Uncluttering as a Spiritual Discipline

I love telling people the name of my new series because they have such interesting reactions: from derisive snorts, to sly smiles, to eager interest. How can getting rid of clutter be a spiritual discipline?

I mention my first two points here. (They have expanded slightly since then.)

This Sunday I hope to cover these ideas:

~ Uncluttering helps us question our attachments.

~ Uncluttering is a form of confession and absolution.

~ Uncluttering helps us be stewards of our time and money.

~ Uncluttering helps us break the cycle of consumerism.

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Invitation to a Lenten Pilgrimage

Do you desire to deepen your spiritual life this Lent?

Are you looking for a free, accessible resource to share with others?

Have you ever wanted to make a (virtual) pilgrimage to the Holy Land?

Come along with me, right here!

Beginning on February 18 (Ash Wednesday) and continuing for each of the 40 days of Lent, I will post a one-paragraph devotional that is rooted in my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Each day’s entry will include a verse of scripture, a reflection question, and a one-sentence prayer.

I understand if it’s not appealing, at first. I know that when I was invited to go on a pilgrimage, I didn’t really want to go. The Holy Land sounded hot and dusty and vaguely dangerous. But when I was given the opportunity, it felt as if the Spirit had offered a gift I couldn’t refuse.

The gift of pilgrimage changed my faith. All my life I’ve been immersed in Scripture, but most of my learning stayed above the neck, in the realm of ideas. As a pilgrim, I felt Scripture seeping further down into my being. A pilgrim travels dusty roads, swims in holy water, drinks Palestinian-made wine, eats olives and pita bread, lights candles, touches stones, whispers prayers, laughs, cries and sings. I came to realize that being a pilgrim is not about traveling to a particular place, as much as immersing oneself in the Spirit-filled past so it can infuse our present. As the old hymns say, we’re all pilgrims on a journey.

Won’t you become a pilgrim this Lent? Come with me to the Holy Land. Stop by this blog each day during Lent for a quick read — or a long pause — or a thoughtful comment — whatever suits your schedule that day.

A pilgrim lighting candles at Tabgha, the place where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.

A pilgrim lighting candles at Tabgha, the place where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.

Note: In 2012 this material was published as the Lenten devotional for Presbyterians Today. Last year this material was shared as an e-course at Monasteries of the Heart, an outreach of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. I have so enjoyed the experience of having fellow pilgrims during Lent that this year I thought I’d post the devotions myself.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — We Salute You!

One of the great things about living near our nation’s capital is the chance to visit the monuments. Last October when my parents visited from Michigan, I took them to the MLK memorial. We had the place to ourselves.


Notice the “mountain of despair”


We read all the quotations aloud, taking our time.


My parents chose this quotation for their portrait.


It’s a big monument, for a giant of a man.


Standing at the feet of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here’s another time I blogged about a trip to The Stone of Hope.

Wishing you a day of rest and remembrance in honor of a great man and a legacy of work that is still unfinished.

Make a career of humanity.

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What Have You Uncluttered in 2015?

It can be helpful/inspiring/hilarious to hear what other people are uncluttering. So far in 2015 my list has been quite tame, but here it is . . . .

~ a coffeemaker broke — was dispatched to my husband’s Middle School “Take It Apart Club” — the intact coffeepot was donated and a new Mr. Coffee was purchased

~ a toaster that broke — went to the “Take It Apart Club” —  and a new one was purchased  — right! 2 appliances in 1 week! weird, right?

~ 3 books on peacemaking that I read and won’t reread — donated

~ a pair of expensive shoes that my husband can’t use after foot surgery but which still have wear enough to be useful — donated

~ a votive holder that I didn’t particularly enjoy using — donated

~ the Christmas lights that didn’t work — trashed

~ some plastic containers from the cupboard — recycled

~ from my files — a folder labeled “Hymns” and another labeled “Pictures of Jesus” — neither of which have I touched in 4 years — into recycling (this is serious uncluttering, friends, pictures of Jesus!)

~ some dingy Tshirts from husband’s drawer deemed to be rags and used for cleaning

~ pantry items sorted — made waffles — some frozen broccoli is being turned into soup today — and a can of soup with an expiration of 2009 was unearthed and tossed

Now it’s your turn! What have you uncluttered? What area would you like to tackle?

