A Simple Simplicity of Gratitude

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd               Thanksgiving                                Oct. 7, 2018

Matthew 6:25-34

Sometimes we can make life awfully complicated. We twist ourselves into pretzels trying to be and do everything. But if we can de-clutter our life from all that is unnecessary, a sweet simplicity awaits. In the stillness of not doing, we may breathe in the Spirit of Wisdom, who helps us discern the pulse of life amidst the debris. Our new moderator, Richard Bott, quoted a Buddhist teacher in his Welcoming message: “Don’t just do something. Sit there!”

Similarly, our mental activity can become overly complicated. We can go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to justify our actions and our beliefs. The more words we use, the more we may be trying to convince ourselves of choices that may be unwise.

We see this through elaborate arguments used to justify political decisions and policies, religious doctrine and even the existence of God. The more dense the argument, the more suspect it may be.

William of Ockham, who was born in the 13th century, was a Franciscan friar who was concerned about complicated arguments that tried to prove the existence of God. He was a practical man of faith who lived with simplicity. “God can’t be logically proven,” he said, “We know God exists through faith and through the revelation of God’s Spirit in our lives and in our world.” He wanted people to look around and within them and find God’s living Spirit there. Philosophical debates about the existence of God simply put God into little boxes and shut out the mystery of the Divine.

In a delightful classic called, Mister God, This Is Anna, Fynn brings home a 4 year old runaway girl. She ended up living with Fynn and his mother in England, just before World War II broke out, until her tragic death from an accident three years later. It’s based on a true story and recounts the astonishing ability of Anna to ask insightful questions about God. The author writes, “At five years Anna knew absolutely the purpose of being…the meaning of love and was a personal friend and helper of Mister God. At six Anna was a theologian, mathematician, philosopher, poet and gardener.”[1] Little Anna complained about people making up all sorts of descriptions about God—who God is and isn’t—but, Anna argued, they were trying to measure God from the outside. Calling God omnipresent and omniscient were just words to create a box into which God would be guardedly stuffed. “Instead,” Anna argued, “People have to measure God from the inside.” She also said in her Cockney English, “There ain’t no different churches in heaven ‘cos everybody in heaven is inside themselves.”

William of Ockham would have smiled at her. Little Anna already knew what the mystics have been trying to teach us for centuries. We can’t reason God, as if God is an object of study. It simply won’t work. We can only know God from the inside.

William lived about a century after Hildegard of Bingen and he was probably acquainted with her writing when he moved to Germany. Hildegard saw God as the pulse of life breathing the Living Light into all of creation. She wrote, “Wonderful, mysterious radiance, hidden from humankind, you are life in everything.” Hildegard and William wrote about God from the inside.

This didn’t mean that Hildegard and William of Ockham avoided intellectual discussions. To the contrary, they both wrote many books on different topics. William of Ockham focussed his writing on philosophy, logic and theology. He is most known for Ockham’s razor, a principle of simplicity that states, “Simpler explanations are more likely to be correct.” (A razor in philosophy means a principle that shaves off unlikely explanations or unnecessary actions. As another example, Hanlon’s razor states, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”)

Another version of Ockham’s razor states, “It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.” Less words, less stuff, less distraction from the heart of God. William of Ockham was actually charged with heresy by the pope when William upheld his Franciscan vow of poverty and insisted that Jesus and his apostles did not own any property. The charge of heresy sounds a bit bizarre to us, but William then argued that those who followed in the apostolic tradition should not own any property either—a bit of a challenge to Roman See.

Simplicity was at the core of William’s belief. For those who have the staples of life, the less we have, the less we have to worry about. This lens of simplicity helps us understand today’s gospel reading. It challenges us not to worry about the needs of tomorrow, for today’s troubles are enough for today. Instead of worrying about the future and on what we may not have, we might better focus on the present and on what we do have. Developing a practice of simplicity leads us to gratitude for the abundance we have received, whatever that be love, health, mental ability, friends and family, career, pension, or savings.

But what about the times of crisis when it seems as if God has not even provided even for our staples? A difficult harvest is becoming a reality for some of our own Manitoba farmers. There are still crops waiting to be harvested, including some wheat, barley and oats. That is the reason I changed our first hymn for today. We were supposed to sing “Come, You Thankful People Come,” which includes the words “All is safely gathered in, safe before the storms begin.” All is not safely gathered in this year. I was challenged by some farmers a few years ago never to sing this hymn when late crops are rotting in the rain.

When we’re going through challenging times, how can we understand this passage from Matthew that tells us not to worry about tomorrow, for God will provide? One of the ways that God provides is to give each of us who have plenty a little nudge to share with those who don’t. If we quiet ourselves enough to hear that still, small voice—to hear God from the inside—we will realize the abundance we do have. God is depending upon us, as Christ’s hands and feet, to share the harvests of the earth so that all will have enough, even when the harvest in some parts of the world dries up or rots.

The parable of the long spoons is told throughout the world in Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian contexts. The Christian version describes the difference between heaven and hell. In hell, everyone is seated around a table with a bowl of steaming stew in the middle, but each person has only one spoon with a handle a meter long strapped to their hand. No matter how they try to position the spoon, the handle is too long for them to be able to eat. They begin to starve and weep, tortured by the rich smell of the stew that they cannot move to their mouths. In heaven, we have the identical scene. Everyone is seated around a table with long-handled spoons strapped to their hand. But in this picture, they have realized that the only way they can eat from the big pot of steaming stew is to feed each other. They are happily sated with both the stew and with one another.

When we begin to strip away the superfluous, we find God’s pulse of life radiating from within connecting with God’s verdant power in one another and throughout Creation. Because we are not alone, we can be grateful for the abundance we can share.

Hildegard of Bingen wrote:

As the Creator loves creation, so creation loves the Creator.

Creation, of course, was fashioned to be adorned, to be showered, to be gifted with the love of the Creator.

The entire world has been embraced by this kiss.

God has gifted creation with everything that is necessary.


[1] Fynn, Mister God, This Is Anna (New York: Ballantine Books, 1974), p. 1.