Christ Church crosses

Christ Church, Summit NJ

Home Page




Collection Plate  Donations are welcome! 
[ previous | index | next ] © 2006 Charles Rush

Cleaning House, Cleaning the Soul

By Charles Rush

March 5, 2006

Jer. 33: 6-8 and Dt. 16: 1-6

[ Audio (mp3, 3.4Mb) ]

L a
st week, we made we began Lent, some of us with the imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday to remember our mortality and reflect on that. At the Church, we celebrated Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday's or Shrove Tuesday, also called Carnaval in Rio, the undisputed leader in Bacchanal.

The celebration of Fat Tuesday's began in the Middle Ages. Families gathered together and collected together what they had that contained fat, had a big party, in preparation for the 40 days of Lent.

In the Christian tradition, we fast for 40 days before Easter, and reflect on the temptation and trial and eventual death of Jesus. We use the number 40 because the Gospel of Mark tells us that at the beginning of Jesus ministry, he went to the desert for 40 days to fast and reflect on what God wanted him to do. It was for him, a time of clarification of his soul, to distinguish in his own mind the difference between his personal ambitions and what God's will was for his life.

During this time, the Devil came to him, as the Devil will when you embark on a sustained and serious fast. I once spoke with a Trappist monk in Jerusalem who had some pilgrims at their monastery that wanted to "see God" and asked if they could fast at the monastery for a week. The monk told them, "yes, after 3 days of fasting, you most certainly will see God." And he is right. After a protracted period of time, you naturally hallucinate and temptation appears to you very much as an ontologically separate reality. Satan tempts Jesus with wealth, power, reputation, and a direct challenge to God. All of them, Jesus has to work through, as we all have to work through, in order to focus on the higher thing, what God would have him do with his life.

What does God want you to do with your life? Can you answer that question? What is it that you need to achieve? Do you know where you are headed? It is worth sustained reflection, not just once in our life, but periodically.

Lent is not just a Christian tradition but it was widely practiced in various ways by lots of different religions. Our practice probably grows out of reflection on earlier examples from Judaism.

Jews prepare for Passover to remember their epic march from the slavery of Egypt to the Deliverance of God when they walked out across the Sinai desert to freedom by completely cleaning their kitchens. You remember that in the Exodus they ran out of food and were sustained when God gave them manna in the desert, a dough without yeast in it. In memory of that time when they were stripped down to the absolute minimum to move quickly following God's lead, they cleanse their homes of all yeast. They not only throw out everything from the cupboard, they also clean the whole kitchen from top to bottom.

That practice is built into the spiritual calendar for lots of ancient people including our pagan ancestors from Europe. I suspect that it evolved naturally out of the fact that this time of year was generally a time of want to ancient farming communities. Food was running out from the winter and the livestock was also too thin to butcher. You had to deal spiritually with the temptation of eating your seed corn or eating your cattle and hens before they were able to deliver the next generation in the summer. It required discipline. I also suspect that our ancestors intuitively figured out that a total cleaning killed lots of living germs and diseases that were making them sick and killing them.

Spiritually speaking, it is a healthy thing, Mardi Gras followed by Lent. It is a recognition that just as there is a dimension of the human soul to live it up and get dirty, so there is an important place for scrubbing up and getting clean.

And here, as in so many places in our lives, the physical facilitates the spiritual. My wife was recently out of town, visiting our granddaughter for the first time. I was home alone for a week. I couldn't sleep. With just one teenager at home everything pretty much stays where it is, so I went into the kitchen and for some reason, started picking up. Over the next couple days that led to pulling stuff out all over the kitchen and cleaning in ways that hadn't been done for quite a while, and I just kept going around the house, straightening, throwing out. It started in loneliness and boredom, thinking that my wife would really like to come home to a neat clean place after spending a week with an infant, and all the loose ends and untidiness that come from infants and cooking for new parents… After a while, it turned into a very big project that led me out to the garage- many trips to the dump, whoa. You know what I'm talking about.

And you can feel yourself changing as you go, getting more oriented towards discipline, follow through, good habits. I found myself looking in the mirror as I was going, thinking to myself, next project is that fat boy looking back at me in the mirror. You start getting stronger, physically and spiritually.

It is a good time for reflection too. You open drawers and find things and ask yourself 'What are we saving this stuff for?' It is a good physical question and that physical question disposes you to asking the spiritual question, 'what do I actually need to help me accomplish what I am supposed to be about in this next chapter of my life?' You are sorting, paring down, refocusing, acquiring different equipment and tools.

