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.

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. 

How Much Can We Really Learn from History?

“Why do we bother to study the past?”

Like many other teachers, I sometimes begin the new school year by putting this question to my eager young pupils. It could be considered The Great Challenge of All History Teachers Everywhere—getting kids to see the relevance of something that happened a thousand years ago, when they (like most of us) are much more focused on what happened fifteen minutes ago. To make things more difficult, fifteen years is all most of them have in the way of life experience. It’s a small window of context.

Most students dutifully respond with some version of the old cliché that “We study the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them again in the future.”

For me, this answer does nothing to elicit the little bubbles of history teacher joy that some might expect. On the contrary, it often shows just how far we have to go.

This is not because I necessarily share Hegel’s pessimistic counter that the only thing “we learn from history (is) that we do not learn from history.” The problem is, different people draw different lessons from the past. The Great Depression is often cited as proof both that government intervention in the economy works, and that it doesn’t. In more recent history, some claim Obama’s economic policies helped to avert a second Great Depression, while others counter that they needlessly prolonged the Great Recession and continue to hinder robust economic growth. Who knows which view historians will ultimately choose.

Even when we attempt to avoid the mistakes of the past, we often focus on the last mistake and not the ones that precipitated it. The satirical magazine The Onion succeeds brilliantly in illustrating just how short-term our memories are in this hilarious article, entitled: “Obama Assures Americans that This Will Not Be Another 1456 Siege of Belgrade.” Enjoy the following delicious morsels:

“I can promise you this: My administration and I will not repeat the mistakes of Sultan Mehmed II,” Obama continued. “Believe me, we have all learned the lessons from the campaign to subjugate the Kingdom of Hungary following the fall of Constantinople.”

“When I heard we were getting involved in Syria, right away I thought, ‘Well, here we go, it’s 1456 Belgrade all over again,’” said Seattle resident Matt Haggerty, 42, who, like millions of Americans, says he “in no way supports the idea” of getting entangled in any military campaign even remotely similar to the Ottoman invasion of the Catholic Balkans. “Look, we all know what happened in Belgrade: Mehmed II thought he had everything under control, but Hungarian nobleman John Hunyadi organized a peasant army of roughly 50,000 soldiers and relied on the strength of the city’s castle to breach the Ottoman’s formidable naval blockade, which prevented any further imperial advances into Europe for roughly 70 years. And frankly, like most of my friends and neighbors, I see very little separating what we’re about to do in Syria and what the Anatolian corps did during their all-out assault on the Belgrade fortress from the Danube River. ”

For more serious evidence of the limits of learning from history, look no further than the World Wars. Hitler “studied” the causes of German failure in World War I and arrived at conclusions so disastrously flawed that they resulted in an even more destructive war. World War I provides a cautionary tale against rushing into war; World War II against appeasing aggressors. If we really learned from the lessons of the past, World War I would have remained “The War to End All Wars,” instead of just the first act in a blood-drenched century featuring total warfare and genocide.

A basic understanding of human nature assures us that greed, mistrust, and pride are not going extinct anytime soon; thus, neither is war or the immeasurable human suffering it causes. Those who predict that a better understanding of history will lead to its end are fooling themselves.

I think a better answer to the question of “Why study history?” is that the past is capable of providing a broader context in which to better understand our own lives. Most of us will walk the earth for at most a hundred years, while mankind has been around for perhaps 100,000. Many of the challenges of our times are not unique, but paralleled at various points in history. While we may not succeed in avoiding the same mistakes as our ancestors, we can still learn from them, but only if we are very careful.

Whenever history is called upon to settle present debates, it is important to remember that the people of the past were real people just like us, with all their desires and fears, shortcomings and virtues. We too often resurrect their ghosts just to be used as mouthpieces for the advancement of our own agendas.

Mark Twain insightfully observed that there are only three types of lies: “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This quote illustrates that sometimes stating a supposed “fact” can often obscure a larger truth. It is just this sort of danger in which amateur historians (which includes most politicians and commentators) can find themselves.

We need real historians to correct our narrow misconceptions and short-sightedness. Even then, we can never fully escape the limits of our own time and perspective, not that this invalidates the effort. If I didn’t believe in the many benefits of a responsible study of the past, I would have chosen a different line of work.

In my next post on the topic of the usefulness of history, I will discuss what this means in light of President Obama’s recent comments about the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast.

A Thank You Letter to My Students

Another year at Patrick Henry High School is drawing to a close. Teachers and students alike can be heard counting down the final days until summer vacation. Like most, I am glad for the time I will get to spend with my family this June and July. I’ll be able to get my house organized, take my boys to the pool, and go on a week-long trip to the beach—a rare treat for us. I will celebrate the endless days, the warm nights counting the stars from my back porch, the sweet berries growing wild along the road and in the fields. I can’t wait for the first real summer thunderstorm, the feel of electricity that builds in the air until the sky explodes in bursts of lightning.

