April 8, 2020

Holy Week: Another Look at “Cleaning Closets”

fibbers closet

NOTE: One of the traditions of Monday-Wednesday in Holy Week is spring cleaning, which goes back to the customs of Jewish families as they prepared for Passover. In honor of this tradition, here is another look at one of CM’s posts from July, 2010. And, heavens no, he is not actually doing any spring cleaning!

* * *

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.

cluttered-closet-clothes-messNo, 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. Dan Crawford says

    Thanks, Chaplain Mike. An important message for one much to inclined to acedia.

  2. Maundy Thursday is right around the corner.

    We are given a pretty heavy order there. It shouldn’t be heavy.

    http://theoldadam.com/2012/04/03/the-last-day-of-jesus-life-on-earth-what-did-he-do-why-did-he-do-it/

    This may help shed some light on why we have so many cobwebs in those closets.

  3. I was just reading John Cassion this wekend on retreat ; )

    My wife and I have seven children with two in college so we understand your plight Chaplain Mike. We do a purge twice a year and I swear the stuff in the closets, drawers, etc gets together and reproduces.

    I have learned not to be so sentimental with ‘stuff’ and came to this frame of mind when we moved my parents from their home to an apartment. There was so much stuff my parents held onto, thinking we (their children) would want it when they passed on. But in the end we collectively threw lots of things away, old report cards, things we created when we were in school, they weren’t as important to us since we were doing it for our own children. It was an eye opener.

    I will say we live a less stressful life right after we have performed a purging. That also seems to work well for me in my own personal and spiritual life when I have my own self in order and have purged all those things from myself that I am holding on to.

    Sloth – A word I am so afraid of that I don’t relax and will probably work myself into the grave. Which is why I go on retreats once a year and give my self permission to fall asleep in that lounge chair (I mean while meditating). Probably comes from the fact that in my later teens I had mastered the art of laying on the couch and watching every old movie… and I am afraid I could easily fall back into that rythym (even after 35 years). Sadly though most of the old movies have turned to dust (give me an old b-rated horror flick)….

  4. Oof. That bit about acedia hit a little too close to home. I think a lot of people who have had issues with depression, like me, can relate to that very well.

  5. Wow! Interesting timing….as you guys know I am a train nerd who loves O gauge. If you would see my bedroom you’d wonder about me. I’m not a hoarder….I just love trains. But likewise I also have tooooooooooooooooooo much, and I’ve decided its time to let go. I decided to focus mainly on Northern Pacific, Milwaukee Road, Great Northern, Burlington Northern, Montana Rail Link, Santa Fe, Southern Pacific, and some Soo Line/Wisconsin Central. (Basically railroads where I’ve lived, worked and attended school) As such I have been selling off other stuff I have that I just don’t need. It happens when you have a hobby. Think of your book, photo, doll, plate or tool collections, etc… and you’ll understand

    This morning I actually finalized a deal with a hobby shop in Pennsylvania and am selling off all my Chessie System, Baltimore & Ohio, Western Maryland, Conrail, in either Lionel, Atlas O, or Mike’s Train House (MTH)

    But I still have a loooooooooooooooooong way to go…but its a start.

  6. Wow. Toss up between which is in worst disarray….the closets in my home or in my soul. Both have suffered mightly in the last nine months, since I took on a tough new job and finishing my master’s degree. I know, I know, it is an embarrasment of riches to have these two issues, when so many are unemployed or underemployed and cannot afford school. But, it has left me no time to breathe, or pray well, or visit friends….. I only know that the job is settling down and school should be done by June (Please, God!) and then I have a lot of cleanup to do. Provided, of course, that I don’t get struck blind and thrown from my horse before then.