The Christian Simple Living Blog

This blog is a part of the Christian Simple Living (www.christiansimpleliving.org) website where you can find a great deal of information on how and why to live simply as Christians.

But it isn’t easy trying to live simply in 21st Century consumer culture. There are many roadblocks and naysayers who don't want their consumer parades rained on, so many of us are still on the road to simplicity, but haven't quite arrived yet. This blog is intended to help all of us make the transition to living simply, faithfully, peacefully, and sustainably, and to find joy and success as we do. Maybe we can influence others to join us on the journey as well! Here we can share our journeys, successes, doubts, questions, insights, and opinions, as we create a community on the journey together.

LESS

admin December 1st, 2013

This post is actually a sermon I gave on 11/24/13 to a Church of the Brethren congregation which had a mixture of folks who were raised as Brethren with a traditional understanding of simple living, along with many people not raised in this tradition. I tried to tie together several facets of simple living with our modern, digital consumer culture and celebrating Christmas more simply and more thoughtfully.

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news: Christmas is coming!

That’s both the good and bad news.

Christmas is my favorite time of year – and it also causes me a tremendous amount of anxiety. It makes me anxious for a number of reasons, some of which I’m sure you all share with me. But this past week I’ve been worrying about whether I should celebrate a 21st Century American Christmas, or actually be a Christian!

See, here’s the thing:

I think that the notion of Christian simplicity is one of the most valuable things the Brethren have had to offer the world. It’s in the church’s tag line: “Simply, peacefully, together.”

And, as we all know, Brethren simplicity starts with Paul telling us that we are not to be conformed to this world. He says in Romans 12 “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”

Now, when Paul tells us not to conform to this world, he’s saying “don’t do what 21st Century consumer society wants us to do. We shouldn’t live our lives by the same corrupt values that the big banks, and the multinational corporations like Walmart, McDonald’s, and Amazon.com, and consumer society in general (values that have sometimes created horrendous injustice and suffering particularly in the Third World… as well as right here at home) so that we can live pretty comfortably.

Now, to be honest, I pretty much conformed to consumer society for a lot of years, in spite of what Paul asked us to do. I’ve had to admit that my wants and wishes had been pretty much out of control…

And so now I’m telling you: I am, a consumer addict! And I’m not joking! For most of my life I’ve loved to buy stuff… and when I could, I liked to buy expensive stuff. It gave me a thrill to buy a new cell phone, a camera, even a new bicycle chain! Let’s not even talk about buying a car!

But I was stunned one Sunday morning some years ago, reading the Story of Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler in church back in Maryland.

That story is in Luke 18. You all know the story, but here’s the key line that struck me:

Jesus says to the rich young ruler, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

It was at that point, reading this passage, and then having to preach on it, that it shamed me… because I knew I didn’t live like that. I had to admit right then, that I was a consumer addict. And just like alcoholics, consumer addicts are never cured of that, but you can recover from it and that’s where I am now – trying to recover from being a ‘consumer’.

So I’ve spent the last few years working my own personal consumer 12-step program, trying to regain some of that old Anabaptist/Church of the Brethren sanity; trying to walk Jesus’ talk a little better.

Now, that’s always a hard job because it means making a lot of difficult personal changes, and change is always hard… if it’s meaningful change – diabetics, people with heart disease, and alcoholics and drug addicts – we all know that… right??

But it’s worth the trouble because it means having more control over our egos – our wants and desires – and focusing more on the needs of others.

But what makes it even harder now is that we’re living in the 21st Century. and that’s not your grandfather’s simplicity anymore.

In the late 20th and 21st Centuries we have all become… consumers!

You know, of course, that’s now our role in life… to consume. For many Fortune 500 executives, that’s all that we are. Our job, as far as they’re concerned, is now to consume… to make money for the corporations, to generate tax revenues for the government, and to increase the Gross National Product. That’s our job description now in consumer America. Or at least that’s what the world thinks we are, or thinks we should be.

I can’t think of anything more demeaning than to be labeled a Consumer and having that be my identity. The sum-total of my life – someone who just consumes – uses up stuff… Is that who you want to be?

Especially since the Recession hit in 2008 we’ve been told by government, industry, and economists that we had to spend our way out of the recession… spend our way to prosperity, and make the economy grow, and then we were to keep on spending as much as we could even after the recession was over. We’re supposed to buy, and buy… and oh, by the way, stay out of debt while buying all that stuff… although the Bank of America and the other big banks would love for us to stay in debt so they can make more money on our interest payments.

So if I’m not conforming to this consumer world as Paul taught me NOT to do, then I guess… I’m unpatriotic, because I’m not helping spend our way to personal and national prosperity!

Well… that kind of puts us all between a rock and a hard place! Do we please the bankers and big box stores… or Jesus? Remember, He said “sell all that you have…” not “buy as much as you can.”

