Declutter Your Soul with Christian Minimalism

Less is the new more. Marie Kondo is just the latest incarnation of a bigger trend toward living more with less. Yet minimalism is not without its critics. Some have accused it of being a luxury of the upper middle class, a subtle form of virtue-signaling akin to veganism. Others guard their beloved possessions from minimalist scrutiny with a fervor bordering on obsession. Marie Kondo, for all her joyful, pixie-like charm, recently found one group of Americans who weren’t having it  – book lovers. Her crime? Suggesting that you really only need about thirty books.

As an avid reader, I assume she means per subject.

Confession time: I consider myself a minimalist-enthusiast — in theory at least, if not always in practice. I love throwing things away, or better yet not purchasing them to begin with. I’m not particularly fastidious in my cleaning habits, but clutter certainly stresses me out. Part of me dreads each Christmas and kid’s birthday party, anticipating the inevitable tsunami of plastic crap that I will have to accommodate until I can safely donate it to Goodwill.

But for me, minimalism is about more than decluttering, more than tidying up; it’s about taking the time to reflect on what’s truly important, and then making time for it. It’s about rejecting the reflexive materialist consumerism that engulfs our culture. It’s about spending time in nature and investing in human relationships. It’s about eating healthy food made from a few natural ingredients versus fast food and processed snacks. (It’s about failing at all of these occasionally, but trying to keep myself on track.)

I have always felt that my minimalism was highly compatible with my Christian faith, but recently I decided to investigate this further. My motive: I was trying to adapt a lesson I had used with my high school history students for a Sunday school class.

First, let me explain the lesson.

While my reading list is mainly fiction, history, and philosophy, I do listen to a few self-helpy podcasts, including The Minimalists and The Art of Manliness. After both podcasts interviewed James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, I decided to do a goal-setting/ prioritizing lesson with my students on their first day back from winter break.

I started by asking my students why most New Years’ Resolutions fail. They came up with a great list, including lack of willpower, lack of support, bad environment, unrealistic goals, and waning enthusiasm. Then I helped them set monthly goals using a template that allowed them to break their monthly goal into four weekly milestones. We discussed James Clear’s contention that success is more about building good habits than having great willpower. They were with me so far.

Then I decided to make it more concrete, based on a story I remember hearing from another teacher. I brought in a big pitcher, a smaller canister, a bag of lentils, and six bouncy balls of varying size. At the beginning of the demonstration, I placed the lentils and bouncy balls in the pitcher, as shown below.

I asked a pair of student volunteers to attempt to transfer the contents of the pitcher into the smaller canister. Many students chuckled at this, clearly thinking it was impossible. In most of my classes, the first group tried to add a little lentils, then a bouncy ball, then more lentils, then another ball, and so on. They were able to fit four or five of the bouncy balls, but not the sixth. They certainly couldn’t close the lid.

I congratulated the first group on their effort and called up another pair of volunteers. This time I instructed them to fill the canister with lentils first and then see how many bouncy balls fit. The result: only three of the six.

Then I asked my students to predict what would happen if I put the balls in first before pouring in the beans. Many doubted it would work. To the amazement of some, I poured the lentils into the container of bouncy balls, shaking it ever so slightly to allow the beans to slip through the open spaces. It’s not often that high school students are impressed, but this was one of those times.

We then discussed what it all meant. The bouncy balls, I explained, were their priorities: school, family, career. The lentils were the little things – the Netflix shows that turned into all-day binges, the five minutes here or there scrolling through social media accounts that inevitably add up. They had to put the big things – their priorities – first in order to achieve their goals. To paraphrase this Laura Vanderkam TedTalk, “I don’t have time for X” is basically code for “X is not a priority for me right now.”

They got it. They liked it. I patted myself on the back for a good day-one lesson. But then I had to figure out some way to adapt it for my Sunday school students.

My biggest help came in the form of this excellent article by Haley Stewart in Public Discourse. In The Soul-Saving Grace of Christian Detachment, she writes:

If our pursuit of simplicity is not informed by the concept of Christian charity, focusing on mere minimalism will come up short… I can spend weeks decluttering my house, and it will certainly be more pleasant to inhabit our space with fewer items inside. But it will be an empty exercise if it is separated from the spiritual life and our obligations to God and our community. We all can and should take a look at how we view our possessions, but not simply so that our homes can be minimalist dreamlands. We should pursue detachment to “stuff” for a greater purpose: ordering our desires so that we can love God and other people.

To which I say, “Amen, sister!”

In a recent Minimalists podcast, a caller complained that he had followed the rules of minimalism but was still depressed and unhappy. The podcast hosts, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, tried to explain to the caller that minimalism was not in itself the answer to everything. Of course it’s not. Because secular minimalism looks like this:

It’s an empty canister. Or maybe there’s one ball inside – the one devoted to “me.” That’s like a starving person having one bite of food; it’s not enough to satisfy you. It’s not enough to fill you up.