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Jesus, the Unclutterer

I love Jesus and I love to unclutter. For me, there’s a relationship between the two things.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ~ Luke 12:32-34

I’ve long been interested in the topic of Uncluttering, which I’ve addressed on a personal level, as well as a church leader, and even as a traveler. Now I will address it as a disciple of Jesus. On Jan 25 I will begin teaching a class called “Uncluttering as a Spiritual Discipline.”

Perhaps the word “unclutter” reminds you more of Martha Stewart than Martha the sister of Mary and Lazarus. But I believe that clutter — “stuff” — is more than a nuisance. It can be a spiritual stumbling block.

Each of the classic spiritual disciplines involves making space and time for God: Prayer, Bible reading, Fasting, Sabbath, Pilgrimage. But isn’t our clutter also a space and time culprit? How would it change our spiritual lives if we cleared our clutter?

My class will have 3 sessions, and in the first session we’ll tackle — no, not the closets! —

Uncluttering helps us face our mortality.

Uncluttering helps us ask and answer fundamental questions of value.

This class is a work in progress. I’d love to hear your input!

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One Bag Packing: Zion & Bryce & Las Vegas, Winter

A good trip often travels between extremes, doesn’t it? We recently traveled “out west” to do some hiking — mainly Zion & Bryce national parks — and also spend a few days in Las Vegas. Those are two very different scenarios!

In the parks we soaked in the sun, snow, silence, and scenery. In Las Vegas we were barraged with slot machines, smoke, artificial environments and people — a very different kind of thrill! Despite the breadth of activity, each of us fit everything we needed into one bag — four bags for four travelers for one week. I was happy to repeat many items from our Alaska trip. Since my family members appreciated the specificity of this packing list, I will pass it along. What would you add or subtract?

There are a few pictures below the list. I need to download the rest of them! We did most of our hiking at Zion NP, which isn’t pictured here.

ON FLIGHT (wear or carry):

  • jeans and top
  • warm layer (suitable for hiking, a workout-type pullover or cardigan)
  • winter jacket, scarf, gloves
  • walking shoes
  • phone/recharger
  • Kindle/recharger
  • camera/recharger


  • lightweight hiking shoes/3 pairs of sox
  • hiking pants/long underwear bottom
  • long-sleeved tee-shirts (2) (you can re-wear, no problem)
  • water-proof shell (or use winter jacket)
  • fleece hood, to be layered with a ballcap with brim (hopefully it will be sunny!)
  • sunglasses/case
  • drawstring bag to carry water etc.
  • bathing suit/flipflops (for hot tub afterward!)

FOR LAS VEGAS (2 days):

  • extra sox for walking shoes
  • a nicer top to wear with jeans
  • going-out outfit (incl. jewelry) (consider your shoes)


  • nightgown
  • warm sox to use as slippers
  • adequate underwear
  • glasses/case
  • small card game
  • toiletries (incl. chapstick, Tylenol, Tylenol PM, Rx, spare set of contact lens)

Bryce NP was significantly colder than Zion NP, as it’s at higher elevation.

Bristlecone Pine Trail, Bryce NP

Bristlecone Pine Trail, Bryce NP


Can you guess where this is?

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2015 Intentions

One of my blogposts was among the 14 most-read Christian Century blogposts in 2014. Perhaps I should use foul language like “stinkin'” in my titles more often! My thanks to all of you for reading, and to the good folk at CC, especially Celeste Kennel-Shank and Steve Thorngate who curate a tremendous amount of blog material related to church, religion, spirituality, culture.

Onward to 2015! Do you write Resolutions or Intentions? Some people scoff at the practice, but each year I choose a phrase to remind me how I intend to live my life in the year ahead. It helps me focus. My 2014 intention was Do the Work. I often muttered this to myself as I sat down to write. It was so helpful that I even renamed this blog, which used to be Work in Progress. I prefer the verb: Do.

My 2015 intention is similar: Love the Work. (You might remember that I’m borrowing the phrase from Gordon Lightfoot.) May all of us love our work in the year ahead! Isn’t that one of the secrets of happiness? Work is one way we become ourselves.

Want to share your intention for the year ahead? I’d love to hear it.

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See You Next Year!

One of the joys of being a minister is leading a church at Christmastime — such a foundational and festive time of the church year. The celebration of Incarnate Love is complete with a baby, a manger, pageants, cookies and special music. But Christmastime is also a terribly busy time and it can be challenging to negotiate the balance between church and family.

