Let’s Begin Losing Our Lives

Ready or not, I will write about simplicity.

But are you ready to read words on simplicity by a woman who lives in a 7-bedroom farmhouse on four-and-a-half acres?

Because even if I explain that three of those bedrooms are on the third floor. That they don’t all have closets. That the ceilings slope against the eaves of the roof so that it is hard even to stand up in places; even then, I am describing abundance and not simplicity, aren’t I?

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Here is where you might expect me to say that simplicity is a matter of the heart. It’s what’s on the inside that counts!

I am not going to say that.

True simplicity does reach all the way into our hearts, but it is also very much about our stuff. Our houses. Our land. Our clothes and cars and gadgets and machines. Our credit cards and bank accounts and pantries. The number of bedrooms, the size of our kitchens, the bins stuffed with toys.

All of it.

Why did Jesus tell so many, so often to get rid of their belongings? To store up a very different kind of treasure?

He wanted us to live like flowers. Like birds. Free of everything that would weigh us down.

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It isn’t only my freedom at stake.

I recently found an old shirt in my closet. The label said Made in Bangladesh. I remembered the garment factory fire. I remembered how only a few months later, another garment factory collapsed. I wondered if the hands that had made this shirt were still alive, still sewing clothing for western consumers hungry for bargains. How had those hands suffered?

My desire for stuff, and the choices I make when I spend money have far-reaching implications.

You know this. I know this. But who has the time, the energy, the knowledge to make only perfect choices?

It’s all so complicated. So hopelessly complicated. When what I want is peace. What I want is simplicity.

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Of course, there is one easy answer. One simple way to begin: live with less.

Don’t buy it (even though it’s cheap). Give it away (even though I might need it some other day). Let it go (though I wonder who I am without this possession).

I think about letting go, and I suddenly remember something important. How could I have forgotten? It was letting go that led me here. Here, to this abundance of bedrooms and growing gardens.

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I let go of a career. I gave away the dream that had fueled my living for so long. I cast my bread upon the waters and what came back was the bread I longed to eat. The bread I could break over and over and give away: seven bedrooms (every one of which will be full this weekend) and ground to cultivate (food to eat, food to share) and words of life (my book coming to you next February).

So much wisdom on living in simplicity begins with giving stuff away. Clean out your closet, purge the toy bin, carry it all to the thrift store. Feel yourself breathe.

But I never understood. I am not a born minimalist. I like stacks of books (the more the better), I like pretty bits and bobs with sentimental value. I like knowing I can throw a party for a crowd with the contents of those three drawers.

Giving things away also felt like cheating. Isn’t it much harder to stop accumulating things than to give them away once I have?

But giving things away is like a muscle in need of exercise.

Give away the clothes, the toys, some books.

Give away the car, the job, the dream. Break the bread. Spill the oil. Keep giving until you wake up one morning and realize you have given away your life.

Because that is the morning you begin to live.

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Making Room For Peace (A Series On Simplicity)

He stood, leaning on a shovel, taking a break from digging out tree roots in my neighbor’s yard. He was on one side of the split-rail fence. I was on the other. He looked past my shoulder, watching the chickens scratch and peck.

He said, “I like your chickens. Your home. It is like my country. It is like my home in Mexico.”

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He’d been in our home for days. He and his team. Drilling holes. Snaking pipes behind plaster walls. Jonathan told me later what he said as they stood, talking, out in the yard.

He said, “Your home is so peaceful. It reminds me of my country. It reminds me of Vietnam.”

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I doubt that a red-brick farmhouse in Pennsylvania looks like Mexico. It seems unlikely to me that it looks anything like Vietnam. But there is something about this house on a hilltop. This old house with its gardens and chickens and songbirds. Something about it whispers Peace. Something about it sings Home.

Most miraculous of all, to me at least, is that the whispers are louder than the noise of my four children (or my own responses to those children). Louder than brothers fighting or toddlers tantrum-ing.

Whispers so loud, so insistent, they make grown men pause. And remember.

And dream of home.

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As long as Jonathan and I have been making homes together (whether a tiny apartment, a city high rise, a suburban split-level, or a century-old farmhouse) visitors have said the same thing:

Your home is so peaceful.

I have heard those words with gratitude but also with detachment. Because surely that peace had nothing to do with me?  It wasn’t something I created or controlled.

