Usually, the only depressing pictures we take nowadays show fender-benders we’ve been in or weird rashes we want our doctor to see. Unless you’re a journalist who documents disaster for posterity, most of us would not intentionally gaze upon our problems for any length of time. But there’s been a battle brewing in my household that I recently felt compelled to capture on my phone. It’s one that I have been losing for almost a decade—the exact length of time I’ve been a mom. Ever since my main job switched to caring for my special needs son, my house has been taken over by piles. Piles of papers, piles of books, piles of toys, piles of laundry, piles upon piles that cry out for attention like hungry orphans in a Dickens book.
As I stare at these mushrooming monstrosities, feeling the life drain out of me, I vaguely recall a different existence. I used to have an orderly house, one in which every possession had its place. I remember opening kitchen cabinets without fear of falling objects clocking me on the head. Clean clothes got put away the very day they were laundered. I actually ironed our cloth napkins. Oh, and houseplants didn’t die tragic deaths because they actually got watered. Food in the fridge got cooked and eaten rather than spoiling from neglect.I don’t know if this is related, but I actually put a little makeup on in the morning, along with earrings, primping for the day in a bathroom that sparkled. And labels, I had labels—for boxes, bottles, drawers and other containers that kept things organized.
And then my son was born, and it all went to Sheol (you know, that place where unsold sock sorters spend eternity). Slowly but surely, baby stuff started taking over grownup stuff. Furniture became racks for burp cloths and onesies, kitchen counter tops became infant formula storage, and our prized Persian rug got buried under a pack ‘n play, a crib, and a “tummy time” mat, complete with lights, music, and dangling toys. I spent my days bouncing my son on an exercise ball to get him to eat. That “up and down” motion not only gave me jelly legs, but a visual reminder that nothing within my purview was going stay put anymore. Water had breached the boat, and everything we owned floated about us like flotsam. What I didn’t realize at the time, was how long this state of affairs was going to last, due to my son’s autism, still hidden beneath the veneer of typical baby behavior.
When my son had missed enough milestones at 16 months for his diagnosis to be confirmed, our home was set on a different path. Four hours of therapy a day became the new norm, and baby piles gave way to toddler piles and “teaching piles”—those toys and other objects meant to further his development. I was so desperate to help my son “catch up” to other kids (a hope I still held out in those early days), that I bought every item my son’s therapists used to work with him. My determination to grant my child every advantage was matched only by his inherent curiosity. An intelligent kiddo, he got bored easily and would go through many toys during a single therapy session. Soon I had cubbies installed in my living room to house all of his possessions. Like my kitchen cabinets they, too, started overflowing. And it seemed nearly impossible to dispel clutter by donating toys. No sooner would I decide on a few objects to pitch when my son would develop a renewed interest in them. It was, and continues to be, an uncanny dynamic in our home.
What I’ve noticed is that when I do have a moment to breathe, I do not want to spend it sorting through piles. I usually want to be plastered to my couch like a starfish, watching some recorded show with my husband, or curled up in the corner with a good book. I must also acknowledge that over these last few years I have become an incorrigible “stuffer”—someone who jams things inside storage units rather than taking the time to sift and stack. Does that make me a slob? I don’t know. It does make me someone who devotes her time to other things, mainly caregiving. At the end of each day, no matter how messy my house, I want to know that I gave my best to the well being of my family—and myself, for the two go hand in hand.
I believe my priorities are straight. That caring for the people in my circle (including me) should come before anything else. That doesn’t stop me from feeling like a failure when I survey the stuff encroaching on every available space. Nor does it quell the panic that this state of affairs is only going to worsen until I’m on some kind of hoarding show. Clearly, I need some significant words spoken into my situation, so that I can stop stressing and enjoy the blessings embedded in my life beneath all the chaos.
So I went searching in my trusty Torah and found something. It’s the story of Naaman, the Syrian commander who seeks healing for his leprosy from the prophet Elisha (see 2 Kings 5). Like me, Naaman’s life is defined by a deep divide. On the one hand, he is succeeding in his military campaigns and has gained his king’s respect and confidence. A foreigner, he even enjoys divine favor (see 5:1). In other words, he’s doing his job right. No skewed priorities here.
He also appears to be a rather level-headed man. When the required diplomatic arrangements have led him to Elisha’s doorstep, he expects the prophet to come out of his house, speak impressive words, and make some sort of physical gesture (5:11). In his mind, it would take at least that much to rid him of his illness—the misery that has clung to him just as tightly as his honor.
That’s where things get interesting, at least to me in my pile-ridden state. In modern parlance, Elisha appears to “diss” Naaman, first by sending his servant to speak in his place, and second by the peculiar instructions that servant passes along: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean” (5:10). If Naaman’s ensuing rage is any indication, the army commander takes deep offense. And beneath that offense may lurk sharp despair that his particular “pile” is hardly going away. In the end, he may be done in by a disease that eats away at him steadily, until he is entirely hemmed in by its spread.
Thank God for Naaman’s courageous servants, who talk sense to their master. “You’d be willing to do a much harder thing,” they argue. “What if this easier thing actually works? Do you want to miss out on that chance?”
So the great leader finds himself immersing his body in dubious waters according to the prophet’s instructions. And they work like a charm (or better: a miracle!). After his seventh dip, he arises not only cleansed, but covered in skin like a child’s (5:14). Not only has Naaman’s life been saved, but the great rift in his daily experience has been repaired. No longer does his “curse” contend with the blessings of his life. Beyond his own king, he now know that the heavenly king of Israel favors him, and will presumably do so all the days he worships him (5:18–19). His definition of what divine intervention looks like has been utterly shattered, perhaps leaving in its wake a sense of excitement. What else might this God of Israel do on his behalf, if he but follows the path laid before him?
I think this story is urging me see the piles littering my house differently. Do they represent dubious waters that aggravate, even offend, me? When I look at them, do I despair because I can’t have what I have long wanted—an immaculate house that gives me peace?
Or do I let out a deep breath and say, “What the hey, God’s at work here somewhere. That’s just who He is. These piles exist because I am busy at work with my son hands-on, equipping him with all that he needs to succeed. Not everyone has those resources or opportunities.”
Elisha told Naaman to wash seven times. That’s meaningful. Am I willing to do likewise? Close my eyes and “go under” in quick prayer every time I see yet another mound of clutter?
Do I want to miss out on a single thing God may be doing, because it doesn’t fit my idea of what divine “doings” look like?
Lord, we so often feel harassed by the “piles” in our lives, whatever they might be. Whenever You are helping us deal with them, let us be quick to follow Your word, no matter what our initial impressions may be. Give us trustworthy companions to advise us when we veer off course. Like Naaman, we want to know that there is no other God but You (5:15), and that You stand ready to heal and restore us.
We pray these things in the hope of Your Name,