That’s the stuff

Every semester, I fool myself into thinking I can grade papers and watch TV at the same time. I’m pretty good at multitasking, but this always fails. I don’t watch much TV, so I think when I turn it on, I get so excited I just forget about my work and get caught up in whatever story is playing out in LCD brilliance.

Anyway, while I was wrapped up in some rerun of How I Met Your Mother or The Mentalist or some other quality time-waster on one of my three channels, I was accosted by an ad for space bags. You know, the kind where you can load up all those sweaters/blankets/pillows you don’t use and then vacuum-seal and store them? The ad promises that these bags will keep your belongings safe and dry in just one-third the space. Think of all the stuff you could keep!

What compels us to hold onto things like this? I certainly do it. I’m blessed with a small apartment and limited closet/storage space (and not space bags), so I’m forced to minimize my keeping a bit. But still there are all those clothes that I don’t really wear or that don’t really fit, and that makeup I don’t use, and all those papers I keep filed away, just because. And then, of course, there’s that odd assortment of who-knows-what still hanging around my parents’ house.

I went through periodic purges as a child. My room would get messy, and instead of just straightening up or shoving everything under my bed like a normal person, I felt the need to clean and organize absolutely every square inch of the room. I would sort through all my clothes, my jewelry, my nail polish, the piles of stuff in the corners of my closet. I would toss things out and fill bags for donation.

This happened once or twice a year, and while I was generally good at letting go of stuff, I did form emotional attachments—for a couple of years, I kissed most every object I threw out or donated. I did this so the object wouldn’t be lonely, and so if I missed it (sometimes I still miss that yellow cable-knit sweater), at least I’d said goodbye. Yeah, I was kind of a nutcase child.

As it happens, though, I still like things a lot. I have boxes filled with tiny memorabilia. Photographs, digital and “real.” A nice collection of books, including some first editions I’ve worked to collect. A cozy wool comforter. Lots of pretty scarves. A prayer bowl I made in Oregon. I could go on. Small apartment or not, I have a lot of stuff.

I like stuff in church, too. Bread and wine. The chalice and paten they’re served in—silver or glass or ceramic, depending on place and time. Stained glass and incense. Prayer books. Music. The Advent stuff here at my parish is lovely—an enormous iron wreath with royal blue candles, green boughs at the altar, a deep blue chausable with embroidered branches and silver Stars of David and tiny spangles that sparkle and glisten.

As our former rector once reminded, in one of those few months between my arrival and his retirement, Christianity is a materialistic religion—we do worship with stuff. And that stuff is a gift from God. It’s ours to enjoy and, when the time comes, to give up.

This was (and is) good counsel for me, a caution against grasping too tightly the things—and people—in my life. A reminder to hold things with open hands, to resist the urge to curl my fingers into fists. To cultivate my willingness to let go.

The preparation of Advent seems a good time for a conscious grasp-loosening. We think a lot about stuff this time of year—the evergreens and strings of lights, the ornaments and tinsel, the gifts we will (or won’t) exchange or donate, cookies and breads and eggnogs and hams. But we also remember that the stuff isn’t the important part. We remember our family and friends, our various communities and our many blessings. Most of all, we remember, retell, and re-inhabit the story of Nativity of Christ, God made flesh to dwell among us.

In the face of the stunning reality of the Incarnation, pipe organs and vestments and yellow cable-knit sweaters cease to mean much. Space bags seem not just miserly, but silly, laughable. We can pad the cellar with piles of suffocated linens when Jesus was born in a stable to a frightened teenager who wrapped him in some cloths. There was nothing to protect them from the dirt and the damp, but the story is there in the blood and sweat and straw, not the sterile piles of sweaters.

_____

Do you hold on to things? What sorts of things? What are a few of your favorite things? (Couldn’t help myself.) How can you be intentional about holding these things with open hands?

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