It was a gift. Always and only a gift.

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Peace is not merely the absence of conflict or violence. It is a presence. It is a place.

It has a prince.

It is a gift. But like so many good gifts, it can also be cultivated. Like soil.

We can slap down some concrete and rid ourselves of all that bothersome dust. Or we can grow tomatoes. Or flowers. We can sow peace. We can water it. We can watch it flourish.

Like gardening, it is hard work. It is a daily discipline.

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How do we cultivate peace? In our hearts, our homes, our communities?

I think we begin by making room for it.

So many of us, myself included, live with too much. Too much in our closets and too much in our day planners. We see an empty shelf, and we fill it. We stumble on an empty moment, and we pounce on our to-do list. We feel some hunger and we rush … to the pantry, to the television, to the computer.

And then we wonder why our lives, why our world, is saturated with conflict and worry. Loneliness and hurry.

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Peace begins with simplicity. Is simplicity the soil, the water, the sun? I don’t know. My understanding is limited, my metaphor possibly faulty. I don’t yet fully grasp the relationship between the two, but they are related.

I think they may be more deeply related than I have ever known.

I used to think that simplicity was a lifestyle choice. I am beginning to think it is the only way to follow Jesus.

Simplicity is the way of the child. The way of a rich young ruler who says yes and gives everything away. Simplicity just may be the door to the kingdom of God.

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I have in mind a series of posts. Not because I have learned “Ten Lessons” or “Five Secrets.” It is only that I am noticing patterns in my past.  Patterns that suggest it is possible to practice simplicity and cultivate peace with more deliberateness and passion.

And I want to talk about that here. With you.

I am more than a little bit afraid. Afraid of the price I must pay to walk this way. Afraid of sounding preachy if I talk about it.

But I am also hopeful. Excited, even. Simplicity is as heavy as a cross on my shoulder. But the kingdom of Jesus, the kingdom of the prince of peace, is an upside-down kingdom. And that heavy burden?

It is the light yoke, the easy burden of freedom.

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This is How to Carry the Weight of the World

Recently, someone wrote a blog post about a terrible injustice happening in our world.

I hear your deep sigh of recognition. Who wrote the post? What was the injustice? You know it almost doesn’t matter.

Aren’t our facebook feeds and blog readers and twitter accounts spilling over with painful stories of injustice? There is so much darkness. In our own small towns. In our own familiar cities. And in countries so far away we sometimes forget that they are more than just the names we hear repeated on the radio news.

When this blog post popped up in my email inbox, I read the title and then quickly shut my laptop. I told myself, I do not want to feel this. I cannot handle any more grief. Any more anger.

Especially when there is nothing I can do.

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My daughter has been learning about the Holocaust. What began as a teacher-assigned classroom project has shifted into a personal obsession. Her bedroom walls are pale pink, there is still a doll on the center of her bed, but the bedside table is stacked with The Hiding Place and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.

After a difficult beginning, she has been processing it all fairly well. Stories of heroes and rescuers, especially, are helping her navigate the deep waters of our history.

But I am not doing so well.

It is a terrible thing to watch a child’s eyes being opened. Opened to terror. To darkness. To some brokenness in our world that began, I suppose, with Cain and Abel but simply Will. Not. Quit.

She would like to visit the Holocaust museum. I’ve told her no. Not yet. It is possible that she could handle it, but I feel sure that I cannot.

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Is it ever okay to look away? To close the laptop? Plug up our ears? Maybe yes. Maybe no. I’m not really sure.

I did go back and read that blog post. It was as horrific as I had imagined, but there was also a clear call to action. There was a way for people to help, and many responded with a yes.

As I confronted my own feelings of powerlessness, I remembered that no one who prays is powerless.

I may never be able to rush around the world dispensing sure-thing solutions, but I can pray. And that is not a little thing.

Even prayer gives me hope. I have seen, again and again, that when we feel a tug to pray then God is already at work. He is the source of that tug. It is his invitation to join him in the great and beautiful thing he is already doing.

And as overwhelmed as I am, as weak as I feel, I hope I never say no to that.

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My daughter’s eyes have been opened. But they have been opened to more than darkness. She is beginning to recognize the seed that has been planted inside of her: the seed of a rescuer. A lover of justice. A champion for rightousness.

