Too much stuff? Possessions make it harder to see God’s presence
Like a persistently rising tide, stuff happens and keeps my life endlessly complicated.
It is entirely my fault. I cannot bring myself to throw away anything except the daily newspapers and two weekly news magazines that I read to have a balanced view of the world. National Geographic is another story. I have every one that has ever arrived in the mail. Issues for the last four or five years are in a 5-foot stack in my home office; earlier issues spill over into the family “work room” and the attic.
I am a book lover and have been since college. Even though I have contributed thousands of volumes to the college library, I have not one inch of space on any of the many shelves in our family work room, my home office, the family room bookcases, my faculty office or the large storage closet.
I never have paid much attention to my clothes; they just seem to accumulate. Lately the shirts in my closet are so crowded I can’t get one out without messing up several others. I gradually have gotten rid of all the souvenir shirts and sweatshirts I collected on vacations and other travels. I have sorted out all those I can’t remember wearing, and I am determined to buy no more.
Still, the stuff is all around.
I remember vividly that when I was 8 years old, a cigar box held all my “treasures” — a large magnifying glass to look at insects, a pencil and little notepad, an Indian Head nickel, four “aggies” and a “steely.” That was more than enough to make me happy. I usually had only one or two changes of clothes. But that was unimportant.
For several years now, I have had a growing awareness that I have too much stuff. But my recent trip to Mombasa, Kenya, where some of the poorest people in the world live, has intensified that feeling. Every time I buy a cup of coffee, I calculate that money would feed a Kenyan family for a day or two. Buying a new pair of socks to match new trousers, I figured the money for the socks would feed a family for a week.
Last summer, reading Augustine and some of the Franciscan desert monks, I realized how stuff keeps humankind from discovering what is most valuable about life. Willed discipline makes us more aware of our sins, our need for God and our value as created by God’s power.
Before Jesus began his ministry, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness where he did not eat and had no disruptions by people and stuff. Those 40 days prepared him to face and defeat Satan, and they gave him strength to deal with adoring crowds and mobs of critical Pharisees.
In the midst of the wealth and materialism of our age, a quiet revolution is taking place. Young people like Ben and Kym Langford and Spencer and Emily Bogle are living with their children in Uganda to evangelize, working with people barely surviving. Many have gone to Ghana’s Village of Hope to rescue children and provide them with care as well as the necessities of life. Youth groups are beating paths to Mexico, Honduras and Central America to build houses, schools, and churches. They are playing with children and teens. They are taking clothing and love to people barely surviving.
These experiences of youth and their parents are bringing change to our churches. The change reflects the thinking presented in Shane Claiborne’s “The Irresistible Revolution,” a book widely read among youth ministers and church leaders concerned over the materialism of our culture. Without a direct response to the “social gospel” punching bag, Claiborne advocates living the power of a sacrificial life devoted to people, not things. Drawing heavily on the teachings of Jesus, he argues that Jesus was not just being dramatic when he told the rich young man to sell all his possessions and give to the poor — then you will have treasures in heaven (Matthew 19:21).
One of the really challenging questions Claiborne asks is: “How many poor people do you know by name?” I could only name three in this country. I don’t mean to be selfish, but being busy with my own stuff blinds me to the way that relationships with less blessed people will enrich my life.
I must address my clinging to stuff. Possessions come to possess us. They make us cling to this world when our hearts should be longing for the presence of God. We must change our hearts and seek first the kingdom of God.
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Thank you for your article on having too many possessions. It really hit home. It is so easy for us to go about our business and take so much for granted. I printed and cut out your article to keep on my refrigerator door to remind me to “lighten up” on worldly stuff. (But I still have the book addiction to deal with!) Thanks for the encouraging words.,April, 17 2008