A Gift to Be Simple
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 10, 2000
by Nancy L. Dahlberg
It was Sunday. Christmas. Our family had spent the holidays in San Francisco with my husband’s parents. But in order for us to be back at work on Monday, we found ourselves driving the 400 miles home to Los Angeles on Christmas Day.
It is normally an 8-hour drive, but with kids it can be a 14-hour endurance test. When we could stand it no longer, we stopped for lunch in King City. This little metropolis is made up of six gas stations and three sleazy diners, and it was into one of these diners that the four of us trooped--road weary and saddle sore.
As I sat Erik, our 1-year-old, in a high chair, I looked around the room and wondered, "What am I doing in this place?"
The restaurant was nearly empty. We were the only family and ours were the only children. Everyone else was busy eating, talking quietly, aware perhaps that we were all somehow out of place on this special day, when even the cynical pause to reflect on peace and brotherhood.
My reverie was interrupted when I heard Erik squeal with glee, "Hithere." (Two words he thought were one.) "Hithere" he pounded his fat baby hands-- whack, whack-- on the metal high chair tray. His face was alive with excitement, eyes wide, gums bared in a toothless grin. He wriggled, and chirped, and giggled, and then I saw the source of the merriment... and my eyes could not take it all in at once.
A tattered rag of a coat--obviously bought by someone else eons ago-- dirty, greasy, and worn, baggy pants-- both they and the zipper at half-mast over a spindly body--toes that poked out of would-be shoes…a shirt that had ring-around-the-collar all over and a face like none other…gums as bare as Erik‘s…hair uncombed, unwashed, and unbearable…whiskers too short to be called a beard, but way, way beyond a shadow, and a nose so varicose that it looked like the map of New York.
I was too far away to smell him--but I knew he smelled--and his hands were waving in the air, flapping about on loose wrists.
"Hi there baby; hi there, big boy. I see ya, buster."
Erik continued to laugh and answer, "Hi, Hithere." Every call was echoed.
I noticed waitress’ eyebrows shoot to their foreheads, and several people sitting near us "ahemed" out loud.
This old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby.
I shoved a cracker at Erik, and he pulverized it on the tray. I whispered "Why me?" under my breath.
Our meal came, and the cacophony continued. Now the old bum was shouting from across the room: "Do ya know patty cake?…Atta boy...Do ya know peek-a-boo?…Hey, look , he knows peek-a-boo!"
Nobody thought it was cute. The guy was a drunk and a disturbance, I was embarrassed. My husband, Dennis, was humiliated. Even our six-year-old said, "Why is that old man talking so loud?"
We ate in silence--all except Erik, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring applause of a skid-row bum.
Finally, I had enough. I turned the high chair. Erik screamed and clamored around to face his old buddy. Now I was mad.
Dennis went to pay the check, imploring me to "get Erik and meet me in the parking lot."
I trundled Erik out of the high chair and booked toward the exit. The old man sat poised and waiting, his chair directly between me and the door.
"Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik." I bolted for the door.
It soon became obvious that both the Lord and Erik had other plans.
As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back, walking to sidestep him--and any air he might be breathing. As I did so, Erik, all the while with his eyes riveted to his best friend, leaned far over my arm reaching with both arms in a baby‘s "pick me up" position.
In a split second of balancing my baby and turning to counter his weight, I came eye-to-eye with the old man. Erik was lunging for him, arms spread wide.
The bum‘s eyes both asked and implored, "Would you let me hold your baby?"
There was no need for me to answer since Erik propelled himself from my arms to the man’s.
Suddenly a very old man and a very young baby consummated their love relationship. Erik laid his tiny head upon the man’s ragged shoulder. The man‘s eyes closed, and I saw tears hover beneath his bashes. His aged hands full of grime, and pain, and hard labor-- gently, so gently, cradled my baby‘s bottom and stroked his back.
I stood awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms for a moment, and then his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm and commanding voice, "You take care of this baby."
Somehow I managed, "I will", from a throat that contained a stone.
He pried Erik from his chest--unwillingly, longingly--as though he was in pain.
"God bless you ma’am. You‘ve given me my Christmas gift."
I said nothing more than a muttered thanks.
