I have never been one to make New Year’s resolutions—at least not any time in recent history. As a teenage girl and when I was in my early twenties, I often did participate in the tradition. It never ended well. I have a nice stack of diaries and journals that I wrote in for six or seven days in early January before abandoning them. Over the years I have given away my New Year’s resolution collection of devotional books, exercise equipment, and dieting books. By the time I was thirty, I had given up on making resolutions. I resolved to make no more resolutions.
Earlier this year I had the privilege of taking a three-month sabbatical leave from Baptist Women in Ministry. I prepared and planned BWIM for my time away, made sure my areas of leadership would be covered. I submitted a grant proposal and received funds that allowed me to travel some and to be in places to rest and renew. And yes . . . I set some goals for my sabbatical. I made resolutions!
The overarching goal was to declutter my life. I wanted time to sort through and discard the unnecessary piles of books, papers, and stuff that had taken over my house. I wanted time to sort through and discard the unnecessary stuff that had taken over my calendar. But most of all I wanted time to sort through and discard the unnecessary stuff that had taken over my heart and my mind—the stuff that brought more darkness than light, the stuff that took my attention away from what is most important, the stuff that seemed to overwhelm me.
Decluttering, as it turns out, is hard work and requires patience. I scheduled days during my sabbatical to clean out closets, drawers, and cabinets. I bagged up loads of stuff—some went to the garbage. Some went to Goodwill. And that big pile of papers that had my kid’s school certificates, medical records, tax information, sweet cards and notes, and appliance warranties is no longer just one big stack hidden in my bonus room. Those papers are neatly filed, labeled, and boxed. My house is now . . . well not completely clutter-free, but it is significantly better, and my heart and my closets are now happier.
I must confess, however, that decluttering my calendar was an abysmal failure. Within minutes of returning to the office after my sabbatical, I was already caught up in the fury of an overcommitted, over-packed schedule. In those first two weeks back, I flew on three airplanes, preached three sermons, attended three ordinations, presented a university lecture, led a Task Force meeting, and hosted an evening on missions at my church. Needless to say, all the resting and relaxing on my sabbatical were a soon forgotten way of life. I am still a work in process when it comes to decluttering my calendar.
My greatest sabbatical decluttering goal, however, was to find a way to clear out the overwhelming darkness that had crept into my life. The last few years have been filled with so much pain in our world—mass shootings, racial violence, terrorism, earthquakes, and fires, and all of that sadness has weighed heavy and rightly on my heart. Ministers can’t shy away from the hurts of the world or distance themselves from the needs of others. Yet somehow I found myself living in a state of despair, totally overwhelmed to the point of being paralyzed and hopeless. As every new crisis occurred, I found myself tied to Facebook, reading the posts and blogs of friends, and I found myself taking on their anxieties and fears. When I added their despair to my own, I was surrounded by darkness. So much darkness. That darkness became so heavy that I knew I had to make some changes.
In August, a few weeks into my sabbatical, I took the Facebook app off my phone and off my IPad. I spent the next nine weeks mostly Facebook free. I no longer did a quick check to see the latest photos or read the newest articles and blogs. I cut myself off almost entirely from what had been a constant in my life. It was rather painful at first—to not know the latest scoop, to not keep up with every thought, every experience, and every world event as seen through the eyes of my friends. But it was also a glorious relief. I was free to process world happenings on my own—by reading news stories, doing my own research, talking to my closest friends. I was free to spend time reading books rather than Facebook articles. I was free from what had become a dark companion for me.
Once I returned to work after my sabbatical, I did return to Facebook—because I love seeing photos of my friend’s children, my student’s ordinations and weddings, and even those cute puppies! I also love being able to keep with the lives of those I love—even if the news is sad or painful. I want to know whose mother has died or who has been diagnosed with cancer. That kind of news turns me to prayer and to compassion, and I need those connections with friends. But I discovered that I can catch up on all the Facebook news of the day in about 15-20 minutes. Social media does not need to be my constant companion. The app has not returned to my phone, and honestly, reigning in my use of Facebook turned out to be the best decluttering gift from my sabbatical.
Our lives are so filled with clutter these days—our minds are overloaded with “stuff.” My prayer for us all as we move into this new year is that we will invest in some serious decluttering. May we shed those things that paralyze us and keep us from living out our call to compassion. May we delete from our lives those things that steal our hope. May instead the joy and contentment that God gives become our constant companion.
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.