Uncluttering Our Lives: Simplicity

Oh, the irony of the day set aside to consider simplicity being more complicated than any typical day! Between church, sports, and school commitments, this family set off running in multiple directions. Some of us said goodbye more than twelve hours ago and haven’t been face-to-face since. And before bedtime one kid suddenly started puking. Nope, nothing simple about this day.

Let’s face it: simplicity is simply a struggle for most of us. Culture pushes us to be more, do more, buy more, more, MORE! We measure our worth – consciously or not – by the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the gadgets we carry, the black space (as opposed to blank space) on our calendars.

I am not a simple gal, though I long to be. I dreamily page through each issue of Real Simple magazine, knowing it is not now nor ever will be my life’s reality.

I am dramatic and disorganized, complicated and continually overwhelmed. I fight hard, and maybe not hard enough, against the entropy determined to rule our home. As much as I dislike being a stuff manager, I spend a fair share of every day shuffling our belongings (backpacks, shoes, laundry, dishes…) from here to there and another fair share ignoring belongings that ought to be shuffled. No matter the organizational systems set in place (yes, we have key bowls and shoe baskets, not to mention laundry baskets and towel hooks), it still feels like a sisyphean battle.

After remodeling bids came in way too high, dear friends have recently taken advantage of the economic upturn to sell their house. Any move prompts a purge, and they purged prior to putting their home on the market and again more thoroughly once it sold. Watching the process has initiated something in me, and I have begun to ask myself (and Guy, who might be a tad overwhelmed at this turn of ‘tude): “If we were moving, would we move this?”

We opened the garage for just one hour this weekend and came up with an obscene number of things we could donate or sell, some stuff in good usable condition but so well put away (read: ignored) that we hadn’t seen it in years. We’ve listed only a fraction on a local ‘garage sale’ listserve, and took a trunk-full to the Rescue Mission drop-box. We have so much more to do!

A laundry basket filled with items to sell/donate

A laundry basket overflowing with items to sell/donate

Why do I hang on to stuff I don’t use when it could be precisely the thing someone else needs? Why do I hang on to earthly treasures I have ceased to treasure when they might form a wobbly barricade separating me from Jesus?

Jesus wants to be my treasure. He wants my heart, but it’s pinned beneath towers of cascading clutter.

Guy and I married when we were 23 years old. We lived in small spaces and moved every few years, and so we left my archivally-preserved wedding dress in a corner of my grandmother’s closet. Some years ago during a Chinese Checkers marathon, I asked her if I could at long last have it back. She sat up straighter, made a funny face, and confessed: “It’s gone.”

My wedding dress had been stolen when she moved from an upstairs to a downstairs unit in the same building.

While I felt strong disdain for whomever would steal boxes from a 96-year-old woman as she belatedly moved to a downstairs apartment in a building she had occupied for 30-some years, I also experienced heartbreak for my lost wedding dress.

And yet…
* I had no plans to wear it;
* I have no daughters for whom I should save it;
* And, most importantly, its loss has in no way affected the quality of our marriage.

That loss has affected my view of stuff, however. If I can release my wedding dress into the great wide world (of dirty rotten grandma’s-box stealing thieves… oops, sorry), then I can certainly let go of items far less sentimental.

As a family, we have done a few things to counter the cultural tide, to anchor our hearts solidly in Jesus’ kingdom:

1) Among our posted family values: “Boredom = Opportunity” and “Play!”
We try hard not to over-schedule our kids. One sport at a time, and mostly rec leagues, and no more than three weekly activities each season (sport, church, music) has been our MO. We also don’t allow screen time during the school week, so the kids have plenty of time to get bored, to be creative, and to simply be kids who play. One Mother’s Day when Teen was still in elementary school he made me a home-made card that read, “Thank you for not over-scheduling us so that we get stressed out!” Melt a mama’s heart!

2) Another family value: “Need vs. Want.”
We don’t buy just because we want. We weigh desires against needs. We can easily convince ourselves that we need more, but honestly we need far less than we think we do. Staying out of stores is also a big deterrent against shopping for entertainment.

Creating margin on the calendar and on our counter tops will be an ongoing process, but it’s one to which I’m committed. Here are a few of my recent and regular steps:

1) Set a timer for 20 minutes, choose one cluttered space, and attack. When possible, set aside a longer block of time.

Even 5 minutes could make a dent in this pile

Even 5 minutes could make a dent in this pile

2) Continually winnow. I’m not one for taking everything out of a space and only putting back the essentials. That approach feels too drastic, too large, too time-consuming. And so I try to look fresh at each space as I come to it: what do I see today that I can let go of? Same goes for the calendar: do we need that activity? and likewise: what good activities are missing because we seem to be overscheduled?

