Clutter is a spiritual issue

Ecclesiastes 3:6 reminds us there is “a time to keep and a time to cast away.” With that in mind, I resolved to make clearing out clutter a priority during this year’s recently-completed Lenten season.

Using the “one baby step at a time” approach, I actually managed to make an initial dent in the mounds of clutter littering our house. I thoroughly cleaned the refrigerator/freezer and about half the pantry, got caught up with a month’s worth of ironing, repotted several plants in the sunroom and took down the Christmas tree (yep, the first week in March). I even sorted through a drawer full of paper and shocked our accountant by giving her everything she needed to file our tax return on time this year rather than file for an extension the way I usually do.

As I cleaned and sorted, however, I realized the clutter in my life consists of more than just endless piles of paper and other physical “stuff.” My spiritual director has challenged me to identify the “spiritual” clutter clogging up my life as well. For example:

  • Computer clutter. As I said in a previous article, I could spend hours at my computer playing solitaire, mindlessly surfing the Internet or actually getting sucked into “news” articles about Miley and Taylor and Selena and the Kardashians. I am particularly likely to do this when I’m anxious or avoiding a task on my to-do list.
  • Calendar clutter. Some of the commitments overwhelming my schedule are things I really want to do – a visit with family or friends, singing in the church choir, community volunteer work. But too many other commitments have landed on my calendar because I can’t say no to people.
  • Nutritional clutter. Big-box stores, supermarkets and even health food stores seek to sell me cereal with sugar as the first ingredient, highly processed trans-fat-laden “dinners” I can pop into the microwave and whole aisles of cookies and candy. Restaurant buffets, family gatherings and church potlucks feature entire tables of desserts.
  • Mental clutter. And finally there is the steady stream of anxieties and resentments that keep me pre-occupied during the day and awake at night.

Why is all this clutter a spiritual issue?

When I put junk food into my body – the temple of the Holy Spirit – it clogs my arteries as well as adding extra pounds to my hips. The mindless Internet-surfing and solitaire games suck hours and hours out of my day that could be better spent taking a walk, connecting with other people, or just about anything else. Endless ruminating about resentments interferes with my ability to love my neighbor as myself. Turning down excessive demands on my time would help me focus more energy on those commitments that are really important. When the physical clutter in my house is out of control, my whole life feels out of control.

Alas, I still have quite a way to go just to address the physical clutter. Piles of paper cover nearly every surface in my office. My closets bulge with clothes and shoes I haven’t worn in years. Boxes and boxes and boxes marked “miscellaneous” remain stashed in the basement, many unopened from our last move nearly 10 years ago. And I don’t even like to think about the mess in the garage.

But I did make a good start during Lent, enough to motivate me to keep going. As they say around the tables at 12-Step group meetings, “One day at a time!”

 

 

Consider the jonquils

I had really hoped by now I would be spending time in my garden and flower beds, but as you can see, I would get a bit chilly when taking a break in my backyard.

01 bench

Since God seems intent on teaching me patience this spring, I decided to venture outside with a camera this morning instead.

03 tree

After all, the snow was pretty. In fact, the camera didn’t even begin to capture the beauty. 

02 house

And (to paraphrase Matthew 6:28) consider the jonquils in front of my house, God seemed to be saying. Most years, they would have bloomed in March and would be long gone by now. 

04 jonquils

But this year they are experts in the art of patience!

 

Meeting my 3-5 Challenge

1 Corinthians 6:19 reminds us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. To me, this means God expects us to practice good self-care. So as part of my Lenten discipline, I resolved to develop a new habit of including at least 3-5 servings of fruits or vegetables in my diet each day.

