Monday, March 25, 2013
"Simple Living" - Sermon
Last week we talked about the Buddhist path to liberation. The Buddha instructed his followers on a life of letting go, letting go of material things and relationships. Ultimately the goal is to let go of our own sense of self. It’s one great way to get at the idea of letting go, just let go of it all. But today we are going to talk about very different goal of letting go. Today we are talking about making choices that simplify our lives, letting go of some of the less important things, so that we can focus our time, energy and money on the things we really care about.
We Unitarian Universalists have been all over the map when it comes to our personal ethics and material wealth. That might have something to do with the history that we bring from our traditions. Until 1961, Unitarianism and Universalism were two separate denominations. They had different theological roots. But more import for this discussion, the also represented different demographics. Unitarians, especially early ones, were wealthy New Englanders. They are commonly referred to as the Boston Brahman, an economically elite religious community. Mind you, not all of them were rich, but for the stereotype was certainly upper-class. Universalists, on the other hand were more rural farmers. Their experience was more connected to hard physical labor and the earth.
Our history as a tradition brings a hodgepodge understanding of luxury. I think still today we don’t quite know what to do with the resources in our midst. By and large we Unitarian Universalists have all that we need, and more. With an awareness of economic injustice and environmental degradation, we feel some serious spiritual pressure. We know that we have more than enough, and others don’t. It leaves us with anxiety and a looming question.
One writer used the word “affluenza” the great cultural epidemic of modern America, the cycle of wanting more and more material goods. It is an insatiable hunger based on the assumption that objects are what bring value to our lives. But we can choose a different way. And I’m glad that we as Unitarian Universalists often do. That’s what we are talking about today, choosing to simplify our lives a bit and saving ourselves from the affluenza that pervades our culture.
The good news is that curing the pandemic of overconsumption at both the personal and cultural scale is not about giving up the good life, but getting it back. Curing affluenza is about remembering that spending our time with family, connected to the earth, spending our money on things that nurture our soul can be deeply fulfilling.
It really is a question of how we will spend our time, our money, our resources, how we will spend our life. Many of you are familiar with Henry David Thoreau’s adventure to Walden Pond. He set out to live in a cabin, actually as a simple writing retreat. But he found his experience of solitude so inspiring, that it became a whole project unto itself. Thoreau whittled his life down to the necessities of living, and let go of luxury in a great experiment in the woods.
The longest chapter in his book “Walden” is titled “Economy.” This isn’t a discussion of financial matters per se. But is about how we spend what is ours. This chapter is an accounting of his two years at Walden Pond. It is an examination of how we spend our lives. The word play here is so powerful. It demonstrates the finite resources that each of us have. Our time and our money go somewhere. We make choices of how we will spend each and every morsel. His chapter “Economy” is an accounting of how we spend our lives.
As we let go of some things in our lives, we make room for others. It’s a choice that we make with every minute of every day, and every dollar that is in our possession. What we are talking about is making priorities and living by them. The best visual image that comes to my mind is that of filing papers. Filing is a pretty dull job. No one likes to sort through files. My office is a testament to that fact. But what happens when you don’t sort things out. What happens if you don’t take the time and attention to put things in their proper place… in your heart? You end up with a mess, where nothing can be found and it all gets so mixed up. It’s difficult to get anything done.
This sermon is an invitation to work with the files of your life. We are all at different stages of this project. Some of us need to start from the ground up, identifying the necessities of life, the things that are important to us, the things we want, and the things we don’t need. Once we know what our priorities are, then comes the step of allotting our time and money to each of these categories.
Some of us are very clear about our priorities, we have already set up the major files of our life. But just like in my office, things pile up without attention. It may be time to spend a while re-sorting what you are working with, just to get things back in order.
And even then, even when things are in order and your desk is perfectly clear. Who ever you are out there. It probably wouldn’t hurt to take an inventory and see if some of those files are outdated or could be consolidated.
I know it sounds terribly dry, but sometimes life requires intentional strategy. Setting our priorities and deciding how to spend our resources is just like filing paper work.
I have often heard it said that you can tell what an organization values by looking at its budget. I imagine the same is true for each of us and the way we organize our lives. If someone came in from the outside, and all they saw was the way you spent your time, your money, and your effort, would they see a clear reflection of your values?
