A post I wrote for the Conversations Journal blog on simplicity. What do you think?

It is gearing up to 4th of July here at this old house. The summer community is beginning to arrive in larger waves, including our daughter down from Alaska for the festivities. The tennis tournament will be organized in the next few days and the bulk of the summer community, about 160 strong, will gather for the big picnic on the 4th. Later, many will hike up the road behind the residential area to sit on blankets or in lawn chairs and watch the fireworks coming from the stadium. Sitting up that high on the hill, we can see the fireworks from other municipalities out on the plains as well. Glow sticks are passed out. I can always find our crowd in the dark by the glowing necklaces and headbands.

Community and traditions are good. They ground children and comfort adults. Knowing that “some things never change” helps us navigate the changes that happen during the rest of the year. Kids change as they grow and mature, relationships change through marriage or divorce, health issues keep one more of our elders from being able to come this year. Knowing the drill for the community celebration on 4th of July is grounding. It is comforting to know that the Arnold Sunday school, held Sunday mornings in the Community House, will always end with the “good-bye” song, complete with actual waving to those around you.

Many people feel that routine or liturgy is stifling. They want life to be “authentic” and church services that are “spontaneous.” The irony of this, in my mind, is that random living can lead to poor choices and those “freer” worship services actually have pretty strict liturgies. They follow a weekly order for the singing, prayers, announcements, Bible reading, and a sermon. If that order is changed, it feels unsettling. Kids are especially anxious when there is no regular routine at school or at home. Try changing the menu at Thanksgiving and see what happens. Most of us live more peacefully knowing what happens on each day of our week. We are most authentic in a task when we can relax into it instead of worrying what comes next.

I have always found C. S. Lewis’s quote on “routine in worship” (Letters to Malcolm) to be insightful:

“It looks as if they [innovative clergy] believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain — many give up churchgoing altogether — merely endure.

“Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value.And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it ‘works’ best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

“But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping…

“A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the questions ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, ‘I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.’

“Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. …But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit — habito dell’arte.”

Habits, routine, liturgy: I am thankful for the structure and order they give to my life and to the life of the community that surrounds this old house. In fact, I can’t wait for the picnic as they always have Fritos. It is the one day that I eat them and I look forward to it all year long.


John has spent long hours this week in the “urban jungle” here at this old house. The yard was unattended for three weeks while we were in France. The lack of attention coupled with lots of rain meant that we came home to 12″ high grass and plants gone wild. As of noon today, the yard is back in control.

In Genesis 1, God called Adam and Eve to “subdue the earth.” That is an unfortunate translation into English of the original Hebrew meaning to “tend and keep.”  Too many people have interpreted “subdue” to mean “rape, pillage and plunder.” That has led to all kinds of environmental abuses, including those advocated by some Christians! There is a mistaken belief among some who follow Christ that the earth will be thrown out like some bit of trash at the “end of the age.” Yet, the Book of Revelation talks about a “new heaven and a new earth” (see Rev. 21:1). Also, Jesus was resurrected into a body that could eat fish. If the material world was some kind of  garbage to be thrown away at the end of time, Jesus would have come back to life as pure spirit. Yet, we know that  “God so loved the world” that he came in the flesh and was resurrected into an immortal BODY (see John 3: 16, Luke 24). Also, while the earth is now fallen (see Genesis 3), fallen does not mean worthless! No where in Scripture has God rescinded the pronouncement over creation that says “it was good.” Jesus death on the cross makes no sense if one thinks that the material world is somehow inherently evil: fallen, yes; fundamentally evil, no.

Since humanity is created in the image of God, one can argue that we are to treat creation as God does: with care and love. That means that weeds are pulled, 12″ high grass is cut, and lilac bushes are pruned. It does not mean that we pollute the air and the water to the point of causing harm to all of life on earth. It does not mean that we extract everything we can from the earth to satisfy greed or power. It especially does not mean that we enslave humans to life-draining jobs so that some can have cheap goods.

