April 10, 2020

Cleaning Closets

By Chaplain Mike

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manuals, drives, modems, scanners, cds, printers, cameras, and other equipment now collecting dust because they became outdated or replaced by newer stuff?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 calling.

Comments

  1. Mike, Thank you for your candid and insightful confessional/post. I don’t really know how accurately this describes seasons in your own life but thank you for standing in on my behalf! I’ve read about acedia from various Spiritual Fathers and it feels like a more passive form of selfishness. Yet it’s a form of selfishness that not only does little to help others but also has little pay off for the person stuck in it.

  2. Great Post. A very timely and appropriate word.

    There is a groundswell movement called minimalism that promotes spiritual, emotional, physical, and financial balance through simplifying and de-cluttering our lives. One of the main tenets of this philosophy is that too many of us are trapped and weighed down by the physical and psychological clutter in our lives, and these things crowd out things of ultimate importance like time for family and friends or spiritual and physical disciplines.

    Here are a few Minimalist blogs,

    http://www.zenhabits.com

    http://www.theminimalistpath.com

    http://www.becomingminimalist.com

    http://www.farbeyondthestars.com

    Some of these guys are radical, owning less than fifty items, including clothes, but others define Minimalism more broadly.

    I adopted this philosophy late last year and it has really helped return some sanity to what had otherwise been a life too busy to attend to truly important things that matter.

  3. Sorry,

    That first link should have been http://www.zenhabits.net

  4. Great article! Opened the closet of my life for sure. 🙂

  5. Good essay, Chaplin Mike. Timely for this sluggish, summer season!

    One small quibble: I think it’s a mistake to position acedia in opposition with laziness (as seems to be implied). One can have a full agenda, accomplish many tasks, always be on the go and still be profoundly in the grasp of acedia.

  6. A good meditation and it hit close to home as our family is dealing with cleaning out the house of a widowed parent who has moved to assisted living. She and her former husband were both terrible pack rats and the task has been enormous. Follow the call of that closet, for to do so is an act of true stewardship!

    We’ve also had the sad experience of the aftermath of neglect in relation to estate planning. You’d be amazed at the consternation that can result when even one asset is not clearly directed. At the same time, wise Christian counsel on these matters seems to be rare. I’m convinced that good estate planning can be both a great act of stewardship and a means of peacemaking. It’s said that the next few decades will see the greatest generational transfer of wealth ever as baby boomers inherit. There will be an enormous need for Christlike wisdom.

  7. Thank you for this, Mike. It’s inspirational.

  8. Chaplain Mike, I just started reading Peck’s The Road Less Traveled yesterday. And I just got the Kathleen Norris book, The Cloister Walk in the mail yesterday. I got it along with two other books, though, so what to read first?

    Thanks for this post. We have a two level garage and a large plastic canvas type of “shelter” also filled with stuff we absolutely need to go through and organize/throw out, etc. I would hate to leave all that to relatives after we die. I tell Tom he needs to outlive me because I have no idea how to get rid of all the militaria he has collected for over 30 years.

  9. Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    This is going to sound very silly, but bear with me.

    From 2003 to 2008, my main recreational past time was playing the online video game Star Wars Galaxies with most of my friends. Once player housing was introduced into the game, each player was allotted a number of “lots” for putting up housing, resource harvesters, etc. Most of us ended up using those lots to create storage houses. We’d find an empty spot, build a house and fill it with junk. Sometimes it was sentimental stuff we’d collected in our adventures. Sometimes it was speculative collection items we hoped would get some in-game value that we could cash in on. Sometimes it was resources we were saving so that we could have some special item crafted.

    I always found inventory management to be incredibly tedious, so I had a tendency to completely clear out my houses every few months. I’d either dump most of the items on the in-game auction server at cut rates or I’d stop by the “junk dealer” and dump stuff for a fraction of its worth.

    I have often wished there was a real-life “junk dealer.” I wouldn’t even care if it produced much money; I just want to be rid of most of my closet and the bunches of crud that has started to pile in boxes in other parts of the house. My DVD and book libraries just recently tipped over the capacity point of my shelves. I have two options: 1) buy more shelving 2) get rid of the excess. Neither option is appealing. To top it off, I’m considering moving in a little less than a year and just don’t want to haul all the crap.

    I did recently cut my wardrobe by about 50% because we were doing a clothing drive at church. That was great. Six trash bags of clothes that I never wear!

    • Isaac — I highly recommend Goodwill and Salvation Army. I have a rule that any time anyone brings clothes into the house, old clothes go out. You can take a tax deduction for donated items — I find that, since we mostly shop at those stores, my yearly cost for clothes is zero dollars. My tax deduction equals the cost of clothes. And my closets are reasonably clear.

