Amazing Grace

If you had told me six weeks ago that one of the biggest television shows of 2019 was going to be about people cleaning their houses, I would have laughed at you. Not a home makeover show, where people have an old or rundown or just painfully unstylish home and a team of experts comes in and, in the span of one episode, transforms it into something beautiful and functional and hip, with a big before-and-after reveal at the end where you can’t even believe it’s the same house.  Not a show like Hoarders, which deals with, of course, people who are hoarders, their homes literally filled up with junk to the point that it’s hard to walk through because the owners have a disorder that compels them to never throw away anything at all. And so a team comes in and helps the hoarder clear out the house and make it livable again, with a big before-and-after reveal at the end.

No, the show I’m talking about is simply called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, and that’s what it’s about: watching Kondo work with ordinary families in normal homes with a level of clutter on the high end of normal, and by the end of the episode she’s helped them tidy up their own houses. No renovations; no attention to style or decor; the only reveal at the end is just an orderly home. That’s it.

But, of course, that’s not it. Kondo is an organizing consultant from Japan who wrote a best-selling book a couple of years ago detailing her approach to decluttering our homes. The book was called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which sounded like serious hyperbole to me the first time I heard it; after all, I’ve been tidying up since I was a kid sent to clean up my room, and it’s never once been life-changing or magical. But when Kondo is involved, it appears to become that way; the show debuted on Netflix about five weeks ago and became an immediate sensation. Each episode begins with her reminding the audience that her mission is to “spark joy in the world through cleaning.” Then, she has the family she’s working with gather all of their possessions in a given category (clothes, books, document files, etc.) in one space and then sort through them one at a time, asking whether each item “sparks joy” for them. If it does, they keep it; if it doesn’t, they get rid of it. Then they do the same thing with the next category of possessions, until they work their way through everything in the house.

It may not sound life-changing or magical, but it is to the people involved. Families in every episode are in tears at some point, often more than once, over the impact that Kondo’s method of tidying up is having on their lives, as they winnow through piles of clutter to retrieve what is truly meaningful to them and have that as the focus of their material life. It really is a spiritual experience for them, which only makes sense, because Kondo is explicit about her method being rooted in the values of Shintoism, traditional Japanese spirituality. And the impact has gone well beyond the show: over the past month, thrift shops have reported a surge in donations as people implement Kondo’s method in their own homes. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a cultural moment without online memes about it: these have spread playing on Kondo’s signature test of whether something sparks joy, with people declaring they have applied it to their lives and are now happily getting rid of vegetables, bathroom scales, treadmills, and lazy spouses, while holding on to the joy-sparking goodness of wine and chocolate.

But then she came for people’s books. At least, that’s how it was perceived by many. At one point, she mentioned that she keeps her own book collection down to about 30 volumes at any one time. A Methodist pastor, of all people, created a meme that showed Kondo saying, “Ideally, keep fewer than 30 books.” Underneath that was a photo of a towering theological library and a speech bubble coming from clergy everywhere saying, “you mean per subject, right?” It was just a mildly humorous, church geek joke. But then a secular writer cut the clergy reference off of it and tweeted out just Kondo seemingly ordering everyone to purge their books with the message, “this woman is a monster,” which she did not mean as a joke at all. And that tweet went viral and set off an eruption of righteous anti-Kondo outrage among writers and academics of all stripes. People fell over each other in the rush to condemn Kondo publicly for telling people to limit themselves to books that simply make them feel happy. “We’re not after sparks of joy, we want to swim in wonder,” one author sneered in a no less than a Washington Post op-ed that was literally entitled, “Keep Your Tidy, Spark-Joy Hands Off My Book Piles, Marie Kondo.”

Kondo, of course, never told people they had to get rid of all but 30 books, and she never said they should only be books that make you feel happy. Rather, she mentioned that she herself only keeps less than 30 books, and encouraged people to treat books like everything else: keep the ones that are deeply meaningful and personally valuable or precious (which is what she really means by “sparking joy,” not superficial happiness) and then give away or throw away the others. But all these people heard was Kondo telling them what to do, and that was something they couldn’t stand.

It was one thing for her to get regular slobs to throw out their bell-bottomed pants and shoulder-pad blazers from decades ago; it was quite another for her to lump them in with such people and treat their precious books the same way as anything else. Reacting this way, of course, missed the entire point of what Kondo is doing. The genius of her approach is that it is not focused on what is worthless, on what needs to be thrown out. The focus is on what is of profound value: on what matters most and must be kept because it reminds us who we are and helps us to be who we want to be. The real problem, I think, is that these people believed they already had that completely figured out, thank you very much, and who was Marie Kondo to suggest they are just like everyone else?

