After two years of repeated shutdowns and a limited, restricted way of life, many of us have learned just how good this simpler life can be. Perhaps we have discovered how much we enjoy being with our families. Perhaps we have begun to notice the birds which inhabit our gardens, and their calls, their preferences and their patterns.
Perhaps our hearts have swelled at the music of a previously unnoticed evening chorus. Perhaps we have begun to sense Christ’s spirit flaming in every rock and tree: and I know some of us have begun greeting trees and birds as a matter of course. We have learned that the natural world is much friendlier than we previously imagined: and we learned this because we were forced to slow down and stay in one place.
Pre-Covid, we were a hyperbusy hypermobile congregation. Every week, many of us would travel to another city for work, family, shopping or entertainment. When we were at home, many of us were shuttling kids and teens to activities, and participating in many activities ourselves. For many of us, there was very little space in our lives for just sitting still, watching the birds, and paying attention to God’s breath in the world: but lockdown changed all that.
Now restrictions are easing, however, things are ramping up again. Families and activities and trips away beckon: and we have a choice. We can pick up that old life and start racing again, running here, running there, with barely a moment to pause and just be. Or we can try to orient our lives to this new awareness. We can say no, stay slow, and accept the gifts which come with simplicity: we can choose to do less.
Several years ago, I wrote about the Quaker concept of shedding cumber. We all accumulate material objects, roles, responsibilities, activities, behaviours and relationships: and this is all ‘cumber.’ But while each individual thing might be good, too many of them distract us from our relationship with God. For example, a particular activity might be good in and of itself, but committing to it might mean spreading ourselves or our families too thin, or prevent us from contributing or committing to something else. A particular object might be good to have: but every object requires attention, energy and money to purchase, store, clean, maintain and discard: attention, energy and money which God might put to better use somewhere else. A particular job might be a faithful response to God’s call: but everything has a season, and perhaps a role which was once good and fruitful now demands too much by way of time, travel or emotional energy. We might enjoy a particular friendship: but if we try to juggle too many relationships, we might never go deep in any of them.
Identifying and shedding cumber creates space to notice and respond to God’s activity in the world and God’s promptings within us. It aligns us more closely with Jesus’ blessed poor, and the life of dependence on God’s provision. Of course, identifying and shedding the cumber in our lives is a complex, lifelong, and countercultural task. There are no hard and fast rules; no black and white ways to live. Instead, every possession, choice, activity, role, responsibility, relationship and habit is open to gentle questioning, as we wonder whether it leads us closer to or further away from God.
The four weeks leading up to Christmas, Advent, has historically been treated as a mini-Lent: that is, as a time of reflection, a time of preparation, a time of making room in our lives for Christ. This Advent, I invite you again to consider your cumber. You might ask questions such as, How do anxiety, the need for security, the desire for acceptance, the lust for control or the drive for success affect me here? What might living in freedom and simplicity look like? Do my commitments allow time for Sabbath, for prayer, and for recognising and responding to Christ’s interruptions? If not, what can I do about this? For there are many things which are good to do, but what is good for you to do? It might mean shedding one thing to pick up something else; it might mean letting go of things altogether; it might mean putting something down for a season, ready to pick it up again at another time.
Whatever it means for you, as you reflect on these questions, shed cumber, and choose what is good, I pray that you will know the peace and joy which come with taking responsibility and making room for Christ.
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