    • I’ll second what Damaris said. Goodwill or the Sally Army are great places to donate to, and the donations are tax deductible (they’ll give you a receipt). There is even software that helps you calculate the value of the deduction. We regularly purge our own home and much of it goes to Goodwill, and we took 7 carloads of stuff to Goodwill the last weekend we were cleaning out a parent’s house.

      We’re also slowly learning the preventive solution, which is not to acquire so much stuff in the first place!

    • saac:

      Six months ago we moved from a large apartment where we had been living for 9 years into a much smaller one. I thought we didn’t have much stuff, because it was organized so well. I was mistaken. Well organized clutter was still clutter, after all. I was completely overwhelmed and devastated by the sheer volume of things we had and never looked at. We had the habit of having them, but not really enjoying them.

      So began for me the long process that I am still engaged in. I had to take a cold, hard look at the emotional reasons I was holding on to things. Some things were easy to toss. Other things I would pull my hand back as soon as I was ready to release them. That told me that I was stuck emotionally and had to do some soul-searching. It is hard work but I make myself do it.

      The result: three quarters of our books are gone. We decided to go for absolute quality over quantity. Our DVDs — we carefully selected the ones that we knew we would watch again and we would miss if we didn’t have them (like our books). We ripped these onto a hard disc and gave the hard copies away.

      We’ve done the same thing with clothes, kitchen gear, everything — even our wedding pictures. There isn’t anything that can’t be on the table for evaluation for us..

      I can’t tell you how freeing and profoundly radical this has been. No more guilt, no more being silently reproached by books on shelves that I know I’ll never read again.

      The hardest part was for me to give up my ideas about my self and what I was going to accomplish. I had a fantasy of reading this and cooking that. but the reality was there were other things that I preferred to spend my time on. The death to self of who I wanted to be compared with who I was — well, it was a hard thing, but now I’m freer and happier as a result.

      Having fewer things means the things I do have I really enjoy much more. Less really is more.

      Just throwing things away or just hanging to things are two sides of the same coin. For real change you need to look honestly at yourself and your life. Then, the process becomes much clearer — whatever you decide.

    • Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      Thanks for the recommendations guys! Now it’s just a matter of making time some weekend and borrowing someone’s truck.

  10. It’s amazing you should write about this now – although perhasp not considering who God is. This very topic has been on my mind the last few weeks – ever since someone at work jokingly remarked about my “lack of care”. I laughed back, but inside I filled with shame. I don’t want to be that person. But to change? It seems like turning myself inside out. The idea of “doing the next thing” is a good mantra.
    As for junk in the closets – I adore purging! I have done it 3 times since moving to our present home and adore the feeling of lightness that comes from hauling a load to the thrift store or dumping 6 bags of trash. I credit my mother for this habit: growing up, she insisted we purge our rooms a few weeks before Christmas “to make room for the new stuff”. Even today, she habitually goes thru her house and removes things she no longer needs “so she doesn’t leave it for my brother and I when she dies”. It’s always a bit morbid to hear, but I appreciate her concern and her example. ~ L

  11. Mike (the other chaplain) says

    man…………that’s my problem more than anything…..laziness.

  12. Your timing is perfect. Just this morning I was down in our basement and later the garage , looking for a few items to do a small paint job. I’m literally tripping over my crap, and to top it off, it seems some mice think my lethargy is way cool.

    “DO IT IMMEDIATELY”………. message received. Great post.

    Greg R

  13. …OK, OK! But I’m keeping the vinyl record albums.

    • Jim,

      Yeah we did that for years, until we moved to Europe.
      We miss them sometimes, but never regret having left them behind.

      • Jim Park says

        Hello Expat …

        We divested ourselves of a lot of stuff before moving from San Diego to Minnesota about 30 years ago. My suggestion …keep tools, keep music. I regret giving away those things and still find myself looking around the garage for some of them even though they’re long gone. (I just know that Vicki Carr album is around here somewhere!)

        The other side of the coin? …I’d give my right arm for that baseball signed by all the 1958 Cincinnati Reds that my folks got rid of along with my other childhood “junk”. Some things you value nostalgically can help you regain perspective and remind you of the big picture when life leads you off course a little. They remind you of where you came from, which can be helpful in understanding just where you’re headed.

        • Well, Jim, I certainly understand your position, but luckily neither my husband and I are sentimental in the least. We miss out on a lot of warm and fuzzies, but we cherish our freedom more. We couldn’t live the nomad life that we love here in Europe if we were tied down with things — but that’s just us. Not many people would want to live the stripped down way we do.

          I will say this about vinyl records, though. Although I wouldn’t want to be lugging records around anymore, a lot of digital music sounds terrible.

          There are some old songs that I absolutely cannot listen to on digital media. The sound is off and it seems too fast, somehow. So, I don’t listen — like Neil Young, I play the music in my head.

          In the end, we leave everything behind anyway. 🙂

          PS: keep tools? No way! We are hard-core renters.

