During Advent, we are encouraged to make room for the coming of Christ. “But how?” someone asked me. Like most of us, they are juggling responsibilities, roles and expectations which all come to a head in December. As another person commented, what with all the end-of-year activities, “I barely have time to breathe, let alone reflect, during this time.”
These comments led me to think about the Quaker concept of cumber: the unnecessary accumulation of material objects, responsibilities, roles, activities, behaviours and other things which distract us from our relationship with God. For example, a particular activity might be a good thing to do, in and of itself. But committing to it might mean spreading ourselves or our families too thinly, or prevent us from committing deeply or contributing well somewhere else. A particular object might be fine, in and of itself, but every object demands attention, energy and money to purchase, store, maintain and discard: attention, energy and money that God might better put to use somewhere else. A particular occupation might be a response to God’s calling. But there are seasons in life: and perhaps there are times when a role which was once good and fruitful now demands too much by way of time, travel or emotional energy.
Identifying and shedding cumber provides more space for us to focus on God’s activity in the world and God’s promptings within us; and it aligns us more closely with Jesus’ blessed poor, and the life of dependence on God’s provision as exemplified by the gathering of daily manna (but no more) found in Exodus. Of course, identifying and shedding the cumber in our lives is a complex and lifelong task. There are no hard and fast rules; no black and white ways to live. Instead, every possession, choice, activity, role, responsibility and habit is open to gentle questioning, as we wonder whether it leads us closer to or further away from God.
As we reflect on potential cumber, we might ask questions such as, How do anxiety, the need for security, the desire for acceptance, or the lust for control affect us here? What might living in freedom and simplicity look like? We might look at our time, that gift from God, and wonder, Do our commitments and decisions enable us to savour that time, and offer it as a gift to others? Or do we hoard and protect our time – and what does this reveal?
For our congregation – for the most part professional, hyper-mobile, driving back and forth to Melbourne for work, family and leisure, shuttling kids to numerous after-school activities, experiencing the demands of extended families, linked into multiple networks and faith communities, and exhausted by the time Christmas comes around – this idea of shedding cumber feels important. It may not help this year, but it points to a way of living, reflecting and making choices which, if followed year-round, could lead to a simpler, quieter Advent in other years.
It needs to be added, this way of living simply is counter-cultural. Everything around us urges us to work harder, play harder, and consume more. We cannot do it alone; and so I suggest we keep talking with and encouraging one another as we wrestle with the choices we face. This Sunday, we will hear about one who was famously unencumbered: John the Baptiser, whose decision to live far from the centres of power, and to live, eat and dress simply, gave him a clear view into the heart of God and the coming of the Messiah.