Last summer I decided to apply that wisdom to books. I’d reached the point where I could not fit one more book on the bookcase, and knew it was time. Once I finally get the process started, it actually felt pretty good. I looked at each book, dusted it and the bookshelf beneath it, and decided its fate. There were some obvious candidates for the friends of the library book sale, and some surprise gems I totally forgot I had. and then the really hard choices- do I want these books more than I want a little bit of empty space on my bookshelf , than I want a clear surface on my nightstand? The end result? 8 boxes of books for the friends of the library book sale, 2 boxes to share with local ministers, tidy bookshelves with a little extra space, and some old friends rediscovered.
Another outcome- I did not go to the book sale last fall. The process of tidying up my books reminded me that having stuff is actually a lot of work. It takes up space, it takes up time. We live in a time and place where we can have stuff delivered to our door in 24 hours if we choose. It’s really easy to get new stuff. As a wise soul once said “we’re really good at getting stuff, but we’re not really good at having stuff” How often do we really know what we have, and why we have it?
Ever since her house flooded and much of her stuff was ruined and mildewed, my sister has been putting a lot of care and attention into reducing the stuff in her life. She enjoys all the space that emerges when it’s not full of stuff. She asks Marie Kondo’s question “does this bring me joy” and ends up with great bags of donations to the local thrifty shoppers store.
For whatever reason, I’m on the other end of the spectrum. Perhaps there’s just a lot more stuff that brings me joy. Not just the dresses my Gramma made by hand for me and my sister when we were kids, and 40 years of diaries, but games my son played as a child, and too many cozy sweaters, and yes walls and walls covered with books. I love knowing that if a family of 6 needed a place to stay on a cold, cold night we’d have blankets and pillows for all of them. Not surprisingly I’m the family archivist. I’m the one who has Gramma’s college scrapbook, and the records my father made.
My sister’s house has big open spaces; our house has furniture on every wall. My drawers are so full it’s often hard to find things, much less close them. Hers are orderly and there’s always room to put things away. Both of us are very concerned about waste. We both compost and recycle, and trade tips about how to avoid plastic wrap. We both have been thinking a lot lately about what we have and why we have it, with very different outcomes.
As a congregation, we have stuff too and it takes some diligence to know what we have and why we have it. At least once a year the library here at the church gets so full of newly donated books that books start overflowing the shelves. That’s why a few years ago we created a library policy- we decided that our library would focus on books that were useful to church leaders right now, and we would also be an archive for historic UU books, which you can’t get at the Sayre public library.
What, then, to do with the books we are ready to release? Whereas Marie Kondo talks joyfully about filling garbage bags with clutter, as an environmentalist I cringe. If I fill up 8 boxes of books that no longer bring me joy, I feel strongly that I still have a responsibility to those books. The highest use for a book that no longer brings me joy, is to be used by someone else to whom it brings joy.[i] If old books are beyond use, they could be upcycled into art, or journals (there’s lots of this on Etsy)[ii] If it is ground up to pulp it can be made into new paper, that’s a lower purpose, but anything is better than keeping it out of landfill, where it’s of no use to us or the earth. On the other hand, if something lingers forgotten in the back of a closet, it’s not helping anyone either. The highest purpose for anything is to use it.
Our church archives seem to be multiplying like rabbits. When I First got here the archives was 2 cardboard boxes under the office desk, and now it’s a tall metal cabinet overflowing with documents. And I believe we have a responsibility to and for this stuff. Having been kept for 20 or 40 or 200 years, they can no longer be replaced with a run to the store. That’s why it’s so important that we regularly take time to ask “what do we own, and why do we own it?” Whenever the history club sits up there sorting through the archives, we always find new pieces to the story of Universalism in our Valley and beyond. But we have agreed that it’s not our job to store all of it forever, but rather to be stewards of it, which might mean offering some or all of these documents to a local historical society, or the UU libraries at Harvard or Meadville Lombard. This is more than altruism, this is a trust that we don’t have to hold everything ourselves. We will do our part by holding the archives we are called to hold, and trust others to hold the traditions and the relics that are important to the wider community.
