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Hallo again to all.

Recently some dear friends needed to move from their home of many decades into a much smaller -- though very lovely -- place. During their preparation for this move, we sometimes helped sift and sort through the cumulus, participating from time to time in the decisions about what to keep, what to discard, what to donate, and what to sell.

A 19th-century pianoPerhaps you've experienced the phenomenon of needing to shed belongings. Perhaps you've moved, or you've helped a parent or relative move to a smaller place. You know it can be heartbreaking, even when it is mandatory. Every move forces us to make decisions about the objects and artifacts that we bring along. During our friends' recent move, we found ourselves thinking about the role that belongings play in our sense of identity.

The nomads of Old Testament times had little to shed: they never owned anything that they couldn't carry easily on the back of a camel. We'd guess that their concept of 'ownership' was a bit different from ours, treating most objects as though they belonged to God, not as personal possessions.

At the other end of the material-goods spectrum, it's not uncommon to read news reports of a socialite or motion-picture star bringing a dozen large trunks on a weekend trip to the seashore. Everyone seems to have a sense of how much 'stuff' they have to bring along with them in order to be who they need to be. Our belongings don't just provide comfort and utility; they serve to define us and to give us tangible links to our past.

When it comes to moving into much smaller quarters, the decisions seem usually to be a mix of the pragmatic — what might I need?— and the symbolic — what objects do I need to keep around me? Family pictures are usually held holy, but even modern nomads manage to collect a few symbolic objects that take up space. Size matters: an heirloom necklace is easy to keep, even if it hasn't been worn in half a lifetime. But think about an heirloom piano, marinated in the memory of a long-dead and dearly-loved ancestor: somehow it might at first seem that sellingA jar of pickles that piano would be like dishonouring the memory of its donor of blessed memory. Or perhaps it wouldn't, which is why this process is difficult and time-consuming. We need to go through the exercise of deciding whether there are more-practical (but equally symbolic) means of retaining our sense of who we are and where we came from than by hauling around wagons loaded with material objects.

We note that a similar phenomenon takes place in the church. It's not so much the moving of a congregation or diocesan staff from one building to another — the baggage is usually not physical but psychological. (The language of pop psychology even uses the word 'baggage', as in 'She carries a lot of baggage from her difficult childhood and oft-broken heart.') Like all long-lived organisations, the church accretes symbolic baggage with the passage of time. Through the years, there have been so many changes to liturgy, vestments, music, architecture, and assumptions. The old versions, often kept alive for a generation or two, can either be brought along as baggage, or can become chapters in history books.

Our church is said to be based on Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Scripture remains constant, of course, though each new year can bring a deeper or even different understanding of it. Reason seems purely nomadic, bereft of baggage. It's Tradition that can fill a dozen large trunks and want one more. With each passing century, we develop a hundred more years of tradition, and after a while it's just not possible to bring it all along. We must discern the difference between honouring the past and pickling it. We owe it to our church not to pickle everything, but we also have a debt of honour to the traditions that time and circumstance have demanded that we leave behind.

See you next week.

Cynthia's signature
Brian's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 3 July 2005

A thin blue line
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