On Easter Sunday, I completed an interim ministry. While it ended with happy tears, there were tears nonetheless. When parishioners asked me what I would be doing after I left them, I was honest: “Cleaning my house.”
There is no better salve for grief than a good housecleaning. Already today, I have recycled all the Christmas catalogs and taken down the Christmas lights on the porch (I wish I was making this up). I let go of a few thousand plastic grocery bags. I even smashed a stack of shoeboxes that will probably not be needed by my 15 year old for making future dioramas of the solar system.
Cleaning and discarding things is good for the soul. In China, at the start of the New Year, the first thing everyone does is clean their homes. The ancients believed that evil spirits lurked among the dust bunnies.
In a former church, I found a lot of evil spirits when I arrived. I combed through the closets and unused rooms and found an old dartball set from the days they had played in a league, and a ping pong table once used by the youth group. There was the skin of a rattlesnake in a box, a whole room full of theological books from the 70’s, and, inexplicably, a wedding dress.
I figured all these things must have great stories behind them, so I dragged them into the sanctuary one Sunday and, as part of the sermon, I asked people to tell stories about the objects I had found, thinking the exercise would conjure up some laughs and perhaps a few tears. Instead, I got a lot of blank stares. I suggested that the items might be taken out into the community and given to people who could make good use of them. This did not elicit an enthusiastic response. A few people claimed items, but everything else I hauled out myself or put back where I found it.
Okay, so maybe don’t try this at your church.
I appreciated Barbara Melosh’s recent peice, “Clutter Buster” in The Christian Century (3/20/13). She tells of how her church accumulated a lot of stuff but there was no one authorized to throw things away. After an awkward power struggle, she and a few like-minded laypeople managed to clean out some rooms and freshen them up with new paint and carpets. Slowly over time, the community learned there was space available in the church, and new people and groups began showing up.
A church that accumulates a lot of stuff but doesn’t authorize anyone to throw anything out. There’s a parable in there!
I don’t think there is any church that could not benefit from a good, all church spring cleaning. In teams of two or three, members comb through the closets and ask each other, “Why did we keep all these egg cartons again?” The names of the church’s most zealous junk collectors may be uttered out loud. And a few great memories might be cradled in people’s hands. At the very least, you will exorcise a few dust bunnies.
And once you clear out some space, who knows what God might fill it with?