The Stuff of Life
Recently I found a new call and made the big move from Tennessee all the way to California.
I have spent weeks unpacking boxes of books and personal mementoes, each time asking myself how I could have acquired so much stuff.
Many of my friends are in a time of deciding about stuff.
Some are handling the stuff their parents passed down to them, while others are musing over the eventual disposition of their own stuff, a chore they will leave to their children.
The flow of stuff from generation to generation is endless and not without conflict.
While sometimes the conflict is that everyone wants the piano or the grandmother’s china, more often these days it seems the conflict is that no one wants that stuff.
Tastes change, trends shift.
The stuff you couldn’t wait to get rid of is the same stuff another generation will sift through estates sales hoping to buy before anyone else catches on to how chic it is.
Churches have their own stuff issues.
Many congregations are simply stuffed with the stuff of ministry: classrooms full of art supplies and maps and desks, libraries full of books no one reads, pantries full of punch bowls and silver tea services.
I have noticed that in some churches, when new stuff arrives, the stuff it replaces does not leave the premises, but just gets stuffed further back into a closet or an unused classroom.
In one place I served, I spent a rainy afternoon checking the condition of our pew Bibles and found we had just about every era of the last 75 years represented: faux-leather King James versions, hypnotic swirly gold Good News editions, econo-tan hardback NIVs, and some random orange paperback copies of The Message.
Some of these were in donation-worthy condition, but not all, and I had also spied worn out copies of the NAS and JB Phillips Bibles rotting away in the sacristy and they needed to go.
Of course, getting rid of them posed the kind of problem they ask about on ordination exams: does the pastor risk being thought a reckless heretic by placing them in the recycling bin, or does she first take up, in a sermon, the Reformed view that the message of the book is sacred, not the paper and the ink, making a Bible a book that can be disposed?
That closet full of Bibles could be seen as a sign of reverence but I was afraid it was really more about a tendency toward an idolatry of goods.
Materialism is dangerous, a form of addiction, a moral issue that connects to climate change and many forms of inequity.
Jesus warned us of how hard it would be to truly enter the kingdom if we were burdened by our possessions.
We need to learn to let go, to slip free of the burden of our stuff.
A congregation can be studied in its artifacts, an idea I first encountered in a class on Congregational Studies taught by Professor Jeffrey Tribble at CTS.
He urged us to enter a congregational system like an anthropologist.
Part of that work was to examine the objects in a church as clues to the values and aspirations of the congregation.
If looked at that way, every year’s financial receipts, kid’s crafts projects and sheets of choir music tell a story about how we worshipped, who we are.
Among the artifacts I treasure from my last church: a folded piece of brown paper creased in such a way that, held up to a child’s ear it became a curly horn for a sheep in a nativity play.
The folding is mathematical and precise; it’s a Fibonacci origami.
This marvel might go unnoticed, like many of the things that happen in a congregation, the moments of teaching and wonder, the big ahas and the daily prayers.
The horn is just a tiny bit squished from being packed away, and I know some day I will have to let it go.
But maybe not just yet.
As churches begin moving back toward meeting in person we might find ourselves walking through our buildings amazed by all the stuff we managed to live without for the better part of a year.
It might be a good time to practice a little congregational anthropology on our own context, to walk through the building with a group of members who haven’t seen the space in a while to ask: what do we use this room for?
Where did this furniture come from?
Do we feel we have to keep this because someone donated it?
Why do we have a posh bride’s room if we hardly ever have a wedding?
This exercise should also involve an appreciation for what we love and admire about our stuff: the handmade banners, the big soup pots, the crib for the live nativity we will use again, soon we hope.
A thoughtful examination of our stuff might awaken a new appreciation for what our space and our stuff can be used for, some new ideas for ministry.
Good questions about what we have might center us in our task to be who we are: the body of Christ on our corner of the kingdom for our time in history.
Churches are incarnational; they show the spiritual in the physical, they proclaim that God has chosen the material world as the place for God’s self-revelation.
Can our relationship to stuff mirror our commitment to be in right relationship with God and neighbor as we care for the earth, work for justice, and tenderly nurture the shoots of new life?
Boxes of old Sunday school posters featuring a blondish Jesus are not what we need to pass on to the next generation, for sure.
But in some of the relics we hold close–coffee cups and books of maps and construction paper curly cow horns—we will find some hints of how we learned to believe, and to receive love, and to pass it on.
Melissa Tidwell is the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Stockton, California. Before she was ordained to pastoral ministry, she worked in religious publishing where she was the editor of Alive Now magazine and the author of Embodied Light: Advent Meditations on the Incarnation. She is still hoping to one day find a publisher for her book about zombies.