During a recent study of current American life, a journalist entered the homes of many families to record whatever he found there. Much to his surprise, he found clutter in almost every instance. Gathering all this stuff seems to have become our way of doing things.
This time of year, when we are stuck indoors, do you find that you notice the clutter more? You can’t get away from it! And we start to take more clutter in, too! We’re gathering for holiday celebrations so we need the right tableware, the right centerpiece, more food than we can fit in our giant-sized refrigerators. This time of year, my gift drawer is overflowing as I try to get something together for each of my nieces and nephews. At Christmas time, we’ll bring the tree into our already crowded house and when the New Year comes we’ll be even more cluttered than we were before because people will be generous and give us so many treasures.
This summer there was a series of articles in the Oregonian about simplifying your life. One article was about how to get rid of the stuff we don’t need that clutter up our homes. Rather than ask yourself whether you will ever need this or that item, ask instead whether it is worth the space it is taking up, or if that space might be better used to hold something else. When I ask whether I might ever need this purse (one of 6 that I own even though I almost never carry a purse) or this length of cable, or if I will ever read this book, the answer is almost always “yes.” But if I ask whether that space might be better used another way, the answer to that question is often “yes,” and might be a better indication of whether we really need all the stuff we keep laying around. Removing that purse from my closet door means that it closes a little more easily. Removing the cable from the junk basket that we keep on top of the fridge means that I can find the junk that I really need more easily. And as for that book, maybe there is another book I am more likely to read, or maybe I could put a book in its place that is currently in a box in my basement.
“Do not be anxious saying what shall we eat or what shall we drink or what shall we wear.” Don’t you think the clutter in our houses is reflection of the clutter in our minds and hearts? What is taking up space in your mind? What are the anxieties that we store up there that are taking up head space?
I have to say my mind is cluttered not only with my schedule but with going over and over again conversations with family and colleagues and parishioners and friends. Some of these conversations have already occurred and I’m trying to fix them or understand them. Some have yet to happen, but need to happen. And sometimes I lay awake at night anxious about global warming and whether I am raising an independent but connected child and what I can do to keep church attendance up and why did I have to put my foot in my mouth again, and how I’m going to have to preach the best Thanksgiving sermon of all time! A few of those thoughts might be helpful as I try to work through difficult situations. A lot of them are just some automatic loop I’m stuck in. Certainly that brain power might be better used for something else, like that space in my house could be better used. They’ve got to go, but it isn’t so easy to banish them. How do you keep from worrying? You can’t just make yourself stop thinking about what you’re thinking about.
It is easy to focus on what not to do and what we’re doing wrong when we read a lesson like this. It is like we forget that it is the Gospel. This is good news! We don’t have to beat ourselves up for getting off track. Instead Jesus has words of hope for us all.
Here it is: You are of value to God. God loves you. God values you. God is looking out for you. Isn’t that a breath of fresh air? Let yourself hear that. Let yourself believe that. God values you. God loves you. God knows what you need and is paying attention.
Let that good news stop you in your loop of anxiety. Let it calm your nerves for a moment. Let it open a space in your heart for the new life that God wants to give you, give us, give a hurting world, give this neighborhood. No matter what else happens, you are loved by the Great Love that created the universe.
I have presided at many weddings over the years, and I take time to prepare a couple for both the relationship and the service of marriage itself. I always tell them that something is bound to go wrong on their wedding day, but don’t let it get to you. For my own wedding, the cake was in a car accident (no bakers were harmed) and had to be redone and arrived only moments before we were pronounced husband and wife. At the last wedding I did, the matron of honor lost the wedding ring for the longest 5 minutes I think she ever experienced. We didn’t tell the bride it was ever missing. These things are minor distractions. They make for funny stories in later years. But I always tell the couple no matter what goes wrong, don’t lose sight of the reason you are there: Your love for each other. Cake or no cake, you are going to get married. Ring or no ring, you are going to get married. Whatever goes wrong, you are going to get married, and so far, I’ve always been right. It is usually only in the movies that somebody gets left at the altar.
The same is true of our faith life. All this stuff is just extra—our cars, our thanksgiving turkeys all moist and delicious or dry and tough, our Christmas lights, our white or yellow or missing teeth, our gorgeous choir anthems and inspiring or not so inspiring holiday sermons. Put those things in their proper place as extras rather than essentials. What is essential is Jesus, the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, God’s relationship with us, God’s love and forgiveness, and everything else will fall into place.
At thanksgiving time we have a chance to give thanks to God for all he has done. One of my favorite Christmas carols goes like this “And when we worry and we can’t sleep, we’ll count our blessings instead of sheep.” The best way to banish anxiety and focus your mind on the Kingdom of God is to start thinking of things you are thankful for. And I’d say, take it to the next level. Start thanking those people that have blessed your life. Tell them what you appreciate about them. Share the message that you value them, that God values and loves them. In this way we can literally reprogram our minds to pay attention to God and his righteousness instead of getting distracted by all things that don’t matter.
Another way to thank God and banish the anxiety is to give of your time volunteering. It is hard to feel sorry for yourself if you are occupied taking care of others. It is hard to feel bad for yourself when you see how other people are materially worse off and yet they are surviving and being generous and kind, and finding hope.
This holiday season, may we truly seek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. May we revel in the good news that God values us and our neighbor. May we remember what is most important and let go of what doesn’t matter. May we have thankful hearts for God’s incredible generosity and find ourselves overflowing with generosity as a thankful response for all God has done for us.