Growing up in a rural area and living most of my life near rural areas one of the things I remember most is driving down highways and interstates with long portions with fields extending out as far as the eye could see. Every once in a while there’d be an old barn, sometimes an old farm house, and trees. I was always struck with some of the buildings and homes that had fallen in disrepair and, often, abandoned. Thinking about that it struck me that at one time people had invested so much to put those buildings up. The homes that would be abandoned had, more than likely, once had families in them, the sounds of life resonating in the walls, and memories of a life there. I could only imagine what had been lived there, but then there was none. It caused me to ponder the story. What happened? The barns that are falling over, I can only imagine what they were like when they had livestock, horses, farm equipment, and the like in them. The stories that each of these things tell.
Every year we see the tragic stories of those that are caught in a natural disaster and lose everything. It is sad. What are the stories prior to these events? We, often, don’t know and I don’t know that most people really care. It’s sad, but it is a part of our world today. It has been a part of our world since the Fall. The reality is that the stuff isn’t really that important, but the stories are. The stories have value. The stories give life to stuff. Think of all the stuff that surrounds us, what does it mean. A bowl is just a bowl, if it breaks it can be replaced. Now if that bowl was a bowl that was used to make cookies with grandma and it was the bowl that she always used then that bowl has something special attached to it, memories. In reality that bowl is still just a bowl and can be replaced, but we can easily access the memories that were made using it when it is with us and, unfortunately, if it were to become broken we may not remember them as often.
We really shouldn’t attach memories to stuff, but that’s how we are because sometimes that stuff becomes important. As long as we have it we have comfort. Unfortunately, that reality often causes us to desire to collect more stuff. In order to get that stuff, we work and work and work. Sometimes we don’t spend as much time with those that we love because we feel the need to get more stuff until such a time that we are satisfied. Jesus told a parable about this when approached by one that wanted Jesus to tell his brother to share the stuff he’d received in his inheritance with him,
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” ’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Luke 12:13–21, ESV
The issue, at least for Jesus, wasn’t the stuff, but the state of the heart of the man asking. He was angry and felt that he should have some of it too. The reality is that our world is like that, isn’t it? Truly there is nothing wrong with stuff and nothing wrong with having stuff. It’s just stuff and it truly is neither good nor bad, for the most part (one could argue that there is stuff that isn’t really good for anyone to have because of the negative spiritual aspects of having them, i.e. pornography, drugs and drug paraphernalia, etc.). The problem with stuff is that often they become possessions and as possessions they may begin to possess you. They possess you because you work to make sure that you can afford them and there is never any satisfaction because the next best thing is always just ahead which makes the old one less satisfying. A lack of discontent happens because that stuff is getting in the way of you seeing what is of greatest value. When stuff possesses, it is all encompassing. It’s all you see.
I used to have, in my mind, a really close knit family on my mother’s side. I would see all my cousins regularly and, though their relationships were often strained, my aunts (my mom’s sisters) and my family were often together. This was the way it was while my grandma and grandpa were alive. We had rivalries as cousins, but being the youngest until I was 16 I looked forward to seeing all my cousins and loved them dearly. I remember when my younger cousins were born and I wanted to be as involved in their lives as I could. My parents were the same way. My father’s side was a little different and I saw them often also, but I was only close with a few of my cousins and only saw the few as regularly. When my maternal grandfather died it was hard and some of the unity that had been maintained cracked, but we were still relatively close. I moved away and wasn’t as close as I had been, but still tried to maintain relationships, but when my maternal grandmother died it all broke away. An aunt I had been close to, but had issue with my mother went on a rampage against my mother and separated herself and her family from my mother and father and me. My younger cousins, that were her children, were not allowed to know me or my parents and to this day (it has been 17 years since the passing of my maternal grandmother) I have not been able to make contact with them. Why? Because of stuff, stuff of which the majority was sold in auction and the money that was raised has long been spent. One of my four aunts was pulled away with this aunt for a time, but, thankfully, that divide is mending and I am in contact with those cousins (though it is not the same). Now life goes on and I don’t really see any of my cousins like I once did and the damage that occurred caused fractures across the board. The unfortunate thing is that most of the fractures that were held together by my maternal grandparents were mostly about stuff and who got more or felt they deserved more. The reality is that stuff is not relationship.
The rich man that was so proud of himself didn’t realize that. He saw the stuff as security and when he felt he had enough he was secure. It doesn’t say that this man was nasty. It doesn’t say that he didn’t help out a friend, neighbor, or relative. It also doesn’t say this man was generous though, either. He had more than he needed, though. His crops were plentiful, so he felt he needed to keep it all. Why? It also shows the pride he had in himself and what he felt he had produced. The thanksgiving for the abundance didn’t seem to be part of his thinking. God doesn’t worry about stuff. He created it all and continues to create and provide. It’s just stuff that eventually will be tossed away. Our family, our friends, our neighbors, however, are those things that our Lord cares about. He doesn’t toss us away lightly and doesn’t desire for us to toss another away. He doesn’t make trash that is meant to be tossed away. We do that and when we do that with most important creation that he originally made in his own image in Adam, how far have we fallen. Like those old farmhouses and barns, when they were new I can only imagine how beautiful they were and the pride the family had in them. Eventually, though, that shine wore off and they weren’t good enough anymore. The same is not true with us. Even as we age we have value and beauty. I love the shimmer in the eyes of one who has lived a long full life filled with great joy and beautiful relationships. You can see that shimmer in the eyes of those that look upon a child as they have aged and the love that exudes upon seeing the next generations rising up. Every year, every month, every day, every minute, and every second we live affords for us opportunities and moments in which we may impact another. I can’t say how many people have truly influenced me because, honestly, the number is great and I feel very blessed. I know I didn’t always realize or appreciate the gifts I received from others at the time they were given. Some of them also brought pain, but I wouldn’t trade it in because of the blessings. I remember the man who lived down the hall from my maternal grandparents, Jeff, who was mentally handicapped but always greeted me and my grandparents with a smile and a stuttered greeting. He had such deep blue eyes and a smile that as I reflect I can see and, quite honestly, I haven’t thought of for a long time. I can think of, Ted, who at church I would often talk to and would come to him every Sunday I was at church to see if he needed an acolyte. The names go on and on in my head as I am writing and the joy in my heart and the tears in my eyes make me have to pause.
These are the truest gifts of life and they are not things that should be thrown away. I also remember all the great conversations that I have had with each of my aunts and uncles on both sides of my family. Unfortunately, with these memories there is also pain. For some, the pain is that I don’t know if I will ever have a conversation with them again. Another pain is that some of them may never understand how worthless the things of this world truly are when our lives are called away from us. None of the stuff will matter. I am sure that many reading this may have had similar experiences, but some may read this and find it to be an odd life. As I look forward, my prayer is that my life reflect the life which our Lord desires in generosity to my family and all who I encounter. Letting go of the stuff and leaning into Christ. I know I fail and fall short, but I lay it down at Christ’s feet and let the Holy Spirit continue his work within me. I pray that you’ll do the same.