The big bankers and retail executives want us to become addicts because… they want our money… every day, and only addicts can do that. On the other hand, to be honest, we want much of the stuff they’re selling! Because, we’re told by our culture, that we are entitled to it, or that we should all want to have everything we can possibly get!

But to make my recovery from consumerism even harder, the late 20th and 21st Centuries have brought us “the digital revolution” with its computers, cell phones, smart phones, laptops, note pads, GPS navigation systems, and … the true savior of mankind… the Internet.

With the Web and all of our devices, we are now capable of, and often actually do, buy anything, anywhere, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all holidays included – without laying out a dime of actual money! Now compare that to the world our Brethren ancestors and our grandparents had to contend with in the horse and buggy days with the good old country store!

Living in our environment, today is the same thing as an alcoholic who is living and working in a bar with an unlimited tab: it’s the kiss of death for living simply… having a simpler Christmas! And our multinational, digital universe is history’s biggest and most ruthless bar… We think their whisky is pretty great stuff!

Yeah, I could blame it all on the corporations and Wall Street, but the fact is, I’m responsible for my own behavior. I’m responsible for my own walk with Jesus… along side of Paul. It’s my addiction that pushes me away from Jesus, deafening me to His voice. Making me not walk his walk, and nothing could be more tragic than that!

Then there’s the huge factor of the amount of damage we do to others “down stream” from us – ‘Down stream’ means… all those people who either have to make the stuff we buy, or have to deal with the consequences of what we do with it all.

By “buying into consumer culture” instead of “not conforming” to it… we do a lot of damage. A lot of un-loving things, for instance:

… and we all know this, but we forget it when we walk into a store or go online…

Extremely low wage workers in 3rd world countries make much of what we buy and sometimes that work is done in sweatshops, and even sometimes it’s forced labor. How many more factories in India, China, or Bangladesh have to burn down, killing hundred’s of people so that we can have stuff… cheap enough, so we can afford to buy… a lot of it… so we can have it all?

If it was expensive, we wouldn’t buy as much would we? Hmmm…

And virtually all of those factories create tremendous amounts of pollution in the process of manufacturing this stuff.

To make matters worse, the mining of many of the metals that go into our gadgets, particularly our electronics (and now the electronics are even in our Christmas cards) and the drilling and refining of oil to make the plastic cases the stuff goes in, here and around the world, denudes thousands of square miles of God’s earth and causes enormous amounts of pollution that sickens folks and shortens their life spans.

Then, of course there’s the recycling issue. Much of what we consume and throw away is not recycled. It ends up leaching away in garbage dumps, further polluting and sickening still more people.

Last… I’ll give you just one statistic about our use of our, now billions of electronic gadgets: You know that Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Facebook, and virtually all large web-based business rely on “server farms” – data centers – huge warehouses filled with computers – to store all the information… including your Facebook data, emails, and credit card numbers!

Today those server farms use around 10 billion watts of electricity a year. That is equivalent to the output of about 10 nuclear power plants! … just so we can surf the web, update our Facebook pages, and send email to our friends, and of course, buy stuff! You can decide if this makes any sense or not… to Jesus or to Paul.

I don’t want to over-simplify what are some extremely complicated and difficult issues, but the bottom line is that…

This is not any way to show our love for people, or for ourselves.

So Merry Christmas!… well, Merry Christmas to us anyway.

The question is, Why do we do this? Why do we so happily ignore what Paul told us to do? Why do we reject living simply in these modern, hyper-digital times. Why do we continue to abuse those people for our own gratification… people we’re supposed to love?

Science has some news for us about that:

Our ‘standard of living’, our life style as Westerners and Americans, is actually… here it comes… a physical addition. There is now good research that shows that the same chemistry is at work in our brains when we shop and buy things as when a person drinks or uses drugs. Even when we just think about buying something we want, the chemical, dopamine, kicks into our brains and we suddenly start feeling really good about it. The dopamine tricks our brains into thinking that buying this stuff is wonderful and that we should do more and more of it. It’s exactly the same thing as having a drink of alcohol… and then craving more.

The problem is that the dopamine… wears off, just like alcohol or heroin, and later, we don’t care about it so much anymore, or worse, we might even have “buyer’s remorse” – “Oh, now I wish I really hadn’t spent all that money on that!”… It’s a hangover! It is true physical addiction. And I don’t remember that Jesus was real big on addictions.

But our egos also play a big role in our buying habits too.

Our egos, like I’ve said before – but it bears repeating – are just little emotional ‘shells’ that our minds create to protect us and make us feel safer and more worthwhile. And they’re always a little (and sometimes a lot) fearful that we might not be quite good enough… not as good as our sisters or brothers, or not as good as Mom or Dad wanted us to be, not as good as our boss wants us to be… so our egos create endless stories and arguments in our minds to overcome these imagined shortcomings.

