“On the Sabbath day, they rested according to the commandment” (NET) Luke 23:56
After the Crucifixion of Jesus, any hope that Jesus gave to his friends and disciples had died. There was utter despair, not only because they lost their friend, but because they lost their hope. Holy Saturday was not just a day of rest, but a day of hopelessness.
Too often, we jump wholly from Good Friday to Easter. We take Jesus off the cross, and see him walking around — but we never bury him. It seems too much for us to think about what it means to die, to give up hope and to mourn. Today is a day when the disciples hearts cry out for God, and God is absent. Nietzsche expressed this in “The Gay Science” saying: “God is dead, God remains dead and we have killed him.”
Throughout Holy Saturday, this is what we are remembering — God is dead because we killed him. The human response to Incarnation was finally to kill and bury the divine that walks among us. When faced with Divinity, and Someone who lived a righteous and compassionate life, we killed Him, and we buried Him.
Today, on Holy Saturday, let us not jump ahead of ourselves, but let us mourn the hope that God brought. Let us mourn the death of God. Lets let it sink in that we are not only remembering that God is dead, but that there was a conspiracy to kill God. What we need to let sink in is that we are also human. Our society might not kill Jesus, but we would put Him away where he could do no harm. We would not put him on a cross — but we would put Him in a cage — or leave him to starve.
Too often, no matter how religious we are, we live as if God were dead, or caged up. Tomorrow should be the day that defines our faith — but, we all make a mistake when we forget Holy Saturday — we forget that we need this day. We need to remember it because it tells us something both about God and about Humanity. Today, we remember Jesus suffering pain, and hunger, and desperate loneliness. Today, Peter weeps, because on the last day of his Friend’s life, he would not even admit to knowing him. Today the other disciples weep because they all abandoned their Friend when He needed them the most. Today we come face to face with the ugliest part of humanity.
Today God is dead — we know that we need salvation, and our hope is buried. For tomorrow to hold any hope we need a miracle… and the Miracle worker was buried yesterday.
I live in a capitalistic culture. The finance industry, (Banking, investments, insurance, et c.) is a bigger industry than health-care and construction combined. If one’s spending represents priorities, then my culture values money, especially the money of the wealthy above building or health. It is clear to see the choices my culture has made.
Jesus said in the sermon on the mount that one cannot serve both God and money. We live in a culture devoted to serving money — money has grown beyond a tool into something that seems to somehow feed upon itself. We have a nation filled with people who serve money either by choice, or because it seems that society forces them to do so.
This is, in the end, an example of simplicity. The first priority is money, and other things are done in order to maintain this abstract measure of wealth. We look around and see how much of our culture is devoted to the service of money. Wealth is spent building temples to money, and to keeping up the appearance of wealth. No expense is spared when trying to support a narrative that money promises safety and security. Ultimately, the faith of my nation is in its wealth.
When I say that I live in a capitalistic culture, I am repeating what people say about America with pride. When Americans describe what is most significant about another nation, it will often be a comment about how that nation deals with money, and the distribution of money. When we talk about competing world-views, often economic policy is the biggest issue. Bill Clinton got our priorities right when he said: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Christian simplicity is challenging in this culture, not because our culture is complex but because our culture is simple. Because wealth is held as the highest good, and as the source of our salvation, it is very difficult for people to break away from the culture and trust God. We literally have to move from serving money alone as is expected in our culture, to serving God and money, to finally managing to somehow serve God. Serving anything but money is already counter-cultural — serving something or someone instead of money is almost unbelievable.
Simplicity seems impossible to me, not because I disagree with it, but because I cannot find a way to escape the rules of our culture, and maintain a standard of living that includes sleeping inside. I hope to marry someday, perhaps even have children. Such lifestyle choices seem to require that I accommodate the capitalistic culture. I work a day job, and am looking for a night job. As much as I speak of vocation, I focus more on the next bill. These days, it seems that I am serving the demands of my capitalistic society and it demands my absolute devotion.
In the Quaker understanding of Christianity, Simplicity is a response to both the Quaker understanding of God and the Quaker understanding of humanity. Friends believe that God still works in the world, and still touches the individual. Friends take the idea of vocation very seriously. Friends also believe that every human being is the express image of God. When we approach life, we need to see something of God in everybody that we meet. Seeing God’s image in others should affect the way we think, speak and live.
If we believe that God is active in the world, and that all people are subject to God’s calling, then people must live in a way that allows openness to God’s call in life. Simplicity is not only about living in obedience when God’s call is heard, but living in expectation so that obedience becomes possible. Simplicity takes away competing entanglements, allowing the freedom for obedience. Jesus told the crowds that one cannot serve two masters, and those who believe in vocation need to make room for God’s call. This issue explains a simplicity that changes a person’s way of thinking, and encourages some caution in filling up life. It explains the Quaker advice not to take on more business than one can handle.
The other Quaker understanding is that where Friends see God’s image in all others. Complexity is a luxury — the poor have no choice but to be simple. For the poorest, life is a daily struggle to receive daily bread. Much of life’s complexity is the desire to divide humanity into classes, and to be able to see oneself as greater than ‘everybody else.’ Our lives are complex, because we have to prove that we are more valuable to the world than our neighbor. Proving self-worth is its own entanglement.
