Clutter and The Distraction of the Rear View Mirror

Clutter Stack of books shutterstock_1056850982

I feel like I’m a “selective hoarder.” I don’t think you’d look at either our home or my study at church and think I’ve got way too much stuff—except for the rows and rows and rows of books and the stacks and files and stacks and files of articles from newspapers, magazine, profession journals, newsletters and my own notebooks of ideas. It’s pretty overwhelming. Because my ministry of communication relies on ideas, I have accumulated many resources I call “You-never-know-when’s:” you just never know when that book, article, note, or file will come in handy!

But I recently experienced the burden of clutter I hadn’t felt before. I didn’t see it coming.

Our church campus has recently gone through a building program. We’ve also been upgrading many buildings, including the one where my study is (I don’t call it an office). Everything had to be removed. Everything. So that started the process of evaluating what to keep, what to give away, and what to throw away.

In the process, I began going through my past “day-books.” These notebooks contain daily notes on appointments, to do lists, meeting notes, phones messages and so on.

Reading through the days’ notes from several years ago was like re-living the day in detail. While that was fascinating, it was also overwhelming. The responsibilities and burdens and feelings of each day rose up within me, as if they were happening right now.

After this experience I came across this passage in the writings of Fenelon (the French spiritual director from the court of King Louis XIV):

“The wise and diligent traveler watches his every step, and always has his eyes upon the part of the road directly in front of him. But he does not turn constantly backward to count every step, and to examine every track. He would lose time in going forward.”

It’s dangerous to drive with your focus on the rear view mirror. I now see more clearly what Jesus meant when he said, “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:34). My energy drained away as I went back over the notes in my day-books. I realized at that moment that I had to – in the words of Elsa—“Let it go!” (with apologies to Disney!).

I need all my energy for today. For right now. I made a bold (for me!) decision: I shredded all those day-books. And it feels good—mostly. (Gotta’ be honest—change is not comfortable!)

“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Getting rid of yesterday’s clutter makes room for today.

Oh, I still collect stuff—and I’ll go through the-sort-and-throw-out-stuff process for years to come. But I’m more aware of the need to set a wiser standard for what I keep. Live now. Focus on what is needed now. Trust God for tomorrow’s ideas.

Drink Before You’re Thirsty

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Sarah and I were on a dinner cruise, having a wonderful meal at sunset. Suddenly, I was looking up at the sky, and Sarah was calling my name quite loudly. Why?? What was going on?? A crowd surrounded me, peering down on me. Then I realized I was flat on back, and my chest and head hurt. I’ll never forget the fear and concern in Sarah’s eyes. After an ambulance ride and checking into the emergency room, they ruled out what we feared (heart attack) and confirmed what we suspected: I was dehydrated.

It was all quite embarrassing and humbling. But the physician’s advice was (almost!) worth the whole experience. “Always drink before you are thirsty.” I see a message in those words.

In addition to being sound medical advice, there’s a powerful spiritual principle here. How often have we found ourselves flat on our backs spiritually, failing to recognize soul dehydration until it’s too late?

We live in an arid culture that sucks the spiritual moisture from our lives. When we neglect our regular times of reading scripture, prayer, community worship and fellowship, our spiritual reservoirs drain. We lose spiritual focus, waver in unbelief, doubt God’s love and care, and are smothered by spiritual lethargy. The key is to recognize our thirst.

Psalm 42 (NIV)
1 As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

Thirst is a consistent biblical metaphor for longing, for desire, for yearning for God. It’s a highly experiential word, especially in the arid and semi-arid climate of Israel. And God promises to quench that thirst.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6 NIV).

Jesus’ promise to the Samaritan women whom he met at the well is the most encouraging of all.

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”… 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water [from the natural well] will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:10-14 NIV).

Staying spiritually hydrated means abiding in Christ moment by moment, being filled with the Holy Spirit (see John 7:37-40). What does that look like? For me, a primary practice is continual conversation with the Lord, punctuated often with phrases like, “I need you for this, Lord.” “Help.” “Thanks.” “You’ve got this, Lord, right?!” “Give me what you want me to give this person or these people.”

You don’t have to drink in big gulps. The continual sips add up.

Bucket Theory: What happens when you hit your limit?

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When my wife, Sarah, was working as a nurse in an allergist’s office, one of the common questions was about the “sudden” onset of an allergy in a person who had not previously been bothered. This physician said there was no definitive explanation, but that one theory seemed quite possible. It’s called the “bucket theory.” According to this theory, even as a bucket has the capacity to hold a certain volume of liquid, our bodies have a certain capacity to resist reacting to certain substances. Once that capacity is hit, however, like the bucket, it begins to “overflow” with various reactions. Our bodies can resist for a while, depending on the capacity of our “allergy-resisting bucket,” but then we start to react.

I see a message here. It seems to me this provides a framework for assessing the well-being and reactivity of our emotional and spiritual lives. Have you ever noticed that you “suddenly” have a problem with anger, impatience, or working on a project? Perhaps this is an indication that you’re hitting your limit in a certain area. The onset of “symptoms” is more about the condition of your heart, mind and soul than it is about the particular symptom.

Another analogy for this is “saturation.” Like dry ground soaking up water, we can absorb a great of activity and pressure—until we hit the saturation point. Then we become overwhelmed, resulting in reactions like shutting down, withdrawing, or stressing out.

In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard A. Swenson, M.D. writes,

Often we do not feel overload sneaking up on us. We instead feel energized by the rapidity of events and the challenge of our full days. Then one day we find it difficult to get out of bed. Life has become a weight… What happened to change our enthusiasm to pain, and why did the change come upon us so unexpectedly? Not all threshold limits are appreciated as we near them, and it is only in exceeding them that we suddenly feel the breakdown.

According to electronic systems expert Roberto Vacca [writing in The Coming Dark Age], the development of many modern systems exhibit “the character of continuous and exponential growth, and their variation obeys a well-known mathematical law, the law of the phenomenon of growth in the presence of limiting factors [my emphasis]. At first the effect of these limiting factors is hardly noticeable, but there comes a time when they begin to predominate and to produce the phenomenon known as ‘saturation’… Often the effect of the limiting factors is not felt gradually: it may be felt all of a sudden.”

We are all human, with inherent limiting factors. This is not an excuse, but a reality to which we must pay attention. Maybe this is what happened to Moses in Numbers 20, when, instead of speaking to rock to bring forth water in the wilderness, he struck the rock in anger.

Maybe this helps us understand (not excuse) David’s vulnerability to seeing Bathsheba bathing.

Maybe this is a clue to Paul’s impatience with John Mark in Acts 15.

I love to push life to the limit, experiencing all God has for me and giving my best in God’s service. But I have learned (often the hard way) I have capacity limits that cannot be ignored. Even good and great things can become too much. Again and again I come back to Paul’s wisdom in 2 Corinthians 4:7 (NIV), “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”