Owning and Being Owned



“Owning and Being Owned” by Interim Pastor Tim Morphew

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (Boise, ID), As of this past Friday, “61 large fires and complexes have burned 1,956,668 acres in 12 states. More than 8,300 wildland firefighters and support personnel are fighting fires across the country.”

News reports feature images of charred forests and neighborhoods. And reporters interview grief-stricken fire victims who have lost everything – or almost everything that was precious to them.

Some years ago, the mother of a church member came home to find smoke coming out of the house. Can you imagine what that would be like?  She ran into the house and called for the family dog – yelled for “Bernie.” (I suppose she knew that nobody else would be home.) 

I hope and pray that none of us will ever face such a frightening crisis…  But thinking about a house fire challenges each of us with an important question.

If you came home to smoke coming out of your house – or if your smoke alarms went off what would you want to grab on your way out the door? That question intrigued photographer Foster Huntington, so he gathered his must-save belongings and took a picture. Then he asked a few friends to think about that question and photograph their must-save belongings. The burning-house question raised an issue that people wanted to both answer and discuss.

In May 2011 Huntington launched a website with photos of personal items that people would grab on their way out the door. Within a year, Huntington received thousands of photos from around the world that captured people’s answer to the burning-house question. Huntington published a book in 2012 called, The Burning House: What Would You Take?

Here are some of the answers people gave to that question:

One husband, one son, and three cats

The film The Princess Bride on Blu-ray

My daughter — everything else can be replaced

A few packs of my favorite green tea in case I get thirsty

Favorite earrings I wore to my wedding

Ring I got from my Dad when I was 12

Mystery Box (my father put something inside before I nailed it shut, forever closed until I am an old man and he is long gone)

My grandfather’s Bible

Ernest Hemingway’s selected letters

Cell Phone



Very old teddy bear of my childhood

Moleskin journal that contains all of my thoughts & ideas

House key, because you might need it, even though your house is burning

My globe to always remind me of all the places I dream of seeing

Flip flops, a bikini and a skirt (because if my house burns down, I’m going to the beach)

Huntington says that this project taught him a valuable lesson about material possessions. The question forces people to think about what they want versus what they really need. For instance, Huntington’s first photo included 18 must-have items. But after thinking about the question for over a year, his list dropped to only two absolutely, irreplaceable items.- Foster Huntington, The Burning House (It Books, 2012);

What in your life do you think you could not live without??  Do you hear what I am asking?  What do you care most about? What is the most important thing in your life?   – Because Jesus warns that,

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches.”

– And the rest of Matthew 6 tells how Jesus explains that point with some specific examples…

What is the most important thing in your life? What do you care about most? These questions are just different ways of asking what master do you serve?? – Because Jesus says that we can have only one #1 in our life…

– And, he warns us against attaching ourselves to the “stuff” of this world: food, clothes, houses, cell-phones, computers, cars, and any other material thing that we use to try to make our lives more comfortable and secure.. –

Preacher and seminary professor Joseph Stowell observes that, “The real [problem with] materialism is not how much we have, but what has us. It’s not what we hold, but how tightly we hold it. – J. Stowell, “Preaching for Change,” The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching, eds Keith Willhite & Scott Gibson (Baker, 1999), p.138 

And Stowell’s warning makes sense to me. My wife Beth keeps telling me that it is time for us to stop collecting and start uncluttering our house, time to sell or give away the excess of stuff…  The trouble is that the prospect of getting rid of anything confronts me with how attached I feel to some of my stuff – most of my stuff! In professor Stowell’s terms, that sorting process is forcing me to ask whether some of my possessions, in fact, possess me!

In an interview about the Attack of the Clones chapter of the Star Wars series, creator George Lucas described how the young Anakin Skywalker became the evil Darth Vader

“He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to [earthly] things. He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the “dark side,” because you fear you’re going to lose things, that you’re not going to have the power you need. – Time (4-29-02)

It is a fundamental spiritual problem: attachment to things, lust for things, clinging to the things of this world..

In his book, Seismic Shifts, Kevin Harney tells about a little boy [who] sat on the floor of the church nursery with a red rubber ball in each arm and 3 Nerf balls clenched on the floor between his pudgy little knees. He was trying to keep all 5 balls from the other children in the nursery. The problem was, he could not hold all 5 at once, and the ball nearest to his feet was particularly vulnerable to being stolen. So, whenever another child showed an interest in playing with one of the balls, he snarled to make it clear these toys were not for sharing.

I suppose I should have stepped in and made the little guy give up one or two of the balls, but I was too wrapped up in the drama of it all. For about five minutes, this little guy growled, postured, and kept the other children away from the balls. Like a hyena hunched over the last scraps of a carcass, this snarling little guy was not in the mood for sharing. The other kids circled like vultures around the kill, looking for a way to jump in and snatch a ball without being attacked and bitten. I honestly did not know whether to laugh or cry as I watched.

Then it struck me: This little boy was not having any fun at all. There was no cheer within 10 yards of this kid. Not only was he unhappy, but all the other kids seemed sad as well. His selfishness created a black hole that sucked all of the joy out of that nursery…. When church was over and his parents came to pick him up, he left the balls behind. I guess the old saying is true, you can’t take it with you! – Kevin G. Harney, Seismic Shifts (Zondervan, 2005)

“…no cheer within 10 yards of this kid. Not only was he unhappy, but all the other kids seemed sad as well. His selfishness created a black hole that sucked all of the joy out of that nursery…”

“Materialism is toxic for happiness,” writes University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener. Even rich materialists aren’t as happy as those who care less about getting and spending. – Marilyn Elias, “Psychologists now know what makes people happy,” USA Today (12-9-02) And trying to decide what things I can let go of makes me wonder whether I am too attached to some of my stuff, whether some of my worldly goods have more of a hold on me than I would have otherwise believed..

