Cleaning House in Home or Heart
By Rev Ellen Quaadgras
In past years we didn’t always have a service on Labor Day Sunday, but lately we’ve been using this as an opportunity to offer a “best of” – a service that the Worship team particularly liked from the past year.
This year, they picked a sermon on decluttering – on the theory that we’ve been spending a lot of time indoors lately, a lot of time with our belongings, all our many cherished belongings that can seem to pile up and take on a life of their own….
And while the sermon I offer you today was written before the pandemic, before George Flloyd’s death and the ongoing deeply disturbing news about police violence unfolding as recently as this week, before all the many concerns about our election processes and our democracy, while this sermon focuses more on our inner world than the outer one, they are inextricably connected.
So I invite you to hold both. The troubling news of our day and the concerns we hold about it. And the focus on our own lives, our attachment to our stuff and the history that it represents. Let us hold that focus even as we open to the call of a new day before us heading into fall and our September theme of renewal.
Reading ‘Thanks, Robert Frost’ by David Ray
I walked by the window of a bookstore and saw something that made me stop short. There, at the front of the display case was Marie Kondo’s bestselling book: The life-changing magic of tidying up.
And, there, perched right next to Kondo’s book, in a neat, side by side display, was another book with equally attractive cover jacket, this one titled the joy of leaving your sh*t all over the place.
(It was a nice counterpoint.) But I didn’t buy either book.
But that’s because I already owned the first one. And the second one just made me think of friends I love… who don’t need more of that kind of inspiration.
Decluttering. It is the phenomenon of our time, some people love it, some love to hate it.
I… love it. In fact, decluttering became one of my top projects during my sabbatical last spring.
I’d been eyeing the 42,000 emails in my personal Gmail inbox. Yes, 42 thousand. When I told a friend the number of emails in that account, she thanked me for making her feel better about her own. Hearing that did not make me feel better.
I’d been eyeing the nearly 20 drawers of file cabinets in my storage space. Mostly full.
I’d been eyeing my airless closets, the basement with its big green bins still stocked with sports equipment from my 30’s, my many and very full bookshelves, and the reality that my living space is not actually very big.
And I’d been eyeing that book. The first one. Life-changing magic sounded right up my ally.
You’ve probably heard of it somehow, somewhere. It’s the book that was the inspiration for multiple YouTube talks and a Netflix show. It is the book that has made Marie Kondo a household name and the anti-clutter movement a phenomenon for our time. 
And you could even say her signature question, does it spark joy, has made its way into our collective public consciousness.
As evidenced by its appearance in popular media. The New Yorker magazine printed a cartoon recently showing a woman holding two overstuffed black garbage bags in a room in which all the dresser drawers were pulled out and empty, saying to her partner: “I’m not so much keeping what sparks joy as getting rid of everything that sparks rage.”
A friend of mine posted a cartoon recently showing a burglar holding a TV, looking pensive, asking himself the question “but does it spark joy”?
It is a powerful question.
Does it spark joy?
If it does, Kondo says, you should keep it. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.
If you do that, your life will change, Kondo asserts. If you follow this simple direction, something will open up for you, not just in your living room, but in your life.
“After your course,” one of her clients asserts, “I quit my job and launched my own business doing something I had dreamed of […] since I was a child.”
“Your course taught me to see what I really need and what I don’t.” said another. “So, I got a divorce, and now I feel much happier.”
A third wrote that: “My husband and I are getting along much better,” wrote a 3rd. (luckily, it seems divorce is not an inevitable outcome)
And finally: “I’m amazed to find that just throwing things away has changed me so much,” said a fourth.
The more I read Marie Kondo’s book the more it did indeed sound like magic. And on her Netflix show there were all these people – unburdened, happier, more alive. It looked good.
I wanted to test out her theory.
I wanted to see what this would do for me.
I wanted to find out if I too, would find myself changed, freed, happier.
So, on my sabbatical last spring, I took the plunge.
I started with my emails. From 42K to 8K in under 3 hours. So many marketing emails… Gone.
Extra clothing that didn’t really fit, that I didn’t really like, or that I never actually wore… Gone.
The old coffee maker that I kept around for when my mom came to stay that she never used because she said it smelled like the rat poison from the basement, which it did…. Gone.
Files and papers and bills and receipts and photocopies that added up to over 100 pounds of paper? 6 giant garbage bags full of shreddings before I gave up and got staples to do the rest? Gone gone gone.
Are you feeling the relief with me?
It sounds good right? You can probably picture the before and after. Stacks of clutter, the overflowing papers, piles of junk on the left hand side of the frame and then this beautifully clear, organized, sorted, work of organizational beauty on the right. Like something out of Modern Living, or Oprah magazine, or wherever they publish these kinds of dramatic before and afters. I almost took snapshots, in case Marie Kondo might want to highlight me on her show in some way.
