"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spiritual Spring Cleaning (Sunday, April 3, 2011)

            My dear Elizabeth took a day off from work this week so that we could do something really special, something we had been looking forward to doing for a long time.
            No, not go out to lunch at our favorite restaurant.
            No, not go up to one of the art houses in Cambridge to see one of those new films we’ve been wanting to see.
            No, not take in the latest exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts.
            No. We cleaned the cellar. We got about three-quarters of it done, too, maybe even a little more. And it felt good. (Now, we just have to get that last little section done before we start dumping stuff down there again. It’s one of those jobs kind of like washing the windows on the Empire State Building. It never ends, really.)

            I don’t think I’d qualify for the A&E television series Hoarders, or whatever it’s called. (I have absolutely no inclination to watch any kind of “reality” television, but especially that program. It sounds rather pathetic, actually.) But like many of you, I suspect, I have lots of trouble throwing things away.
            The cellar was full of boxes and boxes of things I had clipped from newspapers and magazines over the years, each with its own little bit of information I might  need “some day”—for a sermon, for a book, for whatever…
Or, they actually were things—clippings, articles, what have you—that I had used—for a sermon or a book or whatever—but now couldn’t bear to throw away.
But now, 99.9% of those clippings now await transport to a local recycling bin, as do back issues of Budget Travel, and old TV Guides, and The Economist stretching back to the late-1990s, which might have been the last time I got rid of some of this stuff. They’re gone now, or going…
            Now, before Easter, when company’s coming, sticking their head into things, I have to tackle the refrigerator—and all those jars of condiments, with a smidgen or this and a smidgen of that. I have to get rid of last year’s horseradish, so I can make room for this year’s. I think the stuffed green olives from Thanksgiving can go. We ate three of them, after all. Maybe one jar of Major Grey’s chutney is enough, instead of two or three.

            Then, at some point, I need to get into the closet in the bedroom, too, and decide which clothes to keep and which to bring to St. Vincent’s. Am I going to be the “Big Jeff” this year or the “Very Big Jeff”? (You can probably track all the diets I’ve been on for the past ten years by the measurement of the clothes in my closet.) “Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide...” Between the size 34 waist and the size 38; between the Size XL and the plain old L.
            There comes a time, even for pack rats like some of us, when it’s time for a purge. It’s time to get into the closet and toss (or, even better, recycle). It’s time, every once in a while, for a bit of cleaning—and what better time for that than the spring?
            This spring seems to have been a little sluggish in getting here, but at least Easter is late this year, so it has until April 24 to get its act together.
            Various cultures have their own rituals for the spring: The Jewish ritual of chametz takes place every year the week before Passover (which starts at sundown on April 19 this year). In chametz, an observant Jewish family will toss out every bit of last year’s grain, in a ritual reenactment of the actions of their ancestors in Egypt, as they prepared to escape pharaoh. Every old crumb hanging around in the kitchen—every kernel in the corner—everything has to swept up and thrown out. Everything must go so that the whole kitchen or pantry is spotlessly cleaned; and the special Passover dishes are washed and scrubbed thoroughly; and the new season of spring can start with a fresh and clean start.

In the Christian tradition, there is Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday, which was March 9 this year. The forty days of Lent symbolize the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, where he had gone off by himself to fast in preparation for his entry into Jerusalem. So, during Lent, in the Catholic tradition especially, Christians are asked to fast, or at least to give something up-- to cleanse themselves physically and spiritually, in order to prepare for the coming of the Easter season.

In our more secularized culture today, we’re more likely to engage in spring cleaning before Easter in order to prepare for the coming of the Easter Bunny: so that someone won’t reach for an Easter egg at the hunt, and pull out a “dust bunny” instead!

For many reasons, then, different cultures direct some kind of spring cleaning—mainly, I think, because it makes us feel good; it puts us in-sync with the new energy flowing in the earth at this season of new life. When we clean a room, or a cellar, or the refrigerator, it feels like things can breathe again, like there’s new energy flowing.

That is, after all, one of the basic principles of the Chinese art of feng shui. In order to have a healthy and prosperous life, your chi—your life force, your energy—has to be able to flow. Too much clutter—in your house, or even in one’s own body—blocks the flow of energy. The chi can’t flow if it’s constantly bumping up against furniture and stuff and piles of papers and more stuff.

Now, we need to de-clutter our homes from time to time in order to let the energy flow. This is no less true of our souls. The spirit—we might say soul—of each of us is our vital center. It’s the core of our being; our innermost psychological sanctuary. Now, we might pile a lot of junk in the cellar or in the attic; but we wouldn’t think of cluttering up our sanctuary here at church that way, would we? We wouldn’t stack boxes in the aisles, or stacks of newspaper in the choir loft, would we? No, we want that to be nice and clean; the aisles clear; the air and the light and the sound able to flow. Maybe we need to take care of the sanctuaries of our inner beings that way, too.

