The problem of “stuff”

I am, it must be admitted, not a particularly domestic person.  I’ve always done the basics required for the house not to be a health hazard, and not terribly much more, mostly because there always seemed to be more interesting and important things to do than mopping the floor.  My husband’s approach to things domestic has been similar; so for the time we’ve been married we’ve muddled along, and we’ve been happy in our rather cluttered and untidy space.

But life goes on, responsibilities pile up, we had a daughter, he worked full time and I’ve been pursuing demanding studies, and I got to a point of sheer frustration because my life seemed so disordered.  I’m always tired, always stressed, always have more on my to-do list than can reasonably be accomplished, and the things my heart wants – like nurturing my daughter, cherishing my husband, sustaining a prayer life, or let’s face it, even a decent night’s sleep – seemed impossible to manage.  It shouldn’t be this hard, should it?  Was I just a lousy wife and mother, or what was I doing wrong?

Posting about this on a parenting forum, hoping to benefit from the wisdom of other mothers, someone recommended that I read the book “A Mother’s Rule of Life: How to Bring Order to Your Home and Peace to Your Soul.”  I’ve just finished reading it.  I’m not a Catholic, so I don’t agree wholeheartedly with every point the author makes, but between the rosaries there is much sound wisdom to be gained from it.  I’m now pondering how I can adapt this approach to my own situation in a helpful way.

One thing which struck me is that the very first thing the author suggests you do – even before fussing too much about your prayer life – is to get your home in order.  Analyse the purpose of each room in the life of your family, and fill it with those things – and only those things – which further that purpose.  Organise storage accordingly.  Make any repairs needed in each room.  Pay attention to questions of aesthetics.

This?  This is the first priority?  Why?

Because you won’t settle down to pray in peace if you trip over toys to get to your chair.  You won’t want to snuggle up to your husband on a bed piled with unsorted washing.  You won’t have the focus to be present to your children and their needs if, late in the afternoon, you’re unclear on what you have in the pantry to cook for dinner.  You need to get the basic stuff out of the way of the more important things in life.  This is “preventative discipline,” getting your life in order so that things go right, not wrong.  In short, if you want to have time to really pray, spend with family, study, all the things I really care about, and do those effectively, you need to have a living space (and therefore a head space) ordered enough to be able to do so.

I had never before understood the idea that meal plans, chore lists and decluttering might be a spiritual as well as a menial discipline.  I must admit that I’m looking now at our decidedly un-orderly house with a sinking heart and a feeling that perhaps this is beyond me to do.  But also a willingness to at least try, if it might support me to do better at the things my heart is truly called to.

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The fruit of the Spirit is peace

In an earlier post, I wrote about pacifism, and mentioned that I was reading this book,  Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism, and hoped to blog further as I reflected on what I read.

My progress has been slow, distracted as I am with too many other things, but I’ve come back to it this evening after reading the foreword by Alice Walker.  She describes in that section her experience of being arrested for protesting America’s war in Iraq.  She says that after being arrested, in the squalid gaol cells, she and her companions experienced “the ecstatic nature of impersonal love…whose inevitable companion is not only peace, but…joy.”

That triad of nouns caught my eye.  Love, peace and joy; the first three of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians.  As near as I can tell from the internet, Alice Walker is not a Christian, but I wonder if she is familiar with that text, and if it shaped the way she put this experience into words.

But it also made me look at the text with fresh eyes.  So often I think we read that in a way which assumes that the fruits are personal, interior and individual; as if somehow the indwelling Spirit will be at work in your heart, making you more loving, joyful, peaceful, and so forth, in a way which has few or no implications for your social and political commitments and involvements.  Reading this made me ask, what if it’s the other way around?  What if the Spirit impels us to social commitments and political involvements, to work towards the realisation of the kingdom on earth, and only as we live and move and act in accordance with that call do we feel the interior and subjective aspect of that?

Of course, the ethical and apostolic imperatives to political and social action stand either way.  But perhaps, if we need a selfish motivation as well, the idea that internal holiness might depend on our willingness to cooperate with the Spirit in these matters is not such a bad one to ponder.

