This summer for me has included a good bit of looking back, including a trip to my native Canada with my daughter and two grandchildren, and rummaging through a pile of old books.
One I came across was the Quaker Thomas Kelly’s classic A Testament of Devotion, that my mother gave me for my 27th birthday. As I reread his chapter on The Simplification of Life I was struck by his opening words.
“The problem we face today needs very little time for its statement. Our lives in a modern city grow too complex and overcrowded … Even the necessary obligations we feel we must meet grow overnight … The times for the deeps of the silences of the heart seem few.”
Each of us, wrote Kelly, tends to be “not a single self, but a whole committee of selves” each loudly demanding more time.
He wrote that in 1941. How much more complex and pressured our lives are today with instant communication and increasing demands and deadlines in our lives, personal and professional.
A young Charlotte lawyer brought a briefcase of work home and sighed, “I can’t ever catch up.” His young daughter said, “Daddy, why don’t you join a slower group!”
That sounds like an attractive option! But is the problem the speed and complexity of the world around us? Or, as Kelly wrote is it that “we are not skilled in the inner life, where the real roots of our problem lie”?
Unless we move to some desert or mountain retreat we will be hard pressed to find a less complex world. What we can seek is a more centered heart.
Some years ago I was feeling totally overwhelmed. So I went away for a day to the lake to think and get organized. I wrote down everything I had to do. When I looked at all I’d written I was overwhelmed. I realized that what I needed was not just better time management, but a more centered life.
I remembered meeting Mother Teresa in Calcutta and asking how she kept going with all the dying people she cared for. She answered, “We do our work for Jesus, with Jesus, to Jesus. That’s what keeps it simple.”
She could have been echoing the words of the apostle Paul. Out of his own demanding life he wrote of “the simplicity that is in Christ” or, as it can also be translated, “the simplicity that is toward Christ.”
That day by the lake I put aside my schedule, went out and walked in a circle around a big tree, and prayed, “Lord, I can’t solve all my problems or schedule all my work. But I want to take time to direct all my thoughts, tasks, responsibilities toward you – and let you bring simplicity out of my complexity.”
Now, many years later, I try to stop in the middle of a morning and ask: Why am I doing whatever I am doing? Is it “for Jesus, with Jesus, to Jesus?”
Mother Teresa, Paul, Thomas Kelly – all said it well. The one who said – and lived it – best was our Lord Jesus. His life was simple – utter devotion his Father’s call. His words were simple – simply profound. His call is simple – simply radical. “Follow me.”
His words are still simply true for us in our complex lives.
“Seek first the kingdom. The rest will be added.” Simple enough.
Leighton Ford of Charlotte is a Presbyterian minister known internationally as preacher, writer and mentor.