If a flood came and washed away everything you owned, or a fire burned every single possession in your home to the ground, what would you miss the most?
I remember about 6 years ago Elias and I were on a short term Presbyterian Disaster Assistance work project to help some folks in Iowa who had experienced flooding up to the ceiling. The woman whose house we were helping to clean and gut told us the story, “It’s fine, because it’s only things,” she said. “There was just this one thing…” she said, and her voice trailed off. She told us about this box of photos she had, and how they floated away. She saw them floating, down the street (I don’t remember the details of how) but she said the pain of that was too much to bear. I remember her saying that it was the only thing she wished she hadn’t lost. “The photos,” she said. “I wish I still had them. There was no item of clothing or jewelry or book that she would have liked to have had. No DVD or plastic tchotchke she really wished was still around. Those photos, though. What a loss.
What’s the one possession you value the most? What’s the thing you treasure the most?
When Elias moved to the United States he he took English classes at the International Institute in Detroit. It was a wonderful community of English language learners that helped him in so many ways. Not only were there folks from all over the world there, learning English together, but they talked about North American culture, in addition to learning English. A few weeks after moving here we were driving around and Elias shouted “Stop! Stop!” I slammed on the brakes, a little alarmed.
“What?!” I exclaimed. “What is it?”
“I think that’s a garage sale! I want to see it! I learned about it in my class! It’s a sale where when you have so many things, you sell them from your garage!”
I chuckled a little bit and agreed to stop so we could admire this North American cultural phenomenon.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” I said. “What do you do with all of your extra stuff in Colombia?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I guess we don’t have that much extra stuff. Or if we do, we just give it to our families.”
It makes you think, a little bit, doesn’t it? All the stuff. We have lots of stuff. Where does it come from? Plastic things. Extra clothes. Toys. Paperwork. We have a lot of stuff lying around, especially in our North American culture.
Consider these mind-blowing studies and statistics:
- There are 300,000 items in the average North American home.
- One British study found that the average 12 year old owns over 200 toys but plays with about 12 of them. I have to assume this is the same (or worse) in the U.S.
- The size of the average North American home has tripled in the past 50 years
When Charles and Melissa Johnson left for Zambia, we helped them make a video that would interpret their call to mission service. I remember one of the things Melissa says on this video about what it was like to sell most of the things in their house. She says, “I just realized that I don’t need all of these things stacked around me. I don’t need all these cups. I don’t need these glasses.”
All of these things stacked around me. It sort of rings in my ear, sometimes.
There’s a website called “globalrichlist.com” It’s pretty simple. All you do is enter your net annual net income and it will tell you how wealthy you are compared to the rest of the world. If you earn $50,000 per year, you are in the top .31% of income earners in the world. If you make $12,000 per year, you’re in the top 14% of income earners in the world and if you were to earn just $2,000 per year, just $41 per week, you’d still be richer than 60% of the whole world.
Globally speaking, we are the richest of the rich, and we have a lot of stuff. Maybe too much stuff at times. We have broken things, plastic things. We have shoes we don’t wear, clothes we don’t need. We have stuff in storage units and our garage. It’s overwhelming sometimes, all of the stuff.
And what of all of these possessions? Do we find joy in them? Do they make us happy? Actor Jim Carrey says “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed so they can see it’s not the answer.” It’s so tempting, isn’t it, to think that a bigger house or better car or more space will make us happy and bring us joy, but we know it’s a lie. The stuff stacks around us, and it actually encumbers us, sometimes. We always think we’ll be happier with just 20% more than what we actually have, no matter how much it is that we have.
Jesus said these words “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Where is our treasure? Where is our heart?
This morning I’m excited to announce an event our church will be hosting on June 11th — that’s about six weeks from now. It’s called “NPC Spring Cleaning.” Here’s what’s going to happen. On that day a 24 foot long semi truck is going to show up in our parking lot. The list of all of the things that we can put on the truck is here. I mean, you can put almost anything on this truck — except furniture. If you have furniture you need to get rid of, talk to me, because we can maybe come up with a separate plan for furniture if enough people need to get rid of it. But anything else we can put on the truck. Electronics. Sporting goods. Clothes. Appliances. The stuff doesn’t need to even be in good working order. It can be broken. The truck is not going to the dump, it’s going to be recycled, repurposed, reused and resold. If it looks like we (and our friends) are about to fill up the 24 foot long semi, there will be another one on deck ready for us to fill. We could potentially fill up two 24 foot long semis with all of the stuff that we and our friends don’t need. We might find extra space in our garages, in our living rooms, in our closets, and most importantly, in our lives. Here’s the best part: we get paid for everything we put on that truck, even if it’s broken. Even if it’s a hideous shirt from the early 80s.
In addition to getting paid for most of our stuff, we are also going to spend a little bit of money to get something else out of our lives: paper and documents. A secure shredding service is coming to help us get rid of old paper that is clogging up our church and homes. If you have a lot of paper waste that it’s time to shred in a secure way, bring it on June 11th! The service is secure, the boxes are locked, and when it’s shredded, we’ll get a certificate of destruction ensuring us that our documents have been properly shredded. Poof. All the excess, all the paper, all the clutter… let’s get it out.
Getting rid of excess and simplifying our lives isn’t so much about cleaning up our space, although that’s certainly nice, it’s a spiritual practice. I live what Thoreau says about this:
“Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplify, simplify, simplify! Simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.”
Elevation of purpose. How can the process of taking a look at the things we own lead to a sense of elevated purpose? I think this might be the journey we can consider for the next six weeks or so as we do it together.
Here are some more details about this amazing and fun plan for June 11th:
- If you need boxes, we’ll have some next week so you can get started
- If you like to be on social media, there’s a Facebook Event page for you to post pictures of your progress if you want so that you can keep motivated. Use the hashtag #NPCSpringCleaning
- One of the things that I’m most excited about for this project (besides the fact that it will be a nice fundraiser for us, I think we can expect to earn several thousand dollars) is that we will be recycling and keeping things out of landfills, especially electronics. Interestingly, electronics are the things that are hardest for folks to get rid of (who wants to buy that old flip phone and mp3 player?) yet they’re the biggest money makers for this fundraiser. One of the things that you might consider doing is placing an electronics recycling drop off box in your neighborhood or workplace or friend’s church. Help the planet. Help Northwood.
- You can participate at whatever level you’d like. Maybe you’ll want to bring just one box of extra things. Maybe you’ll want to go through every room in your whole house.
We, my friends, are rich. Very rich. Rich in possessions, rich in Christ’s love and mercy. Let’s come to the table this morning remembering the first line of the Psalm we read this morning “The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of us all. Amen.
Resources for further study:
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo
Seven: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, by Jen Hatmaker