An Existential Yard Sale

Ugh. It is no secret that ‘moving’ consistently appears in the category of ‘most stressful life changes.’ Even if it’s a good move. Even if it’s just across town.  On the angst meter, a physical relocation ranks right up there with death and marriage. (Yeah, I heard it.)

I firmly believe that moving would not be nearly as stressful if Americans did not have the chronic affliction known as ‘Way Too Much Freakin Stuff.’ If all I had to do was hop in the car with my family and drive to Kansas, this would not even be a thing. But it’s not as simple as that. Nor can we just throw some things in a box and go. A move of this nature involves a run-in with that dreaded suburban beast known as… YARD SALE!! (Read in your best Tom Hanks/Woody voice, as the toys quake in their plastic shoes and wonder who will be cast to the outer darkness).

So I’m going through wedding gifts we’ve never used (in 10 years of marriage); the clothes that, 2 kids later, will never fit me again; the stuff that makes sense in an Arizona house/wardrobe that will make NO sense in a Kansas house/wardrobe; the junk that two kids accumulate and outgrow in rapid cycles; boxes and boxes of pictures, cards, notes and…I mean, what IS some of this stuff? …that I held onto for whatever reason, thinking that someday it would be useful to someone.

And I’m reminded, all over again, that The Having of Too Much Stuff leads to the spiritual sickness of Needing More Stuff– to store your stuff/haul your stuff/match your stuff/organize your stuff/and/or protect your stuff from being crushed by your other stuff. It is exhausting.

Awkward segue to relevant church-related topic: Phyllis Tickle says that, every 500 years or so, the Church has a big yard sale. (think Great Awakening, Reformation, etc). It gets rid of all the old trappings of the ancestors, discards that which no longer serves it, and sifts through the remains to find that which is relevant and life giving. (I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s the gist).

The church that I serve in the Phoenix suburbs used to be a big, traditional, downtown church. When they moved to the (then) wilderness 20+ years ago, I’m sure they had a literal cleaning of house. But, law, the stuff they kept… in my 7 years of serving here, we’ve had more than one major cleaning day, wherein a small group of folks came and went through storage areas and discarded the ‘why in the world did we keep this?’ stuff from the old days.

Just last week, a group of church ladies spent a morning going through the kitchen cabinets, sifting through various and assorted sets of ‘wedding dishes.’ For the record, there has been exactly ONE wedding reception in fellowship hall in my tenure here. I’m pretty sure they used plastic plates.

So anyway—once the ladies decided what did not need to be taking up space in the cabinets anymore, the inevitable discussion, then mass email thread ensued—what do we do with this stuff now? Sell it? Donate it? Does anybody want to keep some of this?

What emerged was that nobody really wanted to keep this stuff…but they didn’t want it to just be gone, either. I mean…this stuff should MEAN something, to someone. After all, it’s our stuff.

Needless to say, reading through that email thread felt a lot like standing in my own garage.

Of course, Phyllis Tickle’s all-church yard sale is a lot more metaphorical and existential. The Church universal is not going through old dishes and worship banners so much as it is sifting through old ways of being.

Like, does the Church still want to be the Moral Police of the World? Do we still want to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year maintaining an organ (that some people would rather not hear anyway)? Are our buildings serving us, or are they keeping us from fulfilling our mission—at great cost? Can we let go of Robert’s Rules of Order and let the Spirit sometimes have her way with us? Can we challenge the gender roles, the homophobia, and ‘ideal’ nuclear family expectation that keeps so many people out of the pulpit, and away from church in general? Will we question the consumer culture that simultaneously built our institutions, and destroys them? Is Sunday morning still the best time for worship? Is it time to spend more money on web design than we do on office supplies? Should we have glazed donut holes for coffee hour, or chocolate???

These are (mostly) the hard questions that the Church needs to be asking, as She plans for the epic yard sale of the millennium. These are the kinds of questions that many of us have been asking lately—often at great cost. When you ask questions like these, you lose the people who love the stuff. And it’s undeniably painful.

I don’t fault the people who love the stuff. I really don’t. We’ve all got our own attachments; our own set of china we just love, our own favorite and ‘right’ way to worship, our own ideas of what community is for. But the hard truth is, if we don’t get together and plan this yard sale ourselves, the decisions will be made for us. The Church that we envision for tomorrow will be crushed beneath the weight of all our stuff. Someday, the kids might come by and sift through the rubble, and find a favorite Bible story or a great potluck recipe at the bottom of the heap. But surely, we can do better than to leave them a big pile of junk.

What I find myself wishing is that everyone could take home the china pattern/worship style/sanctuary banner that means something to them. That we could each pack up that which we find meaningful—but is no longer serving the community—and store it in bubble wrap, in our own garage space, and let the church move on. But it’s just not that easy.

If I had an easy answer for how to navigate all this mess, a) my garage would be much neater; b) I’d have nothing to write about; and c)I’d be out of a job. Because seriously, if the Church knew what it needed and what was trash right now, us pastors wouldn’t have much work left to do.

I don’t always know what to keep and what to throw away. But I know the spiritual danger of having too much stuff. And I know how tempting it is to worship at The Altar of That Which Was. And when you come right down to it, it’s all just one crowded garage, keeping us from moving on.

Here’s to the keepers of the important stuff; the protectors of song and story; and the ones brave enough to leave the Goodwill box on the curb and drive away.

Here’s to some breathing room for That Which Might Be. I believe it is there, somewhere, buried under all our stuff.

This is my psychedelic Jesus clock. It’s awesome. I love it. But I don’t think I’m taking it with me…
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  • Fran Ota

    Thank you, thank you. I am getting ready to move home after doing a three-year pastorate in Newfoundland before my arthritic joints won’t let these things happen any more – and have been trying to say some of this to them. Is it possible to use some of this in sermonising????