I thought such scenes only happened on television. Boy, was I wrong! For Rick’s sake, I was glad no cameras were there. I knew he had some problems, but I didn’t have a clue about the severity.
Someone had called early that morning and suggested I get to Rick’s house. Rick was long-time member of my church. In his late 50s, Rick lived alone. He had married when he was young, but that had ended in divorce after only a few years. Health problems prevented him from working in a factory as he had once done. He managed to survive on disability.
In addition to his health problems, Rick battled bouts of depression. More than once, some of us had to convince him that life was worth living. We insisted he had plenty of friends and family who cared about him. Those talks became more frequent after his mother’s death.
Rick also had financial problem, some of his own making. He frequently used a credit card to order gadgets he saw advertised on television. He belonged to all kinds of record, book and video clubs. Church people had helped him out of financial jams more than once. We paid to have his utilities turned back on, and many of us offered a lot of unsolicited advice about money management. Very little of it was practiced for long. Eventually, Rick filed for bankruptcy. Friends urged him to move into an apartment or assisted living facility. He would not listen. He insisted on remaining in his house no matter what.
Nobody understood why. His house wasn’t much. I had never been inside. Every time I mentioned stopping by, he always had an excuse. I never thought much about it until the morning I received that phone call. As I pulled into the driveway, I was greeted by several sheriff’s vehicles. A large truck blocked the driveway. I watched as coverall-clad men wearing protective masks and rubber gloves carried Rick’s belongings out of the house. A mountain of trash covered the sidewalk. At first I thought the men were some sort of hazmat crew. I was partly right.
I introduced myself to the deputy posted at the front door. Inside, another official explained that Rick’s house was being foreclosed. I had known such measures had been a threat, but Rick had assured me that his lawyer was taking care of everything. Apparently not! He had been given notice, but he thought that as long as he didn’t answer the door when the deputy came to serve him the papers, nothing would happen. After months of warnings being given and ignored, the day finally arrived when a judge ordered the sheriff to evict Rick. They didn’t know what they were getting into.
During my years of ministry, I thought I had seen about everything, but nothing prepared me for this! The house looked as if (and the sheriff’s deputies assured me this was the case) it hadn’t been cleaned or anything (anything!) tossed out for more than 20 years! Old newspapers, magazines, empty milk jugs, cardboard boxes, discarded mail and trash bags full of garbage were piled everywhere. Every square inch was piled four or five feet high with trash. Everything you could imagine, plus some! The kitchen, what you could see of it, had stacks and stacks of dirty dishes covered with dried food. Dozens of greasy pots and pans filled the sink. Most had not been touched for years.
Anarrow path led from the front door through the house and out the back. Another path branched off to the small bathroom. I will leave that to your imagination. The living room had been partly cleared when I arrived. Apparently the only open area had been a small space between an old over-stuffed chair and the television. Even that had been piled high with old papers and magazines. The small bedroom looked much the same. The back porch, a small garage, and every nook and cranny was stuffed full of junk. For who knows how many years, Rick had taken stuff in but never thrown out anything.
I called some of Rick’s friends from the church. We helped him sort through some of the stuff. We actually found some good items among the junk. That was part of the problem. Once he laid something down in the house, the odds were against him of finding it again. Rick would lose tools, video tapes, unread magazines and who knows what else.
I wish I could tell you the story had a happy ending. The church helped Rick find a new place. Unfortunately, it very quickly began to look too much the same as the old one. I don’t want to make light of Rick’s problem. It had gone on so long and grown so out-of-control that he didn’t know what to do. He was too embarrassed to ask for help. He felt too overwhelmed to do anything about it himself. It was not a pretty picture.
When we see or hear about situations such as Rick’s, we can be tempted to shake our heads and look down our noses with contempt. “How could anybody be so foolish? How could anyone allow him or herself to collect a houseful of worthless rubbish?” I understand that reaction. However, the more I reflect on the events of that day, the more I am convinced we all have a bit of Rick in us. I’m not talking about the junk drawer in the kitchen or the hall closet nobody dares open. What if we were not talking about a house but a life? It is just as foolish, probably more so, to fill our lives with garbage and trash and never throw out any of it.
