Ah, stuff. There’s nothing quite like moving a household to spark thoughts on what it means in our culture and our tradition to have possessions and try to live faithfully with them.
Except this time my husband and I now can count a house among what we own. It’s hard to wrap my mind around. When we were negotiating the price with the owners and signing the papers at the title company, the numbers all felt so abstract. On the one hand, I know enough from real estate listings, the experiences of friends and local media to figure that we paid a reasonable price for a single-family home in the mixed-income neighborhood where we’ve lived for seven years. On the other hand, it’s more than I’ve ever paid for anything.
And the house is something we now own. It’s a possession, like all of the stuff I am putting in boxes or wrapping with plastic to prepare to move into that house. When we last moved apartments, five years ago, we got rid of about a third of what we owned. This time, we’ve done some donating in preparation for the move, but not necessarily more than we do in a given year anyway, as part of our efforts to live simply. And a helpful aspect of living in 750 square feet has been that if we haven’t used an item or appreciated it in some way in the past year, I get rid of it. It will be a challenge to keep similar guidelines once we have much more space.
But we’re starting in a good place. A surprise in preparing to move is that I feel good about the amount of stuff we have. Since we are not acting as though it’s necessary for all of Jesus’ disciples to follow his instruction to the rich young man to sell what he owns, we set a lower standard. Given that, I think we have roughly the right number and kinds of possessions. Some are useful, some are beautiful, most have a connection to a particular person or time of life.
Arising from those connections, packing has stirred emotions. Perhaps the most poignant moment was finding two comic books given to my husband by a man who was homeless to whom we provided some companionship in the final months of his life. The comics aren’t worth anything to us apart from the memory. Someday we’ll let them go, but for now, they remind us of a person we cared for.
Jesus tells the rich young man that if he sells what he owns, he will have treasure in heaven. Perhaps he goes away grieving not simply because he has many possessions but because they are his treasure. It is a word for each of us to consider, where our treasure is.
As I pack up our home, I believe our treasure is in love. Sometimes stuff symbolizes that love, or reminds us of it. (When it doesn’t, it’s easier to toss in recycling or take to the thrift store.) Photos of family, my grandfather’s hymnal and preaching Bible, the woolen rug my grandmother made for me — all of these would have little value according to the measures of the world. But to me, they’re more precious than gold because of the love they point to, the fragments of God’s love we receive through other people.
Those tangible connections to love are possessions worth filling a house with. In time that stuff, but more so the people connected to it and to us, can make our house a home.
Celeste Kennel-Shank is a hospital chaplain, editor and community gardener in Chicago.