It's tempting to say I need a bigger closet, but I really just need less stuff

It’s tempting to say I need a bigger closet, but I really just need less stuff

3) The Art of Simple has become one of my favorite blogs. The posts tend to be short and to the point of simplifying so many areas of life.

4) A book I expect to come back to again and again: Throw Out 50 Things. Gail Blanke walks you through each room/area of your living space and your brain and examines why we hold on to our stuff and our unhelpful thinking patterns.

And a Bible study for you, as together we treasure our relationship with Jesus.

Connect
Reflect on an example from your life when you lost (in some way) a precious possession. What was it and what happened?

Study
Read aloud Matthew 6:19-21.
Give three examples of someone storing up treasures on earth. What do you think Jesus meant by storing up treasures in heaven?
What problems result from storing up treasures on earth (v. 19)?
What are the benefits of storing up treasures in heaven (vv. 20-21)?

Live
In what ways can earthly treasures get in the way of storing up heavenly treasures? Explain.
How does storing up treasures in heaven help you simplify on earth? (cf. Mt. 6:33)
Where would you put yourself on a spectrum from hermit to hoarder? Explain.
Describe a time in your life when you lived simply. What were some of the advantages?
Name one or two obstacles to simplicity that you might be able to remove from your life, and how you might begin to address them this week.
Which Faith Training Exercises have you tried recently? Share joys and struggles.
Which exercises might God call you to this week, and why?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that the Holy Spirit will use a discipline of simplicity to draw you nearer to God.

Hope for Salvation

Tween outgrew his room.

Three issues: increasing age and maturity; a sentimental-pack rat soul; and the furniture and layout just weren’t working. The convertible crib-daybed-full bed frame cracked some time ago. The remaining headboard, unattached, banged against the wall each time he rolled over. The drawers for the coordinating changing table-dresser stuck. Both pieces were more than sixteen years old, hand-me-downs from his brother. His rug, another hand-me-down, had belonged to an older friend who outgrew it, a cityscape “drive-your-Hotwheels here” rug. As our house doesn’t have a coat closet, our winter coats occupied half of his closet. His own coats never made it to the overly-crowded closet, so they took up valuable floor space. He had WAY too much stuff in the small space, and no good organizational system.

"Make a path!" our most regular room-related mantra

“Make a path!” our most regular room-related mantra

Our Christmas gift to him: a room re-do. We took him shopping on Saturday to buy a new dresser, shelving units, rug, pillows to sub for a headboard, and curtains for his closet. But we hadn’t really calculated how two hours of furniture shopping would equal exponential hours of clean-out.

We boxed and bagged up most of his stuff and piled it on the living room rug. Dad spackled, sanded, and touch-up painted the walls. We sorted “Keep” and “Give away”s. We vacuumed the dust bunnies that multiply behind and under furniture. We wiped down the old furniture, assembled the new, stuffed the pillowcases, rolled up the old rug and rolled out the new one. Less than five hours of work, over two days, and we have so much more to do before we’re done.

My laundry baskets currently hold a) enough Nerf guns for a neighborhood army and b) a small library of books that don’t fit his bookcase. Both baskets – and so much else! – currently reside in the garage, our own Land of Misfit Toys. I considered taking “during” pictures, but honestly, didn’t want to remember the overwhelming and fairly disheartening chaos.

For now, we’ve hit the Pause button. Shelving units and additional stuff-sorting will happen slowly, over weeks, but I can’t handle More this close to Christmas. Besides, I’m pretty sure he won’t miss most of the stuff in the garage.

Better, right?

Better already, right?

Tween had made a mess of the “broken system” that had been his room. It took expensive and hard work, more than he could manage on his own, to save him from himself and restore order and peace to his world. In short – and yes, an admittedly poor analogy – Tween needed salvation.

Sin broke the world God created. Humankind has done a bang-up job of wrecking the good place God made to be our home. We needed God to step in, to pay the price and do the work we couldn’t do for ourselves.

God gives us the gift of salvation, freely because there is not a single thing in the whole world we could do to earn it. He gives it, we receive it. And then we receive it over and over, day after day, hour after hour, again and again. We continue accepting the gift because we continue to need it. Philippians 2:12-13 says, “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” God does the work, and we do the work of “working it out.”

Tween (and we) have hours of sorting and assembling yet to go. He will then have to hang his jackets, put away his clothes and toys, make his bed. We made it possible, but he will have work to do, no more excuses. Before it did feel (at least a little bit) hopeless. Now we are hopeful. And it feels good.

Week 4 – Hope of Salvation
December 21-24

Read Scripture: Micah 5:2, 4-5a; Matt. 2:1-6

Candle lighting: Light the four perimeter candles.

Read: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The first candle represents the hope of Israel. The second candle represents the hope of heaven. The third candle represents the hope of His coming. The fourth candle represents the hope of salvation.

