My wife and I walked down our country road this week, picking up litter. We took a thirty-gallon trash bag with us on our usual two-mile walk, thinking that we would pick up trash as we went. But we had to turn around after about 700 yards to get another bag. And then another.
We found beer cans, pop cans, liquor bottles of various sizes, water bottles, plastic grocery bags, fast-food containers, construction materials, and more. I felt sympathy for the poor man or woman who tosses the beer cans each night (there seem to be new ones each day) before arriving home to spouse and family. I suppose he or she is trying to hide the evidence
Most of that trash will be hidden from view within a week or two. The grass will grow, the mayapples will push up, and the stinging nettles and other weeds will emerge. The roadside will grow a lovely green that motorists will admire, but behind the signs of life will lie the evidence of corruption and decay.
When the grass and weeds die in the autumn, the trash will be visible again, but only for a time. Then the fresh, white snows will cover it under their cold blanket until spring. There are certain times when clean-up is best done. At other times it cannot be done at all.
Because we live at the bottom of a small valley between low ridges, water runs down the ditches from high to low, especially in the spring. Sometimes enough trash collects in the ditch to dam up culverts and force the water aside into rank pools or to spill over onto field or road.
As we climbed in and out of the ditch, I couldn’t help but think of the trash-strewn road as a metaphor for people’s lives. The road itself remains clean (for the most part), just as the part of our lives that most people see remains clean. But out of sight, in the ditch and hidden recesses, lies the litter of our failures and excesses, our sins and our pains.
I have been in pastoral work long enough (and have had a long enough acquaintance with myself) to know that a casual Sunday drive through someone’s life will not reveal what’s really there. Most people look good to the casual observer but conceal, in the hidden places of their lives, the residue of broken relationships, fears and failures.
The lives we live, like the roads we travel, are often in need of a clean-up. Sometimes the task seems so daunting that we hesitate to tackle it. We cling to the hope that no one will notice (or call attention to) our trash while we wait for life to provide some kind of cover to hide it.
In our lives, as on our roads, there are seasons when clean-up can best be done, and seasons when it can hardly be done at all. Put another way, there are times when we cannot overlook the stuff that is polluting our lives, and those times provide the best opportunity to do some clean-up.
But cleaning up can be hard, and even dangerous, work. Some of the stuff strewn along the periphery of our lives may be quite toxic, while other litter may be, simply put, embarrassing. How are we supposed to go about cleaning up?
First, don’t think of cleaning up as something meritorious. If you do it to earn moral or spiritual bonus points, you’ll be disappointed—and most people won’t even notice. Do it, rather, to be happier and more productive.
Second, don’t do it alone. Find a trusted friend or spiritual director who can help you think rightly about yourself and be honest about what you find.
Third, ask God himself for help. We cannot always see the things that litter our lives or prevent us from being happier and more productive—but God can. Like the biblical poet, ask him what he sees: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/8/2017