john davies
notes from a small curate



    Simplicity

    All Hallows Allerton, 5/10/2003

    Matthew 6.19-34

    (Sermon preached as part of 'Walking the Way of Jesus' series)


    An Anglican church is a good place to talk about simplicity; because in some ways, simplicity is a national trait. As the American travel writer Bill Bryson says, the British like their pleasures small. In Notes from a Small Island he writes:
      [The British] are the only people in the world who think of jam and currents as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake. Offer them something genuinely tempting - a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates from a box - and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it's unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly.
      'Oh, I mustn't really,' they say.
      'Oh, go on,' you prod encouragingly.
      'Well, just a small one then,' they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish.
    You know, we have a tradition of simplicity in our prayers, too. Listen to this ancient prayer from these islands, a prayer spoken by generations of ordinary folk in their homes on what today we'd call the 'Celtic fringe', Scotland's rural west coast:
      Bless to me, O God,
      Each thing my eye sees;
      Bless to me, O God,
      Each sound my ear hears;
      Bless to me, O God,
      Each odour that goes to my nostrils;
      Bless to me, O God,
      Each taste that goes to my lips;
      Each note that goes to my song;
      Each ray that guides my way;
      Each thing that I pursue;
      Each lure that tempts my will;
      The zeal that seeks my living soul,
      The three that seek my heart,
      The zeal that seeks my living soul,
      The three that seek my heart.
    It's a simple prayer - asking for God's blessing for the day ahead, preparing to go out into the world with God; confident that God's love for us - the zeal of the trinity - is real.

    And it's wonderful in its simplicity, this prayer. A model for us to take away and use in our own lives. A prayer you can hear yourself saying as you lock the front door and start up the car, facing the new day: Bless to me, O God, Each thing my eye sees; Bless to me, O God, Each sound my ear hears...

    .... Bless to me, O God, Each odour that goes to my nostrils????

    - Ah; now here the prayer's simplicity begins to cause us problems. Because if our car exhaust has just filled our nostrils with smoke, or the person on the bus next to us has personal hygiene issues, then it gets harder to believe that God can bless us through these smells. The simple prayer has just got complicated.

    I shared this old Scottish prayer with a group recently and asked them how they would interpret that line in their everyday lives. One young mum immediately connected with it - "I'd say it while I was changing nappies!" she said. "Where's the blessing in changing nappies?" I asked - well I would, wouldn't I, being a bloke - to which another mum replied, "The blessing is in knowing that the baby's still working properly!"

    >Do we believe that God is with us in the simple, mundane activities of everyday life? Do we have a language to celebrate that, to talk to God and hear God in simple terms? Or does the language of the church, ancient and modern, overcomplicate our approach to faith? And has the language of the world - mediated to us through newspapers, advertising hoardings and TV screens - made us so sophisticated that we've lost touch with ourselves and the physical world around us?

    Jesus, I believe, wants us to be simple people.

    He wants us to be simple hearted, saying, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also".

    He wants us to be simple minded, saying, "seek first the kingdom of God".

    And, linking both of these together, he wants us to be simple living, saying, "don't store up for yourselves treasures on earth", and encouraging us not to worry about what we shall eat or what we shall drink or what we shall wear.

    To help us understand how we can become simple living people Jesus invites us to "look at the birds of the air;" how God feeds them: "Are you not much more valuable than they?"

    This reminds me of an old story from the Celtic fringe: a story of the old Irish Saint Kevin.
      Kevin liked to take solitude in a little hut where he would give himself earnestly to reading, prayer, and contemplation. One day as he knelt in his accustomed fashion, with his hand outstretched through the window and lifted up to heaven, a blackbird settled on it, and busying herself as in her nest, laid an egg in it. And so moved was the saint that in all patience and gentleness he remained, neither closing nor withdrawing his hand: but, until the young ones were fully hatched he held it out unwearied, shaping it for the purpose. That is why, to this day, all the images of St Kevin throughout Ireland show a blackbird in his outstretched hand.
    Our Christian heritage on these islands is rich with stories of such people: like Columbanus, who took the beasts and the birds with him as he walked and prayed, sharing food with wolves and bears, as they shared food with him. And Cuthbert who prayed in the sea at Holy Island, Lindisfarne. Someone once saw him emerge, dripping wet, onto the beach, and two little otters followed him, licking his feet, warming them with their breath and trying to dry them with their fur.

    These stories tell us that the saints of old, the model Christians if you like, our predecessors, were very close to nature, and were partners in it, not dominators. The medieval historian Bede said of St Cuthbert, as he stood there with his friends the otters at his feet, that he was "once more at peace with all creation".

    How simple it would be for a person like Cuthbert to follow Jesus when he said, "look at the birds of the air;" to learn from the birds in their ways, and to learn with them how to trust God simply.

    It's less simple for us because we're not at peace with all creation. We're at odds with it much of the time in our orgy of consumption and addiction to fuel-guzzling transport. But if we want to learn simplicity, by the grace of God - we can.