This week we celebrate the birth of a baby born to be King. Mighty kings and small children together bow before Him in worship. God promised that this baby will be a good Shepherd and a strong Ruler, bringing peace to the ends of the earth. Come and worship the hope of our salvation!

Pray: Dear God, thank you that you kept your promise to send us the hope of salvation. In the name of Jesus we hope and pray, Amen.

 

Throughout the Week// light the candle, read and discuss the daily Scripture and pray together.

Light four candles as you say: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Monday// Psalm 42:5// What makes you feel downcast, and how can God help you?
Tuesday// Psalm 65:5// What awesome or righteous deeds have you seen God do?
Wednesday// Ephesians 4:4// All God’s people hope in Him. Say thank you to Jesus for your hope in Him!

Pray: Dear God, thank you that you kept your promise to send us the hope of salvation. In the name of Jesus we hope and pray, Amen.

Where do we place our hope?

I had a surprising and completely lovely conversation with Tween after Sunday school this morning. I asked him about the lesson, and he told me the story commonly called The Rich Young Ruler (found in Matthew 19:16-22 and Mark 10:17-27): a man who has kept all the commandments asks Jesus what else he must do, and Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions and follow Him.

So I asked Tween what that meant practically, did he need to go home and clean out his room? (Horror! This kid thrives in a creative chaos that boggles his mama’s brain).

No, he responded, but this month’s Sunday school theme is “Don’t Get Wrapped Up in Your Stuff, Get Wrapped Up in Christmas.”

Okay, so what does that mean? Are you more wrapped up in your stuff or in Christ?

Christ, he immediately gushed. (A Christmas blessing for my heart!)

So how could your stuff distract you from Jesus? Isn’t that what the story is about?

He explained: it means don’t get so excited about your toys that you sit in your room playing when you could be out on a beautiful nature walk with friends. Or at church.

Because on a nature walk with friends you experience God?

Yes! You get outside, with other people, and you see what God has created and how good God is and how amazing this world is. That’s what we did all summer in Costa Rica. That’s why we went to Costa Rica. Because Teen had been there and he told us how beautiful it is and that God is at work there, and so we went to see what God was doing.

Joy, unspeakable joy! The kid gets it. He understands that getting wrapped up in Jesus is the only place to be, and he understands the point of our sabbatical trip: to eliminate distractions and seek Jesus.

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:2).

And yet we insist on self-focus which leads to stress and distress, worry and fear. Why, when instead we could have hope, joy, peace, and love? It’s not because self-focus is easier, though it is perhaps more natural.

Ann Voskamp writes: “Worry is always belief gone wrong. Because you don’t believe that God will get it right. Peace is belief that exhales. Because you believe that God’s love is everywhere – like air” (Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, p44 – have I sold you on this book yet? I’m loving it!).

Believing it to be so sacred as to be unpronounceable, Jews don’t speak aloud God’s name, YHWH or Yahweh, and instead call Him by other names, Elohim or Adonai, Strong One, Lord, Father. Some argue that the name itself is the sound of breathing, that our every breath acknowledges God the Giver of Life. And don’t we all really need a deep breath, especially in this busy season? We need a change of focus, a change in our very being.

I am making a commitment this week: first, to breathe deeper, and secondly, to pray each time I change my clothes, reminding myself to take off myself and put on Christ.

Advent Week 2 – Where Do We Place Our Hope?
December 7-13

Read Scripture: Colossians 3:1-17

Candle lighting: Light the first and second candles.

Read: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The first candle represents the hope of Israel. The second candle represents the hope of heaven.

How many times today did you think about yourself: your fears or worries, your wants and needs? We so easily forget the hope God gives us in His Son. Like torn and dirty clothes, take off your troubles and doubts that lead to sin. Put on the hope of your new life in Jesus: the cozy Christmas sweater adorned with compassion, peace and gratitude. Live in hope as you set your heart and mind on Jesus.

Pray: Dear God, help us to let go of everything that distracts us from you. Thank you for the gift of new life. In the name of Jesus we hope and pray, Amen.

 

Throughout the Week// light the candle, read and discuss the daily Scripture and pray together.

Light two candles as you say: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Read & Discuss:

Monday// Psalm 31:24// What does it mean to you to hope in the Lord?
Tuesday// Psalm 62:5// How can you rest in God today?
Wednesday// Psalm 147:11// When have you felt the Lord’s delight in you?
Thursday// Matthew 6:33-34// How can you seek God first and worry less today?
Friday// Romans 5:1-5// God grows our hope when we wait for Him. When have you felt stronger after experiencing something hard?
Saturday// Hebrews 10:22-23// How will you draw near to God today?

Pray: Dear God, help us to let go of everything that distracts us from you. Thank you for the gift of new life. In the name of Jesus we hope and pray, Amen.

