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Simplicity sharpens focus in faith-filled lives

Simplicity can be complicated. But its spiritual rewards are great.

Members of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC) expect to make sacrifices. Giving a year of your life to serve others and living communally, often in an inner-city neighborhood far from home, will naturally require a level of selflessness.

But what sometimes proves as challenging for LVC recruits, most of them in their early 20s, is the program's commitment to another core practice: living a simple, sustainable lifestyle.

"Living simply is not all that simple," says the Rev. Michael Wilker, a former LVC volunteer who is now its executive director.

LVC, which receives support from the Forum for Theological Exploration through its Volunteers Exploring Vocation initiative, encourages participants to practice simplicity in everything from menu planning to recreational activities. Figuring out how best to do that is up to each LVC household, which typically includes four to seven people.

Does it mean eating only organic or locally grown produce, even if it's expensive? Riding a bicycle to avoid burning gasoline? Spending an evening playing board games instead of heading out on the town?

"It's actually a stimulating set of questions that they get to sort through," says Wilker.

One of the key ways volunteers are encouraged to live simply is through Sabbath-keeping. Wilker describes the practice as a deeply biblical part of following a simple and sustainable lifestyle.

Dorothy C. Bass, director of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith, agrees. Observing the Sabbath is invaluable for those seeking a simpler, more focused spiritual life "because it insists that we order our time in ways that make space for God," she says. "Sabbath-keeping works against the kinds of distractions and fragmentation and running around mindlessly that are the opposite of simplicity."

Keeping the Sabbath and household economics are among 12 practices highlighted on the Valparaiso Project's Practicing Our Faith website, which provides resources to help today's Christians live out their faith with vitality. Materials on the spiritual aspects of simplicity can be found on the household economics section of the website as well.

Douglas Hicks, associate professor of leadership studies and religion at the University of Richmond, addresses some of the obstacles to simple living in his book Money Enough: Everyday Practices for Living Faithfully in the Global Economy, the latest volume in the Practices of Faith Series published by Jossey-Bass.

"It's very difficult to be engaged in the global economy and live a simple life at the same time," says Hicks. "There's a lot of straddling that needs to happen. ... What people of faith need to do is to try to strike a middle way that incorporates simplicity into their lives but does not opt out of the market entirely."

Hicks is quick to note the many positives of the modern marketplace -- "people make things, people discover products that can make lives better" – but says problems arise when marketing stimulates an overwhelming thirst in consumers for more, more, more. "Economic desire can lead us to overspend, to overshop, to overwork, and it's hard to have a peaceful spirit when our to-do list is from here to Chicago."

Can simplicity be an antidote? Yes, he says, by providing "focus, an ability to discern what really matters.”

“In our everyday lives, there's so much coming at us so fast, it's easy to get lost in what we'd call the urgent but not important,” he says. “Simplicity helps us to line up our lives according first to what's important, and to work from there."

"Really," says Valparaiso's Bass, "you can't get very far in a Christian life without some degree of simplicity. If you're trying to keep up with the consumers of this culture, there's not time, there's not space for faithful living."

More, more, more

Want additional insight on simplicity and spirituality? Check out these resources:

Public radio's Krista Tippett on Being talks about simplicity with poet Marie Howe.

On Being with Krista Tippett explores simplicity's role in the "New Monastics" movement

At Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly's website, United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton gives his thoughts on simplicity and the global economic crisis.



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