensive and much more efficient. During a drought season such as those Zambia has experienced periodically in recent years, it is important to keep as much moisture as possible close to the crops planted. But chemical fertilizers don’t store this moisture as does organic matter in the soil. The organic matter retains excess moisture and slowly releases it to the crop in a natural way.

The smile on Mutale’s face taught me one more important reason for the wisdom of Zambia’s rejection of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops coming into our country. There simply are plenty of alternatives to the GMO approach vigorously pushed by the United States. The U.S. government

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Sojourners Magazine April 2005
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Lives of Compassion and Meaning

The great irony about today's "simple living" trend is that it really isn't simple, or about simple things, at all. Two recent volumes - Simpler Living, Compassionate Life: A Christian Perspective, edited and compiled by Michael Schut, and Graceful Simplicity: Toward a Philosophy and Politics of Simple Living by Jerome M. Segal - nicely illustrate this observation.

In Schut's collection of 29 articles and two brief stories, "simple living" serves as the umbrella under which are grouped themes ranging from the value of contemplative prayer, leisure time, and daily attentiveness to the need for profound economic and ecological change. From a somewhat different perspective, Segal defines "simple living" as graceful living, a way of life in which the aesthetic dimension and the role of service are central. "Simple living" thus begins to emerge as a catch phrase for a number of personal, social, environmental, economic, and political initiatives that have both micro and macro implications.

Focusing on the latter, Harvard University's Timothy C. Weiskel offers in the Schut volume one of the most powerful and provocative presentations, where he describes the increasingly catastrophic impact of growth and consumerism on the global ecology. Referencing scientific indicators that suggest we have entered a global "extinction event" affecting numerous species, Weiskel calls for a theological revolution to unseat our dual Western commitments to human dominion over nature and to unlimited growth and consumption. He calls upon theologians - and readers - to take on the very un-simple task of articulating and acting upon a theology that locates the human species within, not above, a larger whole and that stands as a challenge to contemporary conditions of global human and ecological suffering.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2000
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No More Multitasking

I recently came across a book titled 365 Ways to Save Time with Kids. The idiocy of this idea prompted me to substitute a more honest title: "How to Accelerate Your Kids’ Lives and Spend Less Time with Them Every Single Day."

What we usually mean when we say "save time" in our culture is "get more stuff done." Busy yet responsible parents are supposed to "make time" for their kids. But it often seems that my 2- and 5-year-old daughters make time for me. When they kneel wide-eyed on the sidewalk over an anthill, or chase lightning bugs in the cool lull between dusk and dark, or quietly monitor a robin sitting on its eggs in the crook of an elm tree, they make time for me. They pull me out of my ultra-compartmentalized productive time into an unmeasured creative time, which manifests the sanctity of nature’s relatedness—of God’s immense, delicate creation.

This is an example of what Dorothy Bass, in Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, might call the fullness of God’s time. In an intricate weave of social analysis, church history, biblical exegesis, poetry, and personal narrative, she explores the complex problem and promise of time in modern culture through the lens of the Christian faith. "Time resonates with meaning," she writes. The book then explores various Christian "practices" that will enable readers to re-imagine time in their lives as a process of meaning rather the product of corporate marketeers.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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