’Tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free,
’Tis the 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
Elder Joseph Brackett penned these words to his famous Shaker dance song in 1848. They captured a way of life of a people who found joy in simplicity.
It has taken the near collapse of our economy to help us remember the truth of these words and to finally wake from a stupor in which we found ourselves addicted to consumption. Even most Christians (both good liberals and good conservatives) had subconsciously adopted a life mission captured by a single word: MORE (and its siblings “bigger,” “better,” and “cooler”).
My own persistent struggle with this was exemplified by my desire for the original iPhone. My old phone was nearing the end of its useful life, and I had been waiting anxiously for Apple’s new phone—it was smarter, better, and cooler than my old not-so-smart phone.
I went to the Apple Store on the day the new iPhone came out. I spent nearly an hour there trying to convince myself that Jesus needed me to buy an iPhone. With a battle raging in my heart and mind over whether I should plunk down $400 for this new phone, I walked to the counter. “Tell me once more about the iPhone’s features,” I begged. Finally I handed the clerk my credit card. And then it happened: My credit card was refused! This should have been impossible. I have great credit and the card is paid off monthly. Perhaps Jesus didn’t need me to have an iPhone after all! The clerk asked if I wanted to try another card. “No!” I replied and quickly left the store with a tremendous sense of relief.
As far back as the Garden, human beings have wrestled with our desire for more (portrayed, interestingly enough, as a longing for an apple!). Seldom does that “more” actually lead to long-term satisfaction. Sometimes, as was the case with millions who racked up insurmountable debts in the last few years, the consequences are catastrophic.
We live in a world that is constantly attempting to convince us that life is found in acquiring more, bigger, and cooler “stuff.” Yet Jesus taught, “Your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions” and “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” I regularly repeat these words, to remind myself, and in my weak moments to convince myself, that I don’t need any more.
Elder Brackett’s hymn speaks of turning. His was a song to which the Shakers would dance, and he undoubtedly intended two meanings by the use of this word. At first glance it simply referred to the turning that happened on the Shaker dance floor. But I suspect he also had in mind the Greek New Testament word metanoia—a word that means “to repent” and has the sense of turning away from one path and turning down another.
The current economic crisis has given most Americans reason to pause, to re-evaluate their priorities, values, and spending patterns, and to turn—away from rabid consumerism and toward a life that is simpler, characterized not by what we obtain but by how we live and what we give. That’s part of the silver lining in the dark clouds of these challenging times. As a nation we’re beginning to turn and, as we do, we may find ourselves in “the valley of love and delight.”
Adam Hamilton is senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and author of Enough: Finding Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity.