I hesitated to sign-up to pre-read Courtney Ellis’ book Uncluttered for a couple of reasons. First, the title alone, Uncluttered, made it very clear to me that this book would have something to say to me and my often-very cluttered life. Second, the author Courtney Ellis is, like myself, a co-pastor with her husband, a writer (um, obviously? She wrote the book…), and a mom to littles. Why would so much affinity with an author give me such pause? Because I knew she would not only “get it”, she would also see through my sanctimonious excuses as to why my cluttered life was a special kind of holy and thus merited a free pass. Rude.
But, I read it anyway and I’m grateful, not only for the practical guidance offered along the way, but for just how very Christian this book is, not in a “Jesus veneer shellacked over some self-help,” but truly Christ-centric. It is grounded in God’s kind and generous intentions for all of Creation, and invites the reader to trust those intentions by being obedient.
Ellis begins with a raw look into her own painful confrontation with clutter, and not just in that one drawer everyone ignores and blindly shoves more random tidbits into…life clutter. She says of that moment, “I’m overwhelmed all the time and it’s all too much and I don’t know how to make it less much.” Me too, lady preacher-friend, me too.
For the next year, the author and her husband embark on a journey to confront the clutter in their lives with relentless honesty and make the painful decision, over and over again, to choose the bestover the good. She examines the generalized “stuff” that crams every nook and cranny of their home. She dives into her overstuff closet, into her shopping habit, her use of technology, and time management. Ellis does not let herself off the hook with pop-culture clichés about minimalism or some generic simplicity. (She even lets the reader peek at a hilarious attempt at a capsule wardrobe, complete with fur vest and leather pants.) Instead of staying on the surface, Ellis dives deep into the motives of her heart, the aches she tries to soothe with buying something new. Sometimes the ache is for respite, a break from the grind of the daily church grind and raising kids. Sometimes it’s a desire for renewal, for new life, a desire Ellis makes clear cannot be solved with a new pair of jeans, no matter how nice the fit.
The chapters continue through each source of clutter and Ellis gracefully offers practical ideas on how to reduce the excess, the things that crowd our hearts and minds, acquiring our devotion through our passivity. Unlike so many books that address this topic, you don’t feel judged or belittled by her personal experiments. Instead, you feel challenged and encouraged to see another person like you, a Jesus-follower seeking faithfulness, try and fail and try again.
I was particularly convicted by her chapter on the cluttered schedule. How many times do I look at my calendar, at five consecutive nights of work obligations and feel exhausted and defeated, before the week even begins. As is the case in any job, certain seasons of parish ministry are busier than others, but a personality like mine can easily become hooked on the rush. Ellis says, “The problem comes…when the adrenaline of rushing around like headless chickens becomes addictive, and we simply cannot stop. Then it’s a red flag that there’s something off in our priorities. That the conditions for the growth of our souls are imperiled at best.” Ouch.
Ellis gently reminded me that, no matter how much I work, no matter how much I hustle and bustle, the work will remain unfinished, but “because of Jesus we will not. As Victor Hugo once wrote, “When you have laboriously completed your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.”’ My self-important refusal to truly rest is what Hilary of Tours calls irreligiosa sollicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him. (I wrote on the topic here.)
Ellis challenges her readers, pastors or not, to learn the art of saying “no,” by choosing discomfort over resentment. It’s hard to say no. People sometimes get angry and feel disappointed with us. But for the sake of our souls, we must practice courage by saying “no” as the Spirit leads instead of allowing resentment over an over-filled schedule to fester within us.
Having created extra space in her life and in the life of her family by reducing clutter, Ellis uses the latter half of the book to explore specific disciplines that, with practice, can protect our now less-cluttered lives from simply becoming cluttered again, practices like Sabbath, hospitality, listening and speaking, generosity, and corporate worship. Undergirding these practices however is not a new, simply more spiritual busyness but as Ellis says, “one great love to order all the others. No must flow from a larger central yes. Yes to Jesus.” Saying yesto Jesus, with the guiding help of spiritual disciplines, is the goal. Not fewer toys littering the living room, not less clothes clogging up the closet, not even a roomier schedule. The goal is Jesus, our eyes fixed, our hearts set, our hands and feet moving in gratitude-fueled obedience.
Becoming uncluttered is not an easy, natural task. It is painful, demanding work, but work that bears fruit not only in our cupboards and bank accounts, but in our hearts. As we turn down the noise we begin, as Ellis says, “to notice God at work in [us] and around [us].” We begin to notice that the “hunger of our soul…is not a desire for any manufactured thing or experience, but a longing for the God of the universe, for the peace and justice and hope and grace that is found only in and through him.”
I want to hunger after the right things, to have my appetite rightly ordered to long for God. Thank you Pastor Courtney for offering us this faithful, practical guide to get uncluttered and create space to notice God at work in and around us.
Pre-order Courtney’s book here and read more of her work here!