Looking around the living room I said, “We don’t own much in this room.”
I’m not attached to the overstuffed couch from another era, though it naps well. The glass-topped coffee table, functionally repaired many times is sturdy and large enough to hold dinner plates for two. We do own the Ikea bookcases and their contents but not the industrial strength desk.
“We don’t own much in the bedroom, either,” she said.
“No, the bed is theirs and so is that ugly nightstand. That funky plant stand your boss was getting rid of is ours, though.”
We live in the partially furnished parsonage owned by the church I serve in a tiny, isolated eastern Oregon town. We live in the company house with canyons of empty cabinets and closet space.
“We own everything in this room,” she said in a follow up conversation a few days later.
Ninety miles away in the tourist town where my wife serves as a hospital chaplain, we rent a room above a garage. It is a place for my wife to sleep when she’s on call. In it we have an Ikea sleeping mat on the floor, a dresser, a tiny couch, and a twenty dollar coffee table.
“Let’s do it,” she finally agreed. I had been pushing us to divest of our possessions for a long time. We’d been dabbling in getting rid of things for a couple of decades but somehow we never took a serious plunge.
On that August night, sitting on the bed we owned in a house we owned, we decided to respond to God’s claim on our lives by getting rid of all but what would fit in the two cars we planned to move with us across the country. We later amended those parameters to allow us to ship twenty-five boxes of professional books in addition.
That process of responding to God’s call to move 2600 miles on the basis of “a Holy Spirit moment” coupled with giving up most of what we own was filled with learnings and emotions. I blogged about my experiences of what we dubbed Emptying Barns, the Year of Letting Go of Stuff.
“I haven’t looked at a lot of these books since we moved to Oregon,” I said.
“Me, either,” she replied. We looked at each other with gazes that meant action. Fresh off of reading Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Art of Tidying,” we were both inspired to renew our divestment of possessions. Within the week I delivered five boxes of early childhood books, which I previously couldn’t give up, to our local child care center. (My former career was in early childhood education.)
This simple act of letting go of possessions that serve no purpose in my current life, has resulted in the start of a relationship with the local child care center and its director. We are already talking and thinking about how my congregation can support her important work. It’s a no-brainer to me that books on a shelf are of less value than a relationship that will be mutually beneficial.
At not-quite five years since we began Emptying Barns, I feel an urge to let go of more. I feel God pushing me to relinquish my attachment to things once again. There are those blank mailing labels from my failed business and that box of old phone cords and computer peripherals that “I might need some day.” There are too many post-its for someone who doesn’t use post-its and there’s that red sweater I picked up for two dollars at the thrift store but no longer wear.
There are even mementos that fail to inspire any longer. If they don’t inspire or help me to build relationships, are they of any worth?
Despite my commitment to further emptying the barn, despite the overall positives of the process, I would be lying if I didn’t own up to a few feelings. Lately, I’ve let the gods of stuff ooze into my psyche. The culture built upon acquisition and monetized self-value tells me I need more. It tells me there is not enough and I must scramble for my share. Our culture usurps the reality that there is enough for all of us.
I worry about where I will live when I can no longer work. I worry about whether student loans will be paid off before I am forced by age or health to retire. I worry that without property, I am of no-worth. I perceive judgement, classism, from some in the upscale neighborhood with the room above the garage. I feel vulnerable because the parsonage — my home — is only mine as long as I provide service as pastor.
Indeed, our culture has a way of luring us away from the divine.
But I’m stronger than I was five years ago when we consciously chose to empty the barn. Things do not own me like they once did.
Though I live in a world that contradicts the teachings of the rabbi Jesus whom I follow, the feelings seep into my consciousness at times. The difference is that I have less stuff to control me.
I know that God is not in the accumulation of things but in my relationships with people, with the earth, and directly with God. I know that I am called to continue to let go of more so I can see the divinity all around me.
Yeah, from the perspective of the culture my lifestyle is one of vulnerability. Living within the culture I will sometimes feel vulnerable in the company house and above the garage but I can choose to follow the counter cultural prophet of the first century.
In that choice I find abundance. In the choice to let go, I find more room for loving.