Even though I was usually lucky to get in one or two servings of fruits/veggies per day prior to Lent, adding the extra daily servings turned out to be less of a challenge than I thought it would be. Fortunately, I’ve found all kinds of ways to sneak fruits and veggies past my lips. I can:

  • Add a glass of orange juice to my breakfast (one fruit serving).
  • Add a small salad to either lunch or supper (one or two veggie/fruit servings, depending on what I add to the salad).
  • Turn a ho-hum sandwich into a Dagwood by piling on lettuce and slices of tomato, onion and cucumber (one veggie serving).
  • Cook up enough vegetables for each meal to ensure leftovers. This means I can create a veggie plate from time to time (several veggie servings in one meal).
  • Snack on raw vegetables rather than chips (one veggie serving). Baby carrots dipped in hummus makes a great snack when I have that irresistible urge to nibble.
  • Replace my afternoon soda with an 8-ounce glass of V-8 juice (two veggie servings!).
  • Throw chunks of frozen fruit and yogurt into a blender – adding some Splenda if necessary – for a delicious smoothie (one fruit serving).
  • Sip a “Baptist sangria” (one fruit serving). To make this yummy drink, I fill my glass with equal parts cranberry or pomegranate juice and sparkling water, then garnish with orange, lemon and lime slices.

Although restaurant meals tend to include only one vegetable, I can usually order a second one a la carte for a small “upcharge.” I’ve actually persuaded food servers to replace fries or chips with a serving of coleslaw, fresh fruit or no-sugar-added applesauce. Some lovely restaurants even offer a veggie plate as a complete meal.

Going to a buffet-style restaurant with a good salad bar allows me to load up my plate with all 3-5 servings of veggies/fruits at once if I want to. Of course, it also allows me to load up my plate with all kinds of fattening junk, so I’ve found I need to practice considerable self-discipline here.

When attending family gatherings or church potlucks, I’ve found that bringing a plate of fresh fruit or veggies with dip gives me something to nibble on instead of the fat and sugar-laden hors d’oeuvres usually offered at such events. This helps me sneak in an extra veggie serving as well.

At first, I was afraid this Lenten “3-5 Challenge” might cause some weight gain, but I’ve actually dropped a couple pounds over the past month.

This makes sense now that I think about it. When I add a small salad to my meal at a restaurant, I’m less likely to mindlessly nibble on the crackers, bread or dinner rolls. Raw veggies have replaced the chips I often snacked on at home in the afternoon. V-8 juice, a frozen fruit smoothie or my “Baptist sangria” have completely replaced my afternoon soda. And I put smaller portions of potatoes and pasta on my plate in order to accommodate the extra veggies.

Not only has the “3-5 Challenge” turned out to be easier than I thought it would be, but 30 days into Lent, this “add-on” has already become a habit. Definitely a keeper.

 

Baby steps

I began the Lenten season with our church’s Ash Wednesday service and a pledge to:

  • Give something up: Participate in the 40 Bags in 40 Days Decluttering Challenge, which involves decluttering one area of our home each day and letting go of “stuff.”
  • Add a positive habit: Include 3-5 daily servings of fruits/veggies in my diet.
  • Resume my Morning Meditation routine, which I had allowed to lapse over the winter.

How am I doing so far? Well, let’s just say my husband and I also began our Lenten discipline with “His” and “Hers” prescriptions for Tamiflu. Ugh! This has been the capstone of a L-O-N-G winter, which has included three separate bouts of illness for both of us. I’m still sniffling, in fact.

But I haven’t given up on my Lenten pledge.

I had embarked on the 40 Bags Challenge with an ambitious list: Clean the refrigerator on Day 1, the freezer on Day 2, the pantry on Day 3, and so on. I had also planned to try a batch of new veggie recipes.

Instead, the notorious fatigue that accompanies flu, coupled with a bit of nausea, meant I managed to finish one shelf of the refrigerator each day and I ended up drinking my fruits and veggies for several days running. (The good news is, an 8-ounce glass of V-8 juice equals two servings of vegetables and orange juice contains all kinds of Vitamin C.)

“Baby steps,” my spiritual director said, when I explained my modified plans. “That’s what matters.”

The baby steps seem to be working. After two weeks, I’ve finished cleaning the fridge (one shelf at a time), sorted through several weeks’ accumulation of junk mail, gotten caught up with a month’s backlog of ironing and am now halfway through the freezer (one shelf at a time).

