This past Thursday at CSF we continued our discussion of the spiritual disciplines. Once again we tackled two of them – simplicity and service.
Luke 12:13-33 was our primary text. Here Jesus warns against greed, telling the crowds to beware storing up things for yourself but not being rich towards God. From this we see the challenge of simplicity. Over and over the Bible warns against wealth, as Foster says in Celebration of Discipline, “The biblical injunctions against the exploitation of the poor and the accumulation of wealth are clear and straightforward” (82). I have seen many stories of people who take a scissors and cut all the verses about money out of the Bible. They are not left with much Bible.
Yet simplicity is not simply poverty. It is not so much about what you have as to how tightly you hold on to it. If anything, there is sometimes a false dichotomy built between helping the poor and creating beautiful architecture, for example. I have been guilty of this in my life. There have been times I have been very critical of churches who spend money on a beautiful building. I now believe this attitude buys into a myth of scarcity, as if God only has enough money for one.
That said, some things are a waste of money. A well-known creationist organization is building a replica of Noah’s Ark and asking for donations. For $500 a month for 10 months you can have your very own beam! This is a total waste of money. If you had an extra $500 a month there are myriad better ways you could use it. In the same way, if you are a pastor of a church that gets big and you have the choice between buying the biggest house in your community with 3-4 times as many bedrooms as people in your family, that too is just plain wrong. The prophets in scripture spoke publicly against the greed of some and there is certainly a place for that in our world.
On another level though, things are not so simple. It might be nice if the Bible had a chart for us so that we knew what amount of income was okay. We humans want laws. But we don’t get any. When I analyze my own life I can say I am doing well in the discipline of simplicity compared to some people, while others may look at me as quite greedy. So it is not sinful to have a house or to create a beautiful worship space (I admit, the cathedrals I saw in Spain, making me wonder if I am on earth or in heaven, influenced me in this). And those who give the most to the poor are not automatically living the simple life.
Jesus says that when you give do not let your right hand know what your left is giving (Matt. 6:2-4). Lest we turn this into a law, we need to remember that we can follow the letter and give in secret and still be proud. These challenges of spiritual discipleship cannot be reduced to a few laws or rules. I think it is more likely that as we live in relationship with God, surrounded by a community of Christians, and immersed in prayer and scripture, that we discern what it looks like for us to live simply. Simplicity for one person may look different then for another.
Foster’s solution is to follow Jesus’ teaching – seek first God’s kingdom and everything else will be made known. But again, beware reducing this to a law:
“Should a person get a suitable job in order to exert a virtuous influence? His answer: no, we must first seek God’s kingdom. Then should we give away all our money to feed the poor? Again the answer: no, we must first seek God’s kingdom. Well, then perhaps we are to go out and preach this truth to the world that people are to seek first God’s kingdom? Once again the answer is a resounding: no, we are first to seek the kingdom.”
Just as simplicity cannot be reduced to a chart, rule or graph, nor can service. When we talk about service on campus we tend to talk about programs – go to the after-school program, ring bells for the Salvation Army, come on spring break mission trip. These are good things, but they do not automatically show we are living a life of service. Service as a discipline is a lifestyle. For some of us, especially at the beginning, forcing ourselves to schedule the service may be necessary. It is a first step to developing a lifestyle of service.
But it is so tempting for these programs to miss the point. When we sign up for a program, it is public. Perhaps we go on the mission trip because everyone else is. As the leader there have been a few times, such as after Hurricane Katrina, where we got a bit of local publicity for the trip. Admittedly, that feels nice. If we start going down this road though, service becomes more about us then the other we are serving.
As Foster puts it:
“We must see the difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be incharge. There is freedom in this” (132)
I think how well we are doing in service is more revealed by what we do when no one is looking.
How well do I tip my waiter?
Am I willing to assist someone when it would be easy to walk past?
When I get an email asking help for someone at church, and I know 30 other people probably got it, and I already have plans, am I willing to help? Or do I find easy reasons not to: They don’t know I’m not busy! Someone else will do it!
What kind of neighbor am I?
Am I serving when no one is looking?
Like all disciplines, who we are when no one is around reveals our true self.