This week, in the class I’m teaching at my Episcopal Church on Christian Ethics, we focused on questions around money, and specifically around how we spend our money to support a particular way of life. So often, when we think of ethical questions, we think of hot-button issues—abortion, assisted suicide, gay marriage. So why am I starting off this class talking about money? Two reasons:
1) Most of us are rarely, if ever, called upon to make wrenching ethical decisions around such hot-button issues. But every day, we face decisions about money: How to earn it, how to spend it, whether to give it away (and how much and to whom).
2) Jesus had little or nothing to say about many of the hot-button issues that preoccupy Christians (and the culture at large). But Jesus had a whole lot to say about money and possessions.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matthew 6:18 –20)
A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’ “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18: 18–23)
One area that I’ve become fascinated with is our attitudes toward “stuff”—our possessions, the “everything” that we have.
In secular terms, we’re in an odd cultural moment when it comes to possessions. On the one hand, anti-clutter is all the rage. Clutter, according to HGTV and shelter magazines, is a problem indicative of a general lack of organization and self-discipline. Design gurus invite us to spend money on attractive storage containers as well as hiring expert organizers who will help you sort through your stuff, get rid of what you don’t need, and beautifully categorize and store the rest of it. And while these gurus often pay lip service to the idea of objects being meaningful, in fact, shelter magazines and catalogs are full of ideas in which the objects we own are meaningful only insofar as they support the particular aesthetic or image we are trying to portray to others.
Take books, for example. I have come across expert advice suggesting that you buy old leather-bound volumes at yard sales (to stack artfully on a side table), cover all of your books with plain white paper (to give a uniform appearance on the shelf), or even turn all of your books so the pages, rather than the spines, are facing out (again, for a uniform shelf appearance). I am not making this up. In these examples, books have become a design element, something to be showcased and fit into your overall design image, rather than something you own and display because you like to read.
So the secular message: Too much stuff is bad. And the stuff you do have needs to be properly curated to project just the right image.
What is the Christian message about stuff? For a long time, I thought that owning stuff was bad. That God must not like stuff. In the nontraditional coffee-house church where I spent my 20s, there was a definite emphasis on not caring so much about stuff. A number of church members had deliberately given up comfortable suburban homes to come live in our church’s urban neighborhood, often in group homes of some sort. Living cheaply, relaying on things handed down or bought inexpensively, was the norm. One young man owned a beautiful wing chair that he had purchased in his “previous” life as a pastor at a traditional church. He regularly mentioned this chair—his $900 chair—as an example of the folly by which he used to live. I remember thinking that a $900 chair isn’t such a terrible thing, if the reason it cost so much is that it’s a finely made piece of furniture that you can own for the rest of your life. People in that church often told me I dressed beautifully. I didn’t dress beautifully. I dressed appropriately for the jobs I held. But in our church, buying new and fashionable clothes was simply not done. So in comparison to most of the folk I worshipped with, yes, I dressed beautifully. I remember one sermon in particular when a woman preached about “detachment,” including detachment from things. And I remember thinking that wasn’t quite right, because things—possessions—aren’t automatically frivolous and meaningless. Things can be very meaningful, as they evoke feelings of being at home or connect us to those we love. I didn’t, don’t, want to live a detached life.
It took me a while to get to a place where I could believe that God doesn’t hate stuff. That it’s okay for Christians to find meaning in some of our possessions. This past weekend, my husband drove a rental truck up from North Carolina, bringing some furniture from his mom’s house. She died in May, and having a few of her things here in our house now—a chest of drawers that was the first piece of furniture she and Daniel’s dad bought after they got married, an old cane-seat chair—helps us continue to be connected to her, even though she is gone and her house will soon be on the market. It was, in fact, my mother-in-law’s cluttered home that helped me begin to understand the healthy and life-giving role that “stuff” can play in a Christian life, as I wrote for the Daily Episcopalian a couple of years ago.
Jesus told the rich young man that the ultimate thing he could do to show his love of God is sell all that he had. Yet the things we have can also be meaningful and good, connecting us with others, reminding us of loved ones who have died or moved elsewhere, helping us create a comfortable home in which others feel welcomed and loved, helping us to care for ourselves and those in our household so that we are energized and healthy for the work we’ve been given to do. How do those two ideals, of giving everything away vs. owning stuff that adds richness and meaning to our daily lives, fit together? I’m not sure, but I do have the sense that they are not as mutually exclusive as they first appear. If you have any ideas or your own stories about “stuff,” I hope you’ll share them in the comments.