Getting our priorities right

This is the text of a sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I’m placed this year.  The Scripture texts it references are Luke 12:32-40 and Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I think it has been common in Christian circles to think of this verse and apply it in a very individualistic way.  Where my treasure is, there my heart will be also.  And it’s another one of those verses which people have taken as encouragement to a life of piety, of renunciation, of simplicity in material things and richness in spiritual things.  Those sorts of ideas are, in and of themselves, not necessarily bad… but I suggest they’re not actually quite what this verse is getting at.

The key to that is the switch between plural and singular, which doesn’t come across into English.  But what Luke wrote is: “Where your treasure is, there your (plural) heart (singular) will be also.”  So “you plural” – youse lot, you mob – have one heart between you.  What I’m getting at is the idea that this saying isn’t first and foremost for the individual believer, but for the community in its corporate identity.

So, with that in mind, let’s hear Jesus’ words again: Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This puts a confronting question in front of us.  What shall we invest in, as a community?  How can we make decisions which store up for us treasure in heaven?  In fact, it’s a text which asks us to be very clear about our sense of mission.  How will we use what we have to further God’s purposes – and that begs the question – to whom are we being directed to “give alms,” and what does that mean?

Let me come at that question by telling you something about my first placement.  I was a brand new theological student, just starting out, and college organised a placement for me – of all places – at the Cathedral.  I went to a couple of services to get a feel for the place before I started properly, and it didn’t inspire me with confidence.  It was big.  And formal.  And complex.  And did I mention, big?  While I was writing this sermon I looked back in my journal entries from that time and found that I felt small, lost, overwhelmed and anxious.  What on earth was I going to do in this place?

And I remember quite clearly that one day I hid away in a side chapel to pray.  Lord, I have nothing to offer in this place; why have you put me here?  And I felt, in that stillness with God, that I was being told that the stuff I was stressing about – the big buildings, the formality, the complexity – those things were temporary.  They would end, one day.  The Cathedral itself would crumble into dust.  But the people; the people were destined for eternity.  If I could only focus on and love them, I would be doing something which would have eternal value.  And that insight helped me focus my time there and cope with the things I found intimidating.  I even learned to appreciate them, as I started to understand how the buildings, the artwork, the liturgy and the whole rich life of the place also contributed to the inner life of the people.

Well.  This isn’t the Cathedral, but it seems to me that the reading this morning is saying much the same thing to us.  It’s the people who are destined for eternity, so focus on and invest in them.  The horizon of our planning and decision making should be as wide as the future life we are promised, and not restricted just to this one.  We who have known something of God’s graciousness in this world can be confident and open-handed to others as we look to the future to come, since we have – as our reading from Hebrews put it – assurance of things hoped for, and conviction of things not seen.  Just as Abraham set out for a place he had been promised, not knowing where he was going, we are asked to do much the same.

Or we can read much the same thing again in Peter’s second epistle, where he says: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be?”

What sort of people ought you to be; where will your treasure be?  Different ways of looking at the same question.  Are we taking eternity into account?

Behind that, though, I think there’s something else to consider.  We’re a diverse group of people, with different gifts, passions, personalities and experiences; and yet it won’t do, if I can extend Jesus’ metaphor just a little bit, for us to have a divided heart.  We all know from personal experience that if we try to do something half-heartedly, our effectiveness can be crippled.  Or, to put it another way, if, as a church, we have different foci and competing priorities, a multiplicity of visions of what we’re about, we’re going to be pulling against one another and undermining what we could achieve.  That’s not to say, of course, that we won’t all be involved in a huge diversity of activities; but that those activities ought to be compatible with one another and oriented towards the same ultimate end.

This text can be read as much as a call for unity of purpose and commitment, as it is about the direction of that focus and commitment.

My brothers and sisters, what the gospel reading this morning says to us is that if we can invest in the people, who have an eternal future, and if we can do so with real wholeheartedness and unity, we will truly be storing up for ourselves unfailing treasure in heaven.  But it is up to each of us to play our part in making sure that it is so.