Wary as I am of taking scripture passages out of context, I can’t resist just this once. When Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in John’s resurrection story (20:17) he says, “Do not hold on to me.” I’ve always interpreted this passage to mean that for John, Jesus’ incarnation reaches its culmination not with his resurrection appearances, but with his return back to God. Mary must not cling to her Lord because it is Jesus’ ascension that sets the stage for the unleashing of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church.
Yet right now, as Gary and I spend hours each week sorting, chucking, organizing, and packing, the words “Do not hold on to me” have new significance. Taking Jesus’ words to heart, we decide to part with the couch and love seat we’ve had for the past 20 years. They weren’t even new then: the previous owners had left them. I fell in love with the couch because it was so comfortable. Since I’ve never had a home office, I would often lay on the couch, propped up by a large pillow, computer in my lap, and write away.
I couldn’t get that voice out of my mind, however, “Don’t hold on to it anymore.” We took our final picture, and Gary and I lugged the couch and love seat out of the family room, up the steps to the front door, down the steps to the sidewalk, and into the garage. A Goodwill truck came last week to pick up the couch and love seat while I was at a meeting. It was better that way. Less grief, maybe?
Arriving home I was aghast to see the couch still sitting in the garage! Goodwill wouldn’t take it because it was too beat up and had several holes in the back. Granted, the couch was well used, surviving five family members, nine different cats, a parakeet, a guinea pig, a hermit crab, many adults, and innumerable teenagers chowing down on chips, pretzels, candy, cookies, coffee, and pop, all of which left their mark. Anyone want a couch?
Why is it so difficult to let go? Why do I have to agonize over every little thing? And I’m not even a pack rat! I alternate between euphoria about getting rid of another box of useless stuff and sorrow at parting with things that remind me of my life.
- My grandmother’s 80 year old dining room table: going (every chair is broken)
- My childhood sand collection: gone
- Dozens of photo albums (what hours of fun our family had looking at the pictures!): packed – no time to digitalize them now
- My high school field hockey shoes and stick: gone (sigh)
- Books, books, books: at least half have new homes; many were never even read
- Lawn furniture: only made the first cut – now gone
- The peace pole in our front yard: definitely moving with us
- Knickknacks: most are gone
What do the scriptures say to clergy who have been reappointed and are getting ready to move this summer? “Don’t hold on to me!” Another passage that speaks to me right now is the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. The land of a rich man has brought forth abundantly, so he asks himself, “Where am I going to store all my crops? I am going to tear down my barns and build larger ones.” And God says to the man, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you. Then who is going to get all this stuff?”
I am struggling mightily. How in the world did we acquire all the stuff we have? How could we possibly need it all, especially me, who has always desired to live simply? I decide to read a light novel to relieve the stress of sorting, chucking, organizing, and packing, but God will not let me off the hook.
A favorite author of Gary’s and mine, Donna Leon, has written a wonderful series of mystery novels about Guido Brunetti, a police detective in Venice, Italy. In Quietly in Their Sleep Brunetti is investigating a rash of suspicious deaths in a nursing home. Brunetti and his assistant Vianello visit the home of a man whose recently deceased sister named him as her heir. Da Prè tells them that shortly before his sister died she tried to give the nursing home 100 million lire by changing her will. Da Prè contested the new will, declaring her mind unsound, and it was thrown out of court.
Vianello immediately notices that Da Prè collects snuff boxes. Hundreds of snuff boxes litter the house, mementos of eighteenth century European culture when there was no better way to show appreciation to than to give someone a snuff box handmade by the finest craftsmen. It was Christopher Columbus who first introduced snuff (finely powdered tobacco) to Europe after he landed in the Americas and observed Native inhabitants sniffing the substance.
(Part of the snuff box collection of Frederick the Great, Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Vianello pretends to be a devotee of snuff boxes and engages Da Prè in conversation in an attempt to establish a relationship. When they leave the house Vianello remarks to Brunetti, “Disgusting little man. He thinks he owns those boxes. The fool.”
“I thought you liked them.”
“God, no. I think they’re disgusting. My uncle had scores of them, and every time we went there, he insisted on making me look at them. He was just the same, acquiring things, and things, and things, and believing he owned them.”
“Didn’t he?” Brunetti asks.
“Of course he owned them. That is, he paid for them, had the receipts, could do with them whatever he wanted. But we never really own anything, do we?”
“I’m not sure what you mean, Vianello.”
“Think about it, sir. We buy things. We wear them or put them on our walls, or sit on them, but anyone who wants to can take them away from us. Or break them. Just think of Da Prè. Long after he’s dead, someone else will own these stupid little boxes, and then someone after him, just as someone owned them before he did. But no one every thinks of that: objects survive us and go on living. It’s stupid to believe we own them. And it’s sinful for them to be so important.”
I don’t own any snuff boxes, but it took a secular novel to teach me important lessons about sorting, chucking, organizing, and packing.
- Attachment to things is perhaps the greatest sin in America today.
Why do so many people shop for recreation? Why do most of us have far more clothes than we will ever need? Why do young children need cell phones? Why does every family member need their own car? Do we really need the boat and the second home? Just asking.
Admittedly, drugs, alcohol, pornography, and gun violence take an enormous toll on the collective health of our country. However, the wasteful misuse of money to satisfy our personal desires also ranks high on the list because of its pervasive and socially acceptable nature. I am guilty. It’s stupid to believe I own my stuff.
- People are more important than things.
When fires, floods, or tornadoes destroy homes, what do people lament the most? It’s the loss of pictures. New things can be purchased, but pictures are irreplaceable because they remind us of the importance of human relationships. When Jesus sent his disciples out to heal the sick, cast out demons, and witness to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ, Mark says that Jesus told them to take nothing for the journey except a walking stick (Mark 6:8). If I could take one carload to our next home, I’d load it with pictures, childhood movies, videos of my family and friends, journals, and special letters. But maybe I should scrap the car and the moving van altogether and just walk. It’s sinful to believe that things are more important than people.
- Churches can play a huge role in raising awareness about excessive consumption.
The churches we serve are very intentional about caring for creation and the environment and provide opportunities for all kinds of recycling. Because of their influence we have generated very little trash for landfills and have recycled electronics, paper, magazines, books, furniture, clothes, plastic, glass, aluminum, clothing, and anything else that might be useful to another person.
- United Methodists are a pilgrim people, and we can live with far less than we think.
At an ecumenical Good Friday service last week, several clergy asked about my impending move. When I said that United Methodist clergy covenant to go where they are called, they were astonished. “You mean you don’t get to live and serve where you want? You mean your bishop can make you leave or take a church if you don’t want to go? You mean bishops also have to move even if they don’t want to? I couldn’t be a United Methodist. Count me out.”
The genius of the Methodist movement in America was the eagerness of circuit riders to evangelize the frontier as our country moved west. Methodist clergy had no place to lay their head as they traveled their circuits, yet the church grew like wildfire. Could the desire of United Methodist clergy over the last fifty years to settle down in our “stupid little boxes,” wanting to be like everyone else by accumulating a lifetime of stuff, play a role in our denominational malaise? Just wondering.
“Don’t be so clingy!” my couch has declared. I’m glad that our objects survive us and go on living because my couch still has life in it. I wonder who will lie on it next.