How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?
I John 3.17
In our consumption-driven society possessors often become the possessed. And I mean “possessed” the way that Merriam-Webster defines it: influenced or controlled by something (such as an evil spirit, a passion, or an idea).
During our Lenten Adult Learning series, Professor Leticia Guardiola-Sáenz mentioned that people in our nation often become possessed by their possessions. We keep accumulating stuff whether we need it or not. And then we consider that stuff too valuable to part with, but it piles up and gets in our way. So we rent a storage unit and fill it with things that get in our way and we don’t need and yet we treasure enough to keep. We pay to pile up treasures someplace out of our way. We are possessed – controlled by our possessions.
This past month I witnessed a more subtle version of possession like this. Jim G and I drove to Missouri to help clear out his mother’s condo. A recent stroke has weakened her, and she is living in a retirement facility now. It was time to empty the home where she and Jim’s dad, who died in 2016, lived for the last decade. I never thought the condo was overfull of things, no more so than most homes I’ve been in. But as we sorted through their belongings it quickly became overwhelming. Jim G and I got off easy – his sisters had already been through almost everything. We had to deal with books - 24 boxes of them, and frozen food left in the freezers, and various keepsakes that no one really wanted but thought someone else should keep. Keepsakes that had little monetary value but great emotional value. It was exhausting, disheartening, depressing work, and reminded me of moving my own parents during the last years of their lives. Each move my siblings and I got rid of more and more of our parents’ stuff, and still we ended up with boxes of things we didn’t know what to do with when they died. It seems to be a rite of passage that adult children become possessed by their parents’ possessions – controlled by them sometimes beyond reason, filling up our own basements and storage spaces with boxes of “valuables” that we never look at again until we have to move it.
Where does this compulsion to consume, to keep come from? Is it a manifestation of our need to believe that our parents lives mattered, that their things mattered, are valuable? Does it speak to our own sense of worth? What I know from experience is that eventually we either get to a place where the stuff stops mattering and we get rid of it, or we drown ourselves in accumulation until we leave it to someone else to deal with.
I am not implying that Jim G’s parents did anything wrong, or that his siblings and he did anything wrong, or that my parents and siblings and I did anything wrong. I am simply observing this pattern of accumulation, how it crosses generations, defies death if you will. When kept at a reasonable level, precious gifts from our parents can keep on giving – reminding us of them and the times we shared. But their stuff can also possess us, take control of our lives at least for a while, get in our way.
In extreme cases our possessions can become more than an intergenerational inconvenience. They can drive our lives, take possession of our souls and minds. Turn us into hoarders of things or money or power or status.
Can we make it stop? Not just for our own sanity, or that of our children, but for the sake of our overpopulated, overburdened, overconsumed planet. And, if we believe Jesus and his followers, for the sake of our own souls. I recently read a book by John Dominic Crossan where he defined the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus preached as an earthly existence of commensality, where all eat at the same table, all share what they have, all needs are met. In my imagination that Kingdom has a narrow entryway, a door that is just wide enough for a person to fit through. In some cases we consume so much, we take so much stuff into ourselves, make things so much a part of who we are that we can’t fit through the door. Or perhaps we arrive at the door wearing a backpack and cargo pants and carrying other baggage stuffed to the gills with things. We can’t get in the door until we drop some or all of it.
Being possessed by possessions is not what matters. Possession possession does not give our lives meaning, and it is not eternal. Our willingness to share what we have - our stuff and our love - is what creates life, and what lives on.