simplicity

Shrink Your World

Andrei Marincas / Shutterstock.com

While there is no more important moment to be deeply engaged in the realities impacting our global family, there is also no more important moment to be fully present to the world that is pulsating right in front of us in our homes and on our streets.

There are currently dozens of national and global realities swirling around us that can cause us to fear, worry, and pour our precious energy and attention outward. Our smart phone notifications go off and we are once again a screen away from the other side of the globe or at the center of another partisan debate. What can be used as a critical asset in our global engagement quickly becomes the source of our paralysis and distances us from what is right in front of us.

Rooted in Faith

BALLS THUMPED against the walls, jump ropes scraped the asphalt, and shrieks filled the air: The kindergarten and first-grade students of Holy Ghost Catholic School in Albuquerque, N.M., were at recess on a chilly December day. The sun was shining and the kids bumbled around in their jackets, oblivious to the cold. Also oblivious were the rows of leafy greens in the two raised-bed gardens just outside the classroom windows. The sun, plastic covers, and just enough water (which the students figured out after a failed crop or two) made for a perfect little garden oasis in the midst of winter.

Seeing me headed toward the gardens, dozens of children made a beeline for the structures, simultaneously shouting “Miss! Can I see?” “Miss, I’ll water them!” They helped me lift the cover to reveal a jungle of rainbow chard, kale, spinach, salad greens, a few radishes, and basil—a kaleidoscope of greens, golds, pinks, and yellows.

“Miss, can I have chard?” Mateo looked at me hopefully, chubby fingers pointing to the rainbow chard. “Sure!” I exclaimed, gently breaking off a leaf. “If you can name it, you can taste it!” Suddenly there were 15 hands in front of me, along with a litany of names: “The pink one!” “Chard! Chard!” “Can I have that spinach?!”

Not everyone was as enthusiastic. “Yuck,” Lenaia said when I offered her a piece of spinach. “I don’t want to eat it, but I’ll water it.”

These plastic rectangular boxes had been the source of so much new life at our school—in the shape of tiny seeds carefully planted by small hands, in the hope represented by the two leaves first to sprout from the dark soil, in the gentle spray of water from the hose and the smell of damp earth, in the curiosity and fascination awakened in the students as they tended their gardens.

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Sin and Simplicity -- Why Jesus Always Borrowed Stuff

Lorelyn Medina/Shutterstock
Buy less, borrow more Lorelyn Medina/Shutterstock

Every family, including my own, has its “keepers” and “givers.” There are those who keep and hoard every tiny little trinket, every old letter, and every unneeded refrigerator magnet. Then, on the other side of the spectrum, there are others who give away every extraneous and unused thing, living in radical simplicity.

Over the past six years, I’ve attempted to be more the latter than the former. The simplicity movement has been growing for years and is challenging our assumption that more is better. Graham Hill, in a provocative little talk on the topic, has pointed out what our big houses, our lots of things, our endless splurging has done.

Today, the average American has three times as much space as 50 years ago. Our insatiable lust for things has birthed a virtual cottage industry of storage space facilities. The modern storage industrial complex brings in some $22 billion a year. We must learn, Hill argues, to edit our possessions down to what matters and what we actually use. Let the rest go. Clear the artery of our clogged lives. 

'Simple is the New Chic'

RIGHT FROM THE beginning, John Carr saw Pope Francis as a “great sign of hope.”

Carr, who spent more than two decades as the U.S. bishops’ top peace and justice officer, was home, working at his kitchen table, when the white smoke came up announcing the selection of the new pope. “I thought, ‘Oh, my,’ and this guy I didn’t recognize came out,” Carr said. “When he said the name ‘Francis,’ I thought ‘it’s going to be okay.’”

As executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development at the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, Carr carried a rather large portfolio. He often tells the story of being introduced by a man who said, “He’s in charge of social development and world peace.” The man’s wife, in Carr’s telling, looked at him and said, “You need to do a better job.”

Since leaving the bishops’ staff last year, Carr has launched a new initiative, based at Georgetown University, aimed at helping lay people “become more informed and engaged in their vocation to be ‘salt, light, and leaven’” in public life. Carr, who visited Sojourners’ office this spring, is encouraged that the election of Pope Francis “has provided incredible visibility, urgency, and passion” around social issues. “When he was going to be elected, his friend said, ‘Don’t forget the poor,’” Carr explained. “A church that moves to the edge to care for the weak and vulnerable is a church you want to be a part of.”

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It's Hip to be Plain

ONE SUNDAY EVENING during high school, friends from my Mennonite church and I drove around Lancaster County, Pa., stealing mattresses. Bored by too many evenings of roller skating and Truth or Dare, we, like teenagers everywhere, landed on thievery as the solution to adolescent ennui. Having found out which of our friends were away from home, we showed up at their houses, told their parents about our prank, and swore them to secrecy. Then we clomped up narrow staircases to their sons’ and daughters’ bedrooms and wrestled mattresses back downstairs and onto the bed of a pickup truck. Just before our getaways, we left notes on our friends’ dressers, signed with what we thought was a most clever alias: “The Mennonite Mafia.”

