Editorial note: This week we discussed over email the question “What comes to mind for you when you think of plainness (or simplicity)?” We had a ton of responses from people on our church’s email group. All the responses were thoughtful and helpful. Because there was such a great response I didn’t have to cover some of the basics of this question. One thing that came out of the emails was the fact that some feel more drawn to the word simplicity over plainness or vice versa. This was a big part of the discussion over email. Even still, for those who liked one or the other, the outcome, or way that people shared was similar. I even found myself swapping in plainness where some wrote simplicity, because I am one who prefers the older term for this testimony. The message assumes this prior email conversation.
Plainness vs. Simplicity
One thing I found really interesting over the course of our emails was the discussion that arised around the particular words I suggested: plainness and simplicity. What is funny is that many of you gravitated towards simplicity and for me it was an after thought to put simplicity in there.
My guess is that when people hear plain, they hear amish, old order, dull, maybe even uncool.
If I had to choose, I actually tend to use plainness far more often for two reasons. First, it is more historical accurate as the word early Friends used when they discussed these issues (that and wanton minds!). For instance, George Fox wrote an epistle (no. 250) which challenged Friends to keep out of the vain fashions of the world…[and] to keep in modesty and plainness, fervency and sinceity and be circumspect…take heed of the worlds fashions, lest you be moulded up into their spirit. Early Friends believed that the powers of the world, which included fashions, and what we might call consumer culture today, had the power to mold us into its likeness rather than Gods.
It is also known as the testimony of plainness in the old faith and practices. Heres a statement from 1746, which falls under the heading plainness, but also includes the other word:
We tenderly exhort all, seriously to consider the plainness and simplicity which the gospel enjoins, and to manifest it in their speech, apparel, furniture, salutations and conversation, into which our forefathers were led by the Spirit of Christ, in conformity with his precepts and example; and for which they patiently suffered long imprisonments, and great persecutions; being convinced that it was their duty thus to bear a testimony against the vain spirit of the world.1746.
There are many examples of this taking place in early Quakerism: Speech, Church buildings, Titles, Clothing, Public amusements, Sports, etc.
For William Penn, the cares and pleasures of this life choke and destroy the seed of the Kingdom, and quite hinder all progress in the hidden and divine life.
The other reason why I have tended to prefer it is becuase I find it to be more direct, the fact that it rubs us the wrong way isnt necessary a bad thing. For one thing hasnt our culture co-opted simplicity? Think of every product, every gadget that promises to make your life more simple. There is the simplicity of design that we see in modern furniture, cell phones, vehicles, kitchen-wares, theres the time-saving and simplification devices that can help you spend time on the people who really matter. Whatever grit the word simplicity had, in my opinion, was lost on marketing table years ago.
Plainness in my mind has more teeth than simplicity (even if misunderstood). We know when something is plain. And before we write it off, think for a moment what you dont like about the word? Where do those feelings come from? My sense is that we have a really hard time reconciling with the idea that we might not fit in, that what we will do might be percieved as a little off, odd, or strange. One person mentioned over email that it is surely no compliment to be the plain kid in school. And the nick name plain jane is anything but a pick up line. We want to be followers of Christ so long as it is socially acceptable.
Have you watched the movie Almost Famous [Taken From JR’s blog]? Its a story about a 15-year old boy who gets to go on tour with a band called Stillwater in the early seventies. His task is to write an article for Rolling Stone Magazine. Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays the main character Lester Bangs has this classic line he says in the film, The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when youre uncool.
For early Friends, the point wasnt that they did these things to be weird, or to look different, plainness wasnt an end goal. In fact, it was much the opposite and when we look back at early Friends and admire their faith, their courage and sacrifice we need to remember that this kind of vibrant and beautiful faith stemmed from a conviction that what really matters is our faithfulness to being obedient to the way of Christ. Plainness was the practice that helped them to be free to do this. Plainness is a means, it is a conviciton that in order to follow Christ, somethings in life have to be given up, somethings need to be sacrificed because they work against Christian discipleship. They mold us in a different direction. They believed that in our world there are two powers at work, the power of the Lord, and the power of the evil one, these two masters are constantly battling, and the way we live our lives, what we invest ourselves in, what we spend our time on, what we put our hands to furthers one or two of these kingdoms. This is the point Jesus is making about the two different kinds of treasures in our passage this morning. This was a church that sought to avoid anything superflous, wanton, and vain because they wanted to get to the heart of authentic Christian life.