Meanwhile, when I ventured outside to feed the birds – and squirrels – a few mornings ago, I spied a patch of snowdrops in our backyard. YES!!!!! Those little flowers make me so happy. Their appearance signals this L-O-N-G winter is finally coming to an end and spring is on its way … a baby step at a time.

Lent: Borrowing a tradition

Even though I grew up Protestant, from early childhood on, I’ve usually participated in the annual tradition of giving up something for Lent.

My Aunt Marie – Sunday School teacher extraordinaire and a great Christian role model – believed that while Protestants didn’t require people to make a Lenten sacrifice, there was no reason why we couldn’t borrow this idea from the Catholics. “It’s good discipline,” she explained.

One year, as my sisters and I sat around the kitchen table discussing what we would give up – cake, ice cream, chocolate – my father added his two cents to the conversation.

“I’ve never really believed in the idea of sacrifice just for the sake of sacrifice,” he said. “Not when life gives us so many opportunities to make real sacrifices. If you’re going to give up something for Lent, I think you should make a sacrifice that actually means something.”

We all looked at him quizzically.

Dad grinned from ear to ear. “Instead of cake and ice cream, why don’t you kids give up fighting for Lent?”

“That sounds wonderful,” Mom chimed in. “No fighting for six whole weeks!”

I think my sisters and I may have actually accomplished this feat for a week or two.

In recent years, some of my Christian friends – including Catholics – have added a new tradition to their Lenten discipline. Instead of (or in addition to) giving something up, they approach Lent as a time to “take something on” and acquire a new positive habit. This could include anything from healthy eating and exercise to daily prayer and meditation or a new charitable commitment.

Since Ephesians 4:22-24 tells us to put off the “old self” and put on a “new self,” I’m thinking it would make sense to include both a sacrifice and an “add-on” this year.

In Dad’s honor, I’ve decided to make a sacrifice that would really mean something – letting go of a significant portion of the “stuff” that clutters every nook and cranny of our house. Toward that end, I’ve decided to accept the 40 Bags in 40 Days Decluttering Challenge.

The 40 Bags in 40 Days Challenge coincides with the 40 days of Lent, and involves decluttering one area of our home each day. The Challenge was started in 2011 by Ann Marie Heasley, author of the blog White House Black Shutters. It has become an annual event and the blog’s companion Facebook group now boasts 67,000 members. The 2018 Challenge starts February 14 and goes until March 31. (Click HERE to read more about The Challenge.)

For the “add-on” part, I’d like to acquire the habit of eating 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day as recommended by nutrition experts. I’m lucky if I get in one or two servings on most days – some might say my eating habits resemble those of a rebellious 10-year-old – so this will be a challenge! Fortunately, psychologists say it takes 30 days for a new behavior to become a habit, so Lent would give me a bonus of 10 extra days to make this new habit my own.

Meanwhile, I also plan to get back in the habit of morning meditation. My meditation ritual, which I’ve practiced for several years, involves starting my day in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee at my side and a cat in my lap while I journal about everything from the meaning of life to my plans for the day. Some days my husband joins me and serenades me with folk tunes played on his dulcimer.

Alas, looking through my journal entries this morning, I realized I haven’t partaken of this lovely ritual for several weeks. I’ve allowed a combination of illness and other people’s drama to crowd out a habit that helps me feel centered – no wonder I’ve been a tad bit crabby lately. I definitely want my morning meditation ritual to be a keeper!

 

 

Keeping me focused

So how am I doing on my resolution to set boundaries with my computer? Alas, I should have known this would be a much harder challenge than I expected.

I’m thinking that maybe if I try this for a short period, while telling myself it’s not a permanent change, I can convince my inner two-year-old not to revolt. Lent is coming up in a couple of weeks …

Meanwhile, Oley Cat has a way of reminding me of my priorities.

Oley on computer1

A lesson in acceptance

Since January 21 is National Squirrel Appreciation Day, today’s blog entry is dedicated to some of my favorite furry friends.

squirrel10b

Sometimes compromise really is the best answer, especially when one’s conflict is with a small animal.