We had no idea that 25 years later, Amish Mafia would be a blockbuster reality show, its first episode attracting 10 times more viewers than there are Amish people. Had you told us then that a bunch of Amish and Mennonite kids growing up a few miles away would someday parlay boredom-induced shenanigans into a hit cable TV series, I don’t know whether we would have been flattered or jealous. Kate Stoltzfus? Rebecca Byler? Lebanon Levi? People with names like these—our “plain-dressing” Amish neighbors and the more conservative Mennonite kids we went to school with—were the butt of our jokes, not the cynosures of popular culture.

Only a few decades after we and our families exited the conspicuous conservatism of plain Anabaptism, mass culture is flocking toward it. From Amish-themed reality TV shows to Christian romance novels with Amish characters and settings, the media have finally landed the lucrative Amish account, although the furniture industry and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise” got there first. Americans’ enthrallment with the Amish—and schadenfreude about their sometimes wayward youth—has rarely been more intense.

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Tips for Achieving an 'Almost Amish' Lifestyle

Organization illustration, marekuliasz / Shutterstock.com
Organization illustration, marekuliasz / Shutterstock.com

Editor's Note: This post is a follow-up to yesterday's Ten Ways to Live "Almost Amish.' Author Nancy Sleeth offers tips for achieving each of her principles for "almost Amish" living. 

1. Homes are simple, uncluttered, and clean; the outside reflects the inside.

Almost Amish Decluttering Tips:

  • Start small:  Clean one shelf of a closet, once corner of the basement, or one drawer of your desk each Saturday; by the end of the year, your house (and heart) will be much lighter.
  • For each item you bring into the home, give (at least) one away one.
  • Limit temptation by reducing catalogs and junk mail:  visit www.dmachoice.org and www.catalogchoice.org to remove your name from mailing list.

Doing Nothing for Lent

"Me (quiet.)" Photo by Cathleen Falsani.
"Me (quiet.)" Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

Last week, I spent a couple of days listening to Eugene Peterson share stories and precious wisdom from his 80 years on this little blue planet. 

It was a blessing of unparalleled riches to sit at Peterson’s feet (literally — I was in the front row and he was on a stage that put me at eye level with his black tassel loafers) and learn.

For the uninitiated, Peterson is a retired Presbyterian pastor and prolific author perhaps best known for The Message, his para-translation of the Bible and titles such as Practice Resurrection  and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

A native of Western Montana, Peterson and his wife of more than 50 years, Jan, returned to Big Sky Country several years ago to the home his father built on the shores of Flathead Lake when Eugene was a child.

Undoubtedly, it will take me many months — or years — to digest all that Peterson shared with a smallish group of youngish Christian leaders at the Q Practices gathering in New York City. But I can say what struck me most indelibly is how at ease — content, yes, but more than that — Peterson is in his own skin. Fully present. Mellow but absolutely alert, energized, fascinated by the world and the people around him.

Relaxed — that’s it.

Cultivating Fruits of Transformation

WHEN I FIRST picked up Kyle Kramer’s memoir A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, And Dirt and skimmed through it, I wasn’t sure what to think, as it seemed to be just another tale of back-to-the-land living, seasoned with a pinch of religion. Although I have a deep appreciation for the work of Wendell Berry and other agrarian writers, back-to-the-land narratives have become a sort of cliché over the last few decades, and the fierce self-reliance that typically characterizes them seems to be more harmful than helpful. And as a member of a community that is seeking the flourishing of God’s creation in an urban place, I find these typically rural sorts of homesteading stories generally bear little relevance in our context.

Fortunately, all my initial assumptions about A Time to Plant were wrong. Yes, it is its own sort of back-to-the-land narrative, but Kramer is a superb writer—honest, compelling, funny, even self-effacing at times—and I found myself drawn into his story, and I breezed through the book in one sitting.

Born into a suburban Presbyterian family, Kramer had few experiences in his youth that would prepare him for what lay ahead. The book traces his formation, from his undergraduate studies at Indiana University (and friendships with Luke Timothy Johnson and Scott Russell Sanders, both professors there at the time) to his seminary training at Candler School of Theology—where he discerned a vocation not to traditional pastoral ministry but to a lifestyle of simplicity and closeness to the land.

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A Lifestyle of Enough

About two years ago, Minhee and I made one of the hardest decisions we've made thus far in our marriage and in our calling as parents.

In our hope to honor a conviction of the Holy Spirit to give up a year's salary, we had begun the two-year process of saving, selling, and simplifying in 2007. Our goal was to come up with our then year's wages of $68,000 -- in order to launch One Day's Wages. With only a few months left to come up with the total sum, we were a bit short and decided to sublet our home for couple months and asked some friends if we could stay with them on their couches or their guest room.

Needless to say, it was a very humbling time.

Our instruction for ourselves and our children were very simple: Each person gets one carry-on bag for their belongings.

Economic Crisis or Nonviolent Opportunity? Gandhi's Answer to Financial Collapse

On Monday the Dow Jones industrial average fell 634.76 points; the sixth-worst point decline for the Dow in the last 112 years and the worst drop since December 2008. Every stock in the Standard and Poor's 500 index declined.

It is easy to blame bipartisan bickering for the impasse that led to Standard and Poor's downgrading of the American debt, and in turn the vertiginous fall of the Dow. This bickering -- this substitution of ideology for reason, of egotism for compassion and responsibility on the part of lawmakers -- is a national disgrace; but while it failed to fix the problem, we must realize that it did not cause it. The cause -- and potential for a significant renewal -- lies much deeper.

So let's allow ourselves to ask a fundamental question: what's an economy for?

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