It’s not so different from what’s going on in this somewhat odd scene from Luke’s Gospel. As it opens, Jesus has just begun his ministry, which has met with some notable acclaim elsewhere in Galilee. This is his first visit home to Nazareth since taking up that work. He goes to Sabbath services at the synagogue, as he always does, and is asked to read the Scripture lesson. The lesson is from the book of Isaiah, and is written in the voice of a servant of God who is anointed by the Spirit to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free. When he’s done reading, he declares, “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What he means, essentially, is that he’s just read the mission statement for his ministry: that is what he, Jesus, has come to do. This seems to provoke a mixed reaction at first; some speak well of him, no doubt appreciating his striking presence and stirring voice as he talks about bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, letting the oppressed go free. After all, these faithful people are poor; they are captives to the Roman Empire’s occupation, and they are oppressed by that. He’s bringing good news to them, and they like the sound of that. Others are not so impressed, though. They start muttering about Jesus just being the local carpenter’s son, with the implication that he’s too big for his britches, as my Southern grandfather used to put it. Really, Jesus? You’re just Joseph’s son, from down the lane. We remember you from Nazareth High School, Jesus, and you were not voted “Most Likely to Liberate the Jews From Foreign Oppression.”

Jesus seems to hear the muttering and notes that it is hard to be a prophet in your hometown, where everyone remembers you from way back when. And then he goes too far, reminding these Sabbath-observing, synagogue-going people of times when God intervened to rescue and restore not his own people, but foreigners: one a starving widow, the other an unclean enemy, both marginalized in the eyes of Jews because of both their identities and their circumstances. And that sets off an eruption of righteous, anti-Jesus outrage, as people in the synagogue fall over each other in a rush not simply to condemn Jesus publicly, but to execute him publicly by hurling him off the nearby cliff on which the town of Nazareth still is perched today, down into the rocks of the Jezreel Valley hundreds of feet below. Say what you want about the vitriol on Twitter, but at least it’s not literal murder.

This seems like a major overreaction, particularly by those who were originally speaking well of him, amazed by his gracious words (literally, his “words of grace”) at the start of his synagogue talk. But it is difficult to overestimate the outrage people may feel when someone claiming a level of spiritual authority crosses the boundaries that they are very committed to holding in place; when it’s suggested that Jesus welcomes the people they reject, that Jesus cares for the people they ignore, that Jesus not only loves the people they despise, but calls them to love them as well. So it’s actually fitting that Jesus not only claims this passage from Isaiah about being sent to help the poor and oppressed as his mission statement, but it’s religious people who get the most upset by it. They go from being amazed at the grace that they receive in the sense of being overjoyed, to being amazed at the grace that Jesus offers others that they think he shouldn’t; amazed in the sense of being outraged. How dare he talk about extending their grace to those people?!?

Of course, it’s isn’t their grace. It’s God’s, and God’s grace is not a precious finite resource that is rationed out, like the last drops of water in the bottom of a canteen discovered when you’re lost wandering in the midst of a giant desert, which you have to tilt up and bang on the bottom to dislodge enough just to wet your cracked lips. God’s grace is the classic vision of an oasis in the middle of the desert: a deep pool of cool water sheltered from the sun and sand by leafy trees whose branches bend low from the weight of nourishing fruits. And when you’re wandering in the desert, with no idea where you’re going and the last of your supplies long gone, when your tongue is blistered and you’re so dehydrated you can’t even sweat anymore and your limbs will barely move in the direction you want them too, when you see that oasis of grace shimmering in the distance, it’s so amazing that you wonder if you’ve just finally gone mad. But you walk, and stagger, and crawl to it, and you finally slide into the water and put your head under and drink it in deeply, drink it in with abandon, drink it in knowing there is more there than you could possibly ever drink in a lifetime, and you don’t have to be afraid anymore. That’s the grace that the hymn talks about: amazing grace that saved a wretch like me. To then turn around any and deny that others in the desert don’t have a right to it means one of two things: one, that you think receiving God’s grace means that you now own it and can presume to determine who will or will not have access to it; or two, that you think those drops at the bottom of the canteen you found is all there really is of God’s grace in the first place.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” That’s Jesus’ mission statement, and we should never lose sight of the amazing grace that it embodies: amazing because it is so generous to those who know they need it; amazing because it is so offensive to those who think those other people shouldn’t have it. And perhaps the most amazing thing of all is that, in answering Christ’s call to be his disciples, this becomes our ultimate mission statement, too, as we follow him in his ministry. As we do so, we shouldn’t expect it to be easy; we shouldn’t expect everyone to welcome it. But we can expect it to be good news to all those who are able to hear it, because the truly amazing thing at the very heart of God’s grace is the certainty that each and every one of us sparks joy for God; that each and every one of us is deeply meaningful and personally precious to God, and that God will not rest until each and every one of us is reclaimed, and given a place of honor, and treasured in God’s heart.

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