I used to get so frustrated with the squirrels in our backyard because they wouldn’t stay out of the bird feeders. I tried everything to thwart the little trespassers – putting feeders in hard-to-reach places, using safflower seeds (which they’re rumored not to like), and investing in every allegedly-squirrel-proof contraption I could find.

As anyone reading this will probably guess, nothing worked for very long. Squirrels, I discovered, have amazing problem-solving skills. Give them a day or two and they’ll figure out how to overcome every obstacle we place between them and the tasty treats we were hoping would entice cardinals and goldfinches.

One day when I stopped at Wild Birds Unlimited to pick up some goodies for my feathered friends, a photo of a chubby-cheeked squirrel greeted me at the front door along with a sign that read, “Oh go ahead. Feed them too.” Just inside the door sat a display of feeders and a feast prepared just for them. We could choose from corn on the cob, peanuts in the shell, or a special Wildlife Blend. We could put this bounty in a simple tray feeder or opt for a fancier Squirrel Table and Chair Feeder.

At long last, I decided to enjoy the squirrels instead of fighting them. After all, I’m pretty sure our bushy-tailed buddies never got the memo that all the enticing delicacies were for birds and not for them. Besides, where is it written that we’re supposed to feed birds but not squirrels? Yes, I know they’re rodents, but hey – they’re really kind of cute little acrobats.

I’ve now installed a couple of the tray-style feeders so my furry marauders can sit instead of hanging upside-down while they eat. As a bonus, the trays double as a good place to recycle old bread, tortillas, naan, hamburger buns and pita chips. (Just make sure there is no onion or garlic on these.)

Both the birds and squirrels love that tray and have even gotten somewhat good at sharing space – except for the blue jays, who dive-bomb squirrels and other birds alike when they decide it’s their turn to eat.

But the jays seem to come later, after the other critters have been gorging for a while, and hey – blue jays are really pretty and they don’t understand memos any better than squirrels do.

 

 

 

 

Super Me

My spiritual director gave me this assignment: Imagine myself in my ideal spiritual state. What does this ideal state look like?

Actually, I’ve been imagining my “idealized state” for most of my life. I have daydreams that would rival Walter Mitty’s about an amazing woman who, for lack of a better name, I’ll call Super Me. This marvelous creature is a slightly older version of myself, and she has her life totally under control. The Super Me fantasy is particularly potent when I’m working on New Year’s resolutions.

Not only can Super Me leap tall buildings in a single bound, she has a meticulously ordered household, with a place for everything and everything in its place – even in the garage and the basement. She frequently invites family and friends to splendid gatherings at her spotlessly clean house. She has managed to achieve a svelte figure by adhering to an eating plan that is both healthy and painless because she has re-educated her palate to prefer vegetables over chocolate covered peanut butter cookie bars and she never misses her Stay Fit exercise class even during an ice storm. She volunteers for various organizations that work to make the world a better place, and she even serves on the board of directors for a couple of them, but she never gets burned out because she’s learned how to set appropriate boundaries without people getting mad at her. Her recently published book sits atop the New York Times bestseller list. And she never loses sleep at 3 a.m. wondering who God is and what God wants from her, because she has finally discerned all the answers to life’s “ultimate” questions.

As I write this, it occurs to me that if I really did manage to achieve this level of perfection, people might not necessarily like me. After all, I personally find other people intimidating when their lives seem too perfect.

On the other hand, I don’t think I have a thing to worry about here: I’m in no danger of achieving that exalted state anytime soon. Fortunately, I’ve learned that God loves me the way I am – not because I’m perfect, but because God is perfect. Good news, indeed, even if I have to remind myself of this from time to time.

Setting boundaries with my computer

For several years now, December 19 has been a special day for me. I call it my “Sobriety Birthday” and I consider it a great day for positive changes. On this date 25 years ago, I gave up alcohol. On the same date 16 years ago, I gave up cigarettes. Last year, I dropped “added sugar” from my diet, and 15 pounds along with it. So what about this year?