Consequences of a Life Following Christ
Another point about this is that for Early Friends faith was much more like a taking on a covenant of marriage than it was to believe in a set of rules or doctrines. There was this idea that upon recognizing and coming under the power of Christ one enters into a covenant with the Lord in a way that his or her life is entirely re-made. All their choices, the way they live, how they act, what they enjoy, their priorities all change because of this covenantal encounter with Christ, similar to what you have when you get married. Once your married you no longer live for yourself, everything you do, every choice you make takes into account the needs, desires, and your love for your spouse.
Over time, in the 19th century, this idea of a covenant with Christ transformed into church being more about a contract of a set of rules that someone signs. This is when the word plainness was dropped and the word simplicity was picked up. Simplicity is a little easier to accept, and after all what is simple to one person doesnt have to be simple to another. Thus, it became uprooted from the context of a community and was more a testimony as rule, rather than a testimony as a consequence. That communal, consequence of conviction that arises from obedience to Christ became a lifestyle rule that we choose on own privately how we handle it.
So then, when we talk about testimonies, regardless of the words that we use, I think we need to recapture this idea of communal, consequence of conviction. That we collectively consider how the Spirit of Christ is leading us to live our lives, what Christ is guiding us to spend our time on, our money on, etc. Christian discipleship requires sacrifice and a giving up of oneself, that will lead us to cultivate a plain life.
Treasures of Enough
In our bibical text this morning, which comes again from the Sermon on the Mount – like our previous two testimonies, Jesus talks about what we possess, who we serve, and our stance towards that which we need to live. Here is where Jesus talks about the two treasures, and the two masters.
In v. 19-21 Jesus says that where your investments are is where your attention is. So if you have a bunch of invetsments in the stock market and they bomb, you know what hes getting at in a real way. But he doesnt just mean your investments. I think what he means here is anything that makes you unfree, anything that molds you into its own likeness and begins to control your time, your resources, your identity, your allegiances, etc.
Our treasures on earth, whatever that may be, are the obstacles to our discipleship with Christ, they bind us up and make us unfree. To Jesus, stuff changes our lives, wealth distorts our priorities from the kingdom of God. All around him he saw people being ignored because they were sick and poor, or exploited to make others rich. His entire ministry was to welcome these kinds of people who were casualties of money and power. Jesus says your heart is with your treasures, that means your true loyalty, your love, your passion is with what your heart possesses.
Nothing enslaves more than that which we cannot live without. – S. Hauerwas
The testimony of plainness today then asks, what is it that makes you unfree? Where is the treasure of your heart? What can you not live without? We need to repent of being This is because we are possessed by our possessions, and turn to God who gives real treasure.
Abundance of Creation
Finally, we turn to the last portion of our text where Jesus talks about the lilies of the field, the birds of the air and clothing the grass of the field. I think is appropriate for our times because many of us are worried about what is going on with Jobs, etc. If you want to know what a new revision of the testimony of plainness might be, then we need to return to creation for our theology and include it in this conversation. Because Jesus sees it as the main example of God tending, caring for, and treasuring what is beautiful and in a way that all is cared for.
Why are the animals important in a reflection on plainness? For one there is a natural beauty in the created world that doesnt require superflous things. Another is that the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, and the grass of the field do not worry and I think to live a plain life is resistance to our current consumer culture which causes undue amounts of worry. They trust that God is a God of abundance. It is us who do not trust. Our lack of trust comes out in hording. We take (and consume) as much as we can, as much as is allowed by our credit reports, because we do not trust that God is a God of abundance. Worry is a symptom of our desire for control over our circumstances, worry is also a symptom of our being molded by a consmer culture. If we do not worry, then we are content, and if we are content with who we are and what we have, then we will not sucomb to latest marketing pitch.
Abundance, not scarcity, is the mark of Gods care for creation. But our desire to live without fear cannot help but create a world of fear constitude by the assumption that there is never enough. Such a world cannot help but be a world of injustice and violence because it is assumed that under conditions of scarcity our only chance for survivial is to have more. (S. Hauerwas, 82)
The more (superflous) things we try to amass for ourselves, the more we are operating out of an understanding that God is a God of scarcity rather than abudnace. For us to not worry is to resist the anxieties of our world and live in a way that is marked by a life that lives out of a covenant with Christ, ready and free to be obedient when he leads us.
If we learn to see God the way Jesus saw him, as a God who can be trusted, who abundantly cares for all creation, including us, then we can grow into a community who operates out of that place of trust. Who recieves only what is given, who does not hoard, who shares with all, who does not over extend and exploit others, whether people or creation, we can then live a live of plainness, unfettered and free to follow Jesus Christ.