I am convinced a lot of people whose houses are as neat as pins live lives that are just as out of control as Rick’s house. Similar to Rick, they take in, but they never toss away. Their lives, their time, their minds all become filled with more and more stuff. Some of it is good, but not all of it!
A life is lot like a house. If you keep bringing stuff in without throwing something out, eventually it gets so cluttered that even the good stuff is lost. Is there any hope for the hoarder in all of us? Where can we start if we want to declutter our souls, as well as our houses? Two verses toward the end of 1 Thessalonians 5 provide a good starting point. “Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (vv. 21-22). This passage calls for making decisions, keeping the right stuff and tossing the trash. Those are good rules for hoarders.
These three little imperatives can make life a lot simpler! “Test everything.” That’s the starting point. The ancients used that expression to refer to testing gold or other precious metals. Knowing the difference between fool’s gold and the real thing matters. The passage primarily refers to discerning between spiritual truth and counterfeit religion. The same principle applies to lots of areas of life.
No one can afford to believe everything one hears, especially in spiritual matters. Everyone needs a bit of healthy skepticism. The “I’m from Missouri, show me!” attitude doesn’t miss the mark by much. The principle applies to what friends tell us. Students need to test what professors say. People in the pews never should accept everything offered from the pulpit without question. Test everything! Likewise, all of us must examine what we hear on television, radio or anywhere else in pop culture.
Be smart about what you believe and accept. Test everything. Don’t accept everything. If you do, you will end up with a life and soul as cluttered as Rick’s house. Refusing to bring the junk in the door is much easier than trying to sort it out later.
“Test everything. Hold on to the good.” Hold on to might be translated “glued to, stuck on.” Some things are worth keeping,m but not everything. Knowing the difference is what counts. That’s why Paul prayed, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and in depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-10).
Godly skepticism that refuses to buy everything anyone tries to sell us is a good thing, but it can go too far. We can develop jaded attitudes that take nothing seriously. Or the non-judgmentalism so valued in culture can warp into an all-things-are-equal mindset. Nonsense! If you can’t recognize the good, then everything becomes trash. Or as in Rick’s case, everything is treasure.
Those of us who have grown up in the faith have been taught lots of good things. Many of us have been blessed by families who have instilled within us a deep love for God and the truth of His Word. We know some things are right and good. Some things aren’t. We need godly stubbornness, not skepticism, about the good. We should let nothing pry the good from our gasp.
“Test everything. Hold on to what is good. Avoid every kind of evil.” That last phrase probably is not strong enough. The King James Version rendered that line, “Abstain from the very appearance of evil.” We ought to be so repulsed by evil that the very sight of it turns us away. Romans 12:9 puts the same idea in even stronger terms. “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”
Our world offers a lot of moral and spiritual garbage. We can debate what constitutes garbage and what doesn’t, but that doesn’t alter the fact that garbage exists. Most of us know it when we see it. Too often, we can smell it. We also can see the damage it does. We should abhor it. We should do everything within our power not to fill our lives with it.
If we fail to follow these three simple steps, we eventually will find ourselves in trouble. The piles will get deeper and deeper. Pretty soon, we can’t tell the jewels from the junk. Bad memories, bad friends, bad habits, bad thinking, misplaced priorities—that’s all garbage that can mess up a life. The best idea: Don’t start collecting junk. If we do, we need to clean it out, get rid of it. If we need help, we can ask for it.
During World War II, an Air Force a B-29 had completed a bombing run over Tokyo when the plane lost two engines. Home base was more than 1,000 miles away. Conventional wisdom advised dumping fuel, ditching the plane and hoping for a rescue. The pilot, however, was far from conventional. He told his crew, “I never have believed in crashing a perfectly good plane. Let’s see if we can make it home.” The crew began to throw out everything that wasn’t bolted down and some things that were. They tossed ammunition, armor and all of their supplies. Eventually, the much lighter plane limped home. The pilot and crew were decorated for their daring.
Now that’s the kind of happy ending I wish I could have told about Rick. That’s the happy ending we all want for ourselves. It begins with three simple steps: “Test everything; hold on to what is good; and avoid every kind of evil.”