Does God Hate Clutter? I Used to Think So, But Now I’m Not So Sure

This piece was originally published at the Daily Episcopalian on October 4, 2010. I am posting again in honor of my mother-in-law Ruby, who died one year ago today.

In my 20s, I attended a church that embraced material simplicity and detachment from stuff long before it became trendy. We engaged regularly in soul-searching conversations about our attachment to possessions. One friend’s long-ago purchase of a $900 wing chair continued to haunt him as a symbol of material excess. He talked about that chair so often that it’s the only vivid detail I can recall of him. Another friend worried that his arrival at a school reunion driving a used Camry would shock his former roommates, who might recall how he had spoken out against the purchase of even mundane items like house paint in a call for solidarity with the poor. Now here he was, driving a car that practically defines suburban material comfort. And Christmas…oy, such an occasion of angst Christmas was, with all those excessive, unnecessary gifts in the name of a baby born into poverty.

Now that I am a mother of three who drives a Honda Odyssey minivan (the supersized symbol of suburban material comfort), the Christian simplicity ethic has gotten mixed up in my mind with the clutter-free living extolled in the pages of shelter magazines and on home-improvement shows, in which everything, from mail and sports equipment to craft supplies and kitchen staples, is sorted into color-coordinated storage systems, and anything that goes unused for a few months is thrown away, recycled, or repurposed. I am also naturally inclined to dislike clutter; I possess a writerly desire for a “clean well-lighted room” in which to work.

The simplicity ethic on top of cultural values extolling clutter-free living and my own predisposition has led to my quasi-spiritual certainty that God just doesn’t like stuff. When I spend the morning cleaning, toting several paper bags around with me in which to sort objects I come across (things to throw away, things to put back into their designated storage container, and things to recycle or give away), I sometimes have the sense that this work of de-cluttering is almost holy work. Jesus warned us against money and possessions, so God obviously hates the plastic junk taking over my kids’ rooms, gratuitous gifts of scented candles, stacks of old magazines, and knick-knacks gathering dust just as much as I do, right? How nice when my religious values and the values espoused by HGTV, Better Homes and Gardens and Oprah all line up so nicely!

My mother-in-law Ruby will be 87 years old in a few weeks. Her home—the home she lived in for most of her adult life and raised five children in—has been a source of much eye-rolling and heavy sighing on my part over the years. She kept everything, and my husband and I have teased her for it—gently in person, sometimes more harshly in private. Her telephone sits on a 40-year-old television that no longer works, but that she kept because it was housed in a heavy wooden cabinet and therefore qualified as a good piece of furniture. Pick up a magazine in one of the guest bedrooms or the den, and it’s likely to be decades old. On one recent visit, my bedtime reading was a 1970s People magazine with the Bee Gees on the cover. Whenever we visit, my husband randomly opens dresser drawers to find clothes that have sat unworn for years—his brother Jimmy’s shirts, still pressed and in their paper wrappers from the cleaners, his own shirts from Boy Scout events from his teens, his brother David’s athletic socks. Every surface in Ruby’s house, both horizontal (tables, bookshelves) and vertical (mirrors), is covered—with mementos, photos, candlesticks, prayer cards, signed letters from past presidents. On the refrigerator are postcards and notes from her grandchildren, some of them written more than a decade ago.

Whenever we visit Ruby’s house, my hands practically itch with the desire to start cleaning up and cleaning out. I get annoyed that there’s no place to set down a glass of water because every surface is covered. I get annoyed when my kids go down into the basement to unearth old toys—a plastic Starship Enterprise, a stuffed panda that leaks plastic pellets (probably toxic, I’m thinking) from its split seams—and come back up with their hands and feet black with dirt, carrying treasures they insist on hauling back home. I get annoyed that we can barely move around in the guest bedroom, much less unpack some clothes into the closet or the drawers, because every square inch is occupied by stuff Ruby doesn’t need, doesn’t use, and should have trashed years ago.

My mother-in-law is a Christian woman. Does she not understand that God doesn’t like stuff?

Ruby is in a nursing home now, her body weakened by diabetes, kidney failure, and heart failure, and her mind sometimes overtaken by confusion. Her house stands empty of human life but full still of the evidence of her life, and the lives of those she nurtured. Some day soon my husband, his brother, and his sister will rent a dumpster and start cleaning it out, divvying up the furniture, storing away a few treasures that are particularly evocative, and dumping the rest. Ruby’s house will finally be clutter-free, but it will also be lifeless, empty in a way that is not merely physical.