  14. I was just in a conversation about this with a friend who was- in love- issuing a warning of sorts. In response I protested, “But they aren’t being biblical in the confrontation or the situation- they are all sorts of wrong!” Softly he said, “I know that and you know that- heck, they probably even know that. But it is what it is. It’s politics.”

    I could just cry about the closets in life that are left in disorder, no longer- if ever- biblical. But it is what it is… those are the things that become religion and politics.

  15. Thank you for this great post, Chaplain Mike, and even more for the great heartfelt chuckle you provided me….

    “This urge occasionally strikes, and when it does, I’ve learned to lie down until it goes away.”

    There is a great interview at the following link, with Kathleen Norris, which brings out many great points on the subject of acedia and it’s historical roots.

    http://www.thefreelibrary.com/ACEDIA%3A+The+Eighth+Bad+Thought%3A+A+Conversation+with+Kathleen+Norris.-a02
    03130876

    The reality of closets, attics, basements, etc., filled with “stuff” is a reality that I believe goes hand in hand with the materialistic culture of the western world. That being said, I believe that the reality of closets, rooms, treasure chests, dark corners etc., within the inner world of each person is a reality that exists even where there is no abundance of “physical” clutter and stuffed closets.

    Life can be seen as an ever increasing upward spiral. We deal with some issues opening the door to that part of ourselves to God’s grace and we come to a point of thinking that issue has been dealt with and on to other challenges. Then, perhaps years later, we find that same issue, space, before us again and realize God wants us to go deeper, open the door more, unbury hidden chests within that very same space. He wants us to open those chests before Him, deal with whats been buried, hidden even to ourselves for so long, to bring us to a greater freedom from all that binds us.

    I’ve seen this so often in my own life. Negative experiences and problems from 10, 20 to even 40 ++ years ago, things I thought were done with, overcome, healed, people I believed I had forgiven…..etc., come back into present reality triggered by all types of varying things and situations. God makes it clear He wants to bring me deeper into whatever the “issue” might be. He unveils before me the remaining clutter that was hidden from even myself that I wasn’t able nor ready to deal with previously, but now it is time…if I’m willing.

    I have learned that often my external clutter, in some areas, can be tightly connected to this inner clutter. Until I deal with the inner “stuff” I am not able/free enough to deal with the physical stuff. It can get very complicated, because life isn’t usually very black and white.
    The process can be slow, can be painful, bring up all kinds of emotions and memories. If we are willing to embark on the journey however, on the other side is a greater reality of interior freedom we never would have otherwise known could be possible. The energy this gives enables us to tackle so much easier the “stuff” in our physical world buried behind this or that, in some dark corner, behind other meaningless clutter that had been serving as a wall of protection from that which, up until the present, we had not yet been freed from.

  16. Jim Park says

    Acedia? Oh, lordy. I wonder if the time I spend reading and responding to certain blogs might be a symptom. :>)

    By the way, Chaplain Mike, would that be Fibber McGee lying under his closet contents at the top of your article?

  17. Sometimes people need others to help them sort through and get rid of the clutter, both outer and inner. I love helping people do this, and it’s not just a matter of throwing it out or recycling the stuff. It’s understanding why we keep what we do, what it means to us, why we got it in the first place. If we don’t get to the bottom of that we’ll just get more stuff to replace it. It is really sad to see people with so much stuff in their houses that they have no room for people, even their own families. It usually is a symptom of emptiness or pain in a person’s life which should be dealt with at the same time the clutter is being sorted and dispersed. For some people it’s not a matter of laziness per se, but a matter of feeling overwhelmed and not knowing where to start. The stuff has filled a void in their lives that they haven’t known how to fill any other way. It can be a long process to overcome this.

  18. The idea of laziness being the opposite of love is…..torturing me to death. Chap Mike, are you SURE that it’s not ‘doctrinal incorrectness’….or even “faulty cosmology”….. or your favorite and mine “cultural engagement” ?? This is one of those ‘burr in the saddle’ type posts, it’s killing me. Thanks a big FAT lot..

    Greg R

  19. Amen to this, and it goes so much faster and better when someone is willing to help you ask the questions: “Do I really need this? Does it have any value for me? What is the ‘right’ place for this — with me or elsewhere?”

    Also when you make an appointment to go through things with someone this Saturday from 2:00 to 4:00, each of you keeps the other one on track and working.;)

  20. Thanks for this, Mike. Reminding me to “do the next thing” by following His Spirit, His way, in His time…I always need that!

  21. Mike! good to see you here. I like your writing.

    2 things:

    1. I love this site: http://unclutterer.com/

    2. I’m not sure it’s always laziness that keeps us from clearing things out. Sometimes it’s the nostalgic emotions that are brought back by cleaning through our own history – it’s just too much to take emotionally all at once. As much as I love minimalism and uncluttering, I can only handle it in stages, because of the emotions of the memories. memories that are good or bad or otherwise, it doesn’t seem to matter. small steps are best.