My wife and I, since getting married, have gone through cycles of purging our possessions. Much of our drive came from different books that we read during college and examples of simple, communal living that we had heard about, such as the Simple Way community in Philadelphia. Several years ago I read Art Gish’s challenging book Beyond the Rat Race which made me seriously consider the different ways that I have bought into the materialism of the “American Dream.” It was one of those works with a message that, unfortunately, I could not ignore.
Every time Erin and I finish another round of possession purging, I feel certain that this is it, that there couldn’t possibly be anything but the bare necessities left. And every time I am proven to be drastically wrong. The fast for this week is to “give up” seven items each day for the six days. That’s forty two items, which, depending on how you look at it, may or may not be a challenge. An added difficulty to this fast is that I got wild hair about a month back and did a quick purge of a few things that seemed to be cluttering up our space.
But, committed to the fast, I began, again, to meticulously search the shelves. This time, the items did not seem to jump at me as easily as before. However, threw much rigor, I have been able to let go of more clothes, books, movies, music and several odd items. I even threw away several sentimental items.Some items of note:
-A DVD copy of “Goonies,” my all time favorite movie. I have a Blu-Ray copy.
-A butane Statue of Liberty Lighter from my senior trip to New York. It hasn’t had fuel in it since it first ran out and has successfully been gathering dust in my desk for the last eight years. But I just needed to keep it!
-The paperback copy of Salem’s Lot that I read under the covers of my bed in third grade. It’s seen much better days, and I have a much better print.
During our Wednesday night church group, we read through Isaiah 55:1-2, one of the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday.“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. 2 Why spend money on what is not bread ,and your labor on what does not satisfy?
How disgustingly appropriate.
As a pastor, there aren’t very many vices that we are allowed without too much consternation on the part of the congregation. Basically, we are permitted to overeat and spend money, both practices which I have been known to indulge in from time to time.
One of the ways in which I “relieve stress,” as it were, is through “retail therapy.” However this doesn’t happen with the traditional shopping spree. Rather, like a chess player, I like to meticulously plan how I will spend the extra cash I have, maximizing its potential on valued items, usually media products such as books, movies and music.
The Isaiah passage serves as a strong reminder that the “things” towards which I labor do not ultimately satisfy. The hours I spend browsing and planning my next purchase should not have as much control over my life and my labor as they do. I buy books that I do not have time to read and movies that I will watch twice, and even as I click “confirm order” on amazon.com, I am thinking of the next purchasing conquest in which I may endeavor.
At the same time, I am increasingly attracted to minimalism and micro-living, two practices which could not live any further away from the bounds of materialism. So there exists within me a constant inner tension between the desire to consume and the desire to purge.
Recently I read a blog from “Miss Minimalist” on de-cluttering your inner fantasy self. A fantasy self is the person that we imagine ourselves to be; we then surround ourselves with things based on this image. She writes about her own fantasy self, a collector of antiquities which she dutifully carried from place to place in hopes that she might, someday, be able to fill a nice home with these various conversation pieces. In the blog she writes: “All too often, we hold on to stuff because it represents who we think we should be, rather than who we are. Sometimes our fantasy selves are meant to impress others; sometimes they’re relics of our past; sometimes they’re fantasies about our future.” Some of the fantasy selves that she describes include a “culinary diva,” a “fitness guru” and a “globetrotter” whose possessions are all reflective of their owner’s fantasy.
-A multi-instrumentalist jazz musician and record collector. This explains the multiple guitars I use infrequently and my burgeoning collection of music as well as books on music.
-A film critic. I have a revolving collection of hundreds of DVDs in my short life which have been sold (for very little profit, DVDs retain little value) in order to purchase more DVDs (and now Blu-Rays), all to impress nobody.
-A world renowned writer and collector of books. Between my home and my office, I could have over 1,000 books (probably more than I realize). I shop book sales and thrift stores, Amazon and Ebay, to find the books that will define my interests, who I perceive myself to be, and how I would like others to think of me. My collection includes classic literature, poetry and books on writing, an extensive theology collection, works on black history and religion, etc.
With all of this in mind, I am not a hoarder. In fact, due to our frenzied purging every year, our house probably has much less than the average American household. But to me, it’s not about the amount of “stuff,” it’s about the significance I put upon my things, and whether or not my labor is being spent on items of eternal significance.
This will be, for sure, a battle not easily won. I’m fighting against not only the pressures that American culture has put upon me but also the pressures I put upon myself. In many senses, I’m taking back precious ground that has been given over to materials for quite some time.
I don’t expect this process to end after this week, but I pray that the challenge serves as a continuation of God working to remind me that my identity lies in Christ, not my books.