I am realizing now that I failed to see something important about all of Ruby’s clutter. Yes, she held onto too much stuff for too long. But Ruby buried her husband and two of her children; her surviving children are busy with their jobs, their own kids and grandkids. Sometimes stuff is not just stuff. Sometimes stuff really is the stuff of life—the physical objects that bind us to each other, to our past, to the times and people we have lost and still mourn. Jimmy’s cleaned and pressed shirts and David’s socks take up space in the dresser drawers because Jimmy and David never returned to claim them before they died. How is a mother supposed to move on from that harsh fact? So she didn’t move on; she left her boys’ things just as they were. The Phillips 66 jackets and polyester shirts succumbing to mildew in the closets are reminders of the service station business that paid for this little brick house, the plastic toys strewn about the living room on long-gone Christmas mornings, the college educations that carried Ruby’s children away from her, and the laughing, flawed man who wore those jackets and shirts to work day after day for his family, before dying of colon cancer much too soon.

All of our stuff can distract and overwhelm us, but it can also provide context. Our clutter can remind us that matter matters, that the bodies we inhabit and tend, the food we make and eat, the clothes and toys and mementos made or given or used with love can bind us to each other, and to those who came before and come after. Our clutter and all that it evokes in us can even, perhaps, help us guard against that old heresy of Gnosticism, which insists on the separation of the spiritual and the material, and the elevation of the former over the latter. Matter matters.

As I write this, I can look up and see photos of my children as babies, but nothing brings back their infancies more vividly than coming across a tiny newborn-sized diaper in the back of my son’s sock drawer, its smell and texture bringing me back to days marked by an endless cycle of feeding and changing, and the unmatched pleasure of falling asleep with a sated infant curled on my chest. As I gather books for the church rummage sale, I stop to read our tattered copy of “Goodnight Moon.” That book, and a few others, I can’t bear to give away. They provide too strong a connection to those earliest bedtime routines, when my babies couldn’t understand a word of the stories I read but understood my voice, and the cradling arms and full breasts that accompanied it, as indispensable.

Jesus warned us not to care too much about our possessions. Jesus wanted us to share. Our modern obsession with what we want, buy, and have poses a danger to our spiritual life, but so can our modern obsession with de-cluttered showplaces, as we sever connections to things in the name of cleanliness, efficiency, and order. As a mother, I will continue to push back against our modern tendency to ply our children with stuff—goody bags and obscene piles of gifts and material rewards for every desired behavior. As a Christian, I will continue to confess that my desire for a comfortable home, nice clothes, and convenient take-out meals limits the money we have left over to share with those who have so little.

But I will no longer see de-cluttering as a spiritual act. I will no longer be quite so certain that God doesn’t like stuff. And when it comes time for my husband and his siblings to go through their mother’s house, I won’t sigh and roll my eyes at the dusty, unwieldy, useless objects my husband plucks out of the clutter and carries home.

Update:As it happens, my husband Daniel is spending this week doing a final cleaning out of her home before it goes on the market. In the past year, he has indeed brought home a few dusty and unwieldy objects. Some of them (such as a beautiful chest of drawers that was the first piece of furniture Daniel’s parents bought after getting married) are very useful, while others (such as a framed plastic family “coat of arms” that my daughter proudly displays in her room) are less so. All of them are carriers of memory,testaments to the life of the woman whose son is my partner in carrying on her family’s story.

I normally blog about gun violence issues on the 14th of the month to support the #ItIsEnough coalition that I co-founded, providing a Christian witness in support of stronger gun laws. While I decided to dedicate my blog post today to Ruby’s memory, I will be active today on other social media (Facebook and Twitter) in support of #ItIsEnough.

 

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    I tend to think that Jesus, a carpenter’s son, would appreciate fine craftsmanship in a heavy wooden piece of furniture, even if it was a $900 chair.
    And I bet he also appreciates your loving tribute to your mother-in-law Ruby.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I agree about the chair, Tim. One thing that frustrated me about that story, and about that faith community’s simplistic notion that spending serious money on things was almost always a problem, is that sometimes spending serious money is a sign of care—for others, for craftspeople who make things worthy of spending money on, for the earth, etc. I wonder if it’s better to spend more money on something of quality made by a craftsperson, which will last and perhaps become an heirloom, rather than buying some cheap thing that will end up in a landfill and was made by a machine or by low-paid unskilled workers in less than optimal conditions. Working on a post responding to the building collapse in Bangladesh looking into some similar questions….

      • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

        I’m looking forward to your post getting into these issues further, Ellen. (I wrote on the tragedy in Bangladesh earlier this week: http://timfall.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/what-price-ethics-ask-a-bangladeshi/)

      • Dave Parker

        > … that faith community’s simplistic notion that spending serious money on things was almost always a problem, is that sometimes spending serious money is a sign …

        … that you took serious money from other people.

        I think that the spending of serious money is just a symptom of the real problem: accumulating the serious money to begin with.

        As Jesus said: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust does corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust does corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Matt 6:19-21

        So to me, it makes perfect sense that your friend felt haunted by the $900 chair. It was a visible sign that he had accumulated treasure on earth. Trying to justify it by saying that he was helping to support a craftsmen is like the wealthy people that Charles Dickens lampooned (such as Christopher Casby in Little Dorrit), who called themselves philanthropists because they gave back a small percentage of the money that they took from poor people.

        Or, as a church sign I saw said: “God doesn’t judge you by how much you give, but by how much you keep.”

        I think that one way a Christian might be able to justify accumulating and spending serious money on objects, is if those object were tools to be used in their Christian calling. For example, if your friend who bought the used Camry was using it to visit sick people or to otherwise make him more effective in his Christian calling. Or, if a mother bought things that helped her to raise happy children.

        • Jeannie

          I don’t quite agree that accumulation of $ is the root problem – but rather, how tightly and possessively we hold to what we do have, whether little or much.
          Just a small example: one day my car battery died in an underground parking lot. Two well-dressed ladies — the only other people around at that moment — were getting into a large, fancy car nearby. I asked them for a boost and they refused; the driver said, “If I had my pickup, I would.” Of course, if I had been a man, and she’d been alone, that would be dfferent. But in this case she clearly put her possession ahead of helping me. I don’t begrudge her the nice car; it was the fact that she was holding so tightly to an object.
          Perhaps, as Jesus intimated with the camel-and-needle metaphor, it’s harder for those with much to let go of what they have. But I really do not see an inherent wrongness to having or enjoying money or possessions. Part of doing good with what we have is enjoying it! Joy makes the world a joyfuller place, and sometimes just appreciating and being grateful for something beautiful is a gift to us & others. The $900 chair guy seemed unable to enjoy it because of guilt. If he’d just said, “Hey, I love this chair” and come to associate it with happy times of reading, chatting with friends, watching kids climb, etc., it might have been a source of joy rather than shame.

          • Dave Parker

            > But I really do not see an inherent wrongness to having or enjoying money or possessions.

            Well, as Jesus said “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. I don’t think Jesus’s followers were the kinds of people who accumulated and enjoyed money or possessions.

            One way to see how it might be inherently wrong, is to consider the “opportunity cost”, which is how much an activity costs when you compare it to whatever else you could have been doing. Nothing is free; if you are spending time enjoying your money and possessions, then you are not spending that same time doing something else.

            For example, consider a brain surgeon. She could be operating on patients, or she could be playing golf and shopping for shoes. The opportunity cost of enjoying her money and possessions is the damage done to the people who needed brain surgery but didn’t get it (and there are lots of people in the world who die for lack of medical attention).

            I think that’s why Jesus told his followers to give away their money and possessions — so that their money and possessions wouldn’t serve as shiny distractions from serving others and serving God.

            In fact, I think if Jesus had been alive today, he might have told his followers to spend less time on the internet, too. :)

          • Jeannie

            I had a long answer in mind, but I’ll just summarize it: “Nope, don’t agree!” I’m all about the pithy today. :-)

      • Kathi Busk Varas

        LOVE!!! Believe this too!

  • Dave Parker

    > I stop to read our tattered copy of “Goodnight Moon.”

    That’s one of my all-time favorite books; we still have our copy too, complete with nearly-torn-off cover.

    > Does God Hate Clutter?

    I hope not, because DaveP’s are becoming clutter — I notice that you have comments from a Dave Patchin on another thread. I’m going to try to change my posting name from DaveP to Dave Parker, so that I don’t get thrown away, recycled, or repurposed.

  • June Courage

    God doesn’t care one way or the other. She’s got other stuff to think about.


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