To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly; to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart; to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never. To let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.
— William Henry Channing, 19th Century Unitarian minister
There was a period this fall when it seemed as if the succession of hurricanes and fires and floods would never end. It was one thing and then another and still another. And with each fire and storm came images of people fleeing their homes, sometimes with very little warning, to make their way to safety.
As Hurricane Irma barreled toward Florida, Stephanie Kurleman was one of those people. She and her family packed up their cars and evacuated to a friend’s home. In addition to the basics, they gathered documents, photos, her Bible, jewelry, plus the kids’ kiteboards. She said to a reporter, “I thought I wouldn’t come back to anything,”
The storm passed, they drove back and found only minor damage to their home. But the experience left Kurleman with an urge to purge. “I was weighed down by too much stuff,” she said. “I was prepared to start over with what I had with me,” she said, with the realization, “I could live simpler.”
I know that some in our church community who live in the Gorge and who needed to evacuate their homes faced such questions. And I know that I do—and perhaps you do as well—when I see such images of people evacuating, ask myself, just what would we take needed to get out on short notice?
While I think of some things I would grab, mostly that question is a reminder of just how much stuff I have and just how overwhelming a question it is.
Before I get too far along in talking about stuff, I should probably recognize the privilege I have in just starting the conversation. I am fortunate to have the home that I do. I am fortunate to have so much, so many blessings in my life. And I hope that I never take that for granted. I don’t have to look around very far at all living here in Portland these days to recognize just how privileged I am to have a home and stuff around me.
The question can come up just how much is enough and what is the balance? I don’t think any of us would want to purge the hard way in the midst of some natural disaster and yet I was taken by Kurleman’s comment about being prepared for the worst and coming out of it with the awareness she did. I could almost read a hint of disappointment in coming home to a place that had been spared. Indeed how much is enough?
Our theme this month is abundance and indeed many of us do have a lot. But is there a point where what we have is too much? And at what point might our stuff actually get in the way—literally and spiritually? Maybe we really don’t need all the stuff we have.
My partner and I moved into a different home about a year and a half ago and since we were planning to do some work on the house right away, some of the boxes just went up into the attic to be dealt with later. You know that phrase out of sight, out of mind? Well that’s kind of what happened. This summer when I had a little more time I found myself rediscovering those boxes and going through them. And while I found a few things that I had been missing, truth be told I also discovered quite a few things that I had forgotten all about. If I didn’t need something for a year there is probably an argument to be made that maybe a really don’t need it at all. Hmm. The realization was a little sobering.
I should probably make a confession here before I get too far into the sermon and that is to say that I like my stuff. I like to have beautiful things around me. I like to have things that remind me of the blessings in my life. There is a certain fulfillment in, well, making a space for things and having those things around me.
One of my hobbies is going to estate sales. I think part of the draw for me is that it offers a look into other people’s lives that I just find fascinating. How is it that they came to collect all those Beanie Babies? Or things with elephants on them? How is it that they came to collect all those tools in the garage? How is it that they found need for all those shoes?
You name the thing. One of the things for me is old photographs. There is something in me that takes pleasure in making a home for these photos that should go somewhere. Somehow photos, it seems it me, should be with relatives who know the people in the photos… and when they are not, there is need to find a home for those photos.
But one of the reminders I have when I’m at one of those sales is that someday there may well be an estate sale with my stuff and most of what is there will have only been of value to me and not many others.
What I am aware of is that when it comes right down to it most of the stuff I have is important to me but won’t necessarily be important to those I leave behind. I think of those old photos I have accumulated. Or I think of things like the spatula that was my mother’s spatula. It was a wedding gift that she and my father received many years ago now. She cooked her morning eggs with that spatula just about every day of her adult life. At a sale it would be fifty cents. For me it is priceless. It is a connection with my mother that I think about every time I use it. And I also know that when I am gone that spatula won’t have the same meaning for someone else as it has for me.
