Selected articles and online-only features from the Church of the Brethren’s official magazine

Living Simply | February 19, 2020

Simple living is not simple

Apple butter making
Photo by Frances Townsend

It may be getting harder to tell by looking at us, at our material goods and our crowded calendars, but we have long said that simple living is foundational to being Brethren. With the earth imperiled by misuse of resources and by pollution, and with lives becoming uncomfortably frenetic, simple living could be one of the distinctive gifts that Brethren bring to the culture around us.

Tim and Wanda Joseph of Brethren, Mich., have spent their lives living out this Brethren value. Wanda remembered lessons from childhood, stories about her mother’s cousin Dan West. He was a strong promoter of simple living but his wife, Lucy, was more ambivalent because while he was gallivanting around the world talking, she was home doing the farm work and housework. For her, a truly simple life would have been to turn up the thermostat when the house was cold. But no, wood had to be cut and stacked, brought into the house, restacked, chopped into kindling, and put into the stove for the next hour of heat. In her experience, the simple life translated into a lot more work for women.

The Josephs built their house of local stone and lumber milled from trees cut on their land and in the neighborhood. The ceilings are made from 4-inch wide tongue-and-groove pine boards. Wanda recalled a thought that came to her as she installed a piece. The board had been handled so many times— logged, moved to the mill, cut into boards, planed three times, cut to length. So much work to cover four inches. As Wanda said, “Simple living is not simple in terms of human energy. The person who wants to live simply must be committed to hard work and not put the burden of that work on others.”

She pondered the purpose of this work: “The goal is to live closer to the source as much as we are able, like making rag rugs. . . . I remember my Grandma Schrock in her wheelchair braiding rag rugs. She cut strips of old, worn-out clothing to make them. You get a warmer floor, keep the fabric out of the landfill, and you share a piece of yourself as well.”

Simple living, when it is lived well, is more than paring down and doing without. At its best, it is about deliberately adding to life, building community, and bringing more beauty into the world. It means choosing to share resources and becoming more interdependent.

The Josephs work with neighbors and church friends to make more than 100 pints of apple butter each fall. It takes a lot of people, who all enjoy the benefit of the labor.

Buying local is another choice that helps neighbors. A disabled friend depends on sales of her jewelry to pay the bills. Buying from her instead of from a big company will make a difference, $10 or $50 at a time.

Support using earth’s resources in a respectful way. Respecting the plants, fibers, and minerals is a way to support longer term life of the earth.

And, said Wanda, “Simple living needs to include beauty. The simple life that is stark makes no sense to me, in a world adorned with beauty. Show the children the leaves, the flowers, the rocks. Help them see and appreciate all the bounty we live in.”

Simplicity is the Way of Jesus

”Simplicity is the Way of Jesus, God’s gift to us. The New Testament and the Holy Spirit’s guidance have led the Brethren to practice this plain way. We affirm our heritage that began with people like Anna and Alexander Mack, who gave their lives and wealth for God’s service until they died in material poverty and spiritual riches. Simplicity is living not conformed to the world, but transformed by Christ. Neither rules nor programs, neither simplistic answers nor legalism can fully define the simple life. Jesus’s way of simplicity is at the heart of the gospel. It is central to our faith and practice, not optional. To make it less than central is sinful. Simple living is sometimes difficult. But to those who embark on this humble journey God provides joy and peace.

“The context in which we presently respond to the simple life is one in which most of the world lives on far less than we in North America consume. Since the last conference statement on Christian lifestyle, the gap between rich and poor in the world, in the United States, and among Brethren has widened. Many more people live in poverty. The number of children in poverty has grown. Lifestyles dominated by consumerism despoil the earth and deplete resources that could be shared with the poor. Such lifestyles separate us from the grace and humility of our lord Jesus Christ, who emptied himself for our sakes to give us another way of living.”

—From “Simple Life,” a 1996 Annual Conference statement

Frances Townsend is a pastor in Michigan serving Onekama Church of the Brethren and Marilla Church of the Brethren.