Once upon a time, the eaves of my attic were stuffed to the gills with boxes. You know, those cardboard foot-locker kind of boxes you get at Home Depot or Lowes. And each box likewise was stuffed to the gills with children’s clothes. Tiny terry cloth onsies and tiny t-shirts. Tiny turtlenecks, snow suits, and sweaters. Tiny OshKosh overalls.
And once in a blue moon, I would sort through these tiny things looking for something to fit my youngest, so to speak. But I held onto them way past when my youngest could possibly squeeze into them. I held onto them for a ridiculously long time supposedly for sentimental reasons.
Occasionally I would reluctantly part with a few things and pack them up for Goodwill. It was so crazy, my kids only wore these things for a few months or a few weeks but I horded them as if I could freeze their childhoods in amber.
My children’s hand-me-downs kept no one warm, no one dry. And now, I look back and see how incredibly silly this was, how incredibly selfish it was.
We all have places where our possessions take possession of us. Let me share with you one of my all-time favorite short stories: T.C. Boyle’s Possessed by Possessions. It is the humorous tale of Julian and Marsha Laxner, two suburbanites with a great proclivity for things.
“At the Laxner’s, each new day brings deliveries. Today the UPS truck deposits an antique mahogany highboy. Julian shakes his head. There is no earthly way it will fit in the house; you can barely walk through the house. The storage shed? No, not there either. Every corner of the storage shed is crammed with Marsha’s collection of Brazilian farm tools. The pool house, maybe? No, that won’t do. The pool house is flooded with Marsha’s collection of early American whaling implements: bouys, ship furniture, and 112 antique oar clocks.”
“Put the highboy on the moon maybe or Saturn or better yet Pluto! Instead Julian instructs the delivery guy to put the highboy on the porch. On the porch with Marsha’s collection of 207 butter churns and 32 bentwood rockers. The two of them just manage to wedge the highboy through the doorway.”
“These things are choking them, strangling them, overwhelming their lives. The addition to the house was filled before it was built. The prefab storage sheds are stuffed. The closets are crammed. The livingroom is unlivable.”
“While Julian makes his excuses to the UPS man, Marsha pulls into the driveway. Lashed onto the roof of their Land Rover is a great slab of furniture. ‘Julian,’ she calls, ‘look what I found!’”
Marsha and Julian need help, serious help. Maybe some tidying up with Marie Kondo? Maybe a professional organizer? No, something stronger, something like a higher power.
Lord, set us free from all these things!
So, Marsha checks herself into the Imelda Marcos (famous for her 1,220 pairs of shoes!) Treatment Center. While Julian Twelve-Steps it and checks into the co-dependent hostel at Collectors’ Anonymous.
I imagine them confessing,
We admit that we are powerless over our possessions and that our lives have become unmanageable. And we believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
Now the story of the Laxners is a funny one and an exaggerated one. But to some extent, I bet it is true of us all. (Certainly it is SO, SO true of me!)
We often pack our lives, our houses, and our calendars so full, we neglect our neighbor and the ones we love. Ferociously, we hold onto all of our stuff as if our lives depended on it. Hoping our fortune and our fortress might secure for us some kind of immortality.
But where does all this stuff really come from? From where, from whom do all our blessings flow?
Karl Barrth “was fond of saying that the basic human response to God is not fear. The basic human response to God is gratitude. ‘What else can we say to what God gives us, but to stammer praise?’”
In the week ahead, I challenge you to take on a simple spiritual exercise: The Circle of Need.
It’s a game I used to play with the Youth Group. You can play it figuratively or literally at home. (Literal is best.)
Here’s how it goes. Take a large garbage bag or a pillowcase and randomly select a few items from each room in your house. Once the bag is full, sit down with your family or your friends (or by yourself!), and take turns, one at a time drawing an item from the bag. (No peeking!) Each time ask yourself,
Is this something I need? Or is this something I want?
If you need it, place it in The Circle of Need pile. If not, if it is something you just want, place it in the nice- to-have-but-unnecessary pile.
Play the game with gratitude. Play the game with prayer. With thanksgiving, consider God’s generosity as you consider the quantity of things in both of the piles. Be honest and fess up to where maybe the love-of-lovely things might have crossed over into a little bit of gluttony?
Listen to God and let go. Let go of some of this stuff and consider who else might be blessed by it. A friend, a family member, a neighbor or a stranger. End the game by packing up some of the stuff. Books for the local library second hand shelf. Toys for the childcare center. Clothes for Goodwill. Canned goods for the food pantry. Housewares for ALIVE. You get the idea.
A Christian’s life does not consist in an abundance of things but in an abundance of gratitude.
The tenth leper in Luke’s gospel, is a Samaritan, unclean, an outcaste and a foreigner. Along with the other nine, Jesus has healed him. But it is more than that. Jesus brought him out of isolation and restored him to his family and friends. Jesus made him whole and this tenth leper is grateful for it. The tenth leper gets it, he gets the meaning of gratitude. He comes back to Jesus, falls at his feet, and simply says, “Thank you.“
And there is a bonus! Practicing gratitude is not just good for the soul. It reduces stress, boosts your immune system and amplifies hope – modern medicine affirms!
And finally, another of my favorite spiritual writers, Anne Lamott wisely advises to end each day with gratitude, one of the two most basic forms of prayer.
The first form is intercessory. In the morning, when we rise, let us pray, “Help me, help me, help me!” And at the end, let us utter a word of gratitude. Every night as we climb into bed, no matter how bad our day, let us say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Because every day is a day that the Lord has made. Every day is a holy day.
Thanks be to God!