Unattached: A Reflection by Karen Bell

How many of you are familiar with the classic George Carlin routine on stuff? Carlin jokes that “all you need in life is a place for your stuff. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it… And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you’re saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore!”

So how about you? Are you a purger or a pack rat?  I’m a purger. If I no longer have use for something I have no qualms about donating, recycling or pitching it.  My family members are pack rats. I think it may be genetic.  My in-laws, whom I absolutely adored, sent my husband a box of items dating from his childhood when they moved out of their longtime Michigan home. It included this: a 12x9x4 inch thick dictionary weighing 10 pounds!  Even in the age of the internet, my husband still can’t part with it. He and my children are not fans of the KonMari method.  I, on the other hand, fully embrace the idea of saying goodbye to something that no longer sparks joy for me. I prefer to surround myself with things that serve me well in the current moment and the rest is just clutter, but for my family, having those objects make them feel more at ease.  

However, I have to confess that I am on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to traveling.  I over pack.  I have to plan for every contingency and weather possibility.  Dressy clothes and casual clothes and lots of layers just in case; rain gear and sun gear and shoes for walking and shoes for dinner out. And I have to bring my own pillow, of course, because the pillows at the hotel will be either too thick or too thin or will aggravate my allergies. Oh, and I need multiple books because what if I finish one? Honestly, I would pack for a weekend in New York City as if the place were some remote hinterland without a retail store in sight!  When I travel, I want to be surrounded by creature comforts from home.

So it is with horror that I consider the moment in today’s Gospel when Jesus instructed his Apostles to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick.  A walking stick?!  That’s it??  Are you kidding me???  What about a water bottle and some snacks?  Nope!  No food. How about a few bucks to buy some water and snacks then? Nope, no money either. What about a change of clothes, I mean, it gets pretty dusty in those parts, right? Sorry, no second tunic allowed. Is Jesus for real?  How can the Apostles possibly do their job on the road if they don’t have what they need?

Yet the Apostles don’t seem to question the plan at all.  They go off in pairs, preaching conversion of heart. I’m certain they faced heat, hunger, thirst, blistered feet, filthy clothing, cramped and uncomfortable accommodations, doors closing in their faces by wary and unwelcoming strangers, and all sorts of perils along the road. And yet…they worked miracles! Despite their rough existence, having literally nothing, no single possession but the clothes on their backs and a walking stick, they performed extraordinary deeds.

So Jesus apparently knew exactly what He was doing. The Apostles, though poor in earthly goods, enjoyed the riches of his grace that he lavished upon them, as St. Paul writes. They needed nothing else. Possessions, when you really think about it, would have been an unwelcome distraction.  Money would have made them prey to thieves. Extra clothes and other items for the journey would have bogged them down and required a storage place each night. Traveling right meant traveling light.

I’d like to introduce Dave. Dave just celebrated his 70th birthday. He started off on a trajectory as an extremely gifted violinist in his youth until mental illness sent him down a less conventional path.  Dave has been homeless for approximately 40 years.  For the last five of those, he has lived under the highway in Brattleboro, VT.  Dave refused to accept offers for permanent housing on countless occasions over the years, whether through family or the state.  He doesn’t want that kind of charity and has no desire to live that kind of traditional life. Dave will work in exchange for a spot in your barn to sleep, or will do odd jobs for you as long as you don’t pay him more than $6 an hour, just enough money for him to get a cup of coffee and a small meal. Dave is very mindful of his homesite in Brattleboro.  He never lights a fire, no matter how cold it gets.  He continuously cleans up the litter tossed from cars speeding by on the bridge overhead.  He often spends his time writing poetry and composing music.  During the pandemic, when the library where Dave used to go to stay warm was closed to the public, friends Dave had made in town ensured he was safe from the bitter cold of the Vermont winter. The people of Brattleboro keep an eye on him, including the local police force.  Dave cares for the town, and the town cares for Dave and clearly, God cares for Dave.  Dave willingly embraces a Franciscan level of simplicity and poverty. We might call Dave crazy, but God calls Dave “my son.”  

Why do we believe that our success depends entirely on our available resources? Why are we afraid to trust more thoroughly in God’s providential care as the Apostles did or as Dave experiences? If our hands are empty, will God not fill them with love? 

It was and still is a countercultural act of discipleship to free ourselves from possessions and the illusion of wealth and power they provide. If we can keep paring down, keep stripping away the external elements that we use to define our lives, perhaps we will get closer to the core of who we are and God’s purpose for us.  Of course, embracing worldly poverty is not an easy task.  We who live such lives of privilege feel akin to the rich man of the Gospel who went away sad when Jesus told him that all that was left to do was to give away everything and come follow Him.  Not only is it hard to divest but there’s simply no common sense in chucking everything we have. 

Jesus did not seem to be using common sense when he sent the Apostles out with nothing but a walking stick. The Apostles did not seem to be using common sense when they followed his instructions but they trusted there was hidden wisdom in it. Sometimes God asks us to do things that don’t seem at all sensible; these ideas appear risky, foolhardy, misguided. But God insistently whispers, “Trust me. I got you.” If we take the risk, we may be pulled closer to where God is. And maybe, like the Apostles, being blessedly unencumbered will allow us to work miracles.

I’d like to leave you with three questions to ponder: 

Can you remember a time when you were certain you didn’t have what you needed and yet everything miraculously came together? Can you identify God’s providential care in that event? 

Is there something that you are holding onto that might be a barrier to God calling you to deeper discipleship? 

Might God be asking you to do something that defies common sense? What would you have to do to embrace that path?

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