One reason I have more stuff than my sister is that I feel a calling to preserve our traditions and history, even the parts that don’t bring me joy, even the parts that aren’t useful right now. In the same way that many of us store or off season clothes for the return of summer or winter, we store some things knowing that even if we don’t need them today, there may come a time when we, or another generation, may be glad we saved it. I was on a tour of the Cornell observatory the other night, and in one of the glass cases was a sextant, the beautiful old brass tool that sailors used to guide their way by the stars. The tour guide explained that while these have gone unused for many years, the newest generation of sailors in the navy are being trained to use them again, because while GPS could be hacked by a foreign government or interrupted by a natural disaster, the sextant technology is unaffected by such modern problems. [iii]
It would be easy to slip into thinking like a museum, as we try to be good stewards of all the cool old stuff we have. But a church is not its stuff, beautiful and old as it might be. A church is the living spirit moving in the world, is a beloved community, living ethically and growing spiritually and serving together. The first question we have to ask ourselves before we can answer “what do we have and why do we have it” is what are we for? And what do we need to do that? We could do all of that in someone’s living room downloading hymns on our phones.
The biggest stuff we have, as a congregation, are our two buildings. We have this building, built in 1850 by the Athens Universalists. It was sold in 1949 by Universalists who could no longer use it, and loved and cared for decades by the Christian Scientists. In the 1990s we bought it back, seeking the comforts of indoor plumbing and heat. It makes sense that as a congregation who spends so much of our energy and care on hospitality, community and service, that we would decide we needed a building with a working kitchen, heat, running water, and a social hall to achieve that mission. And now that we have all the amenities of modern life, this building alive with use, a building living its purpose many days each week.
We also have the Old Historic Sheshequin meeting house, with its beautiful architecture and have recently been asking ourselves what we have and why we have it. A team went over to Sheshequin a year back and walked room by room to see the historic treasurers, and also to see what needed repair. We had a big meeting with neighbors and historical society members to talk about the Sheshequin building and asked “does it bring us joy?” and the answer was a resounding yes. But we have to ask- do we need 2 buildings to fulfill our mission of serving lovingly, living ethically and growing spiritually? Not particularly. So why do we continue to invest our money, time and care into the building? I think it might be because we believe the building has its own calling, its own purpose.
My neighbors across the street have an electric mower. It’s really cool. When my own mower broke, I asked if I could borrow it. I told them I was thinking of buying one just like theirs to replace it. They offered to let me just use theirs, rather than let it sit unused in their storage shed most hours of the week. And so for the past 3 years we have used it together. It makes me wonder. Who else needs our buildings? Could being stewards of that Sheshequin building means not only fixing the leaks, and preserving it for future generations, but also finding partners and neighbors who might share in its use? Is there some higher calling that building has right now?
I grew up in a family where Gramma’s tea cups were kept in a glass cabinet where they were safe. How different the cup in today’s story- where each use added to the meaning of that family heirloom. I would argue that the highest use of our old stuff as a church is not to save it on a shelf for our grandchildren, but to bring our treasures out where we can use and enjoy them together.
This isn’t really a sermon about books, or teacups or buildings. Its about knowing what we have and why we have it. So I end with an exhortation neither to tidy up, nor to store things up for the future, but with an opportunity for reflection. As we begin 2019, this is a great time to consider- what am I ready to let go of in my life, and what things have I been saving for this very moment.
I invite you to pause for a moment of silent meditation:
What things are you holding on to?
Do these things bring you joy?
Is there anything you’d like to let go of in the new year?
Is there anything you’d like to take out of storage, to enjoy and to treasure?
[i] Environmental architect and designer Bill McDonough first introduced me to the idea that to reduce waste, materials should be used at their highest possible use. He was talking about industrial plastics and materials, but the same applies to the stuff in our homes or in our church. If a sweater can be worn, that is its highest use. If a ripped sweater can be mended, it can return to its highest use. If it is beyond mending, it can be cut up and made into a cozy scarf, whichmight be called “upcycling,” or the yarn pulled out and re-knit, we could call that recycling. If it is ground up to use as stuffing in car seats, that’s down-cycling, but anything is better than keeping it out of landfill,