Cleaning Up Other People’s Messes: Givers and Takers

Sometimes we use up things and leave behind our messes– our leaves blow over to our neighbors place, we forget to clean up our own mess at our table at the fast food joint, or we leave our dirty dishes for someone else to clean.  Other times we make up for others– clean their dishes, clean up their table when we sit down at the restaraunt, do what they forgot to do, even though its not really our job.

Some people in the world tend to leave more messes than others, and some people find themselves picking up the messes of others more often than not.  Some people would rather have a clean sink than wait for others to wash their own dishes.  And some people just don’t seem to quite think about how their actions impact others. 

It can be frustrating to take care of other people’s messes– it may not seem fair, it may not seem just, it may not be right.  But the world is a place where economies of justice do not usually hold.  The world needs mercy, and grace.

To be  a Christian is to identify with Christ, as a follower who belongs to Christ and who is dedicated to the purposes of Christ.  My life is now his, and I am to be like him.   Christ came because there was a justice deficit in the world– and Christ was sent to help cover that deficit and to bring tranforming power to help us make up that difference ourselves in the way we live our lives.  As Christians we of course consume Grace– we need grace and mercy– but in receiving that we are in turn committed to be givers– not just takers– of grace and mercy.  We do not expect justice for ourselves, we do not demand it.  We do not look out for our own interest, but for the interests of others.  Of course most of us do this quite poorly, since we find ourselves bound up with our own selfishness, our lack of concern for others, our lack of love.  But our aim, our hope, our goal– is to pour out of lives and to forgive and to love without return. 

Its hard enough sometimes to love your friends, your spouse, your family.  But then we are aiming to love our enemies, and those who do not even recognize us or harm they do to us.  In those situations we have opportunity to practice a grace which is redemptive– a generous redemption which in some ways is senseless, because it is not recognized as a gift or as redemption.

But some philosophers have said that a true gift can only happen when there is nothing given in return– no gratitude even.  So perhaps we can only give gifts to the ungrateful, to those who don’t recognize our act. 

If this is true, then cleaning up this garage mess is one such opportunity– a chance to practice the cleaning redemptive work of God in the world.  God is constantly giving and cleaning up messes with no recognition of his acts.  We live in an atheist society–  a society where God is by and large a dead concept. 

As I cleaned up the garage, scooping up handfuls of garbage and at times picking up garbage by hand to put into bags, I didn’t mind doing it.  This was a senseless unnecessary task– one which could have been avoided if others had been more thoughtful.  But in some vcry small way I felt like I was acting in defiance against the entropy of the world, and practicing constructive grace to renew the Creation– just a little.  It felt senseless and largely unappreciated, and that was part of what made it meaningul to me– in part becausee I imagine that that is how God often feels about much of the grace he pours out on us. 

God wants us– God needs us– to practice quiet grace in the world– a grace which quietly rights what is wrong, which resolutely reconstructs again what has been destroyed again,  which aims to move forward with expectation of good things where just before it seemed all bad.  To live this way is to live in faith. 

Jesus is the motive and the strength for us to do these things. 

May God have mercy on us all.

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2 responses to “Cleaning Up Other People’s Messes: Givers and Takers

  1. This is something I have been struggling with in re: to my family. Due to unwise choices over a period of several years, means that could have been used to make provision for family members in old age have been frittered away, and in spite of repeated warnings from doctors and assistance from others, consistently poor lifestyle choices have left some members in ill-health. Now we are faced with the necessity of caring for these family members. While we are not unwilling to share, serve and to help clean up messes, at what point do these family members need to take responsibility for their own actions so as not to continue draining resources and to place an undue burden on others. I am finding it challenging to find the balance between being a mercy-giver and being an enabler. Any thoughts?

  2. Dear anw, I have no idea if you will see this or if you are still caring for your family members, but it’s like you plucked my own words out of my head. I think that those of us who, through God’s plans, escape the dysfunction, often feel overwhelmed or bitter about the dichotomy of duty vs guilt when cleaning up others’ messes. You are not alone! There are certainly healthy Christian boundaries that we should put in place (gotquestions.org helped me with some of those), but also consider that the Lord might have equipped you to serve in that way for a specific purpose – to glorify Him through your loving actions. I am praying for you, fellow “house cleaner.”

    To the author of this piece…thank you so much for these wonderful words. You have no idea how much I needed to read them today. I literally said to my husband this morning, “How can I be a Christian? I think people are so stupid!” I don’t really think all people are stupid, but I am in emotional agony over all the messes I clean up, within my family and community. Please pray for me. I do not want to be bitter of heart or to sin against the Lord.

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