Simplifying and decluttering as spiritual disciplines

March 16th, 2015

Decluttering fever

In late January, I took advantage of Clear Your Clutter Day, sponsored by our local chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO). This event allowed participants to bring one carload of items such as paper for shredding, home-remodeling objects, computer parts, mobility-assistance devices, moving boxes, clothing and other unwanted items. Donations would be given to appropriate nonprofits or organizations that could use them (for example, light fixtures to Habitat for Humanity or wheelchairs to a local nonprofit that helps seniors). I brought an old remote-control airplane that had been given to us by a neighbor and had been sitting in our garage for 18 years, never used and needing repairs. When I dropped it off, I was told our airplane (which was large and colorful) would be entered into NAPO’s “strangest item” drawing for a prize.

Lucky me, my item was chosen, so I won a gift certificate to The Container Store, which means I bought more stuff to bring into my house, which will someday end up in my “need-to-give-away pile.” My attempt to declutter backfired a bit, creating a cycle of “stuff out, stuff in”! Then, as the Lenten season approached, I started to notice multiple articles on decluttering and simplification on my Internet news feeds. I wondered why this issue is of such interest to so many Americans and why we feel such an urgent desire to declutter our lives.

Do a quick Google News search on the word declutter, and you’ll come up with numerous articles telling you how to make decluttering easy. Do an Amazon search on books about simplicity, and you’ll find plenty of advice from a variety of authors on letting go, downsizing and living a minimalist lifestyle. Of course, one thing leads to another. In order to declutter our homes and clean out unneeded items, we need to find time, which means decluttering our schedules, which then leads to examining our priorities and goals, which requires will power — all necessary before we can achieve this illusive simplified life. Often easier said than done.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece titled “The Clutter Cure’s Illusory Joy,” Pamela Druckerman comments on our battle with clutter. She notes, “Clutter isn’t a new problem, of course. But suddenly, it’s not just irritating — it’s evil. If you’re not living up to your potential, clutter is probably the culprit.” She discusses self-help resources such as Marie Kondo’s bestseller book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” and how Konda promises that once your home is in order, you can “pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life.”

Druckerman contends that clutter is such a hot topic right now “because we’ve accumulated a critical mass of it. The cascade began 25 years ago when China started to export huge amounts of cheap clothes, toys and electronics. Cut-rate retailers and big-box stores encouraged us to stockpile it all. And we did.” Druckerman admits that even as she has gotten caught up in the decluttering fever, she realizes that it’s not just our possessions that weigh us down. She states, “We’re also overwhelmed by the intangible detritus of 21st-century life: unreturned emails; unprinted family photos; the ceaseless ticker of other people’s lives on Facebook; the heightened demands of parenting and the suspicion that we’ll be checking our phones every 15 minutes, forever.” She has doubts that decluttering will bring the peace she was looking for, and she suspects that getting rid of stuff is an illusory joy, just as the acquiring of it was.

Simplicity as a soul issue

An examination of our possessions inevitably leads to an examination of our hearts. Christ warned us it would. So how can decluttering and simplifying lead to spiritual practices?

In Bill Hybels’s book “Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul,” this pastor and founder of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, argues that busyness and clutter can harm relationships, jobs, sanity and health. He encourages practices such as filling your spiritual bucket by spending time with God, organizing your calendar and making time for family and recreation, being a good steward of your finances by tithing, practicing forgiveness and peace, deepening healthy relationships by spending time with friends and wise people and filling your life with gifts from God that will provide true satisfaction.

In the book “Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go,” Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes that the gospel revolves around the art of letting go, ridding ourselves of the need to be successful, right or powerful. In his version of simplicity, the emptying of self allows us to walk a path of service to others.

Churches are also jumping on the simplicity bandwagon. University United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, is currently promoting a churchwide Lenten study entitled “Christian Simplicity: A Gospel Value.” This study recognizes that voluntary simplicity is a growing movement among Christians around the world and that the daily choices we make are damaging creation and hurting people in other countries. This study asks the question, “How can we [as people of faith] live in a way that is environmentally sustainable and socially just?” Topics in the study examine food buying and eating habits, water conservation, energy and transportation alternatives, and gratitude and generosity.

Simplifying and decluttering can also involve some fun and simple steps. The blog Slow Your Home: The Simpler Life You Want offers tips for taking action. Writer Brooke McAlary suggests performing a quick “clutter bust,” no longer than 45 minutes, and tackling just one area at a time. She encourages people to rearrange their living room to foster conversation, rather than making the television the focal point, and to add plants as a way to “detoxify the air in our homes.”

Another practical tip is to start an “exit drawer,” a place “to keep everything that needs to leave your house when you do,” such as letters that need posting, clothes that need repair and bills that need paying. McAlary states, “Starting (and using) your exit drawer is one sure-fire way to reduce clutter. You will clear your home of things that don’t belong there, and you will clear your head of ‘things I need to remember when I leave.’ ” She also touches on some spiritual practices such as gratitude, acceptance and meditation as ways to foster a slower life with a healthy, balanced perspective.

Wesleyan ideals: Freeing ourselves to serve God

Even Wesleyan heritage gives us tools for simple living. You may have heard the saying “Gain all you can; save all you can; give all you can.” John Wesley developed these three rules for the use of money. Wesley believed we should gain all we can through honest work, but never at the expense of our neighbor or our health. He also believed we should save all we can, not as a mandate to accumulate wealth, but rather as an admonition not to waste money on unneeded possessions. Finally, to give all you can means we are to be wise stewards of all we have and use our gifts to glorify God.

An oft-told story about John Wesley reveals that although his income increased throughout his life, his lifestyle remained simple. He did not increase the amount of money he spent on himself over the years, instead giving away the difference to the poor. He had few possessions, wore inexpensive clothing and ate simple food.

According to Henry H. Knight III, author of “Eight Life-Enriching Practices of United Methodists,” John Wesley had strong concerns about the dangers of riches. Knight states that Wesley believed that our desire for riches leads us to trust in them rather than God, preventing us from truly loving God and our neighbor. In his book, he quotes theologian and author Richard J. Foster, who states that our desire to give our lives meaning through consumption and possessions is “psychotic” because it has “lost touch with reality.”

Wesley’s claims call us to question: What truly governs our lives? And how do we become free to serve God and our neighbor better? Wesley believed that living simply was a step toward a genuine Christian lifestyle.

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