The stories go like, “if I just buy this new car, I’ll feel like a million bucks!” But , our tricky little egos know that we’re not supposed to think like that, especially in church, so it makes up another story that goes something like “Well, you know, the tires on the car are pretty worn out; the oil needs to be changed; oh, and there’s a scratch on the left side; and I almost forgot… the timing belt probably needs to be replaced… well, it’ll just gonna be cheaper in the long run to… just buy a new car to replace my… oh my god, three year old car!”

Same thing for clothing, furniture, TV’s, smart phones and don’t get me started on kids toys at Christmas.

And it really doesn’t matter if we’re Rich or poor, whether we make a little money or a lot of money. In this country and in Western countries in general, we all tend to think the same way about having money, and having ‘stuff.’ If we have more money, we buy more, bigger things. If we have less money, we buy fewer, smaller things. But the common denominator is that we all want ‘more.’

But… here’s the key… Our egos, that want us to buy all this stuff so we can feel better, are NOT who we are, either!

Who we are, is in our souls, and our souls can be ‘in charge’ instead of our egos, because our souls are what connects us with God, and Jesus, and Paul, not our fragile little egos.

I know… you’re thinking, “Wow! What a way to kill the Christmas spirit!”

But it actually can boost our Christmas spirit because… it frees us to focus on what Christmas is really about.

Christmas is about celebrating Jesus’ birthday and giving him the kind of present he wants. I believe he wants us to love other people, the strangers from around the world, not just the family and friends in our living rooms on Christmas morning.

He would want us to work for economic and social justice for the poor – the people who sweat and scrape to make it possible for us to have most of our gadgets and bling.

He would want us to pay those folks fairly for what we buy from them… even if it means paying (Oh, my god!) substantially higher prices so they can earn enough to live decent lives… rather than our just going along with the rest of consumer society and participating in Walmart’s, Kmart’s, and Amazon’s race to the bottom – their cheap deals that keep those people in poverty.

That makes me joyful… getting my head and my heart right with Jesus and doing what He would want, especially for His birthday.

Well, it’s easy to say – and a lot harder to do.

So how do we do it?

First, we can meditate on our egos and our consumerism… and pray long and hard that God will strengthen us, and transform our consumer addiction.

Second we can think deeply and carefully about each thing we want to buy.

Each time we’re in a store and see something we want to buy, whether it’s for us or someone else, we should pick it up or get real close to it, look deeply into it, and see and hear the people who made it, who put into it the blood, sweat, and tears, and who sometimes suffered to make it… merely for our satisfaction.

We should think about the woman in Bangladesh with no education supporting 6 children, living in a falling-down hovel, who doesn’t make enough money to have electricity, plumbing, or even a bed, and who will never be able to afford that item for herself.

Can we think of her and love her like The Virgin Mary?

Or the 10 year old boy digging in a mine with no possible future. Can we love him like we love The Baby Jesus?

Do you really need to buy that item and, in buying it, support their continued poverty and powerlessness? Or can we send a message to Walmart, Amazon, and JP Morgan, that we aren’t conforming to their sad view of the world, and of people.

Then we should think, instead of buying this thing, maybe I should buy less stuff, and invest some time, effort, and the money saved, in alleviating the practices, policies, and greed that lead to the conditions these people have to work under by giving it to the church or another organization that operates out of love rather than the profit motive.

Then we could celebrate a simpler, more joyous Christmas with ‘lowered expectations’ for our Christmas giving and receiving –with less – don’t worry, not with nothin… just with less) so we can actually invite Jesus and Paul to the birthday party with us.

When Late Becomes Never

admin April 13th, 2013

I haven’t posted in quite some time, and I regret that, but something has happened that brought me to the end of words… perhaps where I should have been all along.

I suppose we all sleepwalk through our lives from time to time – living without really paying attention – and I’ve probably been a more proficient practitioner of it than most.

But there are times when we are shaken awake and forced to pay attention, even while our indolence fights to remain asleep.

I was shaken awake last month – a phone call. My daughter was dying two thousand miles away. There is a numbness that overtakes you when something shocking happens. For me it was like walking through a thick fog – like those first few moments when I wake up from a deep sleep. After the call I didn’t quite know what to do or how to do the dozens of things that needed to be done.

Call the airline, call family and friends, cancel jobs, find accommodations, wonder what to say and how to say it. All of it fast and clumsy.

Get to the hospital and live through a week of suffering… the dying. I try to tell her the most important feelings I have for her before it’s too late, but she can’t talk, can’t move, and I’m not sure that she hears, or cares. I see her, still beautiful and young, beneath the pain, drugs, and confusion. She’s fighting hard to live, for herself, her husband and her son. She won’t quit, but she’s losing, faster each day.

