Cleaning Up the Clutter

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The area around our fire pit is a bit of a mess. Like, you could lose a small child in there mess. The logs and kindling are semi-stacked/falling to one side. A picnic table sits at one end, its boards crumbling with age. The patio is, well–a little uneven would be a charitable way to put it. We put the stone down ourselves, and straight and flat are not our strong suits.

We’re creatives here, not engineers. Don’t judge.

Last year, I worked hard to pull all the weeds that grow up between the logs and around the table. They were big. Thistles, pokeberries, bindweed—all of it went into the compost.

Then we went on vacation. And after two weeks, we returned to weeds so high they were over my head.

I am not even joking. Jesus please help if we ever forget to weed for over a month. They may never find us.

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Jesus’ story of the soils. We’ve covered the hard soil that refuses to be vulnerable and so never allows others to affect their lives.

We need to soften our hearts with vulnerability to tell a good story.

We’ve covered the rocky soil that refuses to commit and so stays shallow, never allowing Jesus to get in and make changes.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

Now, the weedy soil.

“Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants.”

I’m preaching an entire Advent series on distractions. Clutter. Those things in our lives that do exactly what these weeds do—crowd out the tender, beautiful things of God that are supposed to grow in our lives.

“The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced.” (Matthew 13)

Is your heart distracted or focused?

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Sometimes, I fear I have a thorny heart. There are so many other options. So many things get the resources that the seeds God plants in my heart need. He offers me the abundant resources of time, money, gifts, talents, people, things, and feelings. (Yes, they are abundant. Whether we believe it or not.) Too often, I squander those wonderful gifts on the things that should be lower on the priorities list.

Time? Booked.

Money? Budgeted.

Talents? Overextended.

Feelings? Already overloaded.

We get so distracted by competing priorities we don’t even notice the tiny plants God has sown into our lives struggling for their share of sun and rain. We’re too busy.

These priorities aren’t always bad, of course. Kids sports are good for them. Grades matter. Work requires our best. Entertainment is needed after a tough day of work, and paying bills, well, things can get a little dicey if we don’t.

The problem isn’t that we are committed to bad things. The problem is that we aren’t committed to the best thing first. When priorities compete, the biggest, loudest, strongest get the most attention. The weeds win. If I didn’t weed my garden, the weeds would always win. The same is true in our lives.

We’re always attracted to the shiny, the attention-seekers. The thing is, God’s kingdom isn’t usually shiny and loud. It’s usually quiet. It’s everyday. it’s about showing up and keeping on, and that can’t compete with the things that promise us all we’ve ever wanted.

The promise is:

We’ll be good parents if our kids are busy and get to do all the things other kids do.

We’ll be secure if we work enough to have a cushion in the bank.

We’ll be liked if we know all the shows and all the music and all the Facebook news everyone else does.

We’ll be important if we look busy.

We need to do a prairie burn of our lives so that good things get first crack at the sunshine.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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If we seek everything else first and then hope there will be room for the kingdom in our lives? We’re going to harvest thorns. We won’t even be able to find God in all the clutter. But if we seek the kingdom first? Jesus says he will add all the important things we truly need.

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (Matthew 6.33)

Everything. That we need.

Do you know what the tragic result is from all of our busyness and distraction? Did you notice that last line of the story?

“No fruit is produced.”

Fruit is the good story we tell with our lives. It’s all about the fruit. That’s the reason God left us here instead of winging us up out of this craziness the moment we got saved. We’re here to produce fruit. And distracted people don’t. It’s so clear in Jesus’ words that it’s tragic.

I think this may be the most common soil of all of them, which means I may be guilty. The world is so distracting and the kingdom so quiet.

Maybe these questions sounds familiar to you:

Why aren’t I joyful?

Why don’t I feel content?

Why are my finances always a mess?

Why is my schedule always nuts?

Why is life so hard?

It could be the answer to all of them is the same—we’ve let the weeds choke out the goodness and simplicity of the kingdom. We’ve made God’s good seeds compete, and they are losing.

We need to declutter our hearts with focus to tell a good story.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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What do you need to weed out of your life? What do you need to focus on? Christmas and a new year are good times to get quiet, look at or priorities, and ask ourselves—am I seeking first the kingdom of God? Does it look like I am when I look at my list of activities? What seeds Is God trying to plant in my heart, and what is it going to take to give them some air and sunshine?