Randy Alcorn asks, “Suppose you have an important package to send to someone who needs it. You take it to an overnight delivery service. What would you think if, instead of delivering the package, the driver took it home? Then, when you confront him, he says, “If you didn’t want me to keep it, why’d you give it to me in the first place?”

You’d say, “The package doesn’t belong to you. Your job is to deliver it to the person who needs it.”

Just because God puts his money in our hands doesn’t mean he intends for us to keep it. – R. Alcorn, “God’s Money Managers: Letting go of what isn’t mine,” Focus on the Family (12/2006), p. 13 

Could it be that I’m holding on to stuff that I should be giving or passing on to someone who really needs it? Could it be that God sends the abundance of blessings we enjoy not for us to store away but to share?

Sure! Of course! The rest of the world could have more if I kept less and shared more of what I get  – But doesn’t it make sense to save up a little “rainy day fund”?  Financial advisors often say that we all ought to have enough in savings that we and our dependents could survive 3 – 6 months without a paycheck!

(After all,) What if I lose my job? What if the harvest is off or prices fall? What if I have an accident or there’s a fire or a flood. What if there’s a recession and business dries up? Just a little rainy day fund, just in case.. 

But I wonder S & B, whether such efforts to protect ourselves or insulate ourselves from any loss or disaster are really an expression of our hidden anxieties about the future, buried anxieties about whether we will always have enough food, clothing, shelter, transportation…  I wonder whether we pile up material things because we are anxious about what an unknown future may hold for us. 

I try not to let it get to me, but the truth is that I can be a worrier. When I’m feeling vulnerable or insecure, I can worry about the “what ifs”.

Did you hear about the woman who had – 

a plaque on her wall that said, “Why pray when you can worry?” The reverse psychology is good for me. It reminds me to ask myself, “Why worry when you can pray?” – John Guest in “Only a Prayer Away”. Christianity Today, V.33, #2.

But in Matthew 6, Jesus urges us not to worry.

31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’…. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 

Of course we know that he’s right. But we can’t just snap our fingers and make the worries go away..  I know Jesus is right, but I also know that life gives people plenty to worry about…

Don’t Worry? Jesus? – Really??  Look at our world, Jesus!  Look at my life!! Don’t Worry?  How can we help but worry??

Though I know Jesus is right, although I know the “Seek Ye First” chorus by heart, still I can be a worrier. And I am probably not the only one… 

But I began to notice a difference in my anxiety level after I entered a Contemplative Prayer program with the Shalem Institute some years ago… And when I began to convene a Contemplative Prayer group during my time in the Shalem Program, the participants reported experiences similar to my own. – That the practice of Contemplative Prayer lowered their general anxiety level. Although nothing much changed in our outward circumstances, our general anxiety level decreased. Most of us felt like we responded to stressful situations more calmly…

So let me share one response to the question, “How can we not worry??”  When our stress level rises and we are feeling anxious..  When we find ourselves worrying…  Try this…  And if you can, I invite you to try it now…

Find a place, locate a space in time & space…  Sooner or later at work you get a break..  – Or try this after work, or before work..  – Or at bedtime, or early in the morning when no one else is awake. Stay-at-home parents may need to use bathroom time to settle their spirits a bit. Where-ever, whenever it works for you, locate a time and place..

You might find an object or image that is meaningful to you, something that offers an image of peace. A picture of sunrise, sunset, ocean… or a picture of Jesus…

Let your eyes rest on the image, or close your eyes and imagine it.

Pay attention to your breathing. Take 3 slow, long deep breaths.

Can you imagine yourself just being in a peaceful place, or looking into the eyes of Jesus and knowing that whatever is stressing/worrying you cannot possibly be greater than God, cannot possibly separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord… And just be there in the moment, not needing to say or do anything… and for a moment rest, be quiet, breathe.. 

And then when you are ready, or when you must, take a breath and turn back to the needs of the moment, the needs of the people around you… – Remembering that there is more to life than the cares, concerns, anxieties & worries that nag at us… (and will, if we let them, consume us…)

Don’t worry, Jesus urges. “do not be anxious about your life…” –  But look at this world, Jesus!  Look at my life!!  Don’t Worry?  How can we help but worry??

Jesus answers, yes! – Yes, look at God’s world. Really look. Pay careful, close attention to your life…

When middle C is struck on the piano the piston of bones in your inner ear vibrates exactly 256 times a second. Each day you think about 50,000 different thoughts. When you flex your hand you are using 70 different muscles. On the surface of your body there are as many bacteria as there are people on the surface of the earth. – And more than that inside! – The mystery of your birth, the mystery of the love you feel, the mystery of the deepest parts of you are all most improbable. You are an incredible contingency [reality].

Sam Keen wrote, “I suspect that [all people] are recipients of cosmic love notes. Messages, omens, voices, revelations, and appeals are all part of each day’s events. If only we know how to listen, to read the signs.” Our everyday life is not “every day”. The surface of what we see and hear isn’t all there is. When you laugh, when you cry, when you feel something happening inside, open yourself to the possibilities. [Pay attention…] The potential of the life that we have been given is breathtaking. Open your eyes. Listen carefully.  Pay attention. – Brett Younger, Glimpses of Glory

– Or as Jesus said, 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? ….Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these…”

(Once more, take 3 deep breaths?) Please find #730 in the back of the blue hymnals and pray with me …

Blue 730