Love Life Live Advent – 4th December – Where did all this stuff come from?

…and more to the point, how can I get it to go away?

In August this year we moved house. But we didn’t just move house, we moved continents. And jobs. Just for a year.  But given that there was no way we could afford to put our whole 4-bedroom vicarage worth of accumulated stuff in storage, we had to downsize. We started downsizing about eight months before we left. We stopped replacing broken items, we ruthlessly combed our wardrobes for clothes we didn’t really wear (enough to populate a whole charity shop, I think!), we gave away the toys that the children had grown out of, and we thought we’d done quite well.

Then it came to actually moving. The removal people came and estimated how many boxes we’d need, and we laughed. ‘We haven’t got that much stuff!’ we said. We were wrong. We filled many, many boxes. Dozens. We asked Emmaus to come and take away all the furniture we didn’t have room for, a friend kindly took two van loads (yes, van loads) of stuff to the tip for us, and then on the day we moved out we still ended up with enough for two trips to the charity shop and enough bin bags of absolute rubbish that my poor parents ended up making six more trips to the tip for us after we’d gone…..

Where did it all come from? How and why on earth were we sharing our house with such a huge amount of stuff that we didn’t need?  And if we hadn’t been moving abroad,  would we have simply carried on living with it, accumulating more and more, until we finally couldn’t move at all?

And why, as I sit here in our rented house thousands of miles away, can I see piles of stuff on every surface? We only brought a suitcase each, how can we possibly be creating clutter so quickly and effortlessly?  Especially as come July we know we’ll be packing our lives into one suitcase each again to come home!

I am getting more and more certain that clutter is the only thing now that ever gets created ex nihilo.

I don’t know many people who wouldn’t be nodding their heads at at least some of what I’ve written here. Stuff arrives in most houses most days, and it’s jolly hard to find a way of dealing with it so that it doesn’t take over. Here are some things that I’ve tried, with mixed success:

  • Have a recycling bag/box/container easily accessible so that if you see something that can be recycled, you can put it in there straight away with little or no effort (step two of this is to actually empty the recycling into the wheelie bin, of course, before it overflows….).  You may need recycling bins in every room if you’re anything like us.
  • Have a box/bag/container near the front door marked ‘Charity shop’ and put in it anything that’s finished with but good enough for someone else to want.  When you next go into town or get a genuine charity bag through the door, it’ll be easy to make sure your stuff gets to a new home.
  • On that subject, if you have children, get them into the habit of telling you when they have grown out of clothes or toys and putting them straight into the charity shop container by the door.
  • Whenever you tidy up, think about whether each item you’re putting away is needed (and if you have trouble fitting it in the cupboard or drawer, earmark that cupboard or drawer for next time you have time to do a proper sort out, as in today’s Love Life Live Advent action.

It can be hard to throw things away.  The best advice I got when we were preparing for our big move was rather than trying to decide what to get rid of, I should decide what I absolutely had to keep.  It really concentrated the mind, and was strangely liberating.  It was amazing what we found we could live without.  We no longer have a television.  We do not have any of our CDs.  We only have a small proportion of our books (but yes, the rest are all in storage waiting for us when we get back – there are limits to what I’ll say goodbye to!).  We have one of something instead of ten of them.  We are living less cluttered lives than we were.

But yes, we still have ‘stuff’ and I am still hopeful that by the time we return to the UK next year we’ll have better learned how to live without that, too.

Tidying a shelf or drawer is a microcosm of what you do when you have to downsize. It’s a chance to do some good things:

  • You can make some space in a room that can become beautiful, calm, or useful.
  • You can start to work out what’s rubbish and what’s good, and what’s rubbish to you but gold to someone else, and both you and they will benefit from transferring ownership!
  • You can find things that have long been lost, and enjoy them all over again.
  • You can work out what really matters – what you actually need, not just what’s accumulated around you.

In the Christmas Story, the Holy Family unexpectedly have to up sticks and journey to their ancestral town,and then later had to flee for their lives to Egypt.  They would have had far less luggage than we had when we moved. They would have had to think so carefully about what they really couldn’t live without, and take only those things. Across the world, millions of people live like that every day, displaced by natural disaster and conflict.

So, finally, some prayerful thoughts as you clear your shelf:

Lord Jesus, you came into the world with nothing
save the love of your family
and your love for the world,
help me to cherish the things that matter,
and sit lightly to the rest.

Lord Jesus, across the world
some live in plenty, and some in poverty,
may the goods that I have be shared more justly,
and may the giving bring freedom
to me, to those in need, and to your world.

