One of my favorite aspects of my African lifestyle is a lean muscularity of simplicity. Forget keeping up with the Joneses. You are the Joneses, when your kids are going to play with kids whose families (who may or may not be literate or have lost a child) live in one room, which may or may not have electricity and running water.

So people expect my light fixtures to, say, look like I swiped them from my church in the eighties. They anticipate that when I serve lemonade, it will cascade from an ugly plastic pitcher.

Perspective is everything.

Randy Alcorn explains in his (highly-recommended) The Treasure Principle, “The more things we own—the greater their total mass, the more they grip us, setting us in orbit around them.”

We sense this, I think. We sense that where our treasure is, there our hearts will also be. That the holes in our lives are never filled by more stuff, more food, more activity.

(I want to admit freely at this point that sometimes my inner “Martha” sometimes cleans the clock of my inner Mary, leaving poor Mary bruised and dazed.)

simple-is-beautiful

Richard Foster observes,

To attempt to arrange an outward lifestyle of simplicity without the inward reality leads to deadly legalism.

Simplicity begins in inward focus and unity …. Experiencing the inward reality liberates us outwardly. Speech becomes truthful and honest. The lust for status and position is gone because we no longer need status and position. We cease from showy extravagance not on the grounds of being unable to afford it, but on the grounds of principle. Our goods become available to others. We join the experience that Richard E. Byrd, after months alone in the barren Arctic, recorded in his journal, “I am learning … that a man can live profoundly without masses of things.”

 

Between my sister’s shoulder blades is tattooed a single word in Hebrew: satisfied. How many of us could choose that word to describe our souls?

Simplicity is a form of fasting; a way of cutting out the “McNuggets” portion of our belongings, our schedule, our talk, and our preoccupations that connive us into thinking we’re nourished, full, and happy.

 

THE KEY: Finding the freedom, joy, undivided heart, and gut-level satisfaction from lives untethered by excess. We can train our minds and hearts away from our constant appetites and the idea that more equals happiness, comfort, and convenience.

 

Especially in this season, how can we make intentional decisions away from the glut of the temporary, and seek a singularity of heart…without offending, say, your mother-in-law and your boss?

It’s not going to happen in nine steps. But let’s get some ideas going toward true satisfaction, and the kingdom nothing destroys, shall we?

  1. Rather than opting for quantity or expense—trinkets from the dollar aisle, or a pricey gift basket that serves as a nod to tradition—exchange number or price of gifts for intentionality. Opt for gifts that scream, I see you, and I get you. I love that my closest Ugandan friend gives her delighted grandma a chicken and a bag of sugar for Christmas. Though I will not be getting my mom that for Christmas—what can we give that expresses careful (not gluttonous) love? (Parents, imagine your kid tearing through presents and tossing each one aside in that Christmas-morning marathon. What’s that gift that would hit the spot and be the one that simply means something?)
  2. Give an experience; a memory. Maybe it’s a train ride (locally, or to a cool destination); a trip to a relative or friend; passes to the zoo, museum, or theater; a class (pottery! Drama!); a camping trip; a coupon book of outings for time together in the upcoming year; a trip to a place they’ve read about, or to one of their interests (a play, musical, concert, sporting event, a far-away friend).
  3. Plan a PR announcement. Talk to your kids. Explain things may be a little different this year; that they might get a few more meaningful gifts, and perhaps less on the gifts they don’t care about. As much as you can, explain your heart–perhaps that as a family, you want to find the freedom and generosity that comes with paring down our excess. Best case scenario? Get them brainstorming about ways they could “give away this Christmas”—turning Christmas into a chance to give rather than receive. Get relatives on board, when possible. Without shoveling your values on them, try to convey your heart and understand their interests, too. Could you collaborate on a gift or experience? Rather than the gift exchange, could the adults choose a charity or family to which you want to give—or take turns each year?
  4. Revamp everything you know about need vs. want. Tim Keller points out that when we compare our financial state, we nearly always compare ourselves to those who have more.

Reality? Approximately 80% of the world is living below the poverty line. I love the words of my friend Kristen, in her (yes-yes-yes this is great stuff!) book, Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World: How One Family Learned That Saying No Can Lead to Life’s Biggest Yes. When her daughter grumbled, “Everyone has one, Mom,” Kristen countered gently,

 

“Well, do you think Ephantus [one of the children we’ve sponsored for years through Compassion International] has one?” She thought quietly. “No, his house isn’t even as big as my room.”

 

Kristen remarks, “Nothing makes us more grateful than perspective. Nothing. I think it’s the key to loosening the chains of entitlement in our culture.” (Her book is chock-full of ways to alter kids’ perspective and get them excited about serving.)

5. Stop competing with Martha Stewart. Dinner with my impoverished, luminous friend, Monica drove home what makes hospitality sparkle: It wasn’t her serving dishes, her perfectly-tuned recipe, or the (absent) centerpiece that made our time quality. It was simply her desire to honor us, to give generously, to connect with us and enjoy a relationship.

Toward simplicity on any day of the week, Peter Scazzero recommends creating simpler meals with fewer dishes and less prep. And at the holidays–don’t forget kids can pitch in with the extra demands of loving on others.

6. Set a capacity, and then clean your closet. Though creating beauty in our homes and appearance is natural and can be God-glorifying—as When Helping Hurts points out, we are among the wealthiest people who ever walked the planet…in all of history. Author Tony Campolo chose to restrain himself to only five changes of clothes!

Another mom’s remarkable rule: If her kids acquire new clothing, they must give an equal amount away. So consider setting a firm capacity on your possessions. Then, set a target percentage of your stuff to give away—and then up your number by 5%. For kids, in preparation for the holidays, ask them to clean out x number of clothes and x number of toys from their rooms, to give away.

7. Relentlessly streamline chaos. Create less noise by turning off the TV or music in the car, during meals, or while you’re milling around the house; plan the shows you will watch, and turn it off during the rest. Get a firm rein on kid’s screen time. Plan your grocery list, and “fast” from buying little tempting extras (Do we need five kinds of salad dressing?). Ask, what areas of my life feel harried? Do those express our values? What systems could we put in place to keep our schedule serving us and promoting peace–and not the opposite?

8. Fast from your constant “yes.” Start journaling—and eventually having family conversations about—your values as a family. Use those to determine your family’s schedule, and not the other way around! Say no to one thing that you could have said yes to, simply to create margin, emotional energy, and a culture of rest and peace in your home. As it has been said, Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.

9. Avoid “cagey” speech, and speak the truth. Opt for simplicity and genuine concern in your speech by steering clear of flattery, white lies, gossip, and overindulgence about stuff that doesn’t matter (like an entire dinner conversation about a TV show). Obviously, small talk is polite and necessary. But choose speech that nourishes, and minimize “Cheetos”-type conversation (read: full of a lot of air and fake stuff that sticks to you).

10. Get kids geared up about giving. Together, choose one project to get geared up about for serving this year. What are your kids’ hearts beating for? Surround it with fun memories that help them associate serving with rewards and satisfaction. Maybe you have a family game night of tournaments—and the winner gets to choose a cause for a slice of your year-end giving.

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In the Spiritual Disciplines for Real Families series:

 

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