In February 2014, actor Ralph Waite passed into eternal life. For those of you unfamiliar with Waite, he was a husband, father, Marine, social worker, ordained Presbyterian minister, and religion editor at Harper & Rowe. But for those who tuned into television during the 1970s, he was also John Walton, Sr., the patriarch of a large, Virginia family navigating its way through the Depression years of the 1930s and World War II. While documenting the struggles of an era that has been mostly forgotten, The Waltons (1972-81) also portrayed a certain simplicity of lifestyle. While lacking in material things, this family presented life as many of us imagine it should be: rich in things that matter.
What are the things that matter? How might they be found? Perhaps an old Quaker song, A Gift to be Simple, will lead us to the answers:
‘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 that place just right
We will be in the valley of love and delight.
When the true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed
To turn and to turn it will be our delight
‘Till by turning and turning we come ’round right…
As the years roll by, the answer to the question may be revealed by one word: presence. For it is through this one word that we come to understand that only we can provide it. How so?
In our fast-paced and ever-changing world, it is easy to become embroiled in its chaotic churn, especially when our culture proclaims that we should. We are told that increased time away from those we love will bring more money. And in turn, more money will bring more things. But in focusing there, we miss out on the things that matter. From family talks to goodnight kisses. Perhaps also our relationship with the Lord.
In the Gospel of Matthew (6:19-21), Jesus reminds us: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
And so, how can we know when we are living simply? When in our homes, we hear the small voices of our children. When in our neighborhoods, we come to know our neighbors. When in our parishes, we attend to those who have recently lost a loved one or are in some other true need.
Yes, some will say that living simply is old-fashioned and out-of-touch with the “goals” of modernity. But still, on Walton’s mountain, an echo from the past may be heard:
Goodnight grandpa. Goodnight Mary Ellen. Goodnight everyone.
As we journey through Lent (and life), perhaps striving for greater simplicity is part of the Divine answer.