The things in our lives have meaning because we give them meaning. They have value because of the value we give them. When it comes down to it, it really is all just stuff.
But we get plenty of messages from our culture that that stuff is important. The messages we get from our culture is that the more we have the more fulfilled, the happier we will be. And it doesn’t take long to figure out that that really isn’t the case.
The writer Anna Quindlen said she went through a period when she believed stuff meant something. “I thought that if I had matching side chairs and a sofa that harmonized and some beautiful lamps to light them, you would have a home, that elegance signaled happiness. I fooled myself into thinking that House Beautiful should be subtitled Life Wonderful.”
But the truth is that at some point when we have too much stuff, instead of us owning the stuff the stuff can come to own us.
So how much is enough? And how is it that we find that balance? We do get those messages about the stuff we have all the time and with the holidays coming up, the volume is about the increase. But there is also a way that the stuff we have has become fodder for entertainment.
Last winter at some point during one of our snow days I found myself tuning in to a series about hoarders. You know the set up. We meet someone who is a hoarder and they and probably their loved ones have reached the limit. We are introduced to them and then the intervention begins and person gets help or they don’t. Now I have to say that at first I found this kind of entertaining. There they were, these poor folks who can’t let go of things, gathering stuff until they are completely overwhelmed. But it wasn’t long before the show wasn’t entertaining at all. You pretty quickly come to recognize the degree to which people are really living with an illness and having their story broadcast seems so very intrusive.
And when there is a problem to be solved some good self help books can’t be far behind. And indeed some of them can offer ways to declutter our lives.
One of the popular books these days is by a Japanese writer named Marie Kondo. She is all about getting rid of your stuff, getting organized the getting everything tidy.
Kondo gives examples of the people she works with and the things they accumulate. The person with 60 toothbrushes, the person with 30 boxes with rolls of plastic kitchen wrap. Her client in that case noted that she used a lot of it and didn’t want to run out, so she stocked up. The client with 80 rolls of toilet paper, or the person who have stockpiled 20,000 cotton swabs—a cache of 100 boxes containing 200 swabs each. If you use a swab a day it would take someone 55 years to use all those up. “By the time she was finished with all those swabs,” Kondo writes, “she might have developed amazing techniques for cleaning her ears.”
It is easy to laugh at any given example but I expect we all have those things we want to make sure we won’t run out of. In her book Kondo has some very specific ways of decluttering and getting organized.
When it comes to your socks, for example, she would have you take all your socks and put them in one place. Then you figure out which socks you need and which socks you don’t need. You get rid of the ones you don’t need and then you organize the ones you do have in a particular way and then you are done. When you put them in a drawer you do that in a certain way and when you put them back after the wash they go back in the same place.
The book makes a lot of sense but I think that whatever system we use is to make a space for seeing what we need and don’t need, for understanding what’s important and what’s not important. But the truth is that more often than not it takes focus and attention to make that happen.
Essentially you try to get down to the things that have meaning for you, you will actually appreciate those things more. Some questions you might ask: Does it bring you joy? Does it give your life meaning? Do you love it? And if the answer is no, then the answer is pretty clear. Get rid of it.
Of course that book is not the only way to figure it out. One of the favorites I came across in preparing for this sermon is a Swedish method called death cleaning. And it is pretty much just that. That you imagine you are going to be dying soon and you don’t want to leave a mess behind for your loved ones and so you get things sorted out, just what you need.
Of course even if we know we are going to die at some point for most of us that is something to put off until another day. It is kind of like making plans for the end of your life. It is just so easy to put it off.
There’s an old Zen story that goes like this. A monk comes to the monastery of the master and asks for instruction. The master asks him, “Have you had your breakfast?” The monk says that he has. “Then wash your bowls,” is the Master’s reply, and the only instruction he offers. The message is a simple one, “Just be present with the actual stuff of your ordinary everyday life- in this case, bowls.”
