‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free, ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be; And when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gained To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed; And to turn, turn will be our delight, ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.
I recently heard the words of this early American hymn for the first time. The tune was made famous by being included in Aaron Copeland’s Classical work Appalachian Spring; not knowing what it actually came from, the music always sounded like Lord of the Dance to me.
Hearing the words for the first time fairly recently, and having a background in another country and another century, it took a little while to really understand and appreciate the message of the hymn. It doesn’t help that “simple” has come to mean “lacking understanding”, “ignorant” or “witless”. It’s a gift to be lacking understanding… It’s a gift to be ignorant… What?
To paraphrase Winnie the Pooh: This is the Wrong Sort of Simple.
Winnie the Pooh is a pretty good metaphor for what I mean, actually. I always want to make things so complicated. Like Owl, I admire learning and intellect, particularly, being painfully honest, my own. I use huge words where small ones would do. I say “The flood waters have reached an unprecedented height” when I mean “there’s a lot of water about”. I’m more than a little bit pompous. I have, to use A. A. Milne’s term, Brain.
There is, of course, in the world of Pooh Bear, a drawback to having Brain. “Rabbit’s clever,” Pooh says to Piglet at one point. Piglet agrees. “Yes, Rabbit’s clever”. “And he has Brain.” Again, Piglet agrees. Rabbit indeed has Brain. “I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”
Education and cleverness are wonderful things (rather like Tiggers), but there can come a point when all of our cleverness and learning just makes things more complicated than they need to be.
I recognise this trait in myself. I’ve been pedantic about knowledge since I first started to get any, and I can, like Owl, easily slip into a rather superior sort of mould.
Part of me wants complication, particularly in ideas. “There’s more going on here than meets the eye” is becoming a common statement from me about various Scripture passages. Sometimes it’s true. Sometimes we could all do with digging a little deeper. But I recognise a tendency in myself to over-complicate. To get so caught up in sifting through the complexities that I miss the simple truth that’s staring me in the face. Like Martha, I’m worried and concerned about many things. Though in my case, they are less the tasks and chores of the everyday than the spiritual knowledge and in-depth insight of my own particular brand of complication.
Sometimes, it truly is a gift to be simple. To be free of all the mental clutter that scatters our thoughts into a million different places, when all we really need is to focus in on the One thing that is needed. In my case, the Marys that have chosen what is better are those on the ground, who are right there with the Lord in the place of service.
As an educated man and self-confessed intellectual, it’s humbling to admit. I’ve spent my entire life filling my mind. I’m proud of my intellectual powers. I’ll accept almost any insult short of “you are stupid”. I like the “Wow, I never thought of that” comments I sometimes get. I like being able to see and grasp things others sometimes can’t.
Ah, pride. First of the seven sins called “deadly” by the Catholics because they beget other sins. The arrogance of standing before God and thinking we have something of our own and in ourselves. Of taking a superior position with respect to our brothers. Of thinking that We Deserve Something.
To come down from our high intellectual tower to where we ought to be, in the press of the world, serving as our Lord before us… Truly, a gift.
Because it’s there that we find Jesus. “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to Me.” He’s in those we minister to, and He’s right there already ministering to them. He does what He sees the Father doing, and invites us to come and do it with Him.
And when we find Jesus, and join Him in His work, serving the least of these, we find ourselves.
Ourselves without the complicated knots we tie ourselves in, the arrogance and hiding and shame. Ourselves as we were meant to be. And we find joy, because what the Lord has for us truly is “the place just right”. The valley of love, where we find ourselves loving Him with all our heart and our neighbour as ourself. Where we turn and turn with Him in a whirl of delight. Not that it isn’t hard, nor that it won’t be painful. But it’s far more real and more satisfying to the soul than the cold, barren complexities we hide ourselves away in.
It’s paradoxical. We find true wisdom in simplicity, in laying aside our pride in our own cleverness. We find honour in being numbered along with our Lord, in the heat and dust of the place of service. We grasp a higher truth by abandoning the quest for More Knowledge and using what we have for others.
And as the song says, when we find this true simplicity, not the simplicity of the fool but the simplicity of the truly wise, then “to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed”. Because being the top dog, or the intellectual genius, or whatever, won’t matter any more. We will be able to bow and bend to one another in grace, not concerned for position or status or our pride in our own cleverness, no shame, no reason to hide,no reason to refuse to bend. Able to say those fateful words: “I don’t know“. Or “You were right; I was wrong.”
Delighted to turn from our self-absorbtion toward those we should be serving. From our fear of being exposed as frauds to the freedom of humility. To the delight of service. With nary so much as a “look at me; I’m so humble”. Made like our Lord, who for the joy set before Him endured the Cross, scorning its shame. Able to take positions that look shameful or scornful, because our joy is found there in the Person of Christ.
‘Til by turning, turning, we come round right.