Lord Jesus, my mind is full
with clutter of all kinds,
speak your peace into the stresses of the season,
and focus my heart on the story of your coming,
so that I will have room for you.

Lord Jesus,
Bless this bin and those who work hard to process my rubbish,
Bless these donations, and all the giving and receiving this Christmas,
Bless this clear space,
in its emptiness, let it bring calm,
and if it is filled, let it be with things
that will bring happiness and wholeness
to all in this house.

Love Life Live Lent Monday of Week 2: Be more creative

When I searched for the #livelent hashtag today to see what creative things everyone had been doing, the first tweet I read was from someone who was finding the call to be creative a real challenge, and I wondered for a moment whether there might actually be a whole bunch of people for whom “being more creative” would feel far more challenging than many of the other challenges posed by the Love Life Live Lent actions.

And, I wondered, if that were the case, why?  Why do so many people find the idea of being creative intimidating, or difficult?

Now, I consider myself to be a pretty creative person: I draw, I paint, I make things, I sing, I write music…   none of them remarkably well, but but well enough for my own enjoyment and that of others (or so they tell me!) and well enough to be ‘useful’ as part of what I bring to priestly ministry here.

It pains me to hear so many people telling me that they are “not creative” or that they “can’t sing” or “can’t draw”.  Especially if they shy away from having a go because they feel that others are “better”.  Or if they’ve been told (as so many of us were at school) that they are no good at music, or drawing, or whatever it is, so they no longer have the confidence to try.  If my own competence has ever prevented anyone from trying, then I repent of it here and now!

Because creativity isn’t about perfection, it’s about process. Someone quoted to me the other day (and I’ve no idea who originally said it) that “there is no such thing as a finished poem, only an abandoned poem.” In other words, works of art are not ever finished to perfection, but are merely taken as far as we can take them.  How they are completed is very much up to the person who hears them or sees them.  We may not take a brush to an Old Master, or tinker with the words of a Shakespeare play, but through our own hearing and looking, we help to continue the creative process that the painter or sculptor or writer began. There comes a moment when the artist or writer sets their work free, relinquishes control over it and lets it come of age, making its own way in the world, to be read, or studied, or glanced at, or peered at, or touched and examined and enjoyed or hated by anyone who chooses to engage with it.

That moment is a hard one.  But it is one that all who create things share with our creator God, who, after all, made a universe not to keep under his own control, but to set free.  What a risk.  But, while the earth is still not “finished”, it has not, unlike in the quotation about the poem, been “abandoned”.  God did not publish this world and then sit back, lamenting the way in which we have failed to understand his masterwork, and ruined his perfect artistry.  Rather, the author has stepped back into the work of art time and time again, in smaller ways or in larger ways, shaping the creative process from within, and inviting us to do the same.  God’s creativity is dynamic and participatory and collaborative,  risky, and generous.

We may marvel at God’s creative power expressed in the beauty of a sunset, or a humming bird in flight, or sunlight on water.  We may shake our head in amazement at the extraordinary risk of the Big Bang at the beginning of time, and the movement of tectonic plates shifting continents and oceans.  But we may equally take issue with God’s chosen process for creating and recreating the world: can it be right that the same process that brought the shape of land and ocean into being and made it possible for life to flourish on this earth are also responsible for the devastating power of earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and droughts?

How can our own creativity possibly mirror this, and would we want it to?

For me, and I speak of someone who others call “creative”, there is great comfort and consolation in the notion that what I make and write and draw do not have to be finished products.  My least favourite moment in the booklets that I’ve written for publication is that moment (and I know there has to be one) when I say to the publisher, “here it is, it’s finished”.  Perhaps that’s why I enjoy the fact that a blog is inherently temporary, dynamic and provisional.

When I create, I create not for all time, but for this particular time.  My hymns aren’t for posterity, they’re for now.  My paintings aren’t for all time, they’re capturing a moment, and will last as long as people think they’re worth looking at.  The soft toys I make for my children are not designed to last a lifetime, but to satisfy an urge to cuddle right now (the latest was a soft toy maggot made out of a sock, which, although well loved at the moment, will probably have a shortish shelf life, and that’s OK).

We may not all be creating things that are designed to last, but we genuinely can create things which are of the moment, which are about the process rather than the end product, which value the time and the emotional energy involved and stop short of judging what we have done against some external aesthetic criteria.