It’s probably no secret to you that simplifying leaves more time and resources for the things we care about in the world. But how do we make that change to simplify? Let’s talk about a few strategies.
One writer I looked at this week compared simple living to packing for a backpacking outing. The idea of back-packing is that you take with you only what you can carry, for a camping adventure over a few days. To have this adventure, and see some of the most astounding beauty in the world, you have to choose your gear very carefully. You need a few well-designed things, a good stove, a warm sweater, sturdy boots, nutritious food. And the backpacker brings along his or her skills and experience to use these tools. With the right tools, the world comes alive and fills the days and nights with rich adventure.
We can use these same principles in selecting the stuff that we bring into our lives. Keep in mind this isn’t about buying cheap stuff, and it’s not about having nothing at all. Simple living is about carefully selecting the appropriate high-quality stuff that will attend to the real needs of our life. And once those basic needs are met, the rest of the world becomes our playground.
So think of your stuff as a backpacker, and I would suggest, think of your time as an investor. Before we make any financial investment, we think about what it will yield. Well time works much the same way. The time you spend commuting or watching television aren’t going to yield much in return. However the time you spend building relationships with other people will continue to give back, and the interest compounds itself over time. Just think about how you spend like you might your money. What will bring the best yield?
Simplifying life doesn’t have to be a grand transformation. It could just be a tweak here and there, an experiment. There are several different experiments I have heard of to get you started. If you are not already a vegetarian, consider making one day of the week meatless. Meatless Mondays seems to be like an easy one to remember. And who couldn’t use a slightly lighter diet after the weekend? It’s not a huge commitment, just an experiment.
Or, consider going on a technology fast. Here in Southern California it seems like everyone has been on one kind of dietary fast or another. But imagine spending time without some piece of technology, maybe your cellular phone or your computer. How about not using the microwave it your kitchen. Granted, it is faster, but it does some pretty funky things to food. Or maybe giving your car a break and rely on public transportation. It doesn’t matter so much which piece of technology you give up for a while. But try letting go of something, and find out if you actually miss it. You might come to realize that spending the time to accomplish the task without technology is a more enjoyable and better for you.
Or perhaps take a moment to unplug from everything. For the past couple of months I have renewed a time in my day to focus on quiet. It’s not a huge amount of time. I take thirty minutes each day for meditation. You could make it five minutes, or forty-five minutes. But pausing to be quiet and still on a regular basis is a very powerful, very simple way of centering your life.
There are a thousand and one experiments you can try like this. Of course we could all probably eliminate some of the physical clutter in our lives. Or at least be careful of what we add to it going forward.
Simplifying doesn’t always mean sticking with the old or reducing what you already have. It may mean embracing a new and more efficient way of doing things. You have heard that our Unitarian Universalist Association is about to undertake a step toward simple living.
The Board of Trustees has decided to sell our historic headquarters at 25 Beacon St. It is an impressive old building that sits next door to the state capital. It’s also a five-story building that has an elevator that goes only to the third floor. It has only a few parking spaces. It is not equipped to handle high-speed internet. There is no common lunch room and the offices are so chockablock throughout the very tall building that very little collaboration happens naturally.
This beautiful historic building is worth a tremendous sum of money but really doesn’t serve our needs very well. So our Board of Trustees just last week made a brave decision to simplify. They are letting go of an edifice, to allow for a workspace where human collaboration can occur and technology can make work easier. It’s also accessible from public transportation and accessible to people with disabilities.
At first glance, this is a tremendous undertaking that will be chocked full of new technology. But in the end it will consolidate offices that are currently housed in three separate buildings, it will allow human beings to collaborate face to face, it will be accessible and more efficient. It will simplify the life and work of the UUA.
Simplifying doesn’t necessarily mean whittling down or staying the same. It could mean adapting to new technology. The question is about at the end of the day, how will we be spending our time, money, and spiritual resources.
If nothing else, I want you to hear today that each one of us has a choice about how we will spend our life. We are limited creatures with a few years to live, and a few dollars to our name. We are given a few talents and hopefully a few loving relationships. Every minute of every day is a choice. Every dollar in our name is a choice. So invest wisely. How will you spend your life?