I should be doing something to save her. I should be shaking the doctors by the collar until they do something – I can’t just let her die. But I can’t. The doctors say it’s only a matter of hours or a day or two and they’ve done everything possible, and I believe them. This is a well-known, state-of- the art cancer hospital and the staff have been wonderful, but they’ve done all they know to do and nothing has worked. “It’s the fastest growing liver cancer I’ve ever treated,” he says.

And I’m helpless. I feel like I’m just letting her die.

I can’t imagine how people going through this who have no faith or hope are able to cope with this kind of death. What got me through each terrible day was the knowledge that she was on her way to heaven, and would soon understand more, see more clearly, and love and be loved more fully than she ever was in this physical life. She would know God directly and be free of pain, limitations, and the insanity that life can sometimes be, especially the painful dying.

And then she’s gone, slipping away in her sleep, and all words fail. The numbness again, and tears, endless tears. In spite of the rock of faith on which I stand, she was still gone and I was not able to save her like a father should.

God, it’s hard writing this now. There’s a dull, aching lump where my heart used to be.

But I’m not sleepwalking now.

Several good things came out of this tragedy. One is that it brought our family closer together and valuing each other much more than before.

But the second has to do with Christian simple living which is why I’m writing this:

    Not sleepwalking is the key to living simply in God’s world. I believe that living simply as Christians is about highly valuing everything God has made (including you and me… and daughters) and behaving in a way that actually does value everything every day. Doing that requires constant mindfulness – mindfulness of Jesus’ teaching of what is of value in this life and what is not, as well as mindfulness of all that surrounds us.

It’s an incredibly beautiful world with beautiful people in it, if we slow down and pay attention. I’ve read a lot of stories recounted by people who have had near death experiences, and one of the common themes among them is that there is a “life review” or “joint-judging process” (the dying person and God or Jesus jointly doing the judging) and the dying person often sees not only what they’ve done well or badly, but the chances they’ve missed and how they might have paid more attention.

Yeah, “better late than never” has too often been a motto for me, and maybe for you too, but the problem is that the “late” part too often turns out to be “never.”

It’s easy to forget to pay attention and to not sleepwalk through our daily lives. Our egos so easily put our wants, needs, challenges, and dreams ahead of everything else, which means that we end up missing some of the most important things.

So I’m now at least grateful to be more awake; a little better tuned-in to what is going on inside me, and more importantly, what’s going on inside those around me, and to care – now – before “late,” becomes “never,” because life really is much shorter than we want it to be.

Living more slowly and more simply gives us the opportunity to pay attention and really live.

Ego, Machines, and Job Loss

admin February 12th, 2013

Well, it’s happened again! One of my most sacred assumptions has been shattered by reality. Actually my life has been just a series of shattered assumptions.

Every time I’m certain that I really know something it turns out that I was just kidding myself. The old saw, “If you want to make God laugh, make plans,” could be modified to “If you want to make God laugh, assume that you know something.”

All right, so what is it this time?

A short story:

My dad owned and operated a grocery store that was known for its meats. Back in the 60’s there were usually a couple of butchers and several woman working in the meat room where each of the women wrapped meat in the ubiquitous plastic wrapped Styrofoam trays by hand using small hand-held irons and a heated plate mounted on a worktable. After each piece was wrapped, the women would weigh it, punch the results into a cash register-like machine that then spit out a sticker with the weight and price on it which they then affixed to the package with a hot iron.

One day Dad announced that we were getting an automated system that would do the wrapping, weighing, and stickering automatically and that it would all be run by a computer. Of course in the 60’s what passed for a computer was pretty elementary compared to today’s machines.

I thought that was so cool. I couldn’t wait for the thing to be installed, and when it was, it was truly something to behold. Wow! My dad was finally living in the 20th Century.

What happened next truly amazed me. The women in the meat room began talking about how this new machine was going to be the end of their jobs. They really thought that machines and computers were going to take away our (their) jobs. Now in a small town where everyone either knows or is related to everyone else, putting people out of work would be a really big deal, so I knew my Dad wouldn’t be doing that. And besides, he got the machine because there was more work to do than the staff could deal with effectively, so it was just a new tool, not a threat to jobs.

I thought to myself how naïve and silly those women were and I silently laughed at them.

In fact no one lost their job, and they got pretty good at running the new gadget – proof of my knowledge, prescience, and wisdom!

… until January 24 this year. There in the business section of our local daily paper was the headline “TECH, RECESSION KILL MIDDLE-CLASS JOBS.”

To be honest, as you probably already know if you’ve read very many of my posts, I’ve been a digital Luddite anyway, but mostly for reasons having to do with how the digital revolution was wreaking havoc with the environment and our economy. But that headline and the accompanying article was a real earth-shaker.

Bernard Condon and Paul Wiseman of the Associated Press, wrote that “Increasingly, jobs are disappearing in the service sector, home to two-thirds of all workers. They are being obliterated by technology.”