One of the changes my spiritual director and I have discussed: If I want to grab even a modicum of control over my time, I must confront my Internet addiction.

A huge challenge is that I can’t abstain completely from using my computer without losing its many benefits.

With family and friends scattered all over two continents, I would not be able to stay connected so well without Facebook. How are all my nieces and nephews and dozens of cousins doing? Who’s getting married? Which friend got a promotion at work or went on a fabulous vacation? Who just went to the E.R. and needs prayers?

Facebook has even allowed me to reconnect with friends I thought I’d lost track of forever. Many of these people were friends from my childhood and young adulthood. When repeated moves for marriages and jobs separated us, we promised to stay in touch, but this proved hard from a distance. Thanks to Facebook, the years and the miles have disappeared. In a couple of cases we’ve started visiting each other in person again.

I also use the Internet to research many of the articles I write. Most grant proposals I prepare for an organization whose board I sit on must be sent electronically. I pay bills, check my bank balances and renew licenses online. Ordering everything from clothes to books to groceries online saves hours of shopping time. Using email and Facebook to set up committee meetings or plan family gatherings saves days of telephone tag. Sometimes I even check the weather forecast to see how I need to dress for the day.

Suffice it to say that the Internet has had an enormously positive impact on my life, and I’m not ready to give it up and go “completely off the grid,” as some folks fantasize about doing. However, I realize the mindless surfing needs to go – complete with taking “click bait” and getting sucked into Facebook flame wars.

It’s one thing to keep up with family members and friends. But keeping up with the Kardashians? Do I really care why Taylor Swift broke up with her latest boyfriend? What do I gain by arguing about politics with friends of friends on Facebook except for some new resentments? And how many articles do I need to read about our elected officials calling each other names?

Okay, I did manage to avoid clicking on a couple of these: Giant Bird-Eating Tarantula … Snopes Fact Check: Did Michelle File for Divorce over President Obama’s Pregnant Mistress? … Revealed: The Lavish Life of an American Pastor … Did Tokyo Open the First Human Meat Restaurant? But not all of them, I must confess.

Political click bait has been a particularly potent trigger. To put it mildly, the results of the 2016 election threw me into a state of shock. For the first couple of months, I read one “news analysis” piece after another, trying to wrap my head around what happened. My husband and I also joined some of the new Facebook “resistance” groups springing up everywhere.

Meanwhile, I found myself getting into fights – even with people I ordinarily like – over politics and contentious “hot-button” ideological issues. One evening this past summer, I realized I had just spent the better part of a whole day debating total strangers on a church Facebook page over this question: “Is it racist to make jokes about lutefisk, lefse and jello at Lutheran potlucks?” (No, I’m not making that up). I further realized it wasn’t the first time this had happened.

In the past, I’ve conquered compulsions/addictions, like alcohol and cigarettes, by practicing total abstinence. The thing is, I can live (a lot longer, in fact) without cigarettes or alcohol. But it’s pretty hard in this technological age to live without my computer.

So it looks like I’m going to need to learn a new skill: Moderation! Now moderation has never been one of my strong suits, but maybe it really is time for me to acquire this valuable habit.

At any rate, I’ve decided to set some boundaries with my computer. If I have a legitimate reason to be online, by all means go online – long enough to check messages and do necessary tasks. Then get back off. Stop the mindless surfing. Resist click bait. Put a definitive time limit on how long I spend on Facebook. That way maybe I can keep my computer in its place as a valuable tool, rather than letting it control me.

Let’s see how I do with this one.

Comparing spiritual journeys

I’ve been warned by numerous self-help books to avoid the comparison trap. Still, I can’t seem to resist the temptation, even when it comes to my spiritual life. So of course this Sara Zimmerman comic hit home:

Spiritual journey comic

Source: Unearthed Comics      

Readers can find more of Sara’s witty cartoons on her Web site Unearthed Comics. (Link HERE.) In the meantime, I’m glad I’m not the only one whose spiritual journey has squiggly lines.