'Tis a Gift to be Simple
Texts: Proverbs 1:22; Colossians 3:12-17
It was a gorgeous May evening just west of Washington, D.C. A friend and I were sitting on the lawn of Wolf Trap Amphitheatre with a picnic basket full of delights. The night went from wonderful to magical as Judy Collins walked onto stage and in her hauntingly beautiful voice, sang, “Simple Gifts.”
Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, Judy sang with crystal clarity, “Tis a Gift to be Simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where we ought to be, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gain’d, to bow and to bend, we shan’t be ashamed. To turn, turn, will be our delight, ‘Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.”
I had not thought of that magical evening for years until I heard Judy singing that song while I was on a long drive a few weeks ago. As the music played, it brought back a great memory, but I confess it also made me a bit anxious after many years have passed since that concert. For in all honesty, “‘Tis a gift to be simple” has not been my life’s motto and it has not been the motto for any church I have served, maybe with the exception of Cove.
As I listened to Judy sing, I started to wonder what “’tis a gift to be simple” really means today and who has ever had the nerve to write these lyrics, much less sing them. As I reached back into the origin of this song, I learned that it was first sung by the Shakers, not a ‘60’s folk group, but an 18th century community of believers led by Ann Lee. For the Shakers, it was pretty clear what “’Tis a Gift to be Simple” meant. It was a radical call to cast aside everything but the absolute essentials in life. It was to live lean, bare bones lives, as walking tributes to true Godliness.
Long before the Shakers sang this tune, Francis of Assisi could certainly have sung “’Tis a Gift to be Simple” as he left behind the great wealth of his family to live in solidarity with the poor. In the 13th century, Francis wrote the “Primitive Rule” for fellow Franciscans and one of their seven values was living a life of simplicity, a life focused solely on serving God and neighbor.
But, we are not Shakers or Franciscans and in in modern America, who lives that kind of simple life? Did anyone drive to worship today in a buggy? Does anyone plan to drop a check in the offering plate today by which you will give away all your assets to the ministry of the church? Aside from a lovely folk tune, what does it possibly mean for us to sing, much less to live by the refrain ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple?
I decided to find a full answer to that question by listening not just to the Shakers and St. Francis, but even more importantly, listening to the wisdom to be found in my dogeared Bible. And Proverbs was the first book that came to mind to consult. Proverbs cannot stop talking about “simple” and “simplicity,” so surely here I could unlock the mystery of the “gift” to be simple.
It did not take long, though, before my old friend and Old Testament scholar, Christine Yoder, reminded me that “simplicity” or “to be simple” in the book of Proverbs is often not a “gift” and unlike what Francis and the Shakers thought, it has little to do with whether our closets are lean and tidy and our bank accounts nearly empty. Indeed, in Proverbs, the “simple” are most often those who think they know more than they do and relish in the ignorance is bliss camp. In fact, Proverbs calls the “simple” to pray for God’s wisdom and instruction and new insight. It is only as the “simple” live into that prayer that it will ever be a “gift” to be simple.
Since the ancient book of Proverbs was only of modest help, I decided that surely the teachings of Jesus could lead me to a clear answer. From the earliest pages of the Gospels, Jesus teaches an itinerant group of fellow travelers in Palestine about the “simple” life. He tells them to unpack their bags, put everything back in the closet, and head out into the world in naked trust in the sure provisions of God.
As with the Proverbs, for Jesus, the “simple” life is letting go of everything that keeps us focused on ourselves and prevents us from letting go of everything that keeps us from holding onto the gracious promises of God. It is when we learn to let go and to hold onto to God’s grace-filled promises God that “true simplicity is gain’d.”
My last Bible visit was to Paul and I soon found myself listening to wisdom from his letter to the Colossians. With “simplicity” and living “simple lives” as our prayers, Paul lists a long set of imperatives. And yet, read his words again and you see that the imperatives he hurls in Colossians are not burdensome additions to our already too long Christian to-do list; they are operating instructions for how to live the simple life. He instructs: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Above all, Paul writes, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Do all this, says Paul, and then “true simplicity is gain’d.”
If you listen to that long list of imperatives, Paul is clear that true simplicity is gained by hanging around Jesus. For Jesus took all his privilege to the heavenly dump and came down and became a servant and friend to us all. Fred Craddock asks these critical questions for anyone ready to lead a simple life as modeled by Jesus. Fred writes: “This unusual man Paul had the idea that the ideal Christian life would be to be like Jesus: to love, to care, to give, to serve, to suffer and to sacrifice like he did. I am not there yet, he said, I do not mean for you to get the idea, he protested, that I have arrived, that I have attained my goal. Oh, no, but I’ll tell you this: being like Jesus is the one thing on my mind. I’m running toward this. I’m running toward this, with temples pounding, heart pumping, bone breaking, muscles aching . . . If I could just be like Jesus.”
It is no wonder that only after Francis of Assisi received the gift of “simplicity,” a humble life of faith lived in service to God and God’s beloved child, that he was able to pray:
“O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace! Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is discord, harmony; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light, and Where there is sorrow, joy. Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.”
For Francis that is when “true simplicity is gain’d.”
“’Tis a Gift to be simple” does not mean to be simplistic or simple-minded as Proverbs warns, but to be open to God’s gift of new insight and anxious to grow in the wisdom of Christ. Whenever that dawns for me, I am able to sing with Judy and the Shakers, with Jesus and Paul, and with all who have sung this tune: “When true simplicity is gain’d, to bow and to bend, we shan’t be ashamed. To turn, turn, will be our delight, ‘Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.”
I am thankful to say that is a tune that many of you at Cove have taught me to sing better. And I am hopeful that is a tune you and I can sing for the rest of our days.
[choir sings, “’Tis a Gift to the Simple”]