It is important to do this every once in a while. Some of it is mundane. I go through ties every so often. If I haven't worn it in the past year, pass it on or dump it. Process and move it on. I heard about a woman that was holding to a bunch of clothes, thinking to herself, 'if I lose some weight I'll be able to get back in those one day'. One day turned into something approaching a decade and one of her friends seeing that a quarter or a third of her closet was filled with stuff she couldn't get into, finally said to her, "Honey, if you really lose that weight, you should reward yourself and go out and buy all new stuff." So she finally got rid of 98% of those clothes and kept one or two items as a keepsake, a memory of an earlier time.

We need to re-gear, re-orient for the next chapter of our lives, carrying just what we need, nothing less, but also nothing more. I have it as a maxim in my mind that after 40, everyone ought to be required to move every decade, even if it is back into your existing house, to force yourself to go through this discipline of sorting, reassessing, refocusing on the future. There is a whole bunch of this stuff you no longer need. And there is, correspondingly, whole parts of your soul that you need to change because you are constantly evolving spiritually and you are not the same person you were a decade ago and you have new, different, important things you need to focus on for the future.

Religion provides us with these annual traditions and disciplines because we really deeply need them periodically in our lived lives. In our lived lives, sometimes we go through profound changes and we have to spiritually reorient ourselves.

My brother has been through this recently and I've been with him doing it. A couple years ago, he called me to tell me that his wife died out of the blue. She was a first grade teacher and had a heart attack lining her class up on the play ground to come in from recess. She just fell down and died. What a bad day. He couldn't talk on the phone. I just said, "I'll be right over" and I drove down to Washington where they lived with my my niece and my two nephews, all teenagers.

What I've reflected on over these past couple years, is how much spirituality is physical and how much physical disciplines are spiritual. So much of our compassion is just being there in those times. There isn't a lot to say. I just had to lay down with my niece. A lot of it was just walking my brother through the grim tasks of identifying the body, dealing with the funeral, and putting together a memorial service for the school and their Church. There were some things that he was unable to do because he couldn't face this death directly. It was too much spiritually and emotionally. So you do them for him. The quality of our compassion is knowing each other well enough, and having a spiritual discernment, to know when it is too much and when it is okay.

Because it was so sudden, there were some things that he had a hard time giving up. Spiritually, you have to let go, a little at a time. So he didn't want to have a graveside service right away. He kept her ashes for a few months and he called me one day and planned an event at the beach with bunch of their friends on Capitol Hill where they all vacationed together. And all of us went to the beach, stood in a circle, spoke about her and brought some memorabilia, shared laughter… and finally my brother said 'goodbye'. It was the right time to sort through that for him. And so much of the spiritual dimension of that was all of us physically standing together, holding each other, praying together, and helping him do it.

A couple years after that, he met another woman, they dated, way led to way and they are going to be married. They decided to sell their respective homes and buy a new home together. They had that new home and his new wife had moved in, but my brother just couldn't get moved across town. Work was too busy, kids schedules, special activities, whatever… it just wasn't happening. I realized that he needed help. He just wasn't going to be able to go through all of their things by himself. It wasn't just the physical task, it was the spiritual sorting through, deciding what to keep of the previous chapter of his life and their shared life, and what to part with. That is hard work spiritually. It is profound.

So Kate and I went down with the truck. Kate really had to literally hold his hand, hold my niece and nephews as watched their home packing up. They were a family that took lots of photos, so it seemed that photos were literally used as book markers for cookbooks, filled drawers, even taped up on the inside doors of cabinets. And you can't just take them down. You have to reflect on them for a bit.

We ended up with three kinds of boxes: stuff to move, stuff to throw out, and stuff to put in a box for storage and unpack with my nieces and nephews in a few years. We moved a few pieces of furniture to my children's homes. They are going to use them for a while and when my niece and nephews are out of college, we are going to give them back to them when they get married or set up their own homes. It will be important for them then.

Their mother is dead but she has not been replaced and she is not forgotten. But there comes a time when you need to sift through the stuff from that chapter, reassess it, reorganize it, because that chapter is complete. And we are transitioning to a new chapter, with different possibilities and needs. We can't stay like we were. We are always evolving spiritually and emotionally. Some things we hold on to through almost every chapter of our lives, but other things we need to let go so that we can take on other things. At its profoundest level, that is what Lent is helpful for -- getting us into a discipline to assess, reflect, let go, so that we can embrace what the future holds for us.

Where are you on the journey? Where are you headed next? God has yet more to develop in you yet. Of that I am quite sure. Amen.


© 2006 Charles Rush. All rights reserved.