SHOULD I KEEP THIS OLD SHIRT?
My wife and I have been given a very special privilege. We have the opportunity to go through every last thing we own, be it our Subaru Forester, an old coffeemaker, or a half-used note pad, to determine if we are going to keep and transport it to our new home in Mexico, donate it to a worthy cause, or do our small part to take an Illinois landfill to its holding capacity.
In the process we are learning a lot about the middle-class American lifestyle, of which we have become active members. Since I am a fairly pious Christian I have chosen not to use the words that immediately come to mind which describe what we are discovering about our middle-class life. My second string of descriptors includes words like cluttered, overly busy, materialistic, paper polluted, enslaving, junk filled, influenced by others, keeping up with the Joneses, dependent, peer pressured, deceptive and non-trusting. We are discovering that we have become possessed by our possessions to the point that they guide and direct our lives and actions. That which truly provides happiness–relationships and human interaction–has been shoved aside by acquiring and maintaining our stuff. The more stuff we own the lonelier we become. The more stuff we own the more we are owned by it. Caring for what we own crowds people out of our lives. Any culture necessitating scheduled play dates for children is on its death bed. A culture which requires a couple weeks of lead time to schedule a night out with friends because people are so busy working to accumulate stuff and then investing time to maintain their stuff is a culture destined to disappear. Culture and civilization are the cumulative organic results of ongoing human interaction. When interaction ceases, there is no longer any common bond nor shared experiences; and everyone ends up “doing what is right in his or her own eyes,” which is an absolute guarantee of societal dysfunction and eventual cessation.
The bottom line is that our dependence on stuff is really evidence of not trusting God, in spite of our Bible readings, prayer, and worship songs. In the perfect world created by God in the beginning and to which we will return at the reconciliation of all things, Adam and Eve had nothing but God, each other, nature and the shared experience of living off of what God abundantly provided through a clean and healthy environment. A friend of mine, Peter Illyn, founder and president of Restoring Eden put out my all-time favorite bumper sticker which humorously but not incorrectly states, “God’s original plan was to hang out in a garden with a couple of naked vegetarians.” Relationship and trust were all the first couple had and all they needed. This was God’s design. It wasn’t until Eve took the first thing not needed that greed and the need to possess and accumulate took over and became one of the strongest human forces known. From that day to this, our desire to possess has ruined the environment, isolated us from each other, and eroded our trust that God will care for us. Ever since Eve launched the world on its march to destruction through the evil act of unnecessary consumption, the only things we really own are the things we can control by getting rid of them without grief. If we grieve over their loss, we have to wonder who or what the real owner is.
Right now I am moving to another country. The greatest stress related to the move? Our stuff. Packing to protect it, budgeting to ship it, getting the legal documents to cross international borders with it, arranging for the transporters to relocate it– it is a never-ending, sleep-depriving nightmare. What do we really need? What will be helpful? What is actually harming us and our future ministry in Mexico? Is “we might need that” sufficient grounds for keeping something, or is the proper declaration “I am using that” the way we should determine what to take and what to get rid of? What about things that serve no purpose other than to generate warm fuzzy feelings? Do we keep them? Do we take a 20-year-old plaster-of-Paris hand print from our son’s preschool vacation Bible school, or do we make room for an extension cord which we will use but which has no sentimental value? Does utilitarian take precedence over warm fuzzy? Where do we draw the line? When do we go overboard one way or the other? We Christians justify our greed by saying “I am holding my stuff in an open hand.” That is very easy to say when no one is trying to take anything from us.
I don’t have the answers yet and probably won’t in this lifetime. But I am asking myself the question. At least I now know what I own and I am learning what owns me because I have handled it all in the past three weeks and made a conscious decision about each thing, be it a 19-foot-long sea kayak or a misshapen paper clip. I may sometimes be wrong in my decisions; but at least I’m trying to show I trust God to provide by not hoarding a bunch of stuff. We wealthy Americans are good at asking the WWJD question, which is usually a painless choice to do what is ultimately beneficial to us, but we may not even be asking the question WWJK? (What Would Jesus Keep?) This is the real question, because it strikes to the heart of who our prime deity really is.