Becoming Minimalist

Less is more. AMEN. [Pretend the sermon is over.]

Blame Leslie Freymann—she put me up to that. She’s the UUCA member who won the Sermon-of-Your-Choice item at the Fun For Funds Auction this past November, and her passion is minimalism. She says, “I’ve always been into having a clean, mostly clutter-free house (from outward appearance anyways) but a year or so ago I learned there was a name for how I was feeling and a community of thousands already doing it and I started to read blog posts about it, with tips and suggestions and inspirations for taking it to the next level….”

This sermon is for Leslie, but it’s for all of us too because minimalism preaches.


Just consider the timing. What’s happening as this sermon takes flight.

With Nepal’s earthquake we have thousands dead and thousands more suffering. With the events in Baltimore and the murder of yet another African American man by police, we are painfully reminded of how far we have to go in fighting racism. With the Supreme Court hearing arguments for and against same-sex marriage, we hold our collective breath and hope the cause of justice will prevail. With the United States Senate this past Wednesday voting to reject the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change, we are rolling our eyeballs so far up into our heads they may get stuck there. There is just so much in this wide world to save, and the question is: Are we free enough that we are able to show up, do the saving work that is ours to do?

On the other hand, this afternoon at 4pm is UUCA’s lovely Floralia Farm Dinner which celebrates good food and good friendship all in interdependency with the earth. It is not by accident that it happens close to May 1 and the pagan celebration of Beltane, which in agricultural times affirmed the fertility of the fields and the promise of a bountiful harvest. As the UUCA website says, “Chef Philip Meeker of Bright Seed (and formerly of Kimball House) will cook a meal to reflect his holistic approach to cuisine that will wow omnivores and vegetarians alike.” There is so much in this wide world to savor, and again the question: Are we free enough that we are able to show up, to be foodies, to enjoy things, to take pleasure in the cycles and rhythms of a sensuous earth—work (of a sorts) which is also ours to do?

For what is a good life anyway, but one which balances savoring the world with saving it? And always the question is: Are we free enough to show up? Or does clutter of one sort or other get in the way?

This question about clutter is particularly hot for me right now, right this very instant, because I am in process of moving from my current apartment to another one. The big burly movers come tomorrow. I look upon my things, and the clutter literally pains me. The Ouija board from the 1950s that I bought for five dollars 15 years ago because I thought it was tres cool, but through several moves it’s always lived in a dark places, shoved underneath other stuff. The ten shirts that I don’t feel great in but they aren’t horrible so I keep them but I never wear them. The extra set of dishes that are stacked like a crazy ziggurat and I struggle taking them to Goodwill because I say to myself, “I could use them.” That’s the minimalist’s forbidden phrase, you should know, which justifies never throwing or giving anything away. I have become infamous with local liquor store clerks because I’ve been haunting them, asking for boxes, boxes which are ideal for books because they are durable and not too big. How many do I have now? 60? 70? Because I can’t get rid of books. I can always use a book, if not for a sermon now, then for some sermon later…

What I’m saying is that there’s nothing like a move to get someone thinking seriously about minimalism.

To all my crapola I’m saying: good riddance!


It’s the signature battle-cry of our times. Pamela Druckerman in The New York Times writes, “Clutter is having its moment in part because we’ve accumulated a critical mass of it. The cascade began 25 years ago, when China started to export huge amounts of cheap clothes, toys and electronics. Cut-rate retailers and big-box stores encouraged us to stockpile it all. And we did.” So now, she says, “Everyone I meet seems to be waging a passionate, private battle against their own stuff, and they perk up as soon as you mention it. […] A New Yorker on a de-cluttering bender explained: ‘There’s too much in my head, there’s too much stuff in my house, too.’ Another friend said that when his girlfriend got angry, she called him the clutter of her life.”

Clutter is not just about material objects. It’s also about people you bring into your life, images and information you invite into your mind, emotions that you let live in your heart. To this kind of clutter, writer Edward M. Hallowell speaks powerfully. In his book entitled Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap, he says, “Living life today can seem like riding a bike no-handed while reading a book and juggling six eggs…” “This world,” he says, “is a new mother lode…. We can now mine a volume of accessible information that gives to every individual mind the power of what it used to take hundreds of minds to do. We can work with an ease and speed of communication that makes the dead time called ‘waiting’ obsolete, or at least unnecessary.” “The energy that flashes through our electronics,” says Edward Hallowell, “has leapt into most of our bloodstreams and brains.”

