Aspiring to simplicity, and the ordinary miracle of an egg
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
– Lao Tzu
It was during my undergraduate years that I first encountered Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Lieh Tzu and the other teachers of Taoist philosophy. I remember learning of the guiding Taoist principle of wu wei, which translates, “do nothing and all will be accomplished.” The goal of wu wei was not to advocate laziness, but rather to encourage the adherent to do nothing that would undermine the equilibrium of harmony, the balanced symmetry of the East Asian ‘complementary dualism.’ The yin/yang of complementary dualisms in the East are contrasted with the linear ‘conflict dualisms’ of western systems. Striving to live in harmony with each other and the world became foundational aspirations for ancient Taoist and Confucian systems of philosophy and government. Lao Tzu cited the ‘great treasures’ of simplicity, patience and compassion as attributes of life in that harmonious whole.
Aspiring to simplicity is not a foreign concept in our faith tradition. Jesus invited his would-be followers to aspire to simplicity in his Sermon on the Mount, teaching them to live simply and not to worry.
. . . do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them . . . And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these . . . strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
– from Matthew chapter 6
We confess that living simply and without worry is not a strength we bear gracefully into this time in human history. We have much on our minds in this unsettled time of pandemic and economic struggle, societal upheaval and political campaigns. One could observe that this is not a simple time, that aspiring to the treasure of simplicity, not worrying, giving it all over to God, etc. can come off as naïve or disengaged. But when his opponents tried to trap Jesus into political debate, he suggested that they render to Caesar what was Caesar’s. When they tried to divert him with obscure theological arguments, he would tell them a story. A sower went out to sow seed . . . The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, like yeast placed in three measures of flour, like a net full of fish . . . He taught with simple images that were, as he explained his parables, loaded with profound truth.
There are miracles to be discovered in simple observations. My dear bride Rebecca has taught me of the miracle of the monarch butterfly as she has reared tiny white eggs from milkweed leaves through their lives as caterpillars, chrysalises and the extraordinary emergence of the butterflies. To observe that transformation in rearing habitats in our dining room is amazing. My perception of the lowly milkweed, which farmers and gardeners have sought to eradicate over the years, is enfolded in awe, having witnessed that entire transformation story firsthand. To nurture that perception requires that one observe a simple leaf with its microscopic egg, the ordinary development of a ‘bug,’ while preparing to be amazed.
Now we plant milkweed.
We could use a bit more of the simple and the ordinary to ground us in the summer of 2020. Consider this lovely poem on the ordinary miracle of an egg, A Quiet Life, by Baron Wormser.
What a person desires in life
is a properly boiled egg.
This isn’t as easy as it seems.
There must be gas and a stove,
the gas requires pipelines, mastodon drills,
banks that dispense the lozenge of capital.
There must be a pot, the product of mines
and furnaces and factories,
of dim early mornings and night-owl shifts,
of women in kerchiefs and men with
Then water, the stuff of clouds and skies
and God knows what causes it to happen.
There seems always too much or too little
of it and more pipelines, meters, pumping
stations, towers, tanks.
And salt – a miracle of the first order,
the ace in any argument for God.
Only God could have imagined from
nothingness the pang of salt.
Political peace too. It should be quiet
when one eats an egg. No political hoodlums
knocking down doors, no lieutenants who are
ticked off at their scheming girlfriends and
take it out on you, no dictators
posing as tribunes.
It should be quiet, so quiet you can hear
the chicken, a creature usually mocked as a type
of fool, a cluck chained to the chore of her body.
Listen, she is there, pecking at a bit of grain
that came from nowhere.
Baron Wormser has been a librarian, teacher, and poet laureate in Maine, where he also lived with his family “off the grid” for a time. This poem is perfectly suited for an age of pandemic and “social distance” partly because it exalts an ordinary, solitary act, the boiling of an egg, and partly because it helps us see again that such acts connect us in all kinds of ways with all kinds of people.
My sisters and brothers, in this rambling offering today, please receive my commendation to find a focus on the simple and ordinary, knowing that miracles proceed from that which we set apart as common. An egg, a caterpillar, a mustard seed, a bit of yeast – from such simple gifts come profound understanding. Receive the treasure of simplicity.
Blessings to you, O people of Trinity. May you be safe, may you be well, and may you be held in love.
It remains a privilege to serve as one of your pastors.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Robert Linstrom