    If you have a garden I'm sure you can tell stories of moments when you've seen God break through, in the blossoming of a plant, in the sighting of a butterfly or the animation of little creatures going about their business watched closely by you, fascinated.

    I don't have a garden but nevertheless I can observe the development of spiders' webs in obscure corners of my home. Play with dogs in the park; stop beneath trees where big birds are scuffling or tiny birds are hopping quietly from branch to branch; feed the ducks. Such moments are literally priceless. We treasure them. And "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also".

    We can cultivate such simplicity by consciously going out and exploring these things. Or just by staying in, and thinking on these things. Another old Celtic verse goes:
      There is no bird on the wing,
      There is no star in the sky,
      There is nothing beneath the sun
      But proclaims his goodness.
      Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!
      Jesu! Meet it were to praise Him.
    Knowing Jesus is enough - enough to counteract those things which overcomplicate our lives, enough to put us back in touch with ourselves and the physical world around us.

    Note how Jesus suggests that simple living helps us not to worry about what we're going to eat or drink or wear. The language of the mass media is predominantly one of advertising and as we know it has the opposite intention. It is designed to make us worry about all these things. It aims to persuade us that the way to ease our worries is to buy goods or services which seem to address our concerns. And as we know, because we all fall prey to it every day, it's a powerful force.

    Interesting how so much advertising uses the concept of simplicity - quick meals, microwaved, are so much simpler than spending hours in the kitchen; fast car, air conditioned - so much simpler than having to commute on sticky old public transport; security systems on private housing developments - so much simpler than having to bother with neighbours to make us feel safe at home.

    But this twisted language demeans us; and our task as Christians is to reaffirm what Jesus meant by simplicity, to celebrate it and live it out. It was no different in his day - people, frightened of missing out, desperate to keep up their status, fiercely self-protective, amassed great wealth, many things, in their drive for security and self-worth.

    When they heard him say, don't worry, don't fear, some would have broken down in tears of relief because he'd released them from the grip of this terrible cycle. Many others, of course, convinced that the cycle of consumption was the only natural way, they walked away from him, eventually silenced him.

    So simplicity, in Christ's terms, is challenging. If we embrace it we have to face changing our ways. Books have been written about this. One of the pioneering ones was Ronald Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, in 1977, which takes a deep look at the scriptures and concludes that simplicity is essential for those who walk in the way of Christ.

    It's a practical book too, containing lists of suggestions about how we may begin embracing a simpler lifestyle as a witness to Christ, eg:
      1. Figure out what is really necessary.
      2. Spend money for legitimate reasons. Don't buy just to satisfy some emotional need that you have.
      3. Question the commercials you see all around you. Ask the advert who it thinks it's kidding.
      4. Don't dress expensively.
      5. Take the free stuff and enjoy it.
      6. Give those you love more time and less things.
    These are examples of what it means to be simple minded, to practically follow Jesus' saying, "seek first the kingdom of God" in faith that having given up all these sorts of things, God will still provide all we need.

    In a way this brings us back to where we started - by noticing how ironic it is that the more you look into simplicity the more complicated it becomes. But if we root our simple lifestyle in a simple prayer life then we will see God transform some of the difficulties into causes for celebration. Like the smelly nappy.

    Imagine a simple prayer you could say as you light the fire on a winter morning. It might go like this:
      I will light my fire this morning
      In presence of the holy angels of heaven,
      Without malice, without jealousy, without envy,
      Without fear, without terror of any one under the sun,
      But the Holy Son of God to shield me.
    That's a prayer which was regularly said first thing in the morning by women setting their fires in their Scottish highland crofts at the start of the 20th century. Spoken no doubt by their mothers before them, passed down through generations of people whose simple faith sustained them in tough living conditions, through work, through hardships and through the usual joys of life too.

    I think the prayers of our predecessors teach us great lessons in how to relate to God simply, in the hubbub of everyday life. They're straightforward words spoken not on retreat, but in the kitchen, round the meal table, during work, while travelling, in bed. Prayers which may inspire us to do the same as we go through our days.

    Many of these prayers are collected together and easy to find in Christian bookshops today. Here's another one to close. It's a reminder that the simple Christian lifestyle is not, by any means, a lonely one:
      Let us go forth
      In the goodness of our merciful Father,
      In the gentleness of our brother Jesus,
      In the radiance of his Holy Spirit,
      In the faith of the apostles,
      In the joyful praise of the angels,
      In the holiness of the saints,
      In the courage of the martyrs.

      Let us go forth
      In the wisdom of our all-seeing Father,
      In the patience of our all-loving brother,
      In the learning of the apostles,
      In the gracious guidance of the angels,
      In the patience of the saints,
      In the self-control of the martyrs.

      Such is the path for all servants of Christ,
      The path from death to eternal life.



    Notes

    Prayers are taken from Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica

    St Kevin story adapted from Esther de Waal: A World Made Whole: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition, pp.81-88, which is a very good general introduction to the subject.