“The Red Barn” was three stories of junk and treasure that stood for decades on the campus of Gould Farm, a long-lived residential rehab center in Massachusetts where I volunteered for two years in my early twenties. It had a dirt floor, reeked of mildew and dust, and was crammed with history and potential. If you needed something for your room or cabin, or for an adventure or creative project, you went looking in the Red Barn. And when something was no longer needed, or in the way, or no one knew what to do with it, a work team would come and “put it in the Red Barn.”
I can still see retro tennis rackets, a desk with a drop-lid, a plush but shredded loveseat, yards of old books, bicycles of all ages and sizes, mismatched cross-country skis, piles of clothes, antique egg beaters… piled on the floor, suspended from the ceiling, and hung on the walls.
The Red Barn was torn down a few years ago to make room for a new residential building. (It was probably also a terrible fire hazard.) I wonder where they put stuff, now? I imagine, like most of us, Gould Farmers now throw things away, donate to Goodwill, and buy the stuff they need.
My husband teases me when I take boxes of stuff to Goodwill or clean out a closet because a few weeks later, I tend to discover I need something I’ve gotten rid of. I have to go buy a third loaf pan, another copy of that book, or something-that-looks-like-a- fishing-net for Sunday School since I got rid of that garden netting that sat in our shed for three years.
But the reason we can simplify, declutter, donate, and throw so much away is that we can afford to. We can get rid of extras or things that seem like junk because stuff is pretty cheap and accessible nowadays. Gould Farm was founded in 1913, and like any farm – especially one that survived the Depression – nothing was wasted and very little was thrown away. Houses were simple because people didn’t have much and barns, sheds, and attics were full of stuff that could “come in handy some day.” Now, our lives are overwhelmed with stuff. Stores are full of cheap things made abroad that almost everyone can afford to acquire and accumulate to their heart’s desire.
I don’t mean to condemn decluttering – I’m much happier in a house that’s not overflowing. But it’s a luxury. We pat ourselves on the back if we purge our closets, kitchen drawers, and basements do we think about where all this stuff comes from? Where it goes after we toss or donate it? The reason we have so much of it in the first place?
When I trot old clothes, tchotchkes, and kitchenware over to Goodwill, I feel exhilarated. But I’m not sure I’m living more simply. I may just be exercising a certain degree of wastefulness. When I clean out my home by throwing things away or donating to the Salvation Army, those things are just going to pile and clutter up somewhere else. Places like landfills, waterways, incinerators, and Third World countries. And fussing over household clutter can be a way to distract myself from the more serious junk that’s probably piling up in the corners and drawers of my soul.
What if I spent some time examining how I accumulate so much stuff to begin with? Or planned some strategies to resist the temptation to buy cheap and buy often? What if I sat down and tried to figure out what I was really worrying about, since it’s probably not just the clutter around my house.
Jesus never called us to “live simply,” but he did preach that we shouldn’t worry:
Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? (Matthew 6:25, CEB).
Worrying about clutter can distract us from the real source of our worries – lack of trust that “there is enough,” lack of trust that God’s love undergirds every day of our lives, lack of trust that the kingdom of God is in our midst. Lack of trust that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Romans 8:38-39, CEB)
Not clutter nor untidy closets, not clean or dirty houses, not present or future chaos, or any other mess in our lives, can separate us from love and security in Christ Jesus. True simplicity starts in the heart, downsizing to some household basics of love, trust in God, and humility. And living simply should be done for the sake of the whole world – for the stewardship of all Creation, not just our own homes.
It’s good to declutter your house. It’s better to declutter our world. And whether you declutter or not, don’t let clutter distract you from the kingdom of God.