Lessons in Service: Lesson 4

Stuff.  Chances are, you have it. Lots of it. If you put it all into neat little piles, into neat little boxes, it might look like this:

packing up

The joys of packing (Photo credit: Joanna Bourne)

While my packing is not quite this intense, I’ve still got 3 suitcases and a handful of hefty boxes of books, DVDs, and ‘decor’ – all of which will be added to the stuff I’ve left at home. So much stuff! Well, I needed it, right? We convince ourselves we need it. “Ok,” we say, “maybe not need but I will use it, I will!” And so it sits. We use it one day in November. And then, if you have a small closet, like me, stuff hides. Until one day next Novemeber you see it. “Huh, I forgot I had this!” You say this as you pull on the cardigan that is getting permanent pit stains. You curl up to read the same book of poetry you always do on Sundays. And then, to top it off, you eat the same breakfast (oatmeal, please!) that you’ve had every day for a year. If you are a human, you are a creature of habit who is deeply, deeply addicted to novel stuff.

Even those living in poverty in America (can) have lots of stuff. Porches in Appalachia overflow. People love to thrift here and are always buying trinkets big and small from flea markets or from their neighbors.  (Ask my co-worker about her love of $1 purses!) It’s a problem, isn’t it?

Often my stuff feels like a burden. I know, I know, first world problems, much? But spiritually speaking, isn’t it a problem? Jesus tells the man to sell what he has and give the money to the poor. He tells the disciples to take bare necessities with them as they go out. Too much stuff is so often indicative of our addiction to pleasure seeking, to egotism, to shameless, remorseless capitalism. And so, my too much stuff reminds me of these sins in my life. Even the stuff that’s noble, like beautiful books of poetry.

This year, I’ve had to confront my religion of Too-Much-ism. The community closet, which offers free clothes, often tempted me into taking things.  “That skirt is trendy and I could definitely make that blazer work!”  Until a bad day brings me face to face with people struggling to get a decent education. With people strapped for the cash to pay for a $10 camp. With kids who come in without jackets. And I go home, tear through my clothes, once, twice, three times – what can I donate? What do I need? I pull some books off my shelf and add them to the community bookshelf. Rid me of it, please, Lord, I don’t want it.

Not if it weighs me down. Not if it keeps me from knowing my God, myself, and my community.

But as I was packing up, I noticed something. Besides that I had actually gotten rid of a lot of stuff, I noticed that whether I had all this stuff or didn’t have all this stuff, I still feel happy. The stuff doesn’t guilt me, but it doesn’t own me, either. I still feel close to God and have been blessed with a community I shared my heart with. I served others humbly (I hope). So does the stuff, in and of itself, matter? What’s more important – the stuff in our suitcase or the stuff in our heart?

Now, I am all for simplifying our consumer purchases and reducing the amount of things we have, if only for the reason of being less distracted and more in solidarity with our friends who have less through the evil of poverty. When we reduce our dependence on things because of this reason, it is very good! Our hearts are in the right place. But when we tear through our closets in a rage, fearing our stuff is what is making us Bad and Evil, then we totally miss the point. You could own only 5 items and still have Stuff in your life that keeps you from God and your community. It’s less about the stuff than our attitude toward the stuff. Do we own the stuff or does it own us? Do we give it up out of fear and guilt, or love and solidarity?

And so my Evil, Noxious, Consumerist Stuff has taught me a lot over a year. I’ve learned to let go of my stuff, because when we let go of the stuff in our hearts, the rest easily follows.