Finding God in Clutter & Strawberries, Long Walks & Big Rocks

It was 20 years ago, but I still remember exactly how the preacher at my little coffeehouse church in Washington, D.C., pronounced the word at the heart of her message—“detachment.” She put such emphasis on the “ch” and the final “t” that the word became an onomatopoeia, her precise separation of its clipped syllables perfectly illustrating its definition. Detachment, the preacher argued, is a key Christian discipline that keeps us focused on God instead of on all of the messy, complicated, demanding stuff that fills our lives and distracts us from God.

But, I wondered, what if the messy, complicated, demanding stuff that fills our lives is precisely where God is hoping we will find him?

Jesus, of course, regularly recommended detachment—from wealth and possessions (Matthew 6:21: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also), from the demands of others (he often left needy crowds to go off by himself to pray), and even from one’s own family (Luke 14:26: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple).

This is sound theology: We must be vigilant about how possessions and even relationships can get in the way of the abundant life God promises. But while our messy attachments to people, places and things sometimes complicate and distract, they also remind us of who we are and who God is, binding us to this wild, wonderful creation and the One who made it. The Christian faith invites us to practice a radical attachment to God's great gifts of our bodies, our relationships, the natural world, the places that we call home—to the stuff of life. My most significant encounters with God have often been firmly rooted in earth, flesh and object.

In January 1991, I made a three-mile march from the Washington National Cathedral to the Capitol building with other Christians who opposed the imminent Gulf War. Every weary step of that march, made harder by the bone disorder that has left my legs crooked and weak, was a plea to God to lead our nation down a different path. My sneakers striking the road, my muscles gathering into knots that would hurt for days, my shoulders brushing against friends and strangers—these connections of feet to asphalt, muscle to bone and believer to believer were the opposite of detachment. They coalesced into one of the most authentic prayers I have ever offered—a prayer that was purely physical, neither solitary nor spoken.

When my broken, disabled body was transformed by pregnancy and breastfeeding—two of the most radically attached acts in which human beings engage—I received a new understanding of redemption, the idea that God does for us what we are unable to do for ourselves, that God can rescue what has been lost and make whole what has been broken.

When we want to express our love for other people, we often use words, saying "I love you" to our spouse and children every night before bed, or writing a note to someone whose loved one has just died. But what else do we do? We feed them—something that we at St. James's, with our frequent fundraising dinners, lavish coffee hours, Memorial Day strawberry festival, and numerous feeding ministries, including a vegetable garden on our east lawn, are particularly fond of and good at. We love other people by engaging in the most fundamental human act rooted in the physical world—we nourish their bodies with good food.

We are living in a clutter-phobic time, when magazines and home makeover shows feature pristine, minimalist homes as the ideal, entire stores are devoted solely to containers to hide away our possessions, and people make a living by helping other people get organized. We interpret clutter as a sign that we're doing something wrong. I'm all for a clean, ordered home; I never go to bed without getting all the dishes washed up and wiping down the kitchen counters, and I find it hard to work in a messy room. But our obsession with decluttering denies who we are as embodied beings, dependent on stuff of many kinds. "Our clutter can remind us that matter matters," I have written previously, "that the bodies we inhabit and tend, the food we make and eat, the clothes and toys and mementos made or given or used with love can bind us to each other, and to those who came before and come after...Matter matters." Loving other people well requires embracing them along with all the baggage they come with, both figurative and literal; for example, learning to live with our kids' clutter, with the inscrutable artifacts of their daily lives, can be an act of radical hospitality and acceptance.

IMG_0032It's easy to see God reflected in the material world when we're gazing at a breathtaking natural tableau. On our family's recent trip out west, for example, we saw a lot of rocks. (A lot.) The sandstone and cliffs, the hoodoos and arches and flowing water all witnessed to the God who created them—strong, vast, beautiful. It can be harder to see God in the material world that we inhabit every day—our New England landscape so familiar we barely notice it, our yards where the garden always needs weeding and the grass mowing, our houses with their half-finished DIY projects, sticky kitchen floors, and yes, all that clutter. But we can encounter God there too.

While some of us may be lucky enough to have some kind of clear spiritual encounter with God—a vision, a voice—most of us are figuring out this God thing based on less convicting evidence. We read scripture. We worship and converse with other believers. And we look for God in the places and spaces we inhabit. As I wrote for OnFaith about my efforts to create a beautiful home, "I need things I can see and touch and hear and taste to begin to know the God who dwells beyond sense and sight. It took Yosemite’s overwhelming masses of rock to convince me of God’s unmovable, eternal power. My ridiculous delight in how sweetly my children’s toes line up helps me believe that God might delight in me — even when I’m not doing anything particularly brilliant or inspiring. And a home in which I experience so much visceral pleasure — in the feel of a soft wool rug underfoot and the dazzle of light on a cherry tabletop, in giving my children just-right places to hang their coats in the kitchen and read their books under a quilt on the sectional sofa, in a kitchen that accommodates my size and disability so I can more easily make the spaghetti sauce and chocolate cake my family adores — reinforces God’s presence in everything that is good, worthy, and beautiful."

Perhaps the most convincing argument that we're called not to detach from the material world, but to seek and find God right smack dab in the middle of it, is that God, in God's most radical, transformative act, became a human being. God took on a human body, that most needy and messy of things. God ate food, spit in the dirt, allowed Mary to massage his feet with oil (and her hair!), wept and bled and, we presume although it's not all spelled out in scripture, did just about everything that all of us with bodies do.

God's incarnation in Jesus was God's act of radical attachment to us, God's beloved. In that most beloved and quoted verse, John 3:16, we read that, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." God so loved the world. This world. This muddled, complicated, smelly, beautiful, cluttered, dangerous, wondrous, needy, abundant world.

Scripture is full of admonitions to keep our love of this world well ordered, to take care with how we earn and use money, guard vigilantly against the greed and selfishness that tempt us to keep everything for ourselves instead of sharing it, focus our minds and spirits on what God tells us is most important—relationships, generosity, gratitude, love. Some Christians have concluded that the best way to guard against a disordered relationship with the material world is to detach from it. But what if instead of detachment we are called to a radical attachment to this world and all that is in it? To abide in the understanding that we can lose it all—our health, our money, our homes, our beloveds—at any time, and to lavishly embrace and celebrate and love it anyway?

"God saw everything that he had made. And indeed, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31)

Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Her articles, blog posts, book chapters, and books have been published by the Christian Century, GeneWatch Magazine, the New York Times‘s Motherlode blog, OnFaith,Brain, Child Magazine, the Episcopal Cafe, Christianity Today, the Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) Foundation, Virtual Mentor (the American Medical Association’s online journal of ethics), and more. She blogs about faith, family, disability, and ethics at Patheos.