These kinds of questions evoke feelings of guilt in people of good will. “Blood diamonds,” slave labor in sweat shops, elephants hunted to dangerously low numbers for their ivory, oceans clogged with plastic to the point of impacting sea life in large numbers: all can cause us to feel overwhelmed. What can one person do to stem this tide of environmental destruction, this subtle form of slow suicide?

Well, a lot, it turns out. If everyone would buy food as locally as possible or from fair trade sources, we would impact the lives of people who live at the mercy of multi-national corporations who think nothing of destroying the earth and its inhabitants for their own profit. We can buy fair trade clothing and diamonds that pay living wages to workers. We can limit our use of plastics and make every effort to recycle.

Voting with your shopping dollars, when done by a lot of individuals, attracts attention from institutions. They will change their ways based on the bottom line, even if governmental regulations mean little to them. An example of this is the large number of “organic” food items found in mainstream grocery stores. No longer is organic food limited to small health-food stores! People wanted to buy it and so organic and “natural” foods have become more mainstream.

The yard at this old house has been “subdued” but in a way that causes everything to thrive. Can you adopt a small area of creation, such as a park, street median, or stream front, and help it to thrive with proper care? You will be partnering with the Creator of that bit of land as you work!


It has been good to get through the jet lag week post our trip to France. We have been home a little over a week now and the sleep schedule is finally back to this time zone. The piles of laundry and mail have been dealt with and normal work routines have been reestablished. I have even gotten back into some of the creative pursuits I do on the edges of my life. John has rebuilt the deck in the last few days, finishing it before the two-month construction ban goes into effect tomorrow. Living in a summer vacation spot means that there are rules to protect summer time visitors from unnecessary noise. We have Quiet Hours from 10:30 PM to 8 AM year-round and from 1-3 PM every afternoon in the summer. That means that certain recreational sections of the park close down and people generally go to their cottages to rest. This tradition began in 1898 when Chautauqua was a more unified program with everyone on the same daily schedule. (Think: adult summer camp only for Texas teachers, the reason this Chautauqua was founded.)

Along with my new appreciation of the two-hour lunch window the French take, I am reminded that enforced Quiet Hours can be a gift. When the girls were younger, they ran from the minute they got up until we called them in from the nightly Kick-the-Can game that didn’t even begin until dark. Those forced two hours of quiet everyday in the early afternoon meant that they had to come home, eat, drink water, slow down, read or even nap. It meant time away from friends, some of whom had become temporary enemies during the morning games. Regular quiet hours for both children and adults are a good thing.

I have been listening to the newest Mars Hill Audio journal. In one interview, I was reminded that the concept of “habit,” especially as it relates to developing Christian character, has been a part of Christian thought and practice from early on. We are all creatures of habit, for good or for ill. The spiritual disciplines, or holy habits as some call them, are intentional things we do to become more Christ-like in functional, practical ways in our daily lives. For example, learning to pace ourselves well, to rest, to understand Sabbath is only done by stopping, taking time for lunch, having regular, daily quiet hours. Most of us have trouble imposing structure on ourselves so it is good when a community has rules that are bigger than any one individual (assuming that community is seeking goodness–things can go horribly awry in this area as well!).

To this day, my girls have a sense of “Quiet Hours” that is formative. They may not observe them in their adult lives in the same way as they had to as children but if you ask them, they can tell you experientially what it means to stop, to rest, to care for one’s body, to recalibrate and gain perspective on the morning’s highs and lows. Remember when Robert Fulghum’s list of things called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” came out? Two of his points fit here: “Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some. Take a nap every afternoon.”

Time for lunch and a bit of quiet each day in this old house: now those are habits worth establishing this summer!

This is the link to my most recent blog post for Conversations Journal. In it, I deal with issues related to what simplicity is and is not. I invite your input into the discussion as well.

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