Hope: to expect with confidence

We came home Friday evening to a clean and orderly house, which stayed that way for less than 24 hours.

Many years ago we recognized the insanity of bringing more Stuff into our home for December and January birthdays with Christmas sandwiched between without first ridding our home of some of our outgrown Stuff.

As we traveled last week, we had only Saturday to observe our annual Pre-Christmas Closet Clean-Out. This year Guy worked with his sons, setting a reasonable limit of Closet Only instead of Whole Room. I tackled an odd spot in our bedroom: both sides of our recliner where stuff tends to pile and my bookshelf/cupboard. Oh, and the Blouse section of my closet. Not enough by any means, but enough for one day.

This year I had a little extra inspiration from my college associate, Margot Starbuck, a super-creative, colorful and dynamic woman who also tells a great story. She wrote an article for Her.meneutics on getting rid of 1,000 things. I did not try to count the things we got rid of yesterday, so I have no idea how close we got to that number; it took Margot a few days, so I’m sure we had a few (hundred) things to go. And we did a bit of shuffling: at least one book went from my shelf to Teen’s, while my never-worn slippers went to Tween, for example. Still, we formed a sizable pile of donations for the Bay Area Rescue Mission.

My mom repeated a quote (author unknown) to me on Thanksgiving: “America is the only country with a day set aside to give thanks for what we have, celebrated by buying stuff we don’t need.” Right-o. “Need versus Want” is one of our family values, meaning we do what needs doing (homework, housework, etc) first before spending time on things we’d probably rather do; we spend money on what we need before buying what we want. Which means I’ve stayed out of stores this fall as we’ve been paying off our summer in Costa Rica and saving up for Disneyland and the holidays. And truly, we don’t need very much.

My favorite line from Margot’s article: “…I’d not recognized the weight I’d been carrying—of paying for the stuff, and caring for the stuff, and storing the stuff, and moving the stuff around in the front hall closet so I could reach the other stuff behind the first stuff.” Yes! While I admittedly still desire Stuff, I have little desire to be Stuff Manager.

As soon as yesterday’s Closet Clean-Out piles were sorted and stacked, the fall decor made for a new pile as out came the Christmas decorations. By this evening we hope to have the indoor decorations up (and clean and order restored); by next weekend we’ll have a lit and decorated tree.

Advent has begun.

“Advent” means “coming” in Latin and is the season in the Church calendar during which we prepare our hearts for the Lord’s coming, first on Christmas and ultimately as He ushers His people into eternity.

I did not grow up in a church that observed Advent, but I have come to love its intentionality. Christmas festivities make for lots of hustle and bustle – parties, baking, shopping, wrapping; the Christmas cards alone will take hours over weeks to create, order, address, stamp, mail. Advent invites me to pause in the midst of Christmas activities, to listen for His gentle whisper, to focus on the work He will do in my heart as I await His coming.

Before dinner tonight we will light the first candle of Advent. This year our church will focus on the theme of HOPE, and so our daily readings will also focus on hope. “Hope” means “to expect with confidence.” While we so often use it as a synonym for “wish” – “I’m wishing/hoping for a new car this Christmas!” – it is better understood as a synonym for “trust” – “I hope/trust in Jesus as my Savior.”

These readings have been written to guide you and your loved ones through the Advent season; you may use them with family, small group, or individually. May the God of hope clean out and fill up our hearts!

Week 1 – Hope of Israel
November 30-December 6

Read Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7

Candle lighting: Light the first candle.

Read: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The first candle represents the hope of Israel.

Imagine a midnight darkness that lasts all day. Imagine going to school or work in the dark; spending time with family and friends in the dark; living in constant, total darkness. That’s what life without hope is like. God promised to send His Son to bring light and hope into this dark world. God’s people hope for the arrival of this baby who will bring comfort, justice, strength and peace.

Pray: Dear God, thank you for promising light and hope for a dark world. Thank you for sending your Son to us. In the name of Jesus we hope and pray, Amen.

 

Throughout the Week//light the candle, read and discuss the daily Scripture and pray together.

Light the first candle as you say: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Read & Discuss:
Monday// Jeremiah 29:11// How do you feel knowing that God has plans for you?Tuesday// Psalm 71:5// When did you first put your hope in God?
Wednesday// Psalm 130:7// When have you experienced the Lord’s unfailing love?Thursday// Matthew 5:17// God kept His promise when He sent His Son, Jesus. How can that help you trust Him this week?
Friday// Matthew 22:36-39// What will you do today to love God, neighbor and self?Saturday// Luke 1:67-68// Jesus rescues us from sin. How has Jesus saved your life?

Pray: Dear God, thank you for promising light and hope for a dark world. Thank you for sending your Son to us. In the name of Jesus we hope and pray, Amen.