OMG! No! I couldn’t have been wrong! These are just tools. They’re sophisticated shovels and screwdrivers. They help us do our jobs, they don’t replace us, right?

Wrong!

The authors show that in the U.S., half of the 7.5 million jobs lost during the recession paid middle-class wages. But only 2% of the 3.5 million jobs gained following the recession are middle class jobs. All the rest are what we used to call lower-class jobs paying a great deal less than the middle class jobs that were lost. And it wasn’t the case that employers were forced to get rid of people they actually needed because of a bad economy. In fact employers figured out how to do without them, mostly through technology – by increasing efficiency through technology. Of course that means efficiency = people out of work or earning much less.

So much for the social contract. When push comes to shove, replace ‘em with machines! But now we don’t even have to wait to be pushed or shoved, we just do it to improve the bottom line.

The problem, of course, is that many of the people replaced by technological wizardry don’t find comparable jobs or income later. They end up losing their homes and buying far fewer things for their families. Given that our society has bought into the neo-classical economic model that stipulates that there has to be a consumer society well-healed enough to buy all the gadgets and gizmos that business produces, that is a disaster waiting to happen.

Oh, and the idea that the people displaced or ‘down-placed’ will find new jobs in the tech sector through retraining, is just illusory. Although the AP article doesn’t discuss this at length, the fact is that the retraining also results in lower pay jobs unless folks get college or advanced degrees that are now extremely expensive to acquire. And the less-expensive community college angle doesn’t work well anymore because an associate’s degree doesn’t get you much in terms of income now days, unless you go on to a bachelor’s at a (much more expensive) four-year college, which also is less likely to get you a middle class income, so you’d have to go on to an advanced degree and now you are talking about an astronomical amount of money for people who are out of work or flipping burgers!

Maybe this is a disaster that has to happen on our way to forcing a majority of us to live a lot more simply, but just for the fun of it, let’s stick to the neo-classical model of good economic health for a second – as a society we’re going to be very unhealthy – even sickly, if this trend continues, and the writers of the article and the researchers they quote, predict that it will not only continue, but it will accelerate. It is our future!

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Laugh because our neo-classical model is collapsing on us and turning us into simple livers whether we want to or not.

Or cry because it is an extremely painful economic train wreck for many of us (except for those living at the top end of the income scale) that will create a simpler society.

So what??

What does any of this have to do with my on-going discussion of ego, soul, and simplicity besides the fact that my ego took a real hit in being wrong about technology not costing us our jobs?

1. Our egos love to build and play with toys like computers and all the devices that they have made possible. Each new design, each new toy (they are toys even when used in business and industry) titillates our egos. In business, the toys excite and titillate us with the potential for more efficiency, new products, more cash flow, more profits, and greater return on investments. In our personal lives they excite us by keeping us up with or ahead of the Jones’, fill our hours with entertainment and make us feel ‘connected’ in a fuzzy, virtual kind of way. In both cases we are feeding our egos, not our souls.

But these toys, although sometimes of real use, are still often distractions from what our lives are really about. If our souls were doing the driving we’d be in a very different place than we are with our egos driving.

If our souls were in the driver’s seat, we’d be concerned about the health and welfare of our neighbors and communities, like, for instance, whether they have jobs or not, whether they’re hurting or not, and what we could do to prevent or ameliorate the problems they might face.
With our egos doing the driving, we’re primarily concerned about ourselves, our families, our friends, and how to maximize our fun and prosperity.

2. If the AP article is right, and it seems to me that it may be, we will have to have a much better skill set to survive this train wreck. We’re going to need skills of the soul, not of the ego to base our lives on. We already have lots of skills to maximize our ego states, but far too few skills to enhance the life of our souls. That, after all, is the fuel required for Kingdom living and simple living – and it is that which will get us all through this life in good shape.

The Great Western Ego Drama

admin January 6th, 2013

Is it really possible to live in an egoless way?

I’d like to get into that here, but I should probably first define what I mean by ‘ego’ since it’s used in a lot of ways.

I’m not using it in the classical Freudian, ‘ego psychology’ sense in which the ego mediates between the id and superego, and I don’t mean it in the strictly philosophical sense that ‘ego’ is that part of me that is conscious of experience, or is the ‘total person’ including body and soul.

For me ego is an essentially intellectual/emotional shell that our minds create to protect us and make us feel safer and more worthwhile, perhaps more important than we really are. Our egos do this because they are a little (or a lot) fearful that we might not be quite good enough… not as good as the next person, or not as good as Mom or Dad wanted us to be, so our egos create endless stories and internal conversations designed to overcome those imagined shortcomings.

I believe that ego is really an artificial construct; a little one-man-band meant to look like someone other than who we really are. It is all the things we think and feel about ourselves or want ourselves to be. It generates much of how we think and feel about what happens to us and around us each day. Ego defines itself in relation to the people and things around us, “This is me, that’s you, and this is mine. I am the owner of this thing. That is Mom and I am Bobby.”

