where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.
you have probably heard the saying before: a clean house is a sign of a wasted life. i must admit that a large part of me CRINGES at that. i love a tidy house. i like when things are clean and folded and put away. i love when cabinets are organized. when items are in place. when i have a tight schedule. when we have a plan. and it isn’t just me… ben is crazy too. he loves freshly polished silver. he loves buffed floors and shiny windows and manicured lawns. we both love the smell of lemon and pine. the steam from a running dishwasher. the sights and sounds of cleanliness.
most days, we wish we lived at downton abbey. or in the very least, lived like martha stewart. the order of it all is incredibly appealing. the attention to detail. the pretty things and pristine surroundings and well-cared-for everything. pomp and circumstance. prim and proper. glorious formalities. fine china. dressing for dinner. every last detail, perfection. no hair out of place.
and there are definitely times when we are on our game. maybe not downton-worthy moments because let’s be honest, that is a bit of a bygone era and how can one be relevant in 2015 if you require every family meal to be served in seven courses to dukes in tuxes and tails and duchesses dripping with the family jewels…? but, we might pull off the occasional martha-esque moment. a dinner party with all the trimmings. a clean and amazing smelling house with the perfect ambient light and mood music. snacks ready to serve unexpected guests. books arranged in either alphabetical order (by author) or color-coded and out for display with our decorative odds and ends…and of course, dusted to reveal their leathery splendor. and sometimes, all the toys cleaned and put away without any of the pieces missing!
but those are our shiny moments. most moments are not exactly so glistening. we have tough days and busy weeks. moments when you are worn out and can’t even imagine tidying or scrubbing or putting away. times when a full and fabulous weekend comes to a close but you are left feeling like you haven’t accomplished a thing around the house. and the signs are everywhere: clutter. things. stuff. stickers affixed to surfaces where they don’t belong. cans filled with rubbish and recycling. dust bunnies (ahem, dog hair tumbleweeds) and streaks and handprints on the windows. dishes in the sink from our family meals. piles of crayons and play kitchen food and dress up clothes and books. decorative pillows tossed on the floor and throw blankets in heaps and mounds and fashioned into forts or caves or picnic blankets. weeds growing in the backyard and old sidewalk chalk drawings hidden under unsightly leaves that have yet to be blown or collected and disposed of. clean laundry that has yet to be put away in its proper place.
but you know what? i am becoming more okay with that kind of home. God is speaking to my heart. God is helping me to see the beauty in the occasional mess. seeing those handprints on the windows and stainless steel as marks of a busy and curious child. dirty dishes as sweet remnants of the delicious meals we enjoyed together as a family, complete with conversation and laughter. toys strewn about as signs of great childhood adventures and play and imagination at work. growing weeds as reminders of the fleeting nature of this life and to spend time sowing seeds that will root themselves firmly and grow and bear fruit and flourish. after all, weeds come and go. they can be taken out just as quickly as they grow. and they can be replaced with lovely sod.
God uses the messes of life to show me what matters.
becoming parents has gone a long way toward loosening our grip on perfection or the illusion of perfection. elinor has helped us to embrace what is in front of us. to find joy in the simple things. to marvel more. to really truly engage and revel in the moment. in the last few years, we have been going through a process of learning to give ourselves permission to let some things slide. to let a few plates sit in the sink for a bit. to let the clean laundry pile up and not be folded and ironed and starched and put away in the closet – while it is still warm. it is okay to let important things take precedence and crowd out some other tasks. it is okay to have a junk drawer. it is okay to have some crumbs on the counter. it is okay to let some dust accumulate for a few days while you are occupied elsewhere. it doesn’t all have to be perfect. it doesn’t all have to be clean and tidy. and it doesn’t all have to get done right. this. second.
