NOTE: Andy expounds on his new song “The Reason” below the music video
I meet so many people, young men in particular, who spend much of their twenty-something lives asking the questions, “Why am I here?”, ”What am I meant to be doing with my life?” and, “Who am I meant to be doing it with?” So much angst and energy is spent seeking out the “right” path and the “right” partner. It feels as if folks are staring at a map of the world and desperately trying to work out exactly where they should place a pin. You get the sense that if that pin is as much as a millimetre away from the exact point where it is meant to be, then it could be disastrous. Or at least there is a presumption that you could miss out on what has been “planned”.
My fear is that we all spend so much of our lives trying to work out the specifics of what we are “destined for” or “called to”, that we miss the obvious stuff that we are all called to. There is such emotional investment in finding “the answer” that we miss the importance of fleshing out what we do know to be true – the non-negotiables that come without question marks attached.
The ‘what am I meant to be doing?’ question was famously asked by the Old Testament prophet Micah in the form, “What does the Lord require of you?” He lived in complex times of poverty and oppression in many ways not dissimilar to ours. The end of the 8th century BC was panic-filled for the people of Judah, with the Assyrians preparing to invade. Finding the needle of destiny in the haystack, even when you were trying to do the right thing, would have been challenging. Micah could have found many justifications for just looking after number one. I believe, though, Micah’s answer to his own question “What does the Lord require of you?” rings out across the centuries as a simple call. “Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
This simplicity of focus would surely change many of our lives. The shocking truth that life is more about HOW we do it than WHAT we do in it is often troubling to me. Am I in the “right” job? Are we living in the “right” area? I would rather be right about where I’m meant to be and what I’m meant to be doing and then not have to worry much more about how I do it. That way I can relax and not be annoyed by constant ethical decisions. I fool myself that I might someday reach the distant horizon of ‘sortedness, ’ where everything will be in place. I then expend huge amounts of energy trying to control all the variables of my life to get there. However, that’s not the life that Micah is talking about. He was calling his listeners to daily flesh out justice, mercy and humility in whatever situation they found themselves in. What if our simpler destiny was to become more fully human, displaying these incredible, and world-changing, traits of justice, mercy and humility? Could that simultaneously increase our motivation and decrease our stress levels?
Perhaps another part of the problem is that we have become so ruthlessly functional. Our lives are centred on what we do rather than who we are. The first question at a party is almost always, “So what do you do?” If what we do is a primary decider of worth or status then it is not surprising that we invest so much effort in “doing the right thing”.
Simplicity is what our hearts, souls and minds crave, but we rarely allow them to get close to it. There is a huge freedom in just trying to love the people around you. That is one of the reasons my wife Jen and I are desperately trying to be downwardly mobile. To eat and drink simply. To put boundaries on our “screen time”. To hang out with not just the folks we like the most. To make a statement to ourselves at least, if not the world, that increasing power and influence is not necessarily found by ascending the career and social ladders that have been prescribed for us. We need constant reminders that change doesn’t always come from the top down. If you happen to be someone trying to follow the man called Jesus, then you’re called to have friends in all the wrong places as well as the right ones. In fact in his day it was a primary criticism of the way he went about his life.
I have been so inspired by some incredible people who have followed that example and moved themselves and their families into tough estates or even slums to try and bring a bit of hope and life. One crew are called ‘Urban Neighbours of Hope.’ You can read many of their amazing stories online.
One of them is a Kiwi called Mick Duncan. I heard him tell his story at a conference in Melbourne. He was a drug dealer until the day he was taken into someone’s home, having been found lying in the street in a drug-induced haze. He found a Bible in a drawer, fell in love with the Jesus he read about, and desperately wanted to tell others about his new friend. Reading of Christ’s heart for the poor, he then went to live and work in the slums of Manila for 10 years. The most profound moment of his presentation, however, came when he invited his youngest daughter up to share the stage with him. She commented that her friends in New Zealand always asked, “So what was it like living amongst all that poverty?” She said that her response was simply, “I didn’t see any poverty. I just saw my friends.” Wow. You could hear a pin drop, and more than a few tears. I thought, “Could we become the generation for whom that is true? A generation whose children won’t have to start charities to alleviate poverty, because they will simply be helping their neighbours as friends.”
When Mick took the microphone back off his daughter, he spoke of how his eldest son was now working in one of the toughest, drug and crime-infested estates of Wellington. He spoke with tearful pride. It was a gloriously counter-cultural moment. A father was on a stage beaming with pride because his son was living in the worst place possible. What an inversion of the desperation that we feel to impress family and friends with the size of our houses, or the areas we live in.
The tripartite magnetic fields of justice, mercy and humility tug us in directions that we would not otherwise want to go, yet ensure that when we get there (and along the way), we don’t forget who we are and why we’re there. We remember that our help is not needed, but wanted. We remember that when the marginalised are our friends and neighbours we may not need expensive and complicated programmes to see change. We remember that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (what a huge statement!). We remember that there is right and wrong. We remember that we regularly get it wrong.
The call to simple living is one that is hard to follow because every other message from newspapers to advertising, to the internet, to TV is screaming, “Become MORE significant. Then you will be happy. Get a bigger website. Gain more influence and impact. Earn more money. Have more stuff. Have more friends.”
We can’t ‘live simply’ by just hoping to paddle upstream against the tide. We need to make some conscious decisions that will constrain us (yes constrain us) to be face to face with people in need regularly. We can’t do it on our own. Transformation comes through groups of people who have promised to stick with each other and stick to some rhythms of living counter-culturally; and that transformation cuts both ways. We learn and are changed in the process of giving ourselves.
These rhythms could be the 21st century equivalent of the Old Testament laws like Jubilee, where land was to be given back to its original owners after forty-nine years. These laws were based on God’s wise presumption that left to their own devices, within the nation of Israel power and wealth would accumulate in the hands of the few. It’s so good to know we’ve come such a long way from that haven’t we? The tide of human self-centredness inevitably flows that way, and I am no different. I need rhythms that remind me life is a gift and not a right. I need rhythms that remind me that I am not the centre of the universe. Otherwise I default to my own comfort and security. Multiply me by 7 billion and you get the reason why the global economic system is making the rich richer and the poor poorer.
So what about putting some groove in your life? Like any drummer will tell you, it takes a lot of discipline to learn a rhythm and stick to it, but once you do it provides the spine to be able to do lots of other fun things. The discipline actually brings freedom, and it means lots of other people can play with you too. Some of us try to play music without a stable rhythm. Sometimes our ‘organic spontaneity’ is just selfish noise.
What rhythms might get you more regularly where you need to be and with whom you need to be, to help get your heart to where it needs to be?
- Binning your TV aerial. (you can still catch stuff on the internet if you really need to, but at least you control it, rather than it controlling you?)
- Moving to an area which is in need of some hope.
- Seeking out any excuse to throw parties.
- Eating with your neighbours once every couple of weeks.
- Once a week, living off just £5 for the day.
- Only eating meat at weekends.
- Taking 10 minutes every day to be absolutely still and silent.
Living. Simple. Not really.
Andy Flannagan spends much of his time with his wife Jenny working out how to be downwardly mobile in the centre of London. “Drowning in the Shallow” was described as a “near-perfect album” by Cross Rhythms magazine, but he is still disappointingly imperfect – www.andyflan.com. He is also the Director of Christian in Politics, based in the Houses of Parliament. One of his primary passions is working to see a just re-wiring of the global economic system.