When my 92-year old mother died two months ago she left a house with four bedrooms, a large sewing room, a large laundry-storage room, an attic, a barn, a large storage shed, and a cat. The cat quickly joined the herd at my brother’s house, but the rest of mom’s possessions now sit waiting to be dispatched in some way.
Years ago, mom expressed an interest in angels, so her seven children began giving her angel gifts: angel mugs, statues, shirts, pictures, jewelry, and ornaments. These angels are everywhere, along with other gifts given her. With seven children, twelve grandchildren, and a growing number of great grandchildren, photos abound. There are also pictures that go back the other way—stoic Swedish parlor portraits, WW2 candids snapped of dad pretending he was having a good time overseas, and black and white pics of mom’s own siblings and in-laws going back as many generations as cameras have existed.
My father collected Avon bottles (he could never say no to any salesperson) so we have shelves full of perfume and bath oils. There is even a bottle of Chanel No 5 dad sent home from Paris in 1944 that seemed so special mom just couldn’t bring herself to use it. Mom was a champion seamstress, so there are boxes of cloth going back to the Kennedy administration, as well as beautiful lace and embroidered linens from her own mother. Clothes—homemade and store bought—fill closets all over the house.
In later life, my mom took up woodworking, making small items for the kids and even some small furniture pieces. These join a couple larger, more substantial antiques made by the Swedish side of the family. On these rest magazines, nic-nacks, candles, lamps, vases….
You get the idea. There is “stuff” galore, some of which meant a lot to my mom, some that might mean something to one or more of her children, and a whole lot that doesn’t mean anything to anybody. The next months of my life will be spent helping my siblings sort and dispatch what remains of mom’s “stuff”. Alas, she left no instructions.
The coming work of sorting my mom’s possessions makes me think of the situation older churches find themselves in. As they seek to revitalize, they often find themselves stymied by discussion about “stuff”, often beautiful things given to them or built for them in decades past. Articles no longer needed but given by some ancient saint can become the object of a tug-of-war between nostalgia and reality. Old hymnals, hundreds of chairs, and old technology take up storage space that would be great to use for new purposes. Artwork—some nice but out-of-date and other that can only be described as bad in any era—take up wall or storage space because “Mrs. So-and-So” gave it. Books people brought to the church after their own parents died fill church libraries despite the archaic language, questionable theology or total uselessness of some of them to a modern ministry. Shepherds’ robes and the remnants of crafts from past children’s programs bulge from closets. Musical scores no longer sung and anthems for 8-part choirs languish unused, unlikely to ever be used again. In many churches, bronze plaques adorn everything nailed down and much that isn’t, indicating to whom the congregation owes an eternal debt of gratitude. Is getting rid of the item a rejection of the person? (No.)
A friend recently offered some wise words about sorting through the belongings of the dead. “Be glad for what it meant to your mother, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it now needs to mean something to you.”
Perhaps you know a church in such a situation. If that might be a church near you, I would suggest a show of confidence in God’s provision for your beloved congregation: clean house. Say a word of gratitude for the art that Mrs. So-and-So gave in the 1930’s or 70’s but is now not needed, then give it to someone who wants it or throw it away. Have a wooden chair burning hot dog roast. Clear out the Sunday School rooms and pray about the space and children’s ministry. Then redesign, paint in bright colors, and buy furniture and equipment needed for modern classrooms. If there is a use for the present furniture and equipment, by all means, use it, but don’t let sentimentality hold you back.
If tempers flare, look first at the interpersonal dynamics. Figure out what the attachment to “stuff” is, and honor those attachments that make sense and have a godly purpose. Detach yourselves from feelings of ownership of “stuff” simply because it has been around for so long or was given by someone you knew. Look for old things that have perhaps been buried and could be brought back into circulation, perhaps an antique communion service or cross. See how the old mixes with the new. The object isn’t to throw out the past, but to allow the past to serve your future well.
Remember that you are not alone. I will think of you fondly as I sort through boxes of angels, old photographs, and woodworking tools and then return to Michigan to take inventory of my own possessions. In the meantime, let me know if you need any Avon bottles.