Let’s play a game.
Stand in the middle of your home and look around. No scanning the room quickly and rolling your eyes at me – really look. Let your eyes play for a moment over the things with which you’ve chosen to surround yourself. Maybe wander through a few rooms, taking emotional inventory, looking. Notice where you pause. Notice which items you’re drawn to – those pictures of your daughter, that letter you framed, that souvenir from your honeymoon. Sit for a minute in the way these pieces, these holy items amidst the clutter, make you feel. Give them a minute of nostalgia.
Now turn your attention to the other items, the ones that have less emotional significance – the ones that are only things. Take in your sofa, your coffee table, that rug you picked up at Ikea, the clothes hanging in your closet, everything you’d consider yours. It’s likely that you don’t have strong feelings for some of these items. You’re probably sick of some, but fond of others – there’s that cardigan you wear a few times a week, that chipped mug you know you should get rid of, those books dormant on your shelves, already read and lined up like rainbow trophies, a visual summation of the things that you know. These are the items that will eventually wind up in Goodwill boxes, or worn to shreds, or handed down to reluctant children. They’re the unnecessaries, the wasted, the hoarded, the owned. They’re only things.
I’m the sort of person who can fall in love with things. Most of us have grown up in a culture that curates, seeks after, esteems, and worships things. We spend our lives pursuing them. We accumulate them to gain comfort, status, or aesthetic bliss. Things are so abundant in our world that we only want the newest and best of them. We constantly reevaluate our standings in the thing hierarchy and strive to better our position. We covet. Some of us cling to our things with a jealous panic, a quietly terrified “just in case,” a murmur of pessimism. Others burn through things with abandon, recklessly wasting the out of date, past-due, and has-beens in favor of the shiny and new.
Jesus, as far as I can tell, didn’t seem to have much respect for the accumulation of things. In fact, He had a way of saying annoyingly challenging things like “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt 6) or “any of you who does not give up his possessions cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14). I think sometimes we take this to mean that stuff here on earth has no value – everything is meaningless. Sometimes, I think we use that attitude as an excuse to be, well, wasteful. We all like stuff (bad), but we don’t value anything (good?), and all we’re left with is a weird society of folks who simultaneously yell “No, mine!” and “Look at all this junk.” We say we believe what Jesus is saying, but we hold on to our stuff like we can’t live without it, until we get a better one, at which point we chuck our previous treasure with yesterday’s diapers in a landfill somewhere. We are a confused bunch of kittens, us here.
Do we have to be one or the other? Must we chose between worshiping our possessions or waisting them? If we don’t value what we have, are we still being grateful? If we say we take Jesus at His word on this, do we have to sell our houses and put everything else on Craigslist and take to the streets?
Or maybe, maybe we can assign value to our possessions that serves a holier purpose. What if, standing in your home, you change the way you see your things. For me, this starts with prying back the tight fingers that want so desperately to own the world around me, to claim, to achieve. It starts with changing the phrase in my mind just the tiniest bit, from “These things are mine” to “These things are here right now.” The minute I start to let go of ownership and see my stuff as part of a bigger story, my things start to become tools. I can let my imagination play with the potential futures of all these things. That dress I love might be mine for a minute, then go on to make my friend who is struggling with her image feel beautiful. This dining table might have a second life with a family who just moved to a new home. Those books I finished long ago might surprise strangers left on tables in coffee shops, or donated to a hospital, or handed to a coworker. That ladder could be shared with several other households. These walls might go on to house other families. I get caught up in daydreams about creative repurposing and that vice grip of ownership loosens. Suddenly, I’m less concerned about keeping my things and more excited about their potential to be used as tools. Suddenly, this stuff has value, because suddenly I can use it to love people.
I know a family that keeps taking people in. Their house is filled to the max- they’ve started making bedrooms our of parts of other rooms, but they still welcome folks to live with them, eat with them, and use their stuff. I feel like they get it. I feel like they’ve found a way to see their house as part of a bigger story, as less something they own and more something they can use to love, to host, to care, to shelter. They are good stewards of the home they’ve been given. I think they know that their house is really God’s house, and you know what? It feels a little closer to being God’s house. It feels less like just a building and more like a holy space. They’ve given it value by being willing to loosen their grip, share, and give huge pieces of it away. They’ve created space for Jesus to step in.
In many cultures where hospitality is highly valued, admiring a scarf or a piece of furniture will often land you with an offer to take it home. While I’m not proposing that you start letting your house guests take off with whatever they like, there’s something wonderful, loose, and romantic in this idea. If we can get to the place where we are so loosely bound to our belongings that when a friend says “Oh, I love your scarf!” we can respond with “Here, it would look so good on you! Keep it. I have others,” think of the freedom we’d have. Freedom to let our stuff come and go, to not worry about what we’re going to wear or eat, freedom to randomly bless the socks off of folks, freedom to practice sacrificial giving – the freedom of not being tied to the things of this world.
And don’t get me started on what we could do if we started to view our time the same way. I have too many things to knit and tv shows to watch to even get started on that yet. 😉
If we could live in that freedom space, in and outside of our belongings, we could claim our things as tools. We could name them as our opportunities to contribute. We could give them otherworldly value. Maybe, just maybe, we could stop defining our stuff as what we have, and start looking at it as what we have to give.
That could be neat, don’t you think?