But too often, we allow our souls to get cluttered. They even get grimy, and dirty, and from time to time, they need a good scrubbing—or at least some cleaning out, some re-arranging. As a writer named Gaylah Balter puts it, “Why, you ask, would the soul need any spring cleaning? [Because] as our daily lives unfold, we lose track of our souls’ needs… Noise, clutter, stress, or life chaos seep into our lives and dim our ability to care-take our souls.”

Noise—clutter—stress—all things we get our fair share of, certainly. If we don’t take time to sort through them, they before long they become a severe burden to our souls. If we don’t question whether they are positive additions to our beings or not—and rid ourselves of their excess—then all this noise, clutter, and stress can cause great internal dis-ease. Whatever the relationship is between internal and external dis-ease (and that’s an open question), we know that the relationship is there. Sometimes, stress makes us sick; it even kills. We know that a person who is more in balance on the inside will probably be happier (and perhaps healthier) on the outside.

So, how’s your chi flowing? How are you feeling? Have you taken the pulse of energy around you lately? Maybe you’re like me: a little tired, a little rundown and stuffy, feeling a little stuck. This long train of New England winters can do that to us. (Especially this past winter, which was kind of a tough one.) But there is also something within these human spirits of ours which can remind us, if we listen, that even in the midst of winter, even here in New England, there is always a new spring right around the corner.

But oftentimes, both in nature and inside each of us, there is yet another season between winter and spring. It gets overlooked sometimes, except maybe in Vermont, but it’s there; that’s Mud Season. The snow’s gone, but it sure as heck isn’t spring yet; the ground is loosening up, but it’s got to dry out a tad before anything can grow.

I once heard about a dirt road in Vermont which used to get awfully worn and rutted during Mud Season. It was just about impassable to all but the most intrepid, so much so that the town fathers and town mothers thought it might be helpful to post a sign by the side of the road, warning about the treacherous conditions. “Choose your rut carefully,” the sign said. “You’ll be in it for the next ten miles.”

Often in life, we end up in ruts which we may or may not have chosen, for 10 years, or 20, or even more: Ruts of addiction. Ruts of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Ruts of relationships that don’t work any more. Ruts of not being able to get out of our own way. Ruts of not being able to forgive someone for something they’ve done to us. Ruts of not being able to forgive ourselves. Ruts of laziness and sloth. Ruts of perfectionism and self-sufficiency. Ruts of self-indulgence. Ruts of self denigration. Comfortably numb ruts which make us not want to change anything about our lives, even when they’ve grown too small or too limited or even lifeless.

There’s a rut out there for everyone (maybe a good half dozen for some of us), and we all get stuck in ruts at different times in our lives. But a little spiritual spring cleaning can help us clean out those inner passageways, and climb out of some of those ruts. And we do it one rut at a time.

Perhaps the first step in the process of spiritual spring cleaning is to take a personal inventory. Discover what it is that you want to change, that you need to change. Decide whether it is something you have the power to change. Then discern what tools your life has given you for making the change. Discover. Decide. Discern. That means finding some time to step aside from the busyness of life, if just for a little while, and listen for that inner voice, and ask ourselves, “What is life trying to tell me?” Just as we need to take a day off from work to clean the cellar sometimes, so we might need to take some time by ourselves to consider these questions of who we truly are.

Then, if you get some answers, you don’t have to change everything at once. Indeed, that might be the worst thing to do. If we try to clean our houses that way, we’re asking for disaster; we’ll probably just end up with that many more unfinished projects. We start cleaning the closet in the den; then go on to the closet in the bedroom; then we go into the cellar; then we start the attic. Before we know it, we have a half dozen half-done projects all around the house, just adding to the clutter and chaos.

The same thing happens if we try to change everything that needs changing in our lives all at once. We may create more problems without solving the ones we’ve got. It seems wiser, I think, to focus on that one thing that’s crying out the loudest for you to change. You probably know what it is already. It’s the two ton elephant, sitting in the middle of the sanctuary of your soul. Concentrate on getting rid of that – one step at a time—then move on to the next challenge.

But start somewhere. Start to change. Start to rearrange your souls, so they might blossom forth abundantly. As the poet Rumi reminds us, “Don’t fall back asleep!” Don’t descend back into the interminable winter of your soul. Don’t listen to that voice telling you (and it’s probably your own voice, really): “Maybe this rut isn’t so bad. It’s a pretty comfortable rut. Maybe I’ll hang around here for another 10 or 20 years.”

Someone once said (and maybe it was me that said it, but I can’t remember): The only difference between a rut and a grave is how high the sides are.”

As Anais Nin reminds us, if we are to be truly alive, for all of us there will come that blessed day when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the pain it took to blossom.

The time for hibernation is over. It’s time to get out of bed, and out of our ruts. “Don’t fall back asleep.” Begin your journey of spiritual change and growth.

“Clean your room well,” the old Shakers tell us, “for good spirits will not live where there is dirt.”

May we create that space within for a good spirit to grow, as well.

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