By Eddie Pipkin

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about the value of keeping things simple.  “If you’re feeling stressed when the calendar is full, pare things down and be a minimalist,” I wrote.  Indeed, as we enter the Christmas season, I am reminded how the essential, basic holiday trimmings and traditions are the ones that speak most directly to my heart.  But almost as soon as I had published that thought, along came a foodie article reminding me that while the simplest way is often the best way, it’s often not that simple.  Even a ham sandwich, delectable in its most basic iteration, can be the product of considerable thought and careful construction.  Simple doesn’t necessarily mean basic, after all.  In ministry as in cooking — as in celebrating a holiday — as in anything, really — simplicity practiced with excellence is a high and holy art.

The article in question explored the elusive qualities of the French lunch staple, the jambon-beurre (the classic French ham sandwich), a fresh-baked baguette, sliced open, spread with salty butter, and filled with ham slices.  NY Times food writer Florence Fabricant observes that this seemingly straightforward recipe is hard to get right:

For French sandwich shops in New York, jambon-beurre — ham on a buttered baguette — is one of the most difficult, yet satisfying feats.

Jambon beurre, meaning ham-butter, or just ham on buttered baguette, might be the quintessential French sandwich. It’s a staple for a picnic or a quick lunch with a tot of Beaujolais. And it sounds easy enough.

But, as Pierre-Antoine Raberin recalled, it prompted the chef Alain Ducasse to note that “the simpler things can be most difficult.”

Mr. Raberin, who owns L’Ami Pierre, a new cafe in Midtown Manhattan, with the chef Eric Ripert, seconded that assessment, pointing out that the ideal jambon beurre — say, what you might find at countless cafes in Paris or what his kitchen will prepare for you — isn’t easy to replicate at home.

The reasons are related to freshness and quality of ingredients and the convenience of having a commercial kitchen on hand.  It’s hard to have a fresh-baked baguette and room-temperature butter on standby.  When I was college-aged and touring France on a hardscrabble budget, we lived off these sandwiches, so I eat them now with a slathering of a potent additional condiment: nostalgia.

Depending on where we live now (and where we grew up) we are all familiar with debates about the essential qualities of a nostalgia-drenched favorite local food.  In my current neighborhood, it’s an argument over the perfect Cuban sandwich.  In the town where I was raised, it was more likely to be about the proper way to make grits or perfect barbecue.  In any of these cases, everyone knows a wise and well-practiced culinarian who understands the key to getting it right.  And getting it right is not a matter of complexity but of carefully curated ingredients, single-minded focus, patience, passion for the process, respect for the heritage of the sacred dish in question, and . . . a little bit of love.

I thought of all that as I sat in church last weekend and listened to a worship leader slog through one of the most beautiful passages of scripture in a perfunctory monotone that imparted none of the pathos of the words he was reading.  Scripture reading, as practiced in our local churches by their thousands every Sunday without fail, is an excellent example of one of the jamon-beurres of ministry.  (And the use of the word practice in that previous sentence is misplaced – few worship teams / worship leaders practice their presentation of scripture.  It’s just a pro forma presentation for many.)  As a foundational element of our faith, however, scripture reading offers unlimited possibilities as a path to connect people to biblical truths, the first and most profound of which is a habit of reading it with at least the thoughtful reverence that a Georgia boy affords his smoked pork.

Ministry is filled with such moments:

  • Prayer.
  • Song leading and congregational singing.
  • Announcements (that bane of worship time, most often a blah-blah-blah of lists, given almost no treatment as an actual opportunity to inspire participatory passion).
  • Liturgy.
  • Sacraments: baptism and, of course, communion.

Any of those elements can be presented creatively in alternative formats of varying complexity (as we have, in fact, often encouraged in this space as a way to freshen worship).  But each is beautiful as well in simplest form, offered authentically and enthusiastically.

In this Advent and Christmas season, we will all hear a variety of presentations of the “Cantique de Noel” (more popularly known as “O Holy Night” – quite a French theme running through this week’s blog!).  Some versions will be lush with instrumentation; some will be defined by vocal gymnastics; but my favorite will likely be the simple, unaugmented solo.  This is dependent on a confident, well-practiced voice, appropriate for the demanding range of the song.  The song’s delivery will appear effortless in the moment, but in truth it will have been the product of practice and experience and a thoughtful consideration of the context of its presentation.  A stirring voice will soar over the silence, and hearts will be moved.  This is the way with the discerning deployment of the seemingly simple.

This effect is not limited to worship elements.

It’s true in the decorative arts (think of the most affecting Christmas decorations from trees to hearths – gaudy and flashy do not always win).  I loved my old church’s slightly battered Chrismon decorations that hung from the branches of the worship space Christmas tree.  I knew the story of each, not just the symbolism and significance of every individual Chrismon, but the narrative of who made it and how it came to be there.

It’s true even in the most mundane of administrative functions.  Think of the lowly follow-up call.  It’s true that you can invoke all manner of fancy app-based congregational follow-up communication if you’ve got the money and savvy to leverage that technology.  But really a quick, old-fashioned “thinking of you” phone call has the power to connect in a way a text or ‘instant message’ might miss, doesn’t it?

Simple things done well also give us space for a kind of calmness and clarity as we go about our tasks, so noted by David in Psalm 131 (one of the shortest of Psalms, itself an example of a simple thing done with excellence):

A song of ascents. Of David.

My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.

How do you make sure you are doing the simple things well?  What essential aspects of your ministry do you hone to perfection in ways that may look effortless to outsiders but that you know to be the product of thoughtful practice and careful presentation?  In your experience, when does simplicity surpass complexity as a gateway to spiritual connection?

As a bonus this week, enjoy these thoughts on simplicity from a few great minds:

“The core of beauty is simplicity”

– Paulo Coelho

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”

– Hans Hofmann

“Simplicity is an exact medium between too little and too much.”

– Joshua Reynolds

“The art of art, the glory of expression, and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.”

– Walt Whitman

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex…”

– Steve Jobs

“Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.”

– Coco Chanel

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

– Leonardo da Vinci