“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear
out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth
destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
--Luke 12:33-34 NIV
Each day I receive an email listing estate sales happening in my area. Especially during COVID-19, estate sales have gone high tech and begun posting pictures of their contents for online-only auctions. For reasons I am unsure of—maybe because I grew up lower middle-class acquiring things from other people’s garage sales, I like looking for deals at estate sales. Yet, I’ve reached a point in life where I have most of the things I need and the boxes in my basement full of stuff feel more like a burden and less like something worth holding on to.
Lately as I look at estate sales it feels like I’m seeing a whole lot of the same stuff. I see furniture, clothing, tchotchkes and collections of everything from antiques to figurines to auto parts that adult children of downsizing or deceased parents don’t want. It feels a bit sad to see the stuff that a generation held on to simply passed on to estate sale companies. I wonder how much of the leftovers from estate sales end up simply thrown into a dumpster? Was all this stuff a comfort to the people who left it behind or was it a burden in the end?
Once one is privileged enough to have one’s basic needs met, how much more do we need? TV shows like Hoarders show materialism as a mental health problem where even the most insignificant piece of trash is imbued with an undeserved significance. In less extreme but perhaps no less unhealthy cases, the current trends of minimalism and simplicity along with books like The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up and The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning reveal the deep spiritual hunger people are feeling who have exhausted finding meaning in their possessions.
We Christians should not be surprised by the truth that our possessions cannot satisfy our deepest longings. Jesus did say after all, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34 NIV) I don’t think Jesus expected every follower to be an ascetic. He asked some to sell everything, while others provided him and his followers with food, lodging and even a burial tomb. Yet, I don’t know anyone in the middle class or above who doesn’t have too much of something.
Thinking about the excess of possessions we carry through this life is an apt analogy for all the emotional, psychological and spiritual things we carry with us which are more burden than help. Recently I discovered a book I’ve added to my reading list: Without Oars: Casting Off Into a Life of Pilgrimage by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson. I haven’t read it yet, but it intrigues me, because it is a collection of reflections by an American Protestant Christian about what he learned on the ancient pilgrimage routes of Europe.
The author describes his experience travelling the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) in northern Spain, a famous pilgrimage route travelled by medieval pilgrims and modern pilgrims and tourists. He has this interesting observation from his journey:
On the Camino de Santiago, makeshift shrines along the way are littered with things pilgrims have left behind—an extra pair of shoes, a sweater, a razorblade, an inflatable pillow, a book, a pair of pants, a makeup kit. Nearly every pilgrim on the Camino, despite careful packing, discovers that they are carrying too much.
On this pilgrimage route, pilgrims on a spiritual journey realized that they could not complete their pilgrimage and make it to their destination unless they let go of things along the way.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience on a hiking or camping trip. Or maybe you’ve realized you packed too much for a vacation as you lugged a heavy suitcase through an airport. Maybe you didn’t abandon unneeded items, but you regretted the weight of carrying things you did not need for your journey.
Similarly, maybe you’ve discovered, as I have on a regular basis, that what you were carrying inside of your mind, heart and soul were similarly too burdensome for your pilgrimage through this life. Anne Lamott said the following in an interview:
We're here to know God, to love and serve God, and to be blown away by the beauty and miracle of nature. You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don't have time to carry grudges; you don't have time to cling to the need to be right.
Christine Valters Paintner describes how we don’t need to actually walk a medieval pilgrimage route to be on a pilgrimage. We head out into the unknown all the time when life throws us a curve ball and we must set out on a spiritual journey to find our purpose and meaning once more. She writes:
This call to embark on a rigorous journey of reclaiming ourselves and our relationship to the divine often comes without our bidding. There are many reasons we might begin an inner pilgrimage. Perhaps we’ve experienced a great loss: a job, our health, a dear friend, a sense of identity, financial security, or a marriage. We know we can’t return to life as usual.
The goal of such a pilgrimage, I suspect, is that at the end of our lives when we are united with God we will have to leave behind as little spiritual baggage as possible. The loved ones we leave behind hopefully won’t have to deal with the consequences of our neuroses, anxieties and suffering but rather they will cherish our joy, strength and love.
Before my mother died, she worked hard to dispose of all of her stuff that she knew we wouldn’t want. She would ask us if we wanted something, and if not, off it went to a thrift store or a trash can. She remembered having to pay for a dumpster when her own mother died in order to dispose of so much of my grandmother’s stuff that had mildewed and deteriorated to the point that it was of no use to anyone. She didn’t want to leave us the same burden.
I’m less worried about leaving my sons junk to throw in a dumpster and more concerned I will leave behind for them memories of their father stressed out, anxious and preoccupied by things that didn’t really matter much in the scheme of things. Instead of an estate sale company, will they have to hire a therapist to dispose of what I leave behind for them? How much better would it be for me to leave those burdensome things one by one on the side of the trail as I make my own spiritual pilgrimage through this life? I not only believe my sons would be better off in the future if I adopted such a perspective, but I also think both they and I would be better off while we journey through life together in the here and now.
The African American mystical writer, civil rights leader and chaplain at Howard University, Howard Thurman, expressed well our need as spiritual pilgrims in one of his prayers; may it become our prayer too.
Teach me, O God, how to free myself of dearest possessions,
So that in my trust I shall find restored to me
all I need to walk in Thy path and to fulfill l Thy will.
Let me know Thee for myself that I may not be satisfied
With aught that is less.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851