A Christian minimalist understands that the goal is more than just my individual fulfillment because “I” am more than just an isolated individual. I am a child of God and a member of a larger community, with real obligations to both.

We all need things to survive (food, shelter, clothing), but we can easily fall into the trap of greed and excess. We forget that things are only means to more important ends. We fall in love with our possessions. This can be bad, very bad. As the Minimalists say frequently on their podcast: “Love people and use things, because the opposite never works.”

This insight is not unique to religion in general, nor to Christianity in particular. Buddhism also discourages worldly attachments. Marie Kondo draws upon centuries of Shinto wisdom. But I would say that Christianity offers the best and most complete framework for implementing minimalist practices (though you would never know it by the way most American Christians live).

As a Christian, nothing should come before my faith – not my nationality, not my political ideology, not even my minimalism. But if minimalism is really about putting things in their proper order, then nothing could be more Christian. Consider these verses:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 1 Timothy 6:6–8

Then He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness. For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke 12:15

We enter the world with nothing. We will all leave the world with nothing. In the meantime, we are to be grateful for what we have and eager to share it with others. Our priorities should be the eternal things – God, our souls, and the souls of others.

Some of the happiest people I know have big families with lots of children. Their houses are cluttered. Their lives are messy. But their treasure is in each other and in heaven, not in their possessions. They may not be living the minimalist dream, but they certainly seem to have their priorities straight.

Personally, I need a little help in ordering my life. This includes staying as clutter-free and tidy as possible. But I don’t judge the mother of eight whose kitchen table is a bit messy. I try not to judge in this sense at all, though I do pity those who let material possessions and the acquisition of status dictate their lives.

Failing to prioritize God and relationships is like eating a diet of only fast food. Your life might seem full, but it is ultimately empty of the things that matter — the nutrients you need to survive.

When I taught my Sunday school lesson, I reminded my students that faith and relationships should be the first bouncy balls in their containers, then their personal goals and ambitions. And really, who needs the lentils? The canister sure looks better without them (although it wouldn’t spell disaster to allow a few beans to trickle in). It is human nature to fear for one’s future security, and to seek refuge in the things we think we need. We should thank God for all He has provided, and trust that He will continue to do so in the future. We should remember to ask only for our daily bread, not a stockpile.

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The Five Best and Worst Things about this School Year

Every school year is going to have its ups and downs. While teaching is definitely a difficult profession, I feel blessed to have a job that gets me excited to go to work every day (well, almost every day). Last year I wrote an end-of-the-year post thanking my students for the opportunity to be their teacher. This time, I’ll be counting down the five best and worst things about this school year, or at least the things I am legally able to share.

So, here goes… five bad things, ranging from the catastrophic to the mildly annoying:

1. Losing my voice the entire first week of school. There’s really just no getting around this one. It sucks to be a person incapable of speech, much less a teacher trying to set the tone for the rest of the year. I usually lose my voice once a year for a day or so. This year I lost my voice for eight days, thanks to an unfortunate combination of laryngitis and food poisoning. On the bright side, my students were pretty understanding, and they wrote me letters so I could get to know them better. I was amazed how many wrote that they were excited to have me as their teacher, despite the fact that they had never heard me speak (or maybe because of it)! I do remember one funny moment when I was whispering to a student I had just met to show her to her assigned seat. In all her first-day-of-school eagerness, the poor girl whispered back.

2. Getting hit by a car on the way to school. I think this one also pretty much explains itself.

3. Stressing out about the faculty versus students free throw competition… and then going 1 for 6. Womp womp. Fortunately there was so much going on that week (if you were there, you remember), that nobody seemed to care. Still, the super-competitive side of me wants a rematch.

4. Every minute I had to spend in the halls. I remember the halls being stinky and crowded when I was in high school. At the school where I now teach, the halls are like the mall scene in Mean Girls: the teenage equivalent of a watering hole. Here rival students compete for dominance and try to attract the attention of a mate. In the halls, you see things you don’t want to see and hear things you really don’t want to hear. This year I had to monitor the third floor halls, which should be a piece of cake compared to the notoriously rough second floor. Here is a typical conversation between me and a student trying to skip class by wandering around the halls: Me- “Do you have a pass?” Student- silence. Me- “Where are you going?” Student- silence. Me- “Tell me your name.” Student- silence. Me- “You really need to go to class.” Student- silence. “Okay then, I’m just going to follow you until you go to class.” You can see how this would get frustrating after awhile.