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

We can’t tell a good story with a cluttered life. Decluttering our hearts brings out our best story.

(Don’t) Clean up Your Mess

Hey, what’s wrong with messes? We look great, right?

The more I live with people instead of just coexisting in proximity, the more I recognize something—there are a of of messed up people out there. Even more messed up than I am. Yes, true story.

The other thing I’ve come to recognize is that being messed up is not necessarily a bad thing. Neat lives are often a sign of lives so carefully curated that they are museum dioramas, not lives. And the thing about museum dioramas? They’re full of dead things. Stuffed dead things. This is not appealing to most of us as an environment.
A little bit of mess signals a life that’s lived in, like a couch with graham cracker crumbs welded to the underside of the cushions. That life has taken risks, known joy, and has the stains to prove it. Some messes are dangerous, toxic spills that needs to be cleaned up out of our lives. But others? We need them to prove we’re alive.
I never wanted or imagined the mess of a loved one with mental illness and attendant self-destructive behavior. Given the choice, I’d have picked the carefully curated life. Having chosen that, I would have missed out on a lot that has made me alive.
I had no idea I was living amid dead things.
Sometimes messes just mean something better is coming.

Because of that experience, I’ve been able to share a lot with people whose lives are broken in various ways, and similar variations on a theme keep returning. It’s hard. It hurts. But we have learned so much. When you’re in the slime and mud of the mess, though, you really want to know what exactly people have learned. What could possibly make this worthwhile? What could anyone tell me to make me appreciate this wrenching time of uncertainty?

I’m not sure. I suspect that when people are slogging through those times is not always the best opportunity to offer sage advice. Most of us aren’t ready to hear it when the pain is shrieking louder than the wisdom. But people ask. What do you find out about life, and yourself, when your world is a mess? How do you even survive?
The answer to the second question is easy: God’s grace and insistent love. Nothing more or less.
The answer to the first could go on a while. But here are a few thoughts.

I learned that grace was a choice I didn’t make often enough. 

I had theoretically believed in grace, but operationally, I extended it mostly to those who didn’t look like they needed it. For those with rough edges and incomprehensible, annoying behavior? Maybe when they got themselves together. My reality of grace was not even close to God’s dream of it for me. I had no idea that grace looked a lot more like hugging a drug addict than praying for lunch at Panera.
Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Grace has been out of hand for more than two thousand years now. We best get used to it.” (Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday)


I never understood that before. I didn’t really want to. Now, I don’t want anything else.

I learned that love is always a good thing to decide. 

You might get hurt. You will be taken advantage of. But love reserved for those who deserve it and won’t tamper with it is not love at all. It’s a calculated investment. CS Lewis said, To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.”
I didn’t understand that until I had to choose to love not only my loved one in a mess but the people it brought into our lives. It seemed God put them there despite what I wanted, so the only real choice was to love them. And they did, indeed, break my heart. But broken hearts are the best kind for letting others inside.   . God’s dream for me was to lavish unconditional love, as He did. My reality had been fearful half loving.

I learned to honestly believe that He loves us. 

He loves our messes. Really.
He can handle them.

Driving with a loved one to a potential prison sentence is about as messy as it gets. Until in the middle of praying you hear those words on the radio, “If His grace is an ocean we’re all sinking; oh, how He loves us so.” And you realize for perhaps the first, or at least the most profound, time that they are true. Not just for you but for the person sitting next to you. And all those other persons out there who have messes in their lives and need that grace like an ocean. He loves. Beyond our imagination.

He takes care of the messes, beyond our imagination. All the worries and terrors and anxieties about them do nothing helpful, while putting the mess in His hands and leaving it there always does. Because He Loves are the most needed and true words you will ever hear, and they are bedrock when life feels more like a mudslide than a picnic.
I don’t know if you’re feeling messy right now, and I don’t know if it helps to be told those things. Maybe you have to learn them yourself in the fire. I think, though, that at least it helps to know someone else has been in that mess, and it has not won.
Something better is still coming.
We still have not finished this mess.

Have you seen the sign some people hang in their kitchen that reads “God Bless This Mess”? Yeah. That’s about right. Ask Him to. He will.