Note from CM: This post was written nearly eight years ago, long before we even thought about moving. Well, now we’ve moved, and the birds have come home to roost. So, I thought I’d run it again, for my own motivation as much as anything. We were able to weed out quite a lot of stuff over the past year, but it wasn’t enough. Now I have a new garage that we had hoped to use for, well, a garage. Guess what? It’s filled with piles of stuff to go through and then we’ll have to figure out what to do with it. We’ve set some goals and we’re working on it. But this is going to take a while, folks.
• • •
I came home from a weekend away intent on cleaning out closets.
This urge occasionally strikes, and when it does, I’ve learned to lie down until it goes away.
Ridding home and life of clutter sometimes seems overwhelming, especially now, living in a house and at a time of life when most of it is out of sight. Motivation was easy when I had to look at the mess, and when we were tripping over it all the time.
The nest is now mostly empty, with seasonal lodging for our college students. Only the occasional visit from grandchildren leaves our floors covered with toys. It used to be that way a half dozen times a day. We have plenty of closet space, an attic that is big enough to be a third floor, and basement and garage storage.
And it’s all full.
My wife and I are certainly not hoarders, and though we lean toward the “pack rat” end of the spectrum, we don’t have an extraordinary amount of stuff. However, we have been married for more than three decades, had four children, are sentimental about our family memories, and are admitted book- and music-aholics. Our children live nearby or are in college, so lot of their stuff is still stashed at mom and dad’s.
Plus, we’ve been in school or ministry and traveling ever since we’ve known each other, so we’re always collecting articles, magazines, ministry tools, souvenirs and keepsakes. There are boxes of empty three-ring binders, boxes of stuff from our India trips, boxes filled with items from my desk and files at church, boxes of journals filled with six or seven pages of writing before I lost interest, boxes of old kids clothes, blankets, books, and papers we didn’t want to part with, boxes of stuff we retrieved from boxes of stuff at grandma and grandpa’s home when they cleaned their closets.
I’ve always loved taking pictures, and so we have a gazillion photos, a few photo albums and lots of bulging boxes. We’ve used a personal computer since 1988. What in heaven’s name do you do with all those disks, cords, adapters, manuals, drives, modems, scanners, cds, printers, cameras, and other equipment now collecting dust because they became outdated or replaced by newer stuff? We put it all in boxes and shove it in the back of the closet.
I’m not even sure what’s in all the boxes in the attic and basement. I’m sure I don’t want to know.
In traditional lingo, the metaphor of the “closet” implies that a person is hiding something. “Coming out of the closet” means making a public declaration of something you’ve been trying to avoid revealing. If you have “skeletons” in your closet, you’ve been covering up for a long time.
In the classic devotional story, My Heart Christ’s Home, Robert Munger uses closet imagery to discuss how Christ wants to penetrate every area in our life, even the areas we try to hide from him, in order to cleanse and transform us fully.
One day I found Him waiting for me at the door. An arresting look was in His eye. As I entered, He said to me, “There is a peculiar odor on the house. Something must be dead around here. It’s upstairs. I think it’s in the hall closet.”
As soon as He said this, I know what He was talking about. There was a small closet up there on the hall landing, just a few feet square. In that closet, behind lock and key, I had one or two personal things that I did not want anyone to know about. Certainly, I did not want Christ to see them. I knew they were dead and rotting things left over from the old life. I wanted them so for myself that I was afraid to admit they were there.
That’s a legitimate and, at times, convicting use of the metaphor. But it’s not really what I’m talking about here. We’re not hiding anything in our closets, at least as far as I know. That, in fact, would be self-defeating, since we probably couldn’t find said hidden treasure if we wanted to get our hands on it.