5. Grading essays. Occasionally, a teacher will get the treat of grading a near-perfect essay. The other 99% of the time, trying to follow the convoluted logic, historical inaccuracies, and illegible handwriting of a fifteen-year-old is enough to make your brain hurt and your eyes water in pain. Then you have to do it 125 more times.

So that’s about it for the bad stuff; now on to the good. Here are the “greatest hits” of school year 2014-2015, or as it is known around these parts, our best year ever:

1. Getting to work with wonderful student leaders in the clubs that I sponsor. Being a faculty advisor can add a lot of time and stress to an already-busy workload—including before and after school meetings—with no additional financial benefit. Fortunately, I am blessed to work with student leaders whose motivation and organizational abilities I can only envy. I have had the opportunity to get to know my current and former students on a deeper level through their participation in clubs, and to witness their amazing talents and passions in action. One young man was riding his bike to a Key Club meeting early in the morning when he was hit by a car, who then drove off and left him bleeding in a parking lot. The next day, he apologized for not being there, bandages and all. Fear not; the future is bright!

2. Inspiring students to want to learn. It’s a cliché of course, but every teacher dreams of inspiring young minds to care about their particular field and to see its importance in their lives. My two favorite lessons of the year are both hands-on activities where the students take the lead. In the first lesson, I have students simulate Indian Ocean trade by buying and re-selling goods from various cities to see who can profit the most. It is hilarious to see them haggle with each other and come up with their own creative ways to attract business. The second lesson is the infamous “alliance game,” in which students strategize in six different “countries,” make deals, and finally go to war, engaging in clever diplomacy and military strategizing. This year each class had a great war (except for the one class where everyone got so tired of the lone neutral country that they decided to simultaneously invade them). Often the weakest students shine the brightest in these activities. Admittedly, trying to facilitate student engagement can have its false starts. There is nothing like seeing a hand go up in the middle of a heated debate from a kid who rarely contributes– to experience those fleeting moments of anticipation– only for the student to then ask to go to the bathroom.

3. Learning from my students. Every year I have that one student who teaches me more than I teach him or her. This year it was a young man from Afghanistan. He was bright, charismatic, and respectful, despite making it to class only about half of the time. He did not hesitate to share his opinions with the rest of the class, even though he was the only immigrant. At the beginning of the year, I wondered if I might have a problem with this student, as he seemed a bit too enthusiastic in his approval of patriarchy. I was explaining how, in classical China, women were supposed to stay in the home and take care of the kids. He began nodding his head enthusiastically, saying “yes, yes,” as the girls behind him scoffed and glared in his direction. But then something happened that was totally unexpected. In a round table discussion on the Scientific Revolution and secularism, he spoke out about his own religion’s need to modernize. This caught me and the other students completely off guard. In a world where so many struggle to understand the other side, he was able to see the pros and cons of both his highly traditional society and our modern one.

4. Working with and getting to know amazing colleagues. Let’s face it; we all get tired of dealing with teenagers seven hours a day, five days a week. Sometimes we just need some sympathetic adult conversation. I am not one of those teachers who encourages students to eat lunch in her room– sorry; that’s my time. Everyone needs to vent on occasion, but it is important as a teacher to surround yourself with positive people. I have been blessed to be surrounded by intelligent and caring colleagues who are always willing support me both professionally and personally, as I try to do for them. There is no better cure for a bad teaching experience than to share a good laugh with the only other people who would understand! Even more so than in the past, this year has witnessed the formation of new friendships and the deepening of older ones. I am profoundly grateful for both.

5. Being appreciated. Earlier today, I was packing up my room while trying to hunt down the dozen or so students still in danger of failing the semester. I was so ready to be done with it all and wondering whether anything I did this year actually made a difference. Then I looked in my mailbox and saw a letter. I opened it to find this message from a student I taught last year. It read:

Dear Mrs. G.,   

I am writing to thank you for always having passion. You were always so passionate about history and about teaching that it had to rub off on everyone. Watching you teach and talk with such enthusiasm made it so much more interesting to learn. You always seemed like you were happy to be there and happy to talk about it. Everyone saw it. Your passion enabled you to prepare us well for our AP test. You are a great teacher and you have influenced so many. Thank you for caring and making us care as well. I hope you never lose your passion and that it helps you as much as it does us. Thank you.

Now maybe she was instructed to write that letter by a parent, or perhaps another teacher. But in that moment, I really didn’t care. Her letter was a great reminder of how much we really mean to our students. We don’t always get the same immediate satisfaction as an architect surveying a completed house, or a lawyer who has won his case. Instead we get a test score, a number that is supposed to somehow represent what our students have either learned or not learned after nine months in our care. But regardless of tests passed or failed, the good we do never dies.

So, despite being in many ways a year of disasters, I will look back fondly on this school year. Being a teacher is a tremendous responsibility and privilege. Thanks to my amazing students and colleagues for making it all worthwhile.