Just about every conversation I have with other parents turns at some point to the topic of how much material stuff you accumulate when you have kids. Even when we put limits on it, even when we purge the toy bin every few months, the stuff keeps coming in. Just yesterday Harper came home from the dentist with a small green plastic monkey, a prize from the treasure box for sitting still for her cleaning. It’s no big deal, that little monkey, but I’m pretty sure that it will either break or be lost in the next two days, resulting in dramatic tears, or that I will be picking it up off the floor for the next six months.
It’s true that nature abhors a vacuum and that any clean surface gets cluttered up as soon as I turn my back. We moved to North Carolina from Washington, DC, a few years ago, a move that included a significant change in housing prices. All our stuff, which had previously filled a tiny two-bedroom condo, magically expanded to fill a two-story house, a shed, and a garage. Where did it all come from?
The reality is that life just comes with stuff. We can bemoan this fact and do our best to keep the tidal wave from swamping us, but we would be foolish to say that our stuff is not important. The material goods that make up our lives—our shoes, toys, chairs, spoons, computers, cars, books, bicycles—have meaning and usefulness. Our stuff keeps us clothed and connected and fed. It helps us create and do good work. Our stuff enhances our lives, makes us happy, helps us learn and grow. I think of the Legos that Jonathan is obsessed with right now. I get awfully tired of cleaning them up, but those bricks have helped him learn colors and numbers. (For a while there, he wanted three red bricks—exactly three, and only red—to take to bed with him each night.)
Our stuff helps us express ourselves. You choose a certain tie to wear to work, you decorate your house a particular way, you take a pottery class and learn how to make a bowl, you read a book or use your camera take a picture. We serve other people with our stuff. We use our cars to deliver food to the food pantry. We lace up our running shoes to help raise money for cancer research. We pack up dinner in reusable containers and take it to a neighbor who just had a baby.
Or hospitality: we have more plates than we need for just one family because sometimes we like to have friends over, and we don’t think they should have to eat straight off the table. We put clean sheets on the guest-room bed. We buy a grill and a big table for the backyard so we can throw parties.
Stuff matters, and this is OK.
We practice an incarnational faith. Our faith is lived out in the stories of our lives, which are lived here on earth, in these bodies, which need stuff: chairs to sit on and food to eat and clothes to wear. But living an incarnational faith is tricky, because sometimes all this stuff—this often life-giving stuff —gets in the way, gets twisted around, and instead of becoming life-giving, our stuff becomes life-draining or even downright sinful.
Once upon a time, the Israelites got themselves into some hot water because of their stuff. The story comes to us in Exodus 32, when the Hebrew people are out in the wilderness. This is in that period after they’ve escaped from Egypt, after the episode with the manna but before they get to the promised land, and Moses has gone up to the mountain to talk with God. He’s been gone a long time, and the people start to get a little anxious, a little antsy, and they start to forget all the promises God has made to them. They get Moses’ brother Aaron to gather up all their gold—their earrings, their necklaces—and he throws all this in the fire and shapes a golden calf out of it, which the people start to worship.
They start to worship this golden calf instead of the God who brought them out of Egypt. Their stuff—their gold—got in the way and made them forget who they were and where their faith belonged. The gold itself wasn’t bad. There’s nothing inherently wrong with gold necklaces. But when they take the form of something that interrupts the flow of love between God and God’s people, that’s trouble.
An example: my smartphone. In a lot of ways, my phone is a gift—it makes my life better. It keeps me connected to friends I haven’t seen in a long time. It helps me stay organized. It helps me find my way when I make a wrong turn. I can see photos of my baby nephew who lives seven hundred miles away and won’t be a baby much longer.
In a lot of other ways, though, it’s not so much a gift. It means I’m connected to my e-mail. All. The. Time. I’m always checking to see if someone is doing something cooler than what I’m doing. Sometimes I pay more attention to my phone than I do to my kids.
It’s not the phone’s fault.
Sometimes our stuff is a blessing.
Sometimes it’s a curse.
Which reminds me of another time when the Israelites were out in the wilderness, this time just on the verge of the promised land, and Moses, who knows he won’t live to see them enter their new home, gives a sort of farewell speech. He says to them: “I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live” (Deut. 30:19 CEB).
Life and death, blessings and curse.
Sometimes our stuff—our food, our clothes, our houses, our phones—is blessing; sometimes it’s curse. Sometimes it’s life, sometimes it’s death.
So: choose life, and not just for ourselves, but for everybody.