But before the final bell sounds, before the memories of this year start to fade into the routine of sunscreen and swim practice and burgers sizzling on the grill, I’d like to remember the people who have made this year special.

Teaching is not always an easy career. It can be difficult to stay positive in the face of daily apathy, disrespect, and immaturity. A low point for me came one morning in March when I happened to spill a mug full of coffee in the middle of a crowded hall. I watched in horror as the light brown liquid spread to a nearby student’s bright white sneakers (apparently teenagers can be pretty particular about their shoes?) Needless to say, it was not fun to start off the morning getting cussed out by an irate seventeen-year-old boy who towered over me by about a foot.

But something happens over the course of a year when even the difficult kids become your kids. As he was handing in his final exam, one of my students, looking almost regretful, said “Thank you for being my teacher.” I simply replied, “Thank you for being my student.”

I’d like to thank the 125 students who have given me the privilege of being their teacher this year. I will remember you all, even if I struggle to recall your name in a couple years. Thank you for doing all (most? some?) of the work I gave you. Thank you for listening to me blather on excitedly about whatever it happened to be that day. I am pleased that I can say good things about all of you, even the few who went out of your way to make this difficult. While I am grateful for the opportunity to have taught all of you, some stand out from the crowd and require additional recognition.

To the girl who failed that first test of the year—

Thank you for coming in after school to go over every single question that you missed. Thanks for not giving up when you realized it was going to be a hard year. Thanks for working to earn your “A.”

To the girl who said “thank you” after every class—

Thank you for expressing your appreciation. Most students act like they are doing the teacher a favor when they apply themselves. Thanks for understanding that that door swings both ways.

To the boy who is smarter than the teacher and probably knows it—

Thank you for your respect. Thanks for realizing that even though your I.Q. is off the charts and I can’t even understand the topic of your Science Fair project, that I still have something to teach you about world history. One day when you have discovered a cure for cancer or invented some amazing new technology, I look forward to telling people, “I taught him when he was in high school.”

To the boy who spilled a Monster drink in class on the first day of school—

Thank you for calling your mother and admitting you plagiarized that essay, even after you begged me not to tell her. Thank you for admitting you had made a mistake and accepting the consequences of your actions. Even though you complained all year about having to learn about the parts of the world that weren’t ‘Merica, I hope you appreciate the knowledge you have gained.

To my three pregnant students—

At first I didn’t know why your grades dropped, why you skipped class, why you stared at the wall for a week and refused to speak. Thank you for continuing to come to class and apply yourselves to your studies despite having your lives changed forever. The road ahead will not be easy, but with the right attitude and support you can still accomplish your goals. You have each resolved to do the best for yourselves and your children, and I wish you the best.

To the girl with the hard life—

You started off the year with such promise. Then something happened; I don’t know what. You stopped coming to class. I saw you in the hall once, a week before the SOL. I almost didn’t recognize you. I asked you where you had been, and you told me I couldn’t even understand what you were going through. I said I believed you, but that I didn’t want to see you fail. I got you a review book and told you to study. That’s when I heard what was going on from another teacher and it was worse than anything I could have imagined. You failed the SOL the first time. Yesterday before your retake, you handed me back the review book. You had completed every single page. You passed with a 400. You are a beautiful, smart young lady. Whatever is going on in your life, don’t let it derail your future. Thank you for working hard to pass, despite it all.

To the Sudanese boy who sat in the back—

Thank you for raising your hand to answer the question even when you got it wrong. Thank you for helping the Nepali boy who sat beside you. Thank you for being the most polite student I have had all year.

To the girl who challenged me—

Just when I thought this year was going to be easy, you seemed determined to prove me wrong. You loudly announced to the whole class one morning in October that since you were getting a good grade, you should be allowed to do anything else that you wanted, no matter how disruptive. You tried to wrestle control of the class away from me, and forced me to step in and take it back. Because of you, the class got a new seating chart. I put you right beside myself. The mask you wear may be loud and obnoxious, but beneath it I was able to glimpse a young lady who cares about her classmates. One of your best friends was accidentally shot and killed just before Christmas, and yet you came to school the next day to comfort your friends, through the tears. At the end of the year, I asked the class, “Which of you are leaders?” You were one of the only two students to raise your hand. Remember to lead your friends in the right direction. They will follow you, regardless. Thank you for making me laugh with your witty comments. Thank you for pushing me to be a better teacher.

To the girl who I inspired—

Thank you for letting me be a role model to you. Thank you for seeking my advice. Thank you for telling me that I inspired you to want to be a teacher too. Thank you for that look of admiration I was able to catch on occasion in your eyes, the look that made me think: this is really getting through to her. You asked me if I remembered you from last year when you were in my AP World History class for one day before dropping out. I did remember you. Towards the end of the year, you told me you should have stayed in AP World History, but that you weren’t really focused and there were other things going on in your life. Thank you for signing up for AP Government for next year. When I asked the class, “Which of you are leaders?” you were the only other student brave enough to raise your hand. You were right. Thank you for the confidence you have found over the course of this year. I can’t wait to see where it takes you.