Less is more

Simplicity. Scaling back from the tangled mess that is our lives and narrowing our focus on what's most important. That's what's missing from so many of the lives of people that I know, including myself. We pride ourselves with our work effort, how much we can accomplish in a day or a week, and reward ourselves with mini-getaways that promise escape from the chaos that is our lives. It's as if we are resigned to believe that the daily grind is what we should expect until we've earned the next brief respite of escape.

But should simple be the exception instead of the rule?

Bear with me for a few moment of seemingly ridiculous reflection. My wife and I have been on a bit of a nostalgia kick lately and we've gathered most of our ammo from television shows. I know, not exactly the best source for unbiased and healthy perspective, but there is a lot to learn from the past. The Hardy Boys book series, learning about our local history, and shows like Little House on the Prairie and the older movies that constantly stream on TMC and Retro TV hearken the mind back to a time when life didn't seem so complicated and issues seemingly resolved themselves without bloodshed.

Granted, I know that many of these depictions are fictional, but behind them lies a yearning for this elusive concept of simplicity that is an inherent desire in the heart of man. Think about it: wouldn't you want to come home to a family meal each night and enjoy an evening sitting around a campfire reading a book, playing board games together, or taking a family walk? Instead, our schedules control us and we justify our busyness with the belief that we absolutely must be involved in these things for the well-being of our children or to further our own professional, cultural, or social development. The more that we take on, the less simple life becomes and that leads us to a very dangerous crossroads.

We risk losing sight of each other.

Why do so many chance it all by worshiping at the altar of chaos? The only thing that most of us have to show for lives that are pulled in a plethora of directions is a resume that screams, "You're too busy! Slow down!" Nevertheless we plod on in exhaustion, believing that if we can make one more meeting or take one more class or run one more errand then we can have a chance to breathe. And then we sink into bed in exhaustion only to repeat the cycle all over again the next day.

So what do we do to make life more simple, to strive to live as if less is more? Not everyone has the opportunity to live like Swiss Family Robinson and, granted, most of us don't want that for ourselves. But living simply requires making an intentional effort to step away from it all and taking time for yourself and your family. Other than selling it all and moving to a hut in Tahiti where you live off of fish and whatever grows on the trees (which I think is a brilliant idea), here are a few suggestions on how to simplify life even when everything around you is so complex:
  1. Get outside more often. Take a walk, go for a hike, swim in the ocean, tube down a river, ride your bike, sit outside and gaze at the stars, hang out on your porch, go the park and swing. God has created nature for us to enjoy and when we take the time to get out into it, the beauty of His creation provides wonderful therapy.
  2. Learn to say no. As a parent, I know that it's hard to say no to your children because you don't want to deprive them of opportunities that might harm their development. But let's be realistic here - what will develop your children more, sending them to every class/practice/audition that you can or pouring more of yourself into their lives? Peel the "Mom's Taxi" sticker off of your minivan and keep it parked in the driveway more often.
  3. Stop making excuses. "But if I don't stay over at work then I might not get that promotion!" "My clients are depending on me to come through!" "We've got to travel every weekend for softball/baseball/soccer/etc., if we want our kids to excel and make it to the next level!" The list goes on and on for why we push ourselves like we do. Hey, don't get me wrong, there will be seasons when more is asked of us and it will require a hefty chunk of our time (ask a CPA during tax season), but these times are just that - seasons. There really is no good excuse for voluntarily pushing yourself and your family to their limits week after week because you are afraid of what you might not gain if you don't. That's a cop out. Translation: If I don't do this for myself or my family, then I will have failed them. No, you fail yourself and your family when you put too must trust in what you can do and so little in what God can and will provide.
  4. Pursue what really matters. Writing from a purely Western perspective, we have convinced ourselves that being successful equals having more. Whether it's a better job with higher pay, a nicer car filled with more gadgets, or a bigger home in which to store our stuff, bigger has become synonymous with better. No one wants to poor. Shoot, we have campaigns to fight poverty, and we should indeed help those in need. But let's not fool ourselves any longer - we've begun to believe the lie that more is always better and in doing so we've gotten our priorities way out of whack. What really matters on this side of heaven is relationships, first with God then with family and our fellow man. When we trump time with family and friends for work projects, five sporting events a week, and a schedule that would make an air traffic controller's head spin, then it's time to step back and ask ourselves what in life really matters. In the end, none of these things will go with us but we are promised a satisfying relationship with God for all eternity through Jesus Christ. 
Maybe this list itself is too simple, and I'm okay with that because I wrote it just as much for myself than for anyone else. Truthfully, we don't need to harken back to an age where simplicity was often artificially manufactured. What we need to do is take a deep breath, step back from the ledge of chaos that surrounds us, and seek to pursue what truly matters most. Seek to excel in your work, charm the pants off of your clients, and strive to be the best on the athletic field, but do so only when you've given priority to your faith and your family first. If you don't know how to do this, then mark through some of the events on your calendar, turn of your TV and your phone, and sit outside with your family to plan it all out. In doing so, you will have already made your life a little more simple.

Presence speaks more than words

This past week I enjoyed the incredible privilege of serving alongside high school and college age students on a work related mission project in the foothills of North Carolina. We spent long days assisting those in the community with home improvements needs that they had - everything from building handicap ramps, roofing homes, painting, yard maintenance, and hauling off garbage and debris.

During the week I sat down with a student who wanted to share some things that were on his heart. So much had gone wrong in his life the past few years and his story was heart wrenching to say the least. Parents whose marriage was failing, addictions that he was struggling to overcome, broken relationships that caused much pain, and more. As I sat and listened to his heart I realized that, beyond a few words of spiritual encouragement, there was not a whole lot that I could say to him. While I prayerfully attempted to point him in the right direction, I knew that I could not fix his situation. So I did my best to listen and be there for him.

Also during the week the youth group that I brought with me to serve in this community mission effort received some devastating news. A young man who was a fellow high school student with them tragically drowned in the ocean while trying to help someone free a grounded boat. This student was well-liked and respected by everyone. Captain of the football and basketball team, big smile, bigger heart, and bright future. And now gone. When the students got the news it absolutely floored many of them. They had classes with him. He was their friend. It hurt. And as I sat there I cried with them, because I also knew this young man well and loved him with all my heart. I didn't really have the words to say at that time so I just sat there with our other adults and we did our best to be available to the students. No hokey words of hollow encouragement or sermonettes about the afterlife. Just trying to be an available presence in the room with a bunch of hurting teenagers.

These two instances served to remind me that as adults we are often far too eager to speak words into the lives of young people that we think they need to hear when what they really need is just our presence. Teenagers are smart. They know that most of what tell them is true - they've heard us say it a million times. What they need from us and don't get nearly enough of is our time and presence in their lives without the lecture that typically comes along with it.

If you are active in the lives of young people or you have them in your home or community - which pretty much includes all of us - then you have the opportunity to invest in them in ways that will change them and they will never forget. Yes, speak truth into their lives and walk alongside of them. They need mentors now more than ever. But don't be afraid to just be there for them without having to necessarily do or say anything. The words of a Caedmon's Call song entitled "Center Aisle" ring truer now than ever: Words aren't remembered, but presence is.

Who's got your back?

As I have gotten older I have grown to truly appreciate history. Not that I didn't enjoy history when I was in school, it's just th...