Reflections on Simplify: A Simple Living Weekend

The commitment of the Church of the Brethren to living simply is evidenced in our slogan- “Peacefully. Simply. Together.”  It is often easy to visualize the “peaceful” and “together” aspects of Christian life, but “simply” is discussed less frequently. To address this Brethren value more fully, Brethren Woods hosted “Simplify: A Simple Living Weekend,” in November. The conference brought together Christians interested in discussion about what this commitment to simplicity looks like in a world that values consumption, status, and material possessions.

Over the course of the weekend, the keynote speakers and panelists shared their personal experiences with living simply. Sam Funkhouser, a member of the Old German Baptist Brethren Church, New Conference, made the case for a radical change to a non-conformist lifestyle, in which we live out the theological calls for simple living. If we do it correctly, he argued, a desire to live simply would be seen as the “natural end to a life of repentance.”  In workshops, he shared practical advice for increasing a car’s fuel efficiency and making ethical, sustainable, and simple clothes at home.

Jenn Hosler, co-pastor at Washington City Church of the Brethren, presented on the theological basis for a simple lifestyle. Citing Biblical passages calling for creation care, fair social practices and good stewardship, she drew connecting lines between Biblical teachings and the call for simplicity.

Other workshop leaders included Nancy Heisey, who shared about simple living as it relates to technology, and Yakubu and Diana Bakfwash, who presented on what servant leadership looks like in today’s world.  While each speaker had a different approach to simple living, they all believed strongly that Christians are called by their faith to live out a commitment to simplicity.

In our culture, which values status and material possessions, it is not uncommon to feel as though we must hoard earthly wealth for security, respect and well-being. The Bible challenges this notion. The Parable of the Rich Fool was brought up many times in small group conversations. In this parable, a rich man tears down his existing barns and builds bigger ones, in order to store the excesses of his harvest. In doing this, he hoards his own excessive wealth at the expense of the hungry in his community. Jesus reminds his audience in this chapter  to “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15).

A Gandhi quote that has become popular in our churches in recent years is, “Live simply so that others may simply live.” This call reflects the disparate living standards around the world, and the unsustainable nature of our own consumer culture. The earth does not have enough resources to support a humanity in which every person lives the type of lifestyle that most Americans enjoy.

View entire statement at: http://www.brethren.org/ac/statements/1996simplelife.html

The theological call to live simply is one that must be lived out in daily live, as a constant public witness. The way in which we live tells others a lot about our faith and worldview. One of the ways in which the Office of Public Witness works to encourage this simplicity in the ecumenical community is by supporting Creation Justice Ministries (CJM). Efforts to reduce the impact we have on the environment, and to reduce our excessive consumption, are key to working towards a simpler lifestyle.

The 1980 Annual Conference Statement on “Christian Lifestyle” says that “we cannot sit easily in the seats of wealth and power of an oppressive status quo.” As members of a society that uses more than our fair share of resources, our consumption directly impacts poor and marginalized people around the world. We push the cost of our cheap consumer goods off onto the underpaid factory workers that produce them, the children who breathe polluted air, and the communities burdened by the landfills and incinerators built to dispose of our trash. We must be intentional about confronting ourselves about the ways in which we are not faithful stewards, and work to reflect our commitment to simple living with real lifestyle changes.

Living the simple life?

By Ben Bear

Ben Bear with pumpkin

BVS volunteer Ben Bear decapitates an innocent pumpkin. Photo by Laura Whitman.


Being a volunteer through BVS can be a radically different experience from person to person. Some of us live in single apartments, plopped down in a city or town hundreds or thousands of miles from “home” and hit the ground running with their project. Others end up living in intentional communities where they are immediately connected to other volunteers and a hosting congregation with a well-established role for them.

In the weeks since I arrived in Elgin, I have struggled some with the concept of living a simple life. As volunteers, we have agreed to live simply, within our means, and without (too much) excess. Having heard stories from other volunteers and seen some of their sites, some of them take this challenge quite seriously. For example, the New Community Project in Harrisonburg, VA has a homemade table at which they eat their communal, second-hand gathered meals. The kicker: the table is made of warehouse pallets. The table’s creator ballparked the cost of the entire process of making the table at around $20. Check it out:

New Community Project table made of warehouse pallets

New Community Project table made of warehouse pallets

On the flip side, my new role as the BVS assistant recruiter has me traveling all over the country in the coming year. Recently I was in the great commonwealth of Virginia, mostly hanging out down in the Shenandoah Valley. Fast forward seven days after returning and I was already back on the road, this time in Pennsylvania. I’ll be pretty impressed if I manage to put together an entire month back at Elgin between trips the rest of my time here. Granted, I knew this would likely be the case when I agreed to come back into BVS. Still, I sometimes struggle with how simply I’m actually living when I jet-set around the country so much and end up with rental cars that look like this:

Red rental car

Shiny!

And this:

White rental car

Also shiny!

Driving around in these well-maintained, relatively new, kinda sporty-looking vehicles is, admittedly, a bit fun. It’s nice to not feel constantly concerned that the [random car part] might break. They do get pretty decent gas mileage, too. Still, there remains an internal struggle of what it really looks like to live simply and to what degree I’m being successful in that endeavor.

In the end, I don’t have an answer to the justification for the life I lead here or how to alter it for the better. For a guy who really likes having answers, this might be one that is left for pondering. To that end, here are a few quotes that seem to grasp at the concept of a simple existence:

“Live simply, so that others may simply live.” ~ St. Elizabeth Seton

“It is impossible to detach from the love of material things unless it is replaced by love for things unseen.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” ~ Confucius

May the road rise with you…

Ben

Top Brethren things to do on a snow day

snowy day from a window6. Watch a video recording of a webinar or event you missed. It’s free! What could be more Brethren than that?

5. Sew on buttons. Sure, your winter coat still works with one button and a belt (speaking from personal experience), but maybe you will be warmer being able to close all those holes.

4. Plan your garden. Order seeds or plants after you make a few decisions. Will you clear a new spot? Rotate what grows where? Create raised beds? Put in a rain barrel or drip hose? (How did simple living get so complicated?!)

3. Lay out a small four square court with masking tape on a countertop. If you can’t find a little rubber bouncy ball, try making a ball. You had to be saving those rubber bands from the newspaper—and the broccoli—for something!

2. Make snow ice cream:  canned milk, vanilla and sugar mixed with a bowl of the cleanest snow you can find. Yes, we Brethren believe in a land flowing with milk and honey… it’s just that the milk and honey have to be below the freezing point.

1. Shovel for a neighbor… or a stranger… or even your dog. You know, whatever you do for the least of these, you do for Jesus!

What would you add to this list?

–Jan Fischer Bachman