The Stewardship of Stuff


With some regularity I re-visit Elaine St. James' book The Simplicity Reader. One of the tasks of adulthood, particularly as one moves through mid-life into older adulthood, is simplicity. Simplicity is not as simple as it sounds. 

You may have given away everything you figure has some sentimental value to someone. You may have engaged in rummage sales, rented a stall at a flea market, and discovered how to sell stuff on Craigslist. You may have become proficient at marketing your small treasures on eBay. Even with an intentionality that would impress John Wesley and the entrepreneurial spirit of my Aunt Edwyna, stuff still has a way of finding you.

"Mom, can we store our stuff in your basement?" "I have some old photographs that I would like you to have." Items that have found their way to our custodianship include a six-foot-high drill press, a very large chipper, a John Deere Gator, a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, a kayak, several rooms of furniture, two dogs, a bookcase, a file cabinet and several old trunks. We used the trunks to house the small items that found their way to us.

When my parents downsized several years ago, we agreed on a routine. I would haul the stuff away from their apartment. We kept what we wanted and offered the rest to our children. What they didn't want would go to a charitable thrift store. When it became clear to my mother that about 95% of the items had gone to the thrift store, she would sometimes add a codicil to the plan:  "Take this, but DON'T give it to the thrift store." This partly accounts for the furnishing style of our home and my office — ecclectic.  One reason I enjoy eating at Cracker Barrel is because the decor feels so much like home.

If you're laughing by now, sober up and look around. My hunch is that the humor is in the familiarity of what I'm describing. I'm convinced that scientists will discover within our genome a chromosome that may be called "humanoid collectiva," which accounts for our early species' survival as gatherers and now partly accounts for the booming "self-storage" business.

With all this pressure to (as the Bible calls it) "tear down our barns and build bigger barns," simplicity can be hard work. Dottie Escobedo-Frank's article "Unclutter Your Church" (in LeadingIdeas from the Lewis Center) offers some helpful wisdom, not just about "stuff" but also about other kinds of "clutter." She invites us to "choose to let the past set us free to fly, instead of letting the past become a shackle that chains us to a certain way of doing things."

Here's the good news:  "We may have surrounded ourselves with things that were once comforting and are now binding, but God still can choose us to lead the way forward."

"Things that were once comforting and are now binding."  Hmmm.  Sounds like good fodder for a Lenten Spiritual and/or Physical Housecleaning List.

- Ted Leach