We fight for relative worth, both by seeking to build ourselves up, but also through damaging our neighbor. I once heard that the majority of Americans would prefer all their neighbors to suffer a painful financial loss over the whole neighborhood (including the American) suddenly becoming wealthy. We are so concerned with being better than our neighbor that we would turn down a million dollars if the neighbor would get two million.
The desire not only to acquire, but to be better leads to degrading others in our mind. There is enough food to feed the world, yet hundreds of millions face starvation. Half the world’s household’s live with the same income, or less, than the poorest 10% of American households. The wealthiest have found ways to profit on the misery of the poor, from sweatshops to actual slavery.
When people think of simple living they often think of little steps like gardening, and other ways of increasing self-reliance. Simplicity becomes a lifestyle choice of shopping less. This actually fits with the Quaker history and views, because it is a way of stepping out of a corrupt economy.
In the last half of the 18th Century, John Woolman lived simply, so that he would not be tainted by the shared economic guilt. Woolman did not want to contribute to slavery economically, so he refused to buy or use goods produced by slaves. He wore undyed clothing, because even that part of the textile industry supported the economy of slavery.
In the first half of the 19th century, Levi Coffin ran a business that traded in goods that were not tainted by slavery. These free goods included maple sugar (which before was mostly produced for personal use), cotton imported from Egypt, and made into clothing by mills committed to making free goods. Coffin set up an alternative economy, standing as an alternative to the economy of slavery. It was not cheap, but it did not require people to step away from their principles to buy.
Quaker simplicity can be summarized as allowing faith to become a driving force in every life decision, including the chocolate bar. Whether it is making space for God’s work and obedience to vocation, or making lifestyle choices that honor the dignity of others, it is about living consistently.
If God expects simplicity from us, what does that tell us about God? Scripture actually offers a rather simplistic theological explanation. When Moses gives the 10 commandments, and tells the people of Israel: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image… you shall not bow down to them or serve them” the explanation given is that God is jealous. (Exodus 20:4-6). Charles Spurgeon actually gave a sermon on God’s Jealousy where he spoke of the areas where God is jealous — specifically, the areas of deity and sovereignty.
Unfortunately קנא (the Hebrew word translated jealous) is somewhat uncommon, and thus “Jealous” might not be the best translation. While the translators who created the NET Bible retained the traditional translation of “jealous” they included a translators note that says: “the word describes a passionate intensity to protect or defend something that is jeopardized” (NET note #14 on Exodus 20)
God’s call to simplicity (no other master) is tied to this jealousy or protectiveness. If this is protectiveness, what is God protecting us from? In the end, the Sermon on the Mount points out that all of us, when forced to make a choice, are simple. Complexity only remains until it is time to demonstrate what the priority is. When we are called to simplicity we are protected from the turmoil caused when complexity collapses and we are forced to make these hard choices.
When our priorities are resolved, by force, we see much of our lives torn apart by broken commitments. As complexity collapses, relationships relationships fail, people are forced to choose which bills to pay, and what to put off for later. The forces that drive us back to simplicity are very destructive. If we treat this as a passionate desire for God to protect us, perhaps God is protecting us from ourselves, encouraging us not to over-reach and hurt ourselves doing so.
Another possibility is that simplicity gives room for obedience. If we believe that vocation exists, then we should live in a way that allows us to obey God’s calling in our lives. When we over-commit our lives, then we do not have room for obedience. Simplicity could, in that case, be an response of obedience to the concept that God calls us.
I believe that this shows an example of how God relates to humanity. In the end, God expects us to be human. Simplicity is not about being more Godlike, but about living better as humans. Simplicity protects the individual, keeping the individual from destroying his or her life while waiting to learn priorities. Simplicity, when setting right priorities, also protects the community, as complexity gives opportunities for behavior that harms society.
The Testimony of Simplicity is basically a positive re-framing of the more ancient testimony of plainness. Quaker plainness dates back to the first generation of Quakerism, and is described along with other Friends testimonies in chapter 11 of William Penn’s Primitive Christianity Revived. Quaker plainness was something that was obvious to anyone who observed. Plainness was applied to speech, dress, the decoration and keeping of the home, and the activities a person took part in.
“Thee” was the most noticed mark of plain speech, however it was not the most important. Plain speech was to be an honest speech that included an economy of words. 18th and 19th Century Friends had no place for speaking just for the sake of speaking. Friends avoided joking, and avoided conversing on unnecessary subjects.
Plain dress and plain housekeeping were roughly the same originally. The idea was that the Quaker was supposed to wear, or decorate with what was necessary, and no more. It was a mixture of frugality and solidarity with the poorer classes. Plainness was a way of taking away one way that the wealthy were distinguished from the poor. Over time, Plain dress became a quaint uniform, and keeping a plain house became an exercise in legalism.
