Simple gifts.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

I have to admit that it made me a little bit uncomfortable on Sunday to be talking about simplicity at church. It was a great message, that simplicity is about what drives our decisions, our hearts. It’s okay to appreciate the things we have here, to spend our money on things we enjoy. But those shouldn’t be the things that guide us. This is something Mike and I have been talking about a lot, making sure that our decisions are in line with what we value. Making sure we actually value what we claim to value. Trying to choose family over finances. So it wasn’t that the sermon made me uncomfortable in that sense. It was, in fact, very encouraging. Instead, it was hard to come home and see the pictures of my sponsored child, Stephen, that came in the mail on Saturday, and to think that we need to talk about simplicity at all. Stephen is from Kenya, where over half of the population is poor, and where 700 people a day die from HIV/AIDS.

I don’t want to romanticize Stephen’s situation, though. I know a lot of people love Andrew Peterson’s song about his own sponsored child, “Land of the Free,” but it has always made me uncomfortable, to be honest. In it, he claims he’s “just a little jealous of the nothing that she has,” which . . . goes too far for me. I think that it’s better for me to try to put the blessing/curse of The Land of Plenty in the correct context in my own life without claiming to be jealous of people who have less than I do, as if it’s inspiring to wish to live like they do. Rather than assuming that these people see the sun and think of heaven, or that they never complain about the rain, I should simply remember that all of life has its advantages and its drawbacks. Maybe it seems that people who struggle with much more basic needs than I do can be more focused on God, but poverty isn’t beautiful or romantic, and it’s insensitive of me to act as if it is. The song never rings true to me, because the people he is singing about are just that: people. They aren’t object lessons. It’s easy for me to sit on my cushy couch in my air-conditioned home and say, “Oh, if I was unfettered by wealth, I’d be able to appreciate God more.” My guess is that it has more to do with personality than circumstances, because, for many people, worrying about where dinner is going to come from may not leave energy to spare on the things of heaven.

On Sunday, besides singing “Simple Gifts,” we sang “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” a simple song about faith that I cannot sing without hearing my grandmother’s voice. “Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him, how I’ve proved him o’er and o’er. Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus, oh, for grace to trust him more.” There’s nothing simple about faith and trust in light of what we see here on earth, and yet, in the end, sometimes we make it more complicated than we have to. The song “Simple Gifts” perhaps gets it right –there is great freedom in joy in choosing humility and simplicity. That seems rather different than envying those caught in the trap of poverty.

I guess I will close with one more song, my favorite of all of the wonderful lyrics by Rich Mullins: “Nobody tells you, when you get born here, how much you’ll come to love it and how you’ll never belong here.” I think that this is probably what Andrew Peterson was trying to say, that where we live has so many benefits that we have to remind ourselves that it’s not our true home. I listened to this song last night on the way home, with the windows rolled down and the stars in the sky.

I think we can get caught up in the idea that simplicity means following a certain set of rules: moving to certain neighborhoods, going without certain things. That road, as far as I can tell, leads to dissatisfaction and discontentment. I think, instead, that, like much of Christianity, the joy comes when we choose to take on the idea of what our culture tells us is true about wealth and status, opting instead for the freedom to live generously out of the wealth God has given us, whether that’s emotional or material. I shouldn’t envy anyone, not those who have more than I do or those who have much, much less. I should worry, instead, about placing God before the possessions in my life, caring more for his ways and his people and his priorities. And what a gift it is to be able to choose to do that.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right

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