But does this energy charge us up, or does it burn us out?

Try this experiment: Watch CNN for 24 hours straight. Get your Wolf Blitzer on. Is this going to help us live out our Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles in saving the world? What do you think? It just burns us to a crisp. Trouble and pain from all parts of the world, sucking us dry like an energy vampire. Powerful images—but hopefully we are savvy enough to know that the media loves controversy and highlights the 100 people in Baltimore who rioted and completely ignores the thousands who protested peacefully and also cleaned the mess up afterwards. Hopefully we know this, which means that in addition to being brought low by the suffering of an entire world, we feel sick to our very souls because of mistrust and cynicism.

And again, in all this strurm und drang, nothing gets saved. We want to make a difference, but it’s hard to find the work that’s ours to do when we feel depressed, frazzled, ineffective.

But minimalism preaches. Minimalism is about less life energy tied up with what drains us and more life energy available for the work of saving and savoring. Leslie Freymann puts it like this: “It doesn’t mean you can’t have nice things and spend money on luxuries and things you love. In fact, to me it is about quality vs. quantity. It is about being very conscious of what I bring into my life and continually evaluating whether items, events and people are truly worthy of the space they consume – either in my house or in my schedule or even just in my brain. It is also about letting go of the past and not holding on to ‘stuff’ simply because you don’t want to deal with it. Minimalism can help you start your own therapeutic journey; it can free you and give you the space and time to think and reflect—and that freedom can be scary, which is why many people never even get started.”

I found this last insight to be especially profound. It brings me back to something my therapist Shirley once said. Preserving all confidentiality, of course, Shirley had mentioned a client from years past whom she’d invited into a visualization exercise. “Visualize the hurt that you’ve not yet forgiven as heavy in your heart, a tar-like mass. Reach your hand in and pull it out, pull all of it out.” She did, and she reported feeling amazed at the difference, how all the heaviness was gone, replaced by a lightness and a fluidity of feeling. But soon enough, her smile faded. Things felt too good, she didn’t know what to do with that, she didn’t know who she was anymore. And so she went back to the visualizing. She imagined herself reaching for that heavy tar-like gunk, and she re-inserted it into in her heart. She couldn’t tolerate the freedom.

All I can say to this is that I’d rather carry the pain of ambiguity than the pain of clutter. “And the day came,” says writer Anais Nin, “when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

The pain of clutter is the pain of living an absurd life. Columnist Ellen Goodman hits the nail on the head when she calls it “normal,” and says, “’Normal’ is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, the car and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.”

The pain of clutter is the pain of living a mediocre life. Very often, we are choosing not between “absolutely vile” and “wonderful” but between “just good” and “wonderful.” Opportunities that are just good knock on our doors all the time—and unless we are clear about who we are and what feeds our souls, we’ll marry them and pass over the ones that make our hearts sing, that feel like home, that charge us up to be all that we are called to be. So we’ll end up not singing but mumbling; not at home but drifting; not called to be all we can be, but restless. We did not choose what was wonderful—we chose what was just good instead.

That is what I call painful—so give me the pain of ambiguity instead. The pain of emptiness that is absolutely necessary because room must be available for what is different and better. For truly wonderful, worthy things, there must be space.

So how do we do it? How to become minimalist?

Short answer: be willing to be transformed. That happens to be the worship theme of the month and, as you may know, with each worship theme comes a “happiness challenge.” Take a look at your worship bulletin. Below the “Order of Service,” below the “Supporting Community Today,” we see it: “Theme-Based Worship + Happiness Challenge = Fun.” There you will find seven beginner steps for living more lightly upon the earth.

Write it down

Discard the duplicates

Declare a clutter-free zone

Travel lightly

Dress with less

Eat similar meals

Save $1000.

Take the worship bulletin home with you, try these minimalist life hacks out, as a way to get started…

As Leslie Freymann suggested earlier, there’s lots of folks practicing minimalism, there’s tips and suggestions and inspirations galore for taking it to the next level. Josh Becker is someone to look into. Check out his blogsite at Also look into Lara Blair’s blogsite at “I’m not going to covet other minimalists’ lives anymore,” she writes. “I don’t travel the world with a single backpack. I haven’t packed up my family to travel across the country in an RV for a year. I am not a single woman with a futon, a suitcase and a laptop. I didn’t choose 600 square feet of dwelling space with a hobby farm ‘round back.” Then she says that while all these extraordinary people and situations have things to teach, there’s just not “one formula for choosing a simple life…it is not a one-size-fits all T-shirt.”