Plain behavior was basically a list of things that people did not do. Engaging in plain behavior was shown by avoiding sports, avoiding stage-plays, dancing, music, and ‘pernicious’ books. The third Query of Philadelphia Yearly meeting (1806) offers the positive alternative of frequently reading Holy Scripture in order to fill up the time left by plain living. By pointing people away from the profane and to the sacred offers an insight to what it means to live simply.
Plainness might make simplicity easier, but it does not quite make the leap to simplicity. Plainness removes distractions, but it does not produce focus. Over time, plainness can even become a distraction of its own. There was a time when Overseers would visit the homes of meeting members, and examine the house and furnishings to make sure that they fell within the standards of plainness. The legalistic understanding introduced a new complexity, and over time the testimony was abandoned until it was re-framed.
Re-framing simplicity is somewhat challenging in that one has to avoid creating a new plainness testimony. A clear definition of what simplicity means invites a return to legalism. On the other hand, the word alone without definition is something that makes people feel good, but offers no clear guidance of how to live. This re-framing is a continuing process, my current personal position is as follows:
- Seek God’s kingdom first (Matthew 6:33)
- Live in a way that is consistent with my faith.
- Check myself for right priorities. (Hint, spending history offers an objective view of priorities.)
Simplicity is a reoccurring theme in scripture. My personal model of simplicity is found in the sermon on the mount where Jesus tells the listeners: “No one can serve two masters, you cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24) Peter builds further on this idea, telling the religious leaders of his time that he must obey God rather than men. Simplicity is knowing who you serve, and being obedient to that.
This kind of simplicity is an important part of the holy story of the Israelites. When the Israelites were in Egypt, there were slaves, and they were surrounded by the gods of the Egyptians. God lead them into the wilderness, and commanded them to have no other gods. When the Israel went into the land of Canaan, they were again surrounded by the gods of the Canaanites and the Philistines.
Throughout the history of Israel, they have been surrounded by other gods, and from time to time they would fall away and worship one or another. They people of Israel would end up worshiping these other gods such as Dagon, the god of a successful grain harvest. Joshua 24 tells the story, as Joshua tells the people of Israel about how God took them out of Egypt, where their ancestors worshiped the gods of the Egyptians, and now after seeing God’s power, and seeing so many peoples falling before them, they were worshiping the gods of the Amorites. Joshua’s advice was: “Choose today who you will worship”, and Joshua chose the God of Israel over the gods of the sky, fertility, and harvests for himself.
Jesus expands on this, equating the accumulation of wealth to the service of another master. The suggestion is that people’s devotion to the bank account becomes a kind of idol worship. A theme in Jesus’ teaching calls us put aside our sense of security found in possessing wealth, recognizing that owning things is not nearly as safe nor secure as we believe it is. The power we assign to wealth is the power of a false god, whether we give the wealth gods names, or ascribe the wealth itself great power, we are worshiping an idol.
Biblical simplicity is then about having no other gods, nor serving any other power, whether political or sociological. It is very difficult to follow this model of simplicity in our culture, just as it was difficult for the people of Israel. Our story is the same, God calls us out of slavery to the false gods, and those who worship them, but we still live in a culture surrounded by them. Giving up these gods makes us alien to the culture we grew up in. Biblical simplicity asks to choose — are we citizens of heaven or of earth?
I grew up with the ‘testimony of simplicity’ more than any of the others. The Quakers I grew up with were deeply influenced by the holiness movement and they saw Quakerism through the lens of Holiness theology. Simplicity is a rather important part of that theology, in that it is the act of putting aside those things that are worldly. Unfortunately, I experienced simplicity as mostly a set of rules. Fortunately they were not as harsh as the rules endured by my ancestors.
The simplicity of my youth was a mix of frugality and avoiding worldly influences. Living the simple life was partially about cutting costs, whether it was finding inexpensive solution, or discerning the difference between a need and a want, and it was partially about avoiding falling under the influence of popular culture.
Frugality and critical reflection about popular culture have served me well, but over time I have come to feel that these are not quite the same as simplicity. As I grew up, complexity introduced itself into my life. I have been surrounded by people who make various demands from me. I recognize that no matter how hard I try I cannot meet the demands of everyone. As Jesus tells me on the sermon on the mount, “No one can serve two masters.”
Over time simplicity has become the process of asking the question: “What is my priority?” After I have identified what comes first, I start planning life around meeting that goal. This goal has been at times education, or paying off debt, or an attempt at ministry, or building a relationship. Priorities are far from simple, because having an unbalanced life works against the priority, however it is easy to forget which is the priority, and which are means to that end.
This new realization has brought new life to the frugality of my youth. A lack of goals makes it difficult to accept frugality. Popular culture, at its worst, can be a weak attempt to relieve boredom. The focus of a clear goal makes it clear what I am sacrificing for, and does much to prevent boredom. Over time, simplicity has moved from rules to follow, which have very little relevance in my life to a way of life that makes it possible to move forward.
Unfortunately, this ideal does not always seem to work out very well. Sometimes life feels like every goal I work for was chosen by another person, and that there is no room beyond meeting the demands of others. At those times my priorities are placed on the back burner. Simplicity might be a good ideal, but without the agency to make one’s own choices, finding that one thing can feel like an unreachable luxury.