On one hand our egos want us to feel good about ourselves, to be successful and happy. But there is a problem when the ego builds this ‘construct’ on erroneous assumptions like defining itself strictly in terms of external things and the people around us, or when it bases its function on the fallacy that there might be something less than spectacular about us right from the get-go: “I’m… I’m not as good as I should be compared to these other people.” Then it piles on top of this erroneous assumption a boatload of thoughts and stories that end-up misleading us about who we are and what others are really like.

I used to think that what I’ve described here as ‘ego’ was who I really was.

But my ego is not who I am; in fact it largely prevents me from being ‘me’, knowing myself, or being aware of the world as it really is. Ego often leaves us living with longing, pain, regret, and other kinds of suffering more often than it leaves us feeling genuinely good. Then too, the good feelings my ego creates are at best ephemeral – they don’t last or they eventually ring hollow –a house of cards.

‘Me’ – ‘Who I Am’ – is quite a different thing than my ego, thank God!

‘Who I Am’ is a deep consciousness that is aware of what I do, what I think, and what I feel, but doesn’t have any of the defensive stories or adornment that ego creates to define itself. It is not an intellectual or logical process. It is my true identity with no varnish, no defenses, and no BS. It is the being that lies deep in each of us. It doesn’t need to know if I’m better or worse-off than anyone else. It doesn’t care if someone has more or better stuff than I do. It is that spirit inside of me that I would probably call ‘my soul’. It is the Me that knows God when I pray and meditate. It is beyond my body, and seems to function outside of time and linear reasoning altogether.

This is, of course, a modern heresy especially in psychological quarters. During the last few centuries we have been conditioned to think of who we are strictly in terms of rational, intellectual processes. “I think, therefore I am,” and all that flowed out of the Age of Reason. This has lead many authorities to believe (and it is indeed a belief system as opposed to a scientific finding) that the ego or its functions are all there is to who we are. “That’s all folks,” there’s nothing there before we’re born or after we die. What you see is what you get.

My soul, ‘Who I Am’, is only apparent to me when I am able to still my rational, intellectual mind, stopping the incessant ego-driven talk. It is only in absolute stillness that I am who I am, fully and completely. Most of the time, of course, it is my conscious ego that is running things, and it is what usually keeps me from Kingdom living and simple living. It also keeps me from loving genuinely and deeply.

So with this basic definition out of the way, I’d like to get a little more into what goes on with my ego and my soul and its practical implications for my daily life. Maybe some of it will sound familiar:

A Slice Of The Great Western Ego Drama

Ego: I read your last blog post.
Me: What did you think?
Ego: Who you trying to kid? You seriously think you’re going to get rid of me?
Me: Don’t know if I can but I’d like to at least whittle you down so you’re actually a little helpful to me now and then.
Ego: Look, everyone – everyone – knows you can’t live without an ego; it’s what makes life worth living. Hell, it’s what makes life possible! Without me you got nothing!
Me: I know everyone’s got one. That’s not the point. I’m even aware that an ego can be of some practical use, but I’m also painfully aware that you have gotten me into serious trouble on many occasions and you can really wear me out – and that’s the good part.
Ego: “The good part, eh?”
Me: Yeah. Wanna hear the bad parts?
Ego: Nope.
Me: You have made a mess of my relationships with other people. From time to time you’ve made me depressed, anxious, envious, self-absorbed, thoughtless, argumentative, and stingy.
Ego: Oh is that all?
Me: oblivious, lonely, defensive, angry, covetous, jealous, callous, ruthless, competitive…
Ego: I thought, there for a moment, you were going to have something on me.
Me: …condescending, pushy, accusatory, worthless, insecure, constricted, insensitive, impulsive, broke, and flatulent!
Ego: Oh come on, flatulent? I told you not to eat the beans.
Me: Point taken.
Ego: So what’s your… Hey did you hear that Hector down the street got a new Nikon D800 36 Megapixel camera?
Me: What? A D800? That’s a $3,000 camera! Where’d he get that kind of money?
Ego: Uh huh. And you’ve got… what? A little old D80? What is that, about a half a megapixel? Ha!
Me: Oh crap! And I was having such a good day… Wait! You just did it to me again! See? That’s what I mean!
Ego: What?
Me: I was trying to have a serious discussion with you about my life – what I really care about – what I need to improve myself, and you bring up something entirely irrelevant that you know I can’t resist, and don’t need. Now I can’t even remember what I was talking about!
Ego: But you’ll be able to take much better pictures – maybe now you’ll be able to start selling some of them! You could be well-known! aaaand if you get that NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G zoom lens with it, you’ll really smoke old Hector.
Me: Yeah! Let’s see… that would only be about $1,800 more, and I’ve got just about enough room on my credit card to… Dag nabbit! You did it again!
Ego: I’m sorry. I’m such a schmuck. Everything you said about me is true. I’m so worthless. Let’s go have a beer.
Me: Yeah, maybe you’re right. Let’s go over to Ben’s Bar and Grill and get a Bud.
Ego: Why don’t we go to the Golden Calf Pub instead so we can have a Belgian Ale with a single malt chaser? Maybe Hector will be there.
Me: Good idea, let’s… Wait! You’re doing it to me again!
Ego: Just one question. Who is this ‘me’ you keep talking about?
Me: Huh?
Ego: I’m you!
Me: You can’t be me. Who are you having this conversation with?
Ego: Uh…

Well, fodder for the next post.