And if you’re still not convinced that what you make isn’t beautiful enough to be worthy of our creator God, have a good look at this.  It’s a blobfish.


Ash Wednesday – a Love-Life-Live-Lent-flavoured sermon

It’s not mess…

There was an advert a few years ago for Persil automatic.  It was on TV and on billboards everywhere, so most of you will probably have seen it.  It features a film of children happily painting a wall in splashes of multicoloured paint.  Inevitably, more of the paint gets on their clothes, their hands and faces, and on each other, than on the wall.  The captions read “It’s not mess, it’s creativity, it’s not mess it’s learning,” and so on.

An Ash Wednesday service is a messy one: it involves marking our foreheads with the sign of the cross in a very messy mixture of ash and oil.  This service is messy because we are: sin is a messy business, and the ash reminds us of all the mess that we make of our own lives, of other people’s lives and of this world.  If a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, then the ash cross is the reverse: an outwards and visible sign of an inward and invisible lack of grace. We sign ourselves with this messy mix of ash and oil because all of us are in a mess.  It helps us be honest about the disparity between what we appear to be and what we feel we are.  Many of us may sometimes feel uncomfortable with the respect that people give us – that we don’t quite match up to the person people think we are – the person we want to be.  When people praise us we may feel, ‘if only they knew…’   So the cross of ash helps us reconcile the person we feel we are with the person that others see.  It helps us remember that God sees us as we are – the good stuff and the not so good stuff – and he still loves us, even having seen the truth. Lent is a time for us to learn to see ourselves just as God does: as beloved sinners.

But the washing powder  advert puts an altogether more positive slant on mess, which is worth exploring.

One of the captions reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s creativity’.

When we receive the ash cross on our forehead, we hear the words, ‘remember that you are dust’.  And so with the ash perhaps we can recall that wonderful picture of God’s creativity in Genesis 2, lovingly molding the earth into human beings, and breathing life into what was dry and lifeless.  And so as we receive the ash on our foreheads we can give thanks that God can still breathe new life into us even in the dirt and dust and deathliness of our sin.

One of the key themes of Love Life Live Lent is being creative and imaginative – whether that’s making cakes and sharing them or trying something you’ve never done before: when we do so, we reflect something of our creator God, and we give a little bit of life to the world as well as becoming a little more alive ourselves.

Another of the captions reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s pride’. Pride is perhaps not quite the right word.  But the sign of the cross that we carry is certainly not something that we are ashamed of.  At our baptism, Christ claimed us as his own, and so we are glad to be marked with his sign of the cross.  Because Jesus took the shame of death on a cross and transformed it into hope and victory, he can also transform the shame of our sinfulness into the triumph over it.

Many of the Love Live Live Lent actions are also about our own identity as human beings and as beloved children of God; learning to be ourselves, making the most of who we are, and giving thanks for the way that we have been blessed – even if it’s just for the food we eat.

The TV advert ends with one of the children accidentally on purpose painting another’s nose – at first she looks cross, but then starts to smile.  The caption reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s forgiveness’.  When we have the sign of the cross on our foreheads, we are a walking testimony to the fact that everyone can be forgiven.

Again, within Love Life Live Lent there are actions that bring real peace and reconciliation – between us and other people, and between humanity and the earth.  Ash Wednesday’s action is to say sorry for something we have done wrong: it may be enough simply to say sorry to God, or it may be that there are others who need to hear it too, and we may also need to acknowledge and repent of the harm we’ve done to ourselves, for sin has a habit of harming the sinner, too.

We are messy people.  The messes we make in our lives are real messes.  They are dark and dirty, and if left unchecked they will be the death of us.  And God does not condone our mess.  It is not that God does not mind about sin – on the contrary, it grieves him that we hurt and abuse ourselves and others, that we deface and corrupt the very air, water and land of this world he has given us. We take heart, and take courage, because we believe in a God who already knows the secrets of our hearts.

Guilt is a prison with sin as the bars, trapping us inside our past mistakes, but true repentance allows us to receive the forgiveness that God always offers, and it may even start to rebuild relationships that we had given up on.  Forgiveness is just as real as sin – and indeed is stronger. Life is stronger than death, light is stronger than darkness, and love is stronger than hate.

The actions in LLLL are all about the triumph of life over death, of light over darkness, of love over hatred.  Just as sin harms the sinner, so random acts of kindness, creativity and love can help repair the wounds on the soul.  This Lent, let us ask God to breathe life into our dust, that we may live lives of love, for our own sake, for each other’s sake, and for the sake of God’s world.