Thursday, March 27, 2008

[Link set for last weekend's Licking County Jail Ministries series of stories is on down, just keep scrolling -- thanks! jbg]

Faith Works 3-29-08
Jeff Gill

How Simple Life Is, Or Can Be

Spiritual disciplines have some constants, like the written prayers of your tradition (from the “Lord’s Prayer” to entire prayer books), wordless prayer (see Romans 8), time spent in solitude (think Bill Murray in “The Razor’s Edge”), and with the gathered community (often known as “goin’ to church”).

There are also the variables growing out of our unique gifts – song for some, art for others. Making lists, keeping journals: these are all spiritual disciplines that I’m happy to commend, but not as a one-size-fits for all comers.

Along with my Bible reading practice, I find poetry reading a very useful tool for prayer. Not just religious poetry (although George Herbert started me on this, and is still a constant companion), but the craft of paring down words and forms to express the heart and soul sets off a sympathetic echo for me.

Sometimes the echo is in reaction against something I read in a poem. Garrison Keillor, the radio humorist of “Prairie Home Companion,” also has a brief daily piece called “The Writer’s Almanac” on NPR stations, with some literary birthdates and milestones for the day, and a short poem. I don’t often get to hear the broadcast, but you can sign up for a daily e-mail with the text of the almanac and poem.

Over Easter week, Keillor has some wonderful poems that added to my experience of Holy Week. Then the usual secular poetry came back in the cycle, with a pleasant sonnet titled “You Made Crusty Bread Rolls . . .”

Gary Johnson, I find, is head of research for the “Jeopardy!” quiz show, and has been married for over 40 years to the same woman from their hometown of Omaha, now living in Topanga Canyon on the edge of Los Angeles. And I’m happy for him! He wrote this sonnet about a dinner and quiet evening at home with his spouse, closing with two lines that includes the statement “How simple life is.”

Can anyone argue with that, after a recitation of salmon and dill and garlic and olive oil, jeans and stylish green t-shirts, “candles and linens and silver”?

“How simple life is. We buy a fish. We are fed.” Really? The fish comes from an Alaskan salmon farm or wild from declining ocean fisheries, the silver from deep in the earth and forges in China, the t-shirt out of an Indonesian factory. Dill probably grown in Venezuela or India; maybe the garlic came from California, but the olive oil from Italy or Turkey, and brie in the crusty bread rolls from France.

The lights of Topanga Canyon are powered by nuclear energy from Diablo Canyon, or natural gas from Canada, or coal mined out of Black Mesa alongside the Hopi Reservation in Arizona – as is the oven that cooked the salmon and garlic.

How simple life is? To eat, to love, those are simple things, and to be thankful – but thankfulness in the world today I think requires a little more care and attention to what we’re thankful for.

Bill McKibben is an author, a Methodist Sunday school teacher at his congregation in New England, and someone who has helped me reflect and respond to the complexity of modern life with simple faith leavened by a more comprehensive understanding. “Deep Economy” is his best known recent book, subtitled “The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.”

He’s going to speak on the Denison campus, up the hill in Granville and in Herrick Hall (the round building behind Talbot Hall of Science, next to the Slayter parking garage). Wednesday night, April 2, at 8:00 pm, McKibben will speak to students but in terms I’m sure that will be of interest to all, and I’m looking forward to the question and answer time following most of all.

I want to hear what kind of questions the students ask, and I know from previous experience that McKibben is at his best in the back and forth, explaining the implications of the simpler life he suggests should replace the “More” that is the one word poem of today.

And thank you, Gary Johnson, for getting me thinking about it all with your poem.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; one of his prayer disciplines is to read the tags on his clothes when he puts them on in the morning, and lifting up each country where they were made. Tell him about your prayer practices at

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