The Problem with Purging

These last few days / couple of weeks, my life has been occupied with caring for my wife and newly born son.  It has been a tremendous shift in many ways, but the full impact of the reality of my status of FATHER has yet to occur.  The dynamics and feelings that are engendered by this change are subjects for another day.

Today however, I’ve been working on the ongoing project of consolidating my and my wife’s life.  Our marriage and subsequent merging of households means that we have an abundance of … stuff, and not enough room for all of it.  Of course since we’re both “full-time Christian workers,” we travel a bit lighter than some in the “stuff” department, but there is still quite a lot of accumulated goodies from the nearly four-score years of our combined lifespan.  Now we have a baby, and baby has his own “stuff” which also takes up room; room that we don’t have.

The commonest solution for this curse of accumulation is to buy more storage bins, find more places to cram things, and inevitably to move to larger quarters.  That’s the American way!  However we both are convinced that our modestly sized home in the inner city has more than enough room for 3 people and their “stuff” to live comfortably, and neither of us wishes to get into the habit of “building bigger barns” so to speak, which leaves us with but one option:

We purge.

That is we have to make choices about what will stay and what will go and just how many copies of Leading Across Cultures by Dr. James Plueddemann is enough for one household (if you think that’s odd, don’t ask about her book on Burmese culture, my Western Civ textbooks or the multiple copies of Too Busy Not to Pray that I’ve always been too busy to read).

The problem with purging though is not just in weighing the relative utility of whatever stuff we’ve happened to acquire over our years of life and ministry.  It is that so many of the decisions are fraught with emotional content.  Why have I waited so long to get rid of the set of Chinaware I found for $12 in the back corner of some musty Salvation Army store and have only used two or three times?  What is it about the long disused winter coat or formal gown that travels from home to home growing ever more out of fashion and yet ever less dispensable as the years wear on?

It would be easy to attribute such acquisition to a materialistic approach to life, but in reality each of these items, marginally useful though they might be, touch keenly on what have been termed the mystic chords of memory.  Dining from those dishes, gazing at that gown, touching the spine of that book which never quite makes it to the bedside reading pile all transport us back to moments in time, seasons in life, that were and are precious to us.  They may not perhaps be profoundly significant, nor even memorable moments, but it is the succession of such moments that make up our lives.  Washing that particular set of dishes reminds me not only of their purchase, but of the visit to staff colleague in Florida and the dishes they had which I liked, and the struggles of their young marriage with wanting children but being unable at the time to conceive.  Seeing that book takes me back to seemingly endless conversations with my campus minister about the importance of prayer and the devotional life.  To rid myself of these simple objects seems to be more than just making room for the NEW and IMPROVED.

Besides all this, that we have so much is itself a striking reminder of the impermanence with which our modern / post-modern lives have become infused.  There was a time when choosing the china pattern for ones dishes was of great importance, for those dishes would travel with you throughout life — through Thanksgivings, Christmases, Easters, weddings, and funerals.  They would be the never fail companions to every moment of significance in ones life until in old age or at death they would be passed down, broken gravy dish and all, to whatever child or grandchild had need or sentiment enough to want them.

Now of course dishes are just dishes — made, bought and sold, used up and discarded, like so much of life and so many of its people.  Grandma’s china ends up gracing the back aisle of a dusty second hand store while the local BIG BOX retailer sells antiquity in a box, made in China and shipped without sentiment straight to your door where it waits in boxes for the necessary purge of the old to make room for the new.