August 4, 2013 – Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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What Matters to God? A few years ago my family purchased a book called Material World. The book’s collaborators had attempted “to capture, through photos and statistics, both the common humanity of the peoples inhabiting our Earth and the great differences in material goods and circumstances that make rich and poor societies.”* Intending to report more than just numbers, the interviewers also recorded the professed hopes and dreams of these families, asked them what their most prized possessions were, and what they would buy if they had the means. There are pages in this book showing what typical meals and typical toilets look like in different parts of the world. My sons get great laughs out of the depiction of a bathroom in Ethiopia. It’s a tree, standing out in the middle of what looks like a desert.

When this book first came into the house, it was constantly in someone’s hands. Everyone was fascinated by these proud people—some rich according to the world’s standards, some poor, some poorer than poor. The photographers and their crews had worked with each family to set every single thing they owned outside in front of their dwelling—automobiles, animals, clothes, dressers, toys, books, musical instruments, lamps, pots, chairs, guns, linens, radios, computers, candles, phones, utensils, rugs, tables—every single thing! Recently I was thinking about that book, and wondering aloud—what would we do if the Material World photographers showed up at our door and asked us to move everything out into the yard? What if we had been selected to be in the book? There ensued a highly animated discussion amongst my children. Would they make us actually open toy car cases and get all of the vehicles out? Take musical instruments out of their cases? What about the stuff in the shed and the garage? Daddy’s tractor? The Weed Eater? Should we open the bins of Christmas decorations and take them out? All of the ornaments? Would we have to take out just the clothes in our closets and drawers, or would they want to see the fourteen plastic bins in the basement that hold the hand-me-downs? How about the kitchen? Would we have to take food out of the refrigerator? It would be too embarrassing to bring out the extra toilet paper and put it on the front lawn. Wait a minute—there’s no way all of this would ever fit on the front lawn! Just the list of our possessions was cumbersome.

This little thought exercise served to confront us with a pointed reality—we are a very privileged family, and our affluence is sometimes the cause of spiritual stumbling. We realized that managing the things we own consumes a large amount of our energy, both mental and physical. But the truth is that while we are constantly surrounded by our things, those things are not what make us rich. They are not what make us who we are. We are blessed not because we own a lot, but because we share a lot and mean a lot to each other. My children are growing up with both of their parents in the same house, involved in their lives, and fully engaged in the glorious fray that is family life. My husband and I try to talk face-to-face daily, really communicate with each other. We’ve learned to put down the phones and turn off the TV. We share our challenges, tell each other about the wins, losses, and draws of the day. We frequently remind our children how to care for possessions with an attitude of proper stewardship. We do not tolerate greed or obsession. People must always be placed ahead of things. Showing patience with other family members is more important than exerting your rights of ownership. Keeping peace in our house sometimes means getting rid of things that cause contention. Owning things, no matter how nice or how many, does not fill the space inside you that yearns for love, that yearns for God. What matters to God is that our family is not just an association of people that store their belongings within the same four walls. We do not let our possessions limit who we are. We use our talents and resources to further the cause of Christ on earth. We let our relationship with Him and His Church define and refine us. If we ever do put everything out on the lawn, maybe I can sneak out a YARD SALE sign. Just don’t anyone sell the extra toilet paper.

*Quote from the Introduction to Material World, A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel. First published in the United States in 1994.

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