Absolutely so. But when you practice minimalism, you will most likely experience certain things that other minimalists will immediately resonate with. Leslie swears that there is instant, positive karma in giving away the stuff that clutters your house. You are constantly surprised by all the amazing things that find their way to you, just because you opened up a space to receive.

Minimalists experience instant positive karma, and also this: people’s incredulity. Brooke McAlary illustrates with a blog post entitled “The Problem With Free,” in which she basically says that freebies are not free. They cost money to produce, first of all, and second of all, do we really need the beer glasses and the key rings and the pens and the T-shirts and on and on? “At some point,” she says, “you will have to pick [that stuff] up and decide where to store it or how to rid yourself of it. And to be honest, I think your time is more important than that. So next time you’re offered something for free,” she says, “try saying no. See how it feels. That’s what I did recently when I was buying some make up, and the result was… interesting.” Here’s the exchange she found herself in with a shop assistant:

Shop Assistant: “And you get a really nice tote bag for free.”

Brooke McAlary: “Oh, no thanks. I don’t need another bag.”

Shop Assistant: “But…it’s free.”

Brooke: “Oh, I know. But I don’t need it. Thanks though.”

Shop Assistant: “But… it doesn’t cost you anything. I can give it to you right now. You could give it to someone for a gift. It’s actually really nice. And it’s free.”

Brooke: “Uh, no, thanks.”

Shop Assistant: [Stunned silence]

Brooke: “Can I have my make-up now?”

In addition to receiving instant positive karma and other people’s incredulity, minimalists commonly report having leaps of innovative thought. It was Albert Einstein who once said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” It means that if we’re living Edward Hallowell’s book entitled Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap, the solution will not be found in learning how to go faster but, rather, in knowing who we are, what our values are, and in saying no to what’s out of line with all of that.

It means that if we are drowning in possessions, the solution will not be found in bigger containers or through silver bullet organizational tips and tricks but, rather, in de-owning. “At its heart,” says Josh Becker, “organizing is simply rearranging.” Organizing stays at the same level of thinking that created the original problem. We have to go to the next level. We need higher insight.

Lots of experiences that minimalists share, as they seek out ways to liberate energy for abundant living. The last one I’ll mention here is just an attitude of being done with impoverishment. Accepting fool’s gold and pretending it’s real. Listen to how writer Adrienne Pieroth puts this, speaking for women everywhere and I say this can speak for men too:

She was done not fully being herself.

She realized she was the only self she could be—and not being unapologetically true to herself was a disservice to her soul and the world.

She was done listening to the noise of the world. She realized the quiet voice of her own soul was the most beautiful sound.

She was done questioning her motives, her intentions, the call of her soul. She realized questions seek answers, and maybe she already knew the answers.

She was done striving, forcing, pushing through and staying on the hard path. She realized toughing things out might be a sign to pick another path.

She was done with friends that admonished her to be more light and breezy. She realized they didn’t understand she swam in the deep waters of life, she felt at home in their dark depths and died if she lived on the surface.

She was done with the distractions, the denials, the small addictions that pulled her away from the true desires of her soul. She realized that strength of character came from focus and commitment.

She was done not following the desires that yelled out in her soul every day. She realized if she did nothing about them, they died a quiet death that took a piece of her soul with them.

She was done

We are done

I am done

As I pack all my worldly possessions, and transition from old apartment to new, I will make it a kind of meditation. The Ouija board from the 1950s, the ten shirts that are just eh, the extra set of dishes stacked like a crazy ziggurat, even my beloved books: to keep before me the resolve that I am done with clutter, that it’s not enough that I could perhaps maybe possibly use a thing (even though I haven’t for years). To de-own such things as an act worthy in itself but also symbolic of something larger: how I am done with all the self-undermining habits and unhelpful attitudes and distorted ideas that clutter my heart and mind and soul and are untrue to me and cut me off from abundant living….

Let that be my meditation

Let that be our meditation

Muslims say, “Take one step towards God and God takes seven steps towards you.”

Becoming minimalist can be that one step.