How to clean out a garage–and unclutter your life

(This was first posted in 2009 as I was preparing to retire from the active, paid ministry. I’ve tweaked it a little. –JM)

Margaret and I were talking about my upcoming retirement from this position with our association. I said, “What do you want me to do when I retire?” She said, “Clean out the garage.”

And then? “The attic,” she said.

My wife has learned to lower her expectations concerning tasks around the house by her spouse of nearly 47 years.

The other day, our oldest son Neil was over. He’s being ordained as a deacon in our church on Sunday night, April 5.  We’re all excited; if ever a man had a servant heart, he does.  He said, “I decided that being ordained deserves a new suit, so I’m going to treat myself.” After suggesting a good men’s store, I said, “I’ll give you some financial assistance on that suit if you will help me clean out the garage.”

Sneaky, huh.

This morning, Friday–Neil works four ten-hour days at Northrop-Grumman’s local shipyards, so he has long weekends for himself–he arrived early with his pickup truck. He and I tease about a bumper sticker I once saw on an F-150 like his: “Yes, it’s my truck and no, I will not help you move.” But with family, it’s different.

Something there is about a garage that does not love order and spaciousness, to misquote Robert Frost. The last two homes we’ve lived in were larger, so we used the garage for the cars. In moving to Kenner, we downsized and left ourselves with less storage space. But that’s what garages were invented for, right?

Over the fifteen years we’ve lived in this house, I know I’ve cleaned out that garage three or four times. But boxes seem to beget other boxes. Half-filled cans of paint and spray bottles of cleaners and chemicals of unknown identity sit on shelves untouched for years. There’s a Christmas tree in there, standing erect, fake of course. And boxes of books and the cushions for the patio furniture and who knows what all.

“Use your own judgment,” I told him. Margaret agreed she does not want to be consulted on what he hauls away. If in doubt, it goes. Common sense dictates that if we haven’t needed something in years, we’ll not be missing it once it vanishes.

Three thoughts on de-cluttering presented themselves to me.

One: this is the ideal way to get one’s garage cleaned out — ask a disinterested party to come over and take care of the matter. He does not get distracted by memories associated with this baby crib, that old suitcase, or those papers. (Neil is not entirely disinterested, of course, but you know what I mean.)

Two: this is a little foretaste of the task Neil will face after his mother and I depart for celestial regions. Margaret and her sister Susan did that some years back when their dad died in Birmingham. It’s a tough job and you cry a lot, but you wouldn’t let anyone else tackle it. Going through mom and dad’s stuff is a tough sad labor of the strongest love. So, common sense says the more we get rid of now, the easier will be his (and his two siblings’) task in the future.

I’m remembering the day when I was pastoring and pulled out a drawer containing all those plaques I had received through the years. (I will not bore you with a list of my, ahem, distinguished-service awards. Lol.) One by one, I tossed them all in the trash can.  My secretary Janie could not believe I was doing that. She said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Saving my children the task of having to do this some day.”  IMHO, as the saying goes, plaques are the most useless thing on the planet and exist to give the uncreative an acceptable way to thank someone for something and to massage the ego of the one receiving it.

Three: one wonders if this would not be a good way to clean up our personal lives. Invite someone to come in and inspect us and identify every bad habit, every destructive way, every ungodly aspect — and then, haul them off.

After all — considering this last thought now — another person can see my faults better than I can. What I see as a mote, they recognize for what it is, timber from a California Sequoia.

Don’t we all do that, after all? Don’t we see faults and failures in others better than in ourselves? So what better plan for getting rid of sinful habits and destructive ways than asking a disinterested third party to move in and take charge!

“What about all these boxes of books?” Neil asked just now in a phone call. “They stay,” I said. “Stack them somewhere.”

At that point, I read this article to him (to this point). He said, “We do the same thing in the business world. We call them 360 degree assessments. Your peers come in and study your work, your schedules, habits, etc., and then make recommendations.

I said, “But they still can’t remove the problem. All they can do is point it out.” He laughed, “Yep. Some things you have to do for yourself.”

Now, I’m racking my brain to come up with a Scripture that will support this revolutionary new way of sanctifying believers’ lives. Psalm 139:23-24 comes to mind: Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. 

The Lord, of course, is no disinterested third party. He is our Creator and Redeemer and Father. No one knows us better, loves us more, and sees more clearly those areas at risk. So, He’s the right one to ask.

Even then, however, after we invite Him in to do those things which David prayed — search me, know me, try me, lead me — you’ll notice that there is no shortcut to the cleansing of the human heart. David seems not to have prayed, “And if you find anything you don’t like, go ahead and remove it.”

The Lord will not let us off as easily as we did with Neil (“If in doubt, it goes”). When He searches our hearts and locates something amiss, what the Holy Spirit does is call it to our attention.

“What about this?” He says. And that’s when we begin to bargain.

“Oh, Lord,” we reply, “We couldn’t live without that. I need that. Sometimes when I’m discouraged.”

“But you’ve grown past that now. That was for the immature you. You’ve found me to be sufficient for those times.”

“I know, Lord, and I certainly appreciate that in You. But, you know, just in case I have a relapse, I may be needing that crutch.”

“So, you’re not getting rid of it?”

“Is this going to be a problem, Lord?”

“It is if you want to grow in my grace and knowledge. But, if you’re satisfied with your spiritual life and see no further need to advance, then it’s no problem. You may keep that pacifier, that crutch, that habit.”

“And I will remain at this level of spiritual growth? That’s not so bad, Lord. I like where my life is now.”

“No. The moment you say ‘no’ to the Holy Spirit, your spiritual life does not plateau. You begin to slip back, to regress.”

“Oh, my. So, you’re telling me I have to make a lot of tough choices if I’m to grow in Christ and in my usefulness to You? Lord, I thought when I made that initial decision — you know, to trust Christ as Savior — that was the end of my decision-making.”

“Not even close. It was just the first decision in a life-time of choices you will be called on to make.”

“Whoa. This is tough, Lord.”

“Well, it just comes down to whether you want to be clean or not, to grow or not, to be used for divine purposes or not. No one else will move into your life and make these tough decisions for you.”

“Will you pray for me, Lord?”

“That’s what I’ve been doing.”

“Thank you. Help me.”

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