shortly after elinor’s birth, i remember reading an excerpt from a poem that has now been made into artistic calligraphy prints and kitschy needlepoint wall hangings and sold to mamas on etsy: “the cleaning and scrubbing will wait till tomorrow, for children grow up, as i’ve learned to my sorrow. so quiet down, cobwebs. dust go to sleep. i’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.” that right there is like cat’s in the cradle for mamas. okay, yes, there is truth to it. but it just rubbed me the wrong way because man oh man, my gut wants to put that out-of-place object away, and right away. i want a sparkling kitchen that looks picture-worthy before, during, and after mealtime. i want a pantry without any crumbs and filled with organized, fabulous containers with nifty labels. i want things to glisten. i want my closets to look like a page out of real simple magazine. and i want it to be like that right now and all the time.
now hear me. i do think that there is value in order and cleanliness. oh yes. your home should be a sanctuary and inviting – not a scene from an episode of hoarders. dysfunction and disaster and unruly everything is not good. we don’t have license to be careless or slovenly or lazy. definitely not. you should properly steward the things of life and care for your home, doing your best. you should teach children to pick up messes and treat toys with care and contribute to the home with hard work. those are good things. but, there is a time and a place for everything. set aside time to pick up and clean, yes. but give the family some time and license to mess things up. and let that be okay and good. get in there and live it up when you can, because, babies don’t keep, after all.
i have to ask God to refocus me on a daily basis. it is so easy to get out of whack. i need the reminder that a life well-lived is often messy and a productive life is a messy life.
that doesn’t mean that life is supposed to be icky all the time or that you live in utter chaos. no no. but it does mean that when you are at work, when you are busy sowing seeds, when your hand is at the wheel, when you are living life, when you are pursing productivity with everything you can muster, when you are enjoying the pleasures of God, when you are making memories, there isn’t *always* time to tend to *everything*. you cannot focus your time, attention, gifts, energy, and enthusiasm toward noble goals while still keeping every single itty-bitty corner of life perfectly tidy. BUUUUUUT, the key is to make sure that we are being biblically productive and not just busy. having a disaster-area home because life is just busy with “stuff” is not good at all. but being surrounded by momentary messes and having some cluttered corners of life because you are busy on the valuable things of life is definitely okay. more than that. it is noble.
there are seasons, absolutely. some weeks or months are more quiet. you have more time. days are longer and softer. you can putter and tinker and give time and attention to forgotten projects. you can tweak and tend. put things in their rightful places. organize. declutter. and organize again. and those are necessary and lovely times. times of preparation. times of rest and rejuvenation of the body and soul. but during the high-seasons of life, it is inevitable that along the way you will accumulate some mess.
the pastor’s desk will at times be crammed with books and papers. the baker’s counter will sometimes overflow with pots and pans and flour and sugar. the mechanics’s hands will be stained with grease and his shop will need a daily once-over with the power washer. and the home—the home will at times be messy and cluttered and downright embarrassing.
when i feel myself getting half a bubble off plumb and focusing on all the wrong things, i remind myself that “abundant crops come by the strength of the ox”. and while one might desire a neat and tidy life (as one might desire the the stall to be clean), that is not the utmost. we should be striving for abundant crops – even if that leads to a messy stall. productivity is next to godliness, not cleanliness next to godliness. you cannot have perfect order and perfect productivity all at the very same time. at least, that shouldn’t be the expectation. does it happen sometimes? yes! and how magical when it does! but that isn’t the be-all and end-all. and i would rather have a home and a life that is real and honest and effective and productive than one that is spick-and-span and sterile. it is okay to allow some things to be moved to the back burner. it is okay to kick up some dust and then let that dust settle for a few days before wiping it away.
and what freedom that gives! freedom to not be perfect. focusing time and energy on striving for holiness, not perfection. a holy life, a life that is productive for the Kingdom, doesn’t look perfect. and a “perfect life” isn’t always productive or effective. moreover, a perfect life isn’t usually a perfect life. and i would rather be neck-deep in messy kingdom work than admiring (or having others admire) my tidy stall.
where there are oxen at work, there is bound to be some dust kicked up and mud tracked in. here’s to living an abundant life with beautiful messes!