More often than not, I think we get into our heads and we make plans and we strategize and before long we realize that we haven’t gotten very far at all and that maybe before we get too far ahead of ourselves we need to just stop and breath and ask ourselves where we are in that moment. And if we have just finished breakfast, maybe what we need to do is wash our bowls.
Our spiritual theme this month is abundance. As I’ve been thinking of that word abundance, and aware of all that I have and all that I have been blessed with. With all that said I have to say that these days I don’t always feel as if I have abundance in my life. When I look out at the present world things don’t seem at all abundant. That is certainly the case when I turn in to the political discourse. It is certainly the case when it comes to compassion for those who have the least in our society, immigrants, poor people for sure. If this land of plenty I am also reminded of how so many don’t seem have the basics of what they need. And more generally there just seems to be such a lack of abundance when it comes to how we are together in so many spheres of our lives. And when I find myself moving out of that place I don’t always feel very abundant or compassionate or loving. I think about Bill’s sermon from a couple weeks ago when he talked about how these times are ones where it is easy to harden our hearts, when it is easy to want to not really to open to change, to the process of building bridges.
If we are going to have a sense of abundance, it needs to begin, of course, with our own lives and what that means. It means beginning in the same place of that Zen story, with whatever it is that is right in front of us.
I think that the spiritual challenge is to try to be present with the world in all that it is and not. The spiritual challenge is to make a space for our hearts to be open and to stay open, to not let our hearts get hard with all of the hardness we see around us. That, I think, comes from things like having good people around us, it comes from things like making space for communities in our lives that can feed and nourish us. It comes from making a space to recognize just how much abundance to do have, whether we can always recognize that or not.
When it comes to the stuff of our lives, some of that is about making space for what is most important and doing our best to get rid of the clutter, whatever that clutter may be for us. What are those things that literally—and spiritually—get in the way of recognizing the abundance in our lives?
Robert Rosenstone tells the story of a Japanese artist who was commissioned by some Americans to do a painting. The completed work had, in a lower corner, the branch of a cherry tree with a few blossoms and a bird perched upon it. The entire upper-half of the painting was a blank background. When the Americans saw it they weren’t happy. They asked the artist to put something else in the painting because it looked, well, so bare. The artist refused the request. When pressed for an explanation, the artist said if he did fill up the painting, there would be no space for the bird to fly.
Many of us, I think, struggle with how to be present with the realities of our times, all the things that call for our attention in these times. Simplifying our life doesn’t just mean getting rid of things. It means getting rid of the things that we don’t need and that are taking up space we don’t have to spare. It means letting go of the trivial and meaningless things and making space for what is emerging.
Words again of the poet:
One apple satisfies.
Two apples cloy.
Three apples glut.
Call it a tug-of-war between enough and more
than enough, between sufficiency
and greed, between the stay-at-homers
and globe-trotting see-the-worlders.
Like lovers seeking heaven in excess,
the hopelessly insatiable forget
how passion sharpens appetites
that gross indulgence numbs.
The haves have not
what all the have-nots have
since much of having is the need
May each of us, in our lives, have all that it is we need. And may each of us find our way to recognizing the abundance we have. In this season of thanksgiving, may we make our way to thanks, for all that is our life. Amen.
Great spirit, we give thanks for all that is our life. We give thanks for every day, for every hour. Help us to live our lives with intention. Help us to live mindful of our interdependence, of others and of this good greed earth. Help us to know what we need and what we can live without. Roots hold me close, Wings set me free. As blessings come to us, may we be sources of blessing to the world. May this be our symphony. Amen.
Have courage to make space in your heart and live in faith that you will have all that you need. This is the day we have been given. Let us rejoice in it and be glad. Go in peace. Practice love. Amen.
 “the life-changing magic of tidying up” ‘by Marie kondo. Ten Speed Press.
 From “The Necessary Brevity of Pleasures” by Samuel Hazo.