The Most Important Thing
Periodically, usually after a trip home to San Diego to visit my parents, I go on a cleaning rampage. I survey our family belongings, and especially everything tucked away in the basement, hoping to have clarity about what my family should keep and what we need to pass on to others. My parents’ home looks exactly like it did when I grew up. It is an interesting and eclectic place full of art from around the world, magic tricks, clown accessories, my mother’s doll collection, my fathers’ various collections – hats, political buttons, tie tacs, coins, rocks, shells, etc. -- and a skull on a shelf in the entryway (my dad was a doctor).
My parents also have lots of gear packed in their garage: a Coleman stove and mess kits from early camping trips, partially full cans of paint, every softball glove my sister and I ever used, gardening implements, and my dad’s woodworking tools. Now it includes instruments my dad uses for his clown band and furniture he is storing on behalf of the Rotary Club. Needless to say, when I get home, I am HIGHLY MOTIVATED to clean through my stuff!
Lately, however, I’ve noticed a selectivity in my ability to weed through and hand on belongings we have outgrown. While I am happy to pass on many items, it is difficult to let other things go. For example, I’ve not touched Luke’s baby clothes. I’ve passed on the other baby accoutrements – the crib, the changing table, the toys, but am having trouble parting with the clothes. The ironic thing is that while I love babies, I’m done with that phase of life. I can’t imagine going through another period like Luke’s first six months when Dwight and I were utterly sleep deprived, and the most exciting thing we did was to go grocery shopping. I don’t want to change more diapers, be woken up in the middle of the night, and juggle taking care of a baby and working full time. That period of my life was tough – tougher than I ever imagined. I am so grateful to have Luke, and so thankful for the phase of life he, Dwight and I are now in. And yet, his baby clothes sit in storage bins in my basement.
For many of us our belongings are more than stuff. They represent periods of our life, our identity, who we think we are. Passing some of them on is hard and may even feel painful. Even though we know a stage of our life is over, we might want to deny that fact at some level by hanging onto the things that remind us of it. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion talks about the period after her husband John Gregory Dunne died. After Dunne’s death Didion found herself engaging in what she calls “magical thinking.” For example, she couldn’t get rid of her husband’s clothing and shirts because he might return and need them. Even though Didion knew that her husband wasn’t coming back, the magical thinking helped her survive the difficult period after his death. We all engage in this kind of thinking in one way or another. Our belongings take on meaning and memories, and letting go of them feels like letting go of part of ourselves.
That’s why it’s so amazing to me that Francesco Bernardone, now known as St. Francis of Assisi, was able to let go of his belongings as well as his inheritance. Francis came from a wealthy family of business people who dealt in textiles. He lived in a nice palace, wore fine clothing, and had lots of attractive things surrounding him. But Francis came to know that while his clothing and belongings weren’t bad in themselves, they were also not the most important thing. God was the most important thing. The things Francis owned and wore did not define him or hold him back from the life he felt called to live.
Francis was able to give up his inheritance, belongings, and former way of life joyfully because he knew, as our reading from Galatians tells us, that “a new creation is everything!” Frances knew that his faith in Jesus freed him to find his identity in Christ, rather than in his family’s fortune, his sumptuous clothing, or the life he had led before he decided to single-mindedly give himself and his gifts to pursuing what he believed to be God’s will for his life. Renouncing even the life of a settled monk, he founded the Franciscans, a group of men who gave themselves completely to God, who made themselves vulnerable and dependent on the world’s hospitality.
Now, as our Genesis reading stated repeatedly, God’s creation is GOOD. Anglicans believe that because God created the world, creation can tell us something about God, and we can find God out in the world. So for those of us gathered here today, belongings are not inherently evil. They are gifts from God to be stewarded lovingly and used for God’s purposes. Our car is not our own, it’s God’s car. Our table is not our own, it’s God’s table, and those truths have life-changing consequences.
At the same time, our good things can entrap us. They can become heavy burdens if they control us or prevent us from moving forward into God’s vision for abundant life. If we spend most of our time protecting our belongings or worrying about them, our stuff has become a burden and an obstacle to our freedom in Christ. If we hoard it and don’t share it with others we become stingy, closed up, and closed off from others. If we think that our identity and worth come from our home, car, clothes, or our beautifully designed Apple electronics, we are wrong. If we spend most of our time coveting our neighbor’s home, car, clothes, or iPhone 5 we become envious and bitter. As our Gospel from Matthew tells us, Jesus offers rest for our souls, a light burden, because he gives us clarity about who we are by giving us clarity about who God is. While Jesus’ teachings are demanding, they free us by inviting us to become our true selves. They help us become people for whom everything, including life, is pure gift. It is freeing to know that the Creator is a relational God who desires that we be engaged in meaningful relationships with our neighbors including those who are different from us. It is exciting to participate in God’s work to restore the creation. It is helpful to know who we really are, and how God is calling us to live. We are freed from the weight of our stuff and others’ expectations to live for God and God’s people.
While it is important to periodically clean through our stuff to see what we can share with others, it’s also important to establish regular periods of self-reflection rooted in prayer where we can clean house spiritually. Just as most of us clean our windows each spring, we must also take time to observe God’s movement in our lives and world, as well as the ways we are failing to embrace God’s love and the fullness of life God promises. When the windows are clean, the sun comes in like never before. The images around us are sharper, the colors more beautiful. God gives Godself to us, like Francis, so that we can give ourselves away to others. May our lives be as trusting and generous as Francis, and ultimately Jesus, who came to set us free. Amen.