So one of the joys of being a minister without a church (as I am these days) is having the opportunity to focus exclusively on my family at Christmastime. We’re taking the opportunity to travel. We’re off to Las Vegas and Zion National Park — preparing for two very different kinds of amazing! I’m taking a blogging break (we’re not even bringing laptops). I’ll post some pictures when I get back, when 2015 is new and fresh. Meanwhile, have a wonderful holiday with the people you love. I hope it is all lit just perfectly.

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Wishing You Perfect Lighting this Christmas

One reason we like TV is that it presents our world as more than it usually appears to be. I’m thinking of shows like Mad Men or The Good Wife or Parenthood or Masters of Sex, where characters effortlessly wear beautiful clothing, even when long days stretch into late nights, where women are never seen without full makeup, and where the sets, whether homes, offices, restaurants, or courtrooms, are more beautiful than those actual places would be. Each color palette is carefully conceived, the lighting angles are flattering, and the tilt of the camera and its length of focus brings out the emotion in an actor’s expression.

We know that in real life those characters — at least if they were us — would be slipping off their high heels, falling asleep from that much drinking, or looking in vain for a bench at the Hall of Justice. But is there something more that’s different between the screen world and the real world? Do all of the cinematic components create a false reality, or do they help us see the reality that we are often blind to?

We share many store lines with the characters we watch. We have a career that rises and falls — but not as captivatingly as that of the dapper Don Draper. We have relationships that are stretched and strained and patched back together — but not as poetically and decisively as the marriages on Parenthood.

Call this “heightened reality.” I have been working on a manuscript for many months, and I am aware of the literary devices that authors employ to heighten reality. Sentence structure, repetition, alliteration and word choice — they help create a mood and sense of flow. Since I’m writing a memoir, I’m aware that, in a sense, I’m creating a screen version of my own life. I have mixed feelings about the whole process!

But as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day approach, I wonder if one of the treasures of the season is the dose of heightened reality the holiday gives our everyday lives. We treasure a candlelight service because the darkness, the music, and the candles create that slightly-blurred version of reality that’s gorgeous, and helps us notice what’s really going on underneath. On Christmas Eve that underlying reality is the story of the Incarnation — God become a baby for the sake of Love.

In our minds the story has the shine of a gold-foil Christmas card — the cold slab of a manger becomes a rustic crib, the aches of a young mother who gave birth after a long donkey ride becomes a pleasant journey, and the poverty of a straw-strewn birthing room is orchestrated with choirs of angels.

Both versions of the story — the nitty-gritty and the gold-foil — are true. In fact, the Christian life is founded on the truth that underneath ordinary life courses the Kingdom of God.

But most of the time who can pay attention? We are busy dressing in off-the-rack clothes, managing our ordinary careers, and doing the best we can with whatever marital or non-marital state we may find ourselves in at the moment. It is all very humdrum, most of the time. So we tune in to the heightened reality of our TVs to be reminded of the beauty and richness that lies under the surface of reality. It’s just more obvious when the lighting is perfect.

This Christmas, I wish you “perfect lighting” so you can enjoy a heightened dose of reality, right in the middle of your own life. Personally, that’s what I’m hoping for.

I hope we all find that reality in the crumpled wrapping paper, the misshapen Christmas cookies, the lights that blink out at the worst possible moment, and the spouse who wakes up with morning breath. Because coursing right underneath all of that, is the beautiful shining thing we call Love. It is the same Love which undergirds our Planet and each of our lives, every day. We just see it better when the lighting is perfect.

Rembrandt etching nativity

Adoration of the Shepherd: with the lamp, by Rembrandt

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For Unto Us a Child is Born

We sat in the cosy balcony of the historic church, surrounded by children with their parents. In front of us a brother and sister got on their knees and used the balcony’s ledge to fill out their children’s bulletins. Beside me a boy of about 12 never stopped reading a thick book, except to lift his head when the choir sang a resounding “Alleluia” and the strings of the chamber orchestra struck heavenly chords. And squarely in my line of vision sat a young teenage girl with her dad, the girl’s head tilted onto his shoulder, and his head tilted onto hers, so the two heads formed a diamond.

For unto us a child is born. A son is given.

On this third Sunday of Advent, my husband and I attended Leesburg Presbyterian Church for worship. The sanctuary choir and a chamber orchestra performed Bach’s Cantata #142, led by Music Director Terry Sisk. Glorious.

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