For years, I pored over magazine spreads and home catalogs, made graph-paper renderings of kitchen plans, and daydreamed of white Shaker cabinets, the perfect sectional sofa, and a sun-drenched window seat. I felt guilty for my materialism, for how much I cared about such superficial things, because I believed that a good Christian shouldn’t (not guilty enough to give up the daydreaming, though).
Forget the “prosperity gospel,” the (rightfully maligned) view that material wealth proves God’s favor. My progressive Christian circles espoused a “simplicity gospel,” whereby your faith could be measured in part by how little you cared about material things. In my 20s, I was the best-dressed person in my edgy coffeehouse church — not because I had money to spend on designer fashions (I didn’t), but because I was one of the few people who bought new clothes at all. In that church culture, new-and-expensive anything was spiritually suspect.
One friend regularly spoke, with bewildered embarrassment, of the $900 chair he had once bought, much as one might recall a teenaged shoplifting incident. “Detachment” was the name of the game; I recall a preacher speaking that word with such precision — de-TACH-ment — that she nearly embodied the unburdened single-mindedness with which we were to approach God, free of material distractions. I squirmed in my tailored black pantsuit and thought guiltily of my apartment, with the new sofabed and armchair that I so loved to look at, sit in, and offer to guests.
I wondered if I would ever love God enough to stop caring so much about things, to stop pining for the attractive, comfortable home of my daydreams.
Transforming this house from a dark, nearly dead eyesore to an inviting space for a growing family has been an experience of everyday resurrection.
Twenty years later, I am no longer pining for the home that I want and don’t have. Not because I’ve learned to love God more and care for things less, but because I now have the home I’ve always wanted. I have had Christian friends who seem perfectly content with mismatched, cheap furniture and kitchens and bathrooms so worn that they never really look clean. I spent years thinking they must inhabit some higher spiritual plane, but now I think they and I just have different tastes. I no longer assume that those who are naturally disinclined to care about the aesthetic of their homes must be closer to God.
Christianity is an incarnational faith, in which God loved and suffered with us in a human body. We encounter God through our hungry, tired, aching, growing, stretching, humming human bodies. An incarnational faith — in which God is not looking down on us from afar but is revealed in the literal stuff of life — requires the opposite of detachment.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, a kindly restorer of antique furniture says, “What’s the nobility in patching up a bunch of old tables and chairs? Corrosive to the soul, quite possibly. I’ve seen too many estates not to know that. Idolatry! Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only — if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things — beautiful things — that they connect you to some larger beauty?”
I need things I can see and touch and hear and taste to begin to know the God who dwells beyond sense and sight.
Actually, I don’t quite have the home I’ve always wanted. I have a husband, three children, a dog and a cat. My dream home was suspiciously catalog-like, with sun streaming in through huge streak-free windows onto pristine wooden floors, free of spilled Cheerios and dog hair wafting into corners, where children always put their belongings away neatly into labeled bins. Learning to live peaceably with people (and animals) who have different priorities and ideas about how we should spend our time and order our space has been one long exercise in hospitality. I have, to my shame, seen how ugly things can get when I care more for what our home looks like and less for the people who live in it. I am still learning that what makes this house my dream house isn’t sparkling cleanliness or perfect order, but how it connects me to the larger beauties of life lived with other imperfect people and a generous God who wants all people to flourish.
So I don’t have a catalog-ready showplace, but I do have a renovated kitchen, with several features designed just for me (I’m only 4 feet 8 inches tall), carefully selected wall colors, and rooms furnished with both comfort and beauty in mind. It took nearly eight years to get here from the uninhabitable wreck that we bought (holes in the roof, vermin living in the open with impunity). Transforming this house from a dark, nearly dead eyesore to an inviting space for a growing family has been an experience of everyday resurrection that points me, again and again, to a resurrection faith and a God capable of bringing life from death.
The material world isn’t a distraction. It’s where we encounter God.
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 I should be more able to know these things about God from reading scripture and attending worship. But I need the things of this world — the mundane things of an imperfect but warm and well-functioning house, along with the feel of a communion wafer on my tongue, the heart-lifting strains of my children’s church choir singing — to help me seek the God who lives in and beyond all things.