Her mother is not those things. You do not want me to lead your crusade.

I am an observer. Once, I might have written that I am only an observer. But I have come to understand that those of us watching, quietly, from the edges, we are the ones who, when the moment is right, will climb the high mountain and shout the good news: “Here is your God!” (Is 40:9)

We are unique, and our responses to suffering will be unique.

But may our prayer always be the same:

“… let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24).

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There is a river. How does that stream flow through you?

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These Farmhouse Bookshelves (Beach Optional Beach Reads)

There are so many ways to ask the same question.

Beach or mountain?

Rain or sun?

Coffee or tea?

Read or jog?

My answer for each one is the same: cozy. What I mean is that, while I usually choose mountain over beach, if given a choice between climbing a fourteener and sitting in a beach chair with a novel, I will change my answer. Beach, all the way.

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When I say that the books I’m recommending today are Beach Reads, I may not mean what you think I mean. They are not all light and fluffy. They are not summer-themed. But if the summer is the one season when we collectively give ourselves permission to read novels during the middle of the day, then here are three great books to feed your summertime fiction obsession.

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A God in Ruins: A Novel (Todd Family) is the latest book by Kate Atkinson. Not exactly a sequel, it is the companion novel to her last book Life After Life: A Novel. I wrote about that incredible book here. I do think it makes the most sense to read the books in order, but if the premise of the first is unappealing you can read A God in Ruins on its own. The characters will be new and unfamiliar to you, but Atkinson is a master with her characters. A few sentences is all she needs to reveal the depths of their souls.

And make you laugh out loud. Because Atkinson has a sharp and wicked sense of humor.

Atkinson’s humor is especially surprising given her subject matter. While Life After Life focused on Ursula Todd’s harrowing experience of the Blitz, A God in Ruins narrates the life of her beloved baby brother, Teddy, who was a pilot dropping bombs on Germany during the war.

Given the odds, Teddy should not have survived the war, but Atkinson gives him a fictional life in which we are allowed to discover just how important one life can be. In big ways (flying large bombs) and in small (choosing kindness again and again).

Atkinson’s narrative technique is unorthodox. She moves backward and forward in time. She tells her stories in snatches of thoughts in each character’s head. And the result, incredibly, is a seamless narrative that keeps you turning pages. I honestly don’t know how she does it.

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Another master novelist is Kazuo Ishiguro. His books The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are favorites of mine. His latest book, The Buried Giant: A novel, explores one of the most important questions for our world: how do we achieve peace after war and national trauma?

The book explores this question at the most intimate level as it follows an elderly married couple on a fairy tale-like quest. But it also asks the question in bigger ways as it explores the fractured relationship between two national communities that were only recently at war.

The surprising but very effective way in which Ishiguro tackles these difficult questions is by setting his book in the legendary, far-distant past. The Buried Giant is set in an England where ogres and dragons still roam. An England where Saxon and Briton have achieved a too-fragile accord. An England where the achievements of the late King Arthur are still felt in the land.

How do we mend personal relationships after betrayal and how do we forgive and find peace following national trauma? These are enormous questions and enormously important, but Ishiguro’s story is simple, spare, and elegant. It is slow and measured and beautiful.

It seems to use only the barest bones of our collective storytelling traditions. The characters are ones we have always known (wife, husband, warrior, boy) and the plot is just as familiar (a journey of discovery, a quest to destroy a dragon). But the result is a novel that is fresh and new and very much written for our world today.

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Ready for something a little less intense? If you are a mystery lover you will likely already have made the acquaintance of Mrs. Pollifax, the most unexpected CIA agent of all time. Widowed with grown children, Mrs. Pollifax has grown a little bored of her garden club and hospital volunteer work and so takes one last stab at a lifelong dream: she wants to be a spy.

Dorothy Gilman’s Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax is the first in a delightful series. In a few places I almost find these book too delightful, but then Mrs. Pollifax says or thinks something so hilariously understated that I want to write it down and remember it forever.

These books are as light and frothy as any beach read but don’t be deceived. There is more to Mrs. Pollifax than meets the eye, and there is more to these books. These fun, funny, adventurous stories rest on a very well written and well plotted foundation.

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Tell me, do you keep a summer reading list? I’d love to hear what you plan to read this summer.