I haven’t heard from her. At least not yet.
But maybe that’s just as well, because the pictures wouldn’t tell the whole story anyway.
Those neat and clean before and after’s that can appear so enticing in a magazine often leave some of the messier parts of the process out of the picture.
Messier parts like, grief, like feelings of loss, like reckoning. Messier parts like anxiety, fear, uncertainty.
Letting go, has its challenges, whatever form it takes.
As I progressed along my personal decluttering trajectory, I discovered something that will not surprise you, that stuff is not just stuff. And I discovered another thing that likely also will not surprise you, my relationship with my stuff, is a reflection of my relationship with life. Which, for me, means, sometimes conflicted, sometimes hopeful? Sometimes a little too attached, sometimes full of expectation. Stuff is not just stuff.
I discovered that everything I went through, my clothes, my papers, my books, my knickknacks…. Every single thing in my house had a history. And a future that I had imagined. Each item I owned was a reminder of what was happening at the time I got it. And each item had some hope attached to it – some way it was going to help me do something, some way it was going to fix something or help me with something, some way it was going to change me or fix my life.
And so, letting some of my things go – was not just about my stuff. It was about my life, it was about remembering who I’d been, who I’d wanted to be. It was about accepting the ways I was or was not going to become who I thought I would become, about feeling that sadness… it was about reevaluating my relationship with risk as I took a second look at what I thought I needed and maybe really did not.
Have I found myself changed, freed, happier?
I would say that I have. I haven’t finished going through all my stuff, but I have felt that this kind gentle attention to my things has been like a gentle attention to my whole life, and my whole history. And I’ve found that clearing out my things has made it possible for me to focus, without getting bogged down in a million distractions, on what is really most important to me, including how to be there for others. And I’ve found that when I look around me and know that I am taking care of my surroundings, I feel supported. Like life is good, even in the face of all that is not. It helps give me balance.
In fact, Over the course of my adult life I have, been coming more and more to appreciate the value of organization and thinking things through and being prepared.
But even as I’ve been nudging myself in the direction of organization, clarity and declutteredness, I am finding, to the disappointment of my inner perfectionist, that my focus on being organized has a down side.
As I’ve become more organized, I have found that I can get distracted when I’m not. Or when others are not. I realized that in addition to all the other things that are great about having things tidy, it also makes me feel safe. A feeling I get attached to. Which means I can get a little overfocused on having things just so.
I don’t need to tell you, certainly not these days: Our world is messy. People are messy. And if we want to be of service, we, I, need to work with that, too.
I noticed it recently with a friend of mine – a spiritual accountability buddy, who was consistently late to our phone calls. And who wasn’t doing the practices I thought she should be doing. That even she said she knew she should be doing And I found myself getting a little tight. But she is also someone who is wise and who I respect and who, herself, was learning to accept that she and life need not be perfect. Which I am too. So I had a dilemma.
And just as much as I have over the course of my adult life heard a nudging from my inner voice saying clear up the clutter make space for joy get things organized to be more effective more capable and more able to live in the dreams that you have….
Lately, I’ve also been hearing a nudging an inner voice that feels just as strong that says make room for messiness make room for the serendipitous for the unknown for the chaos — it will make you more flexible it will make more room in your heart for connection and for life, because life is naturally messy.
Messiness has somethings to be said for it. It is said by some that it is a root of creation. Navigating it contains risk and unpredictability which tests the spirit and keeps us open.
In the messiness of our times, we are seeing some beautiful flowers of creation as people open their hearts and respond with love and resistance to what is not right.
Sobered by my own experience that both are true, that tidying is good and life enhancing and spiritually opening and positive. And that learning to accept the messiness of life also has its benefits, I leave it to you to determine where it would serve you and the people around you lean into order, and where, it would serve you to lean into acceptance of the messiness that simply is.
Paradoxically, accepting messiness may also be a way to create space, at a deeper level even than any of our outer circumstances.
Our theme this month is renewal. And September, with the beginning of the school year, naturally feels like a new beginning, a time to take a fresh look at our lives.
A time to hold on to what matters, and let go, with compassion, of what no longer does. Including some of our own ingrained attitudes.
May we find, as we sort through our things or through our past, that we might grieve as we need to, feel fear if we must, and lean into faith, and hope, and trust.
May we find, as we anticipate the coming year with all its unknown challenges, and all it’s unknown gifts, that we find a way to surround ourselves with joy.
May we, as we begin the year together, find that when we trust, when we open, when we let go, we will, more and more, create room to connect with what matters most, with each other, with what is unfolding right here and now.
 Her 2011 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has been an international hit and Time magazine declared her one of the 100 most influential people in 2015.