No, our closets and attic and basement and garage and files and drawers are full mostly because I’ve neglected doing anything about them. I’ve ignored them. I’m lazy. Nothing has arrested my attention and compelled me to deal with the situation. This task has moved from the back of my mind to the back burner to somewhere in the outback. So, behind all those closed doors exists a hidden world of neglected remnants from our life.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense, given what I do. I am, after all, a hospice chaplain. I have conversations with patients and families every day about getting their affairs in order. I do bereavement care and hear horror stories of the messes entrusted to those left behind. It hits me regularly — I don’t want to do this to my kids. By the time I get home, the feeling has passed.
My grandparents and parents have set a good example for me. Over the years, they have shown a profound grace in ordering their lives, not only for themselves, but for their children. At times, I’ve thought them a bit OCD, but then I open my closet door and appreciate their ruthless purging.
Furthermore, it always feels so good when an organizing and simplifying task is completed! “It is good,” declared God with each step of bringing order to chaos at creation. Establishing a bit of harmony and symmetry is immensely satisfying. There’s a reason Feng shui has become so popular.
Why then the hesitancy? Why the perpetual procrastination? Why the inability to toe the line, to begin the task?
A long time ago, I read these words and knew that they were right:
Ultimately there is only one impediment [to spiritual growth], and that is laziness. If we overcome laziness, all the other impediments will be overcome. If we do not overcome laziness, none of the others will be hurdled.
• M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, p. 271
Peck points out that laziness is love’s opposite. For to love is to extend oneself to and for another. Unwillingness to do so is nonlove of the most serious kind. In her fine book of meditations on the deadly sin of acedia, Kathleen Norris reminds us that this word, usually referred to as “sloth,” means literally, “the absence of care”. The person who is ruled by this deadly sin is incapable or undesirous of caring.
When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.
• Acedia & Me, p. 3
One of the classic writers on this deadly state of mind, John Cassian, teaches that acedia:
- Makes us disgusted with our current surroundings and circumstances,
- Causes us to disdain others who are close to us,
- Renders us immobile in the face of the work to be done in our lives,
- Makes it impossible for us to concentrate and think clearly,
- Makes us of little or no help to others because we’re always lamenting and complaining,
- Prompts us to imagine that other places or situations would be far better,
- Causes us to feel exhausted and wanting to take comfort in food and sleep,
- Encourages us to take up other (easier) tasks and neglect our true duties,
Open dictionary, insert my picture. In front of an open closet door.
When Elisabeth Elliot went back to the mission field after the death of her husband Jim, she was faced with many confusing circumstances and uncertainties. She took solace and instruction from an old Saxon legend that had been written into a poem. In old English, each stanza of the poem ended with the simple words, “Doe the next thynge.” The verses speak about trusting God, fearing not the future, being prayerful, reliant, reverent, resting in Jesus’ faithfulness. But above all, act on your faith and “doe the next thynge,” and do it immediately, leaving the results to him. In Elliot’s words, she tried to take this counsel to heart, and “take each duty quietly as the will of God for the moment.”
Some people struggle more with trying to do too much for God, running ahead of him, substituting their ideas, plans, strategies, resources, and strength for the Spirit’s enabling energy and the Word’s quickening power. They produce impressive works but are lacking in fruit. They fulfill their agenda. Tasks get accomplished. Sometimes at the expense of people or other, more profoundly important matters.
Some people struggle more with a spirit of lethargy, sloth, acedia. They can’t find the moxie to simply “do the next thing.” They might find other things to do, and may indeed look busy. It’s a cover. They are neglecting the true thing, the important thing, the next thing. The loving thing. The thing that requires them to extend themselves for the good of others. What little they get done is ephemeral. And they remain alone.
In our weakness, we swing from pole to pole. We find it difficult to live in that place where we are “walking in newness of life,” (Romans 6:4), “bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience” (Colossians 1:10-11), devoting ourselves to to God’s purposes and laboring to fulfill them, “striving according to His power, which mightily works within” us (Colossians 1:29).
Simply doing the next thing — in him, his way, by his Spirit, for his glory, for the good of others.
I hear a
closet garage calling.