What Are You Hoarding, and Why?

You probably know that "Hoarders" is one of the most intriguing and popular programs on cable TV today.

Well, I must confess that I am a hoarder. Okay, not one of the 3 million compulsive hoarders like those featured on the addictive A&E series. But, like most of those folks, I don't typically hoard items of much value to anyone else.

I have no hidden underground vault filled with gold and rare gems, no personal galleries of original Van Goghs or Monets, although I do have moldering in a closet a few bins of comic books that may or may not be worth a few bucks. I may still have a few copies of Walt Disney's Comics & Stories I read as a wee lad, which often featured the wacky adventures of the pathological wealth-hoarder Uncle Scrooge McDuck, who maintained underground lairs loaded with gold coins he'd occasionally go swimming in.

No, the things I hoard are valuable only to me. They are personal treasures. Boxes of old magazines, copies of all the newspapers I had a hand in producing years ago, papers and other memorabilia from elementary school through seminary, a dozen years worth of personal journals, mementos from various trips and vacations, and scads of letters from old buddies and loved ones, and even a few celebrities like Soupy Sales.

Among my most prized are the newsy handwritten letters my mother used to send me regularly before she died a few years ago, and then those written by my dear Aunt Betty, who beautifully tried to fill the gap, but who last month also passed away. I'll miss those letters in my mailbox. To me these things are priceless.

I am, however, a hoarder in recovery. In recent years I have shed much of my "treasure" in one way or another -- partly because of lack of storage space now, but also as a way to more intentionally practice Jesus' teaching when it comes to earthly treasures:

"Don't hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or -- worse! -- stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it's safe from moth and rust and burglars. It's obvious, isn't it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being." (Matthew 6:19-21 MSG)


Though I'm sure burglars would have no interest in my treasures, my bins of ephemera are slowly deteriorating. The papers are browning and I wouldn't be surprised if a few insects hadn't found a happy home in some of my bins.

Of course Jesus is talking primarily about wealth, the riches the world (especially thieves) tends to value most. I have very little of that sort of treasure. But my treasures can still possess my heart.

And I've realized that I really don't need this stuff; I rarely if ever even look at it. So why do I hold on to these things? I guess because I want to hold on to the pleasant memories they rekindle. The people I have loved, the personal accomplishments, the memorable events, the special places I've experienced. All those things have meaning for me, and I suppose I fear that I will lose that meaning if I don't have something concrete to prove that I once had it.

Some years ago I read an article about scientific studies of the brain in which an electric stimulus was applied to various parts of a subject's brain. When the electricity flowed, a memory stored in that particular area of the brain was replayed almost like a movie in the subject's mind -- the sounds, smells, and feelings all came back as the scene replayed itself.

I have often wondered what that would be like, reliving a memory stored in my brain on command. It's appealing to me in some odd way -- like watching high-tech home movies. Of course, I'd only want to relive the pleasant and joyful memories, not the bad ones, and it's not like my brain cells are cataloged in easily identifiable file folders.

But I wonder: Do I really want to relive my past life? Or would I rather live my life now more meaningfully, and create new memories for the future and for eternity?

By holding on to my existential ephemera, I am in a sense forcing myself to look backward, tying my mind and my heart to the past. This tendency can keep me from being in the present, reaching out to those around me here and now, where rich reality resides. It can keep me from looking forward to the future and living in a way that leads me in a positive direction.

Oh, I don't think there's anything wrong with keeping mementos of a life enjoyably lived. But there is something wrong when I need those things in order to feel good about myself. In order to feel as though I have a life, when in reality life is happening right now and just ahead of me.

Jesus invites us to "stockpile treasure in heaven" because "the place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being."

But how do we stockpile treasure in heaven?

For me personally, it has to do with living a life that is oriented towards following the way of Jesus. In some way, a life of service to others in Jesus' name, a life well-lived in God's eyes will be rewarded ultimately in some way that will blow our puny human minds. And by the way, I'm pretty sure that God's definition of "treasure in heaven" is far different than our human conception.

If we were to take Jesus seriously about his admonitions to reach out to the sick and the prisoners, the naked and the hungry, the widows and orphans, we would find out more fully what this can mean to us ultimately.

In the meantime, where do you most want to be: In a past you cannot relive or change? Or in the present, creating a life within the reign of God right now -- a life of loving service that will have eternal consequences, and that will ensure you end up being where you want to be?

Excuse me, but I have a closet to clean out.

[Originally posted on Huffington Post Religion, July 11, 2011.]