“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,
and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Mtt 6:26)
Several years ago, I picked up a copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In the unlikely event you haven’t heard of the 2014 best seller, the magical process of “tidying up” is to go through each of your belongings and hold them in your hands asking if they spark joy.
“Does this shirt spark joy?” “Does this spatula spark joy?”
If an item is neither joyful nor useful, it goes. The things that remain serve to create a magical, pared-down tidy existence, where we’re hopefully free to pursue what matters most in harmony with our surroundings.
As a Christian, I believe that the only true Joy is found in Jesus Christ. We believe that God created the world and it was good. It still is. The thing is, we’re not very good at grappling with the incidental pleasures of this goodness. We have a hard time just letting it be, just being thankful.
Jesus Christ is Joy with a capital “J,” but there are also small joys, with a lower case “j,” in the stuff of our lives. This is what I love about Kondo’s approach—it invites us to consider a spirituality of stuff, rather than taking it for granted or pretending it doesn’t matter.
My own ambivalence about this comes out all over around Christmas gift giving. My kids don’t have everything they want, but they experience a level of material glut that was unknown to me when I was their age. My son’s floor is carpeted with stuffed animals—and that’s not counting the 20 of them who sleep in his bed. There is a Puritan woman living in my brain who cannot believe I’m raising such barbarians. She’d rather they, and I, spend the evening in solitary, useful pursuits, like canning applesauce or knitting hats for sailors.
I want to give my children gifts, but I don’t want them to confuse the fun of getting stuff with real joy. Oftentimes, it seems like as soon as one want is satisfied, the next thing creates an even bigger desire. The ancients knew this, too. Psalm 78 nails it: “They ate and were well filled, for you gave them what they craved. But they did not stop their craving, though the food was still in their mouths.” (78:29-30, OSH Psalter)
At the same time, gift giving is fun. It’s gratifying to see someone happy about something you did for them. I want my kids to be good givers and good receivers. The subtlety I’m looking for is a place where we can acknowledge the transience of material pleasure while still being grateful for it. Transient doesn’t have to mean worthless: the Puritan isn’t always right. All of this, too, needs to be kept in context of the wider world. Having stuff doesn’t have to be sinful, but the environmental degradation that attends our patterns of consumption certainly is. We need to find a way to give as global citizens, realizing the true cost of a disposable culture. That’s a year-round job.
This year, my family’s Christmas giving will seek deeper joys as well as transient fun, looking for gifts that are more about experience than ownership. This takes effort: we have still not made good on our October present for our daughter’s birthday of a family horseback trail ride, which seemed like a better idea when we weren’t waking up to frost on the ground. But we can always try again!
We’ll look to where God sparks joy, and try to keep our stuff in perspective. We’ll channel the birds of the air, rather than the Puritans. And maybe someday I’ll learn to knit those hats.
What is your philosophy of Christmas gift-giving?