The Secret To Cleaning Up Big Messes

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Getting my kids to clean their room is possibly the most difficult task of all the tasks I do or ever have done. I say, “Go clean your room” and before the last word even passes my lips, London is on the floor weeping and Eve is hiding in the bathroom. Usually I “yell” (it’s a pleasant but firm across-the-house announcement) a bunch of phrases like “I’m going to throw away every toy I find on the ground” and “I do not want to tell you again.”

Obviously I have room to grow as a mother.

Still…

The point is my kids hate cleaning their room. Having talked London through many a room-cleaning tantrum, I think I know why. For London, at least, it’s the magnitude of the mess.

She wants to obey me. She likes a clean room. She thinks maybe she could contribute to making the room clean. But standing there at the threshold, surveying the books and shoes and dirty clothes and Barbie dolls and water cups, all she can say is “It’s too much.” She has no idea how or where (or even why) to start. The job will inevitably end in failure.

I thought of London crying over her inevitably messy room as I talked to friends at lunch today. We talked world peace and American responsibility and all the hundreds of reasons why the problem of war seemed almost too big to tackle, the knot so tangled and tight. We found ourselves making concessions at every turn, “Yeah, but” sprinkled like salt on sentences. 

How do we stand on the threshold and survey the world’s mess—civil wars and genocide, slavery, sexual abuse in refuge camps, poverty, hunger, children with machine guns—and not say “It’s too much”? ‘Cause if I’m honest, that’s what I think. I don’t know how to clean it and I don’t know where to start and I question whether getting involved matters at all. 

I’m applying for a writing workshop right now and one of the course titles is “Writing for Social Change.” And I laugh a little, like words on a page could fix all this.

And then I pick up the only book I think just might.

What’s weird about the Bible—okay one weird thing—is the way it seems both epic and entirely personal. It’s a book about spiritual warfare and the fate of humanity and it’s a book about obeying your parents and being generous with your modest income. God reigns on a cosmic throne with thousands of angels worshipping Him day and night and He writes to us about worry and what we do at parties.

And what I wonder is… Why on earth does He care? Aren’t there bigger things to work out—wars, slavery, that kind of stuff?

I’m sure God cares about that stuff. And I’m sure He’s working to end wars and feed the hungry and restore justice in some grand, epic fashion, using His people all along the way. (Scripture speaks about all this, in fact.)

But I’m sure, too, after a lot of reading and thought, that God doesn’t expect me to fix the world the way He does.

He takes really big bites.

For all I can tell, God expects something”smaller” from me.

I read books like I Peter, written to people afraid for their lives, displaced, under the rule of an oppressive government that in a few years will devote itself to their total extermination, and the Holy Spirit inspires Peter (water-walking, wonder-working Peter) to say things like this:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (2:12)

Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. (2:17)

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (3:8-9)

Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (4:9)

At first glance, it all seems ridiculously small—compassion, good deeds, no grumbling…

But then, when I think about it longer, I wonder if the whole world might be turned upside down by sympathy and hospitality, respect, and a good attitude. 

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When I finally get up and go the door and stand beside London, surveying the mess, I tell her to start with one thing. I say, “Pick up one toy and put it back where it belongs.” It’s hard to convince her to do it. She can’t stop looking at the scale of the task. She’s paralyzed by the enormity. She thinks this room will require a miracle. 

But then I convince her to put away a toy, and I put away a book. We put a shirt in the dirty clothes pile and heap a blanket onto the bed from off the floor. Each act is small, a nothing in the face of so much disorder, but in twenty minutes the room is spotless, every toy in its place, every book in the box, clothes in the hamper, pillows on the bed.

It’s beautiful. Untangled. Made new. 

London is stunned, delighted every time she witnesses this miracle—a wonder that in the working didn’t seem so miraculous. 

Perhaps you’re like London, standing on your own threshold, surveying some problem that seems too big to solve. To you I say this: Find one thing that needs doing. And do it.

Make it simple. Start small.

If your relationship with your kids is in shambles, send one entirely warm and loving text.

If you worry about children starving in not-so-far-off countries, find an organization like Compassion or World Vision and sponsor one little boy or girl.

If you feel like everyone in the world is always angry, write a single joy-filled tweet. 

If you think nobody reads their Bible anymore, read yours. And then read it to your kids. 

If you really want world peace, apologize to a friend you’ve injured.

No, you reading your Bible for twenty minutes today might not end the civil war in Syria. But you reading your Bible every day just might set off a chain reaction you can’t predict or imagine or explain.

When we’re willing not to stand on the outside whining and complaining about the mess, but to wade in, tackling one small task after another, living our faith in everyday commitment, God will change the world through us—working miracles that in the working don’t seem so miraculous at all.