Smartphone Meditation

admin December 30th, 2012

Can I ever really get control of my greedy little six year old ego?

For Christmas this year my wife and I got new cell phones. I hadn’t wanted to do that for all the simplicity-related reasons you can guess, but we ended up doing it because our kids and grand kids only respond to text messages (they’ve never heard of actually talking on a phone I guess) and our cell phones were very difficult and slow for arthritic fingers to manage so we wanted phones with slide-out keyboards.

Problem solved for cheap, and still just using them as cell phones, so no data plans and apps, etc.

So far, so good.

Then I made the mistake of downloading the manual and discovered that in fact our models are really low-end smartphones rather than just old fashioned cell phones, so here in this cheap package we get all the bells and whistles of the expensive smartphones (less speed and quality of course).

Here’s where the trouble starts.

Now I haven’t wanted a GPS, for example, just because it’s another digital gadget that helps weigh down the environment, complicates our lives, and costs still more money. But now with this new phone I can have it for a mere $10/month… heck, almost free, right?

Instantly my six year old ego pops up in the back seat jumping up and down yelling that it wants this new toy. “It’ll be so cool! We’ll be just like all the other cool kids!”

I clearly remember the thrill I got each Christmas morning when I went downstairs to see what Santa brought (and I’m still upset that someone told me he wasn’t real). I remember the physical elation of getting out that new toy – MY FIRST TWO-WHEELER! The ecstasy of that first ride down the street with no one holding me up. Oh, heaven!

That’s what my six year old ego is made of – the need to repeat that experience, over and over. It has no other goal in mind – it just wants to feel good – over and over. And isn’t that what addiction is about?

And then my adult ego kicks in and says, “And what’s so bad about feeling good? Since when is that a sin?” I guess a little simplistic reasoning never hurt anyone… too much.

So my ego is starting to convince me that it might really be OK to get the GPS service – the six year old is winning!

All the while my soul, or in psycho-speak, my ‘observing ego’, is reflecting back to me that my ego is playing this game with me and I should know better than to take the bait. Yeah, yeah, I know, but just for the fun of it…

Now my wife has mentioned on a couple of occasions that she thinks smartphones are pretty impressive, etc. so I’m thinking maybe I’ll just run this by her – you know the proverbial trial balloon – really nothing seriously intended here.

So she says, “Ten bucks a month? It’s not worth ten bucks. I can use Google maps like we always have.”

I knew that! I even thought about it before I ran this trial balloon up, but when I did, my six year old started moaning that no one every thinks of him, so I buried the thought… I love kids!

So here I am, the champion of simple living, taking yet another lesson in simplicity from my wife, the inveterate shopper.

Oh God, we’re all in the same boat. Driven by our egos, and in my case a six year old. How sad is that? Sort of like an alcoholic hitting bottom.

So how do you deal with six year olds? Set limits, be clear, be consistent, and be loving and supportive.

Sometimes really hard to do when the kid is driving you nuts and you’re not feeling very loving and the only thing you want to support is his rear-end.

This is where I begin to find some support from my meditation practice. I’ve slowly been able to settle deeply into my soul and allow it to open up to The Spirit. What that is about is the sheer and exhilarating experience of loving and being loved. It even allows me the freedom and desire to love that six year old ego – to understand it, be compassionate about it, be gentle with it, then quietly say “no” and let it go.

I’m getting better at recognizing these errant ego games because every day I have the practice of meditating and praying and becoming more deeply familiar with who I really am – not my ego, but my soul – and letting my soul experience being with God.

I’ll follow up on this in my next post with a little more about ego, soul, and loving.

Simplicity?

admin December 12th, 2012

The question is, should simplicity really be our goal?

I know, after all my seemingly endless posts on the world’s need for Christian simplicity, isn’t this a ridiculous question? Isn’t the answer pretty obvious?

I believe that it’s the central issue that I have to come to grips with, and I really don’t think the answer is obvious.

After all, many people in the western world scoff at the mere thought of simplicity because: a. giving up our luxuries would be too painful; b. life would be nearly impossible without our accumulated stuff; c. it would be an economic catastrophe. And for some Christians, the idea of Christian simplicity has nothing to do with the Gospel since the Gospel is all about salvation/redemption and not about living simply, i.e. real Christians are going to heaven with or without simple living, so why bother?