With Erik back in my arms, I ran for the car. Dennis wondered why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly and why I was saying, "My God, oh God, forgive me."
Now, it would probably be most true to form to begin this sermon by telling you that simplicity is a very complicated subject. Then to proceed by piling on the facts and statistics, interspersed with a bit of poetry, a few quotes from a couple of my favorite authors, and a tirade or two about the inroads of materialist culture and global capitalism and postmodernist philosophy into our hearts and minds and lives.
But you know the dictum: “Form follows content.” And that means, I think, that the form a sermon takes should try, as far as possible, to follow the spirit of its topic. Which means that you don’t preach about (say) kindness by verbally bludgeoning people into being kind (though I have heard that kind of sermon, and have, no doubt, on occasion preached one like it.). [It reminds me of the program we had here at the church a couple of years or so ago about the healing power of laughter and the place of humor in therapy... Problem was that the person who spoke wasn’t very funny; so most of the people who came, I’m afraid, went away feeling neither amused nor healed...] It would accomplish very little for me to preach this morning on simplicity by complicating your lives further, and piling on the things you “ought” to be doing, and probably giving you all a headache. So, my mantra this morning (and it occurs to me that it wouldn’t be a bad mantra to have about most things in life) is “Keep it simple.”
Who better to teach us about simplicity than our children? There’s another lesson of this Advent season: “A child shall lead us.” Not George W. Bush. Not Al Gore. Not even Ralph Nader. No, they won’t lead us. “A child will lead us.” It is our children who can lead us back to the real values of our true humanity.
Here’s a letter that was sent to the Canadian radio personality Peter Gzowski by a mom in Toronto. Apparently, she and her husband had been out celebrating New Year’s Eve, and wanted to “sleep in” the next morning, nursing hangovers:
This is the sort of luxury our hearts and souls crave: the sheer luxury of love; the warmth of that human touch; the sparks of caring and concern that illuminate our souls and set these pent-up hearts of ours to beating.
So much of our lives is spent in doing those “important things” like working and getting and spending and making repairs and reading instructions and following directions. But that which is really important usually comes to us from angels carrying trays filled with chunks of frozen butter on toast and burnt fried eggs.
We love one another because we are imperfect. It is our perfectionism and our need to unnecessarily complicate things that sets up the highest barriers between people, it seems to me. Whenever we resolve to keep it simple-- and to embrace one another in all our imperfection-- then our love shines through most clearly. It is oftentimes in the least lovable among us (and within us) that our humanity presents itself most clearly (just like the hobo at the diner we read about earlier). The simplest things about our lives usually offer the most profound lessons.
It may be a gift to be simple. But it’s not a gift we can buy at Wal-Mart, or even at Filene’s. It’s not easy in this accumulative culture of ours to live a simple life. The fact of the matter is that United States, with five percent of the world’s population, consumes 40% of the world’s resources-- and that’s not just a statistic; it is, rather, a mentality that’s carved more deeply into most of our beings than we’d like to admit. “To live simply so that others might simply live” is to make a profoundly counter-cultural declaration. It’s certainly easier to declare it than to do it. We are taught the ways of excess, of waste, of wanting it all and having it all, almost as a birthright. It’s gotten to where some people who want to break out of this mad materialist trap have formed support groups, “simplicity circles”, in some of our UU churches. That’s probably not a bad idea...
At no time of the year, of course, does this need to “simplify, simplify” cry out to us more urgently than in this holiday season. I drove by the church in Sharon the other day, and noticed that my colleague Deb Cayer’s sermon topic for this Sunday was going to be “Simple Gifts”. Then, I read a church newsletter from another colleague and noticed his sermon title for today was, simply, “Simplicity”. Hmmmm.... I thought... talk about an idea whose time has come right now, in this mad dash Christmas time of the year.
Ellen Goodman once wrote a column about the mountains of catalogues that weigh-down her postal carrier every year around this time. “Who cannot marvel,” she writes, “at a culture that promotes an iron as a Christmas present, or sells a $275 machine to vacuum seal leftovers, or covers the whole country in Polartec?” Seventeen billion catalogues are sent out each year, Goodman goes on. Three point three million tons of paper. How many trees is that? How much busy-ness does it represent? How much needless, useless sound and fury? How deeply does it represent the needless complications we pile upon our lives?