Then there is the question of getting enough people to adopt simplicity to actually make a difference in the world. If we can’t, then maybe it’s just a waste of time and effort. Perhaps we could be doing better things.

Even if I wade through all these questions and still come out believing that we, or at least ‘I’, should carry on the quest, how can I effectively convince others to see the wisdom of simple living?

If you read my 11/27/12 post “Who? Me? Turn The World Upside Down?” This is a question that has really been bugging me, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I, and some other folks as well, have been going at this all wrong, and if we can’t get it right, then why bother – other than because “I just like living this way?”

I think my mistake has been to see the issue as more of a social mission – a task that needs to be done – something that will make the world a better place – and therefore it becomes a marketing task.

Sure there are ‘faith issues’ like doing what Jesus taught, but when I walk out into the world, having heard what He taught, I’m immediately into marketing or evangelizing. It seems to me to be a blunt instrument approach to getting folks to change. And my ego instantly gets all caught up in the game of convincing others that I or my approach/understanding/faith is right and they should agree and change their evil ways!

To that end I may have mistakenly spent too much time and emotional energy indirectly villainizing (even in a low-key way) organizations, philosophies, and lifestyles not disposed to simplicity –most of the time being blissfully unaware that I was doing it – and this, in spite of Jesus telling us to love people, even our enemies.

It suddenly struck me that some of my simplicity marketing drive has been in the service of my ego (I’ve gotta prove my point and be seen as ‘righteous’) as much as it has been in the service of The Lord or the world.

I gotta believe this is also true for others in the simplicity/ecology/social justice business. I see it all the time. It’s human nature. But at the same time it’s dysfunctional and counter-productive, and more important it is destructive to our souls and contrary to what our faith teaches.

This approach just doesn’t work well. Sure we find converts to the cause with some regularity, but we probably make nearly as many enemies in the process. Walmart and the American Petroleum Institute don’t see us any more positively than they did 25 years ago! And it’s not likely that we are going to defeat or convert these global organization with a direct, head-to-head approach, and that’s really not our job anyway.

Even thinking of these folks as ‘the enemy’ or obstructionists, as I have at times, is an error and fundamentally untrue. What makes it untrue is that even those who oppose us are God’s children with souls and hearts and should be treated as brothers and sisters, not enemies even when we disagree. I have unfortunately felt they were my enemies at times because my ego gets it’s underwear all in a tangle when someone disagrees with me. That doesn’t make the person an enemy or even an opponent. It does mean that I have to meditate on my own reaction and negative feelings and where they come from.

I believe that Christian Simple Living isn’t the goal and it shouldn’t be what we’re about! Christian simplicity is a result of living mindful, aware, compassionate lives as Jesus taught.

Unfortunately it’s easy to think about and talk about living this way but hard to do minute by minute, day by day. Such a free and open heart can certainly emerge from a deep faith, but at least I have to work hard to reach that seed deep in my heart, and it gets pretty spotty from day to day.

For me, and I’m sure others as well, the evidence of such genuine compassion would be to be able to have honest, authentic compassion for everyone including folks working for globalized corporations and special interest groups, as well as individuals who may be opposed to my most cherished simplicity-related beliefs.

And we should be particularly compassionate towards those who are caught up in consumerist lifestyles that are damaging their lives. As we know from our own lives, it is an addiction, and just as with alcoholics and drug addicts, they need compassion as well as “tough love” to recover. Preaching at them really doesn’t help – which means I need to change how I see and feel about them – being more awareness of, and caring about their lives, emotions, and souls.

If we live this way, simple living flows in our lives like water from a spring.

Ah, piece of cake! That should be easy enough.

Uh, no, actually. It can be pretty hard. If it were easy I would already have been doing it, lo these many years.

As I noted above, I’m often (usually) driven by my ego even when I think I’m doing something good for others – doing like Christ said. But I’m too often doing it because it makes me feel better, and that’s not compassion – it’s ego.

So for me personally, this is my real task just now: learning to live in a more egoless way. Learning to live so that whatever small amount of genuine compassion I have in me, leads my thoughts and actions rather than my self-serving ego. If I’m able to master this, with God’s help and presence, then I may be a little closer to The Kingdom which automatically, I believe, leads to living more simply and which may in turn be helpful to the rest of the world too.

It seems to me this is the point, not just a narrow focus on simple living, ecology, or social justice, as important as these issues are.

I’m also betting that there are other folks out there that are in the same boat with me, and perhaps together we can take this leap into a deeper understanding of ourselves, our souls, and our faith.

As I wrote in previous posts, I intend to put up a series of posts over the next few months on my experiences and thoughts about my journey into reducing ego and growing compassion and how it affects my emerging simple living – from the heart.

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