A couple of weeks ago, we went to see the movie version of Dr. Seuss’ story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and we really enjoyed it. It’s a wonderfully produced film, and Jim Carrey as the Grinch is just superb. But what struck me most was that, even though you expect you’re going to be rooting for the people of Whoville against the mean old Grinch, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way (at least it didn’t for me). That’s because the people of Whoville are so frenetic-- so busy-- so compulsive and driven about how they celebrate Christmas that you eventually sense that the Grinch may be doing them a favor by stealing it!
Sometimes, like the Grinch, we look out at the Christmas madness, and we say: “Enough!” Enough noise! Enough crowds! Even food (even)! Enough muzak! But, of course, doing away with the excesses of Christmas doesn’t do away with the hunger in our souls that makes us yearn for holy days like these. It’s when the Grinch steals the baubles and trappings of Christmas that the Whos learn its real message:
Darn right it does, Grinch. It means more-- and it means less. Look at the great religious holidays we celebrate with our brothers and sisters around the world at this time of year: Hanukkah celebrates the miracles that can occur for people who have so little oil left in their flasks-- who have little but a deep abiding faith and a love of freedom. Solstice celebrates the return of light in the coldest, emptiest, most barren time of the year. Christmas celebrates the birth of a baby who gave his life so that the poor could find comfort, the empty could be filled, and the prisoner within each of us freed. The Islamic observance of Ramadan, too, calls upon Muslims to discipline their appetites, simplify their lives, and rely upon God.
At their heart, of course, none of these holidays carries the central message of buy-- give-- get-- more, more, more.
And they aren’t about perfection, either. None of these holidays has a sign on it that says “Saints only.” or “Imperfect people need not apply.” Martha Stewart wasn’t at the first Christmas, and it’s a good thing, too. If she had been, the shepherd’s would have been sent home packing, and the Wise Men would have taken one look at her and would have said, “Forget about it! We could never compete with her!” (And could you imagine her preparing the sacred oil for the rededication of the Temple at the first Hanukkah? The menorah would have to have fifty candles to burn long enough for Martha to be ready with the new oil!)
Christmas is about simplicity, and not complexity. It’s about God working miracles right here, in this down-to-earth, imperfect world of ours-- because that’s where they’re going to have to be worked if they’re going to do any good. The spiritual search (our journeys to Bethlehem, which we take every waking moments of our lives) is about simplifying our lives enough and not being waylaid by the judgmental stairs of others; not listening to the shushing of those who don’t want to hear what we have to say; not being swayed by particular social conventions of what’s “beautiful” or “elegant” or true or good. It’s about simplifying life enough to be able to pay attention to and listen for and glimpse those simple gifts, those hints of holiness, those intimations of the divine, which are there, ours for the taking, constantly, if we allow them to grace our lives. It’s all about remembering that angels (even gods) don’t always look like they do in books, or on television. Sometimes, they look like little children, bringing us breakfast in bed. Sometimes, they look like an old man on a park bench, feeding the pigeons. Sometimes, a Christmas angels can even look like a drunken old hobo in a desolate greasy spoon in the middle of nowhere.
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,” said Thoreau. “I say,” he continued, “let your affairs be as two or three, and a not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million, count half a dozen, and keep your account on your thumbnail.”
Of course, all this is easier said than done. We are not saints, any of us. We won’t be able to resist all those social and familial and personal pressures to do more, more, more-- especially at this busy time of year. We know it’s going to happen: we’re going to get sucked into the Christmas machine again this year.
But we don’t have to change everything, all at once. We can start gradually, simply, to disengage from the Christmas machine. Give yourself a present, each of you, and over the next couple of weeks, simplifyjust one thing about how you celebrate the holidays-- one little thing. In some small way, try to let go of something unimportant, and draw a little closer to what Christmas really means. Feel yourself doing it-- and then do it again. Feel the circle of change moving and turning... again... and again... and again...
Each one of you, give yourself some small, simple, imperfect gift of the simplicity-- the simple love, the simple joy-- that is at the heart of this blessed season.