Cleanliness is Overrated!

The Lord said to Moses, “Command the Israelites to send away from the camp anyone who has a defiling skin disease or a discharge of any kind, or who is ceremonially unclean because of a dead body.  Send away male and female alike; send them outside the camp so they will not defile their camp, where I dwell among them.”  The Israelites did so; they sent them outside the camp. They did just as the Lord had instructed Moses.

  • Numbers 5:1-4

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

for gaining wisdom and instruction;
    for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
    doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
    knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
    and let the discerning get guidance—
for understanding proverbs and parables,
    the sayings and riddles of the wise.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

  • Proverbs 1:1-7

“Doing all things ‘decently and in order’ applies to a lot more areas than theology.  It’s remarkable how many guys who have the ability to articulate the most exacting details and nuances of their area of expertise never get their desks cleared off or their workrooms organized.  The last time a lot of them picked up their socks was when they were finishing a week at summer camp.  They’re brainy enough to understand Einstein’s law of relativity or figure out the answer to that Big Bertha computer foul-up or rebuild some complex engine, but the trash under the kitchen sink can overflow until it’s ankle deep and they aren’t even aware of it.  Isn’t it amazing how many men have quiz-kid heads and pig-pen habits? …
“Time spent on the right things is never wasted.

  • Charles R. Swindoll, The Finishing Point

First off, does Rev. Swindoll have a connection to Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984 fame?  Is he looking over my shoulder as I type this?  It’s freaky!!!  But I take some offense to his devotion, especially when he piles on with exaggerations.

I usually follow along in my devotional reading and agree to try harder, but this time I must put my foot down, if only there was a spot on the floor that wasn’t cluttered!  …  I’m kidding.  It’s not that bad.  I have been doing a lot of picking up, honest!  In fact, that was my goal when I returned to Pennsylvania.  My wife was needed in Tennessee and there was no room for both of us without making things uncomfortable and awkward – no privacy for anyone and my son wanted some alone time.  I came home to throw things away.  And it is starting to show fruit after nearly three months.

In the devotion that is quoted above, Swindoll picks on women in the next paragraph after his paragraph that I copied about men being slobs, before making a laundry list of pointed accusations in the form of questions.  How dare he!  Who is he to judge?  His first question is if I’d ever lost anything.  My answer is “I only lose things when I am forced to ‘clean up,’ placing things in a spot that I will ‘always’ remember, but since cleaning up is not natural to me, I can never remember where the safe place is where I put things.  BUT, if I have a pile of papers from unfinished projects on my desk, I can answer your question by pulling the one sheet of paper from the middle without thumbing through the pile.  I have heard bosses say, “It’s uncanny.”

Confession time, I used to be able to do that.  The mind gets muddled after 40+ years of working multiple projects at the same time, or is it the few years after when there are no longer multiple projects to juggle?  I can’t keep up anymore.

Was my desk always a mess?  No.  When I was in the Army as a platoon leader, I had to be portable and nimble.  I had an old Army desk, left over from World War II.  It folded and packed into a fairly small box.  Really it was several interconnected and nested boxes that unfolded into an L-shaped desk.  I only unboxed it to write letters and fill out forms.  Thus, the desk rarely had more than one piece of paper on it at a time.

For eight years in South Carolina, I was a DuPont employee.  They had a plant safety rule that stated that you could only have one piece of paper on your desk at any one time.  It must have been written by a neat freak with a god complex.  This was the most ridiculous safety rule that I have ever heard of.  I could never figure out how two pieces of paper on a desk led to an injury – which was usually how the rules became “law.”  I was responsible for the distillation system design at the time.  The designers, the draftsmen who created the drawings, sent me a set of nine drawings.  There was too much information for one drawing.  To ensure that they had not left anything out or connected parts in the wrong way, I had to look at the connections of one drawing to see if they went to the proper place on the next eight drawings.  My boss hovered over my shoulder, knowing that the work was impossible, considering the bizarre safety rule.  He wanted to catch me violating the safety rule, deem me a ne’er-do-well, and fire me.  (I have never learned why he hated me so.  Personality conflict?)  So, I read the first drawing.  I memorized the first of about thirty connection codes, about a fifteen-digit code of numbers and letters that made no sense and nearly impossible to memorize.  I carefully folded the drawing and filed it.  I then removed my notepad and wrote the code into the pad.  Luckily the pad was considered a single sheet of paper.  I filed away the notepad.  Then I took out the connected drawing and memorized the code on that drawing.  I filed that drawing after carefully folding it.  I then compared the two codes to ensure that they corresponded properly – some numbers identifying the drawing numbers of the other drawing, while a few digits were the same, and other digits applied to the type of connection, etc.  It took about an hour to do one connection, something that would have taken a minute, if I were allowed to have three pieces of paper on my desk out at the same time, each of the two drawings and my notepad.

I worked overtime hoping the boss would go home with his carpool.  I went to the conference room when they had stacked the chairs to the back of the room, and I wallpapered the floor with my drawings.  I got a month’s worth of work done in one evening by laying all nine drawings on the floor, playing connect the dots.  Hey, they weren’t on my desk!!!  At least, that is what I told the boss when he caught me and tried to object. Of course, he stayed over, to catch me doing something wrong.  I met the letter of the safety rule, but maybe not the intent.  He had to let me slide on that one.

Then after many years of living a comfortable cluttered life, I had the misfortune of having one boss for thirteen of my last fifteen years as a working stiff.  He was a neat freak, always having a desk with no papers on it – none.  But then again, he rarely worked on any projects.  He just nagged us when a milestone requirement on our projects was approaching, and never at an appropriate time.  If we were behind and needed assistance, his nagging would have always been too late to readjust resources to correct the problem.  The four people working for him, that eventually dwindled to two people with the same workload, were all self-starters, and we did not need a boss.  In that respect, he was perfect for that role.

One day he repeated a famous quote to me, without knowing the full quote.  “You do know that they say that a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind.”

I replied, “But I know where everything is on my desk.  But while we are on the subject of the old saying that you just quoted, does the old saw say anything about a corollary for an empty desk?”  I wheeled around and left his office.  He was slow with regard to such jabs, but he was smart enough to figure out that I meant that an empty desk was the sign of an empty mind.  Of course, if you look up the quote, you’ll find that Einstein said it, ending with “of what, then is the empty desk a sign?”  The boss never learned the entire quote.

It took him too long to figure out what I meant.  I heard the explosion from my cubicle, but he was too embarrassed to ever confront me over being insubordinate.  And don’t think that changed our relationship.  I was the only one that looked him in the eye, and the near the end, the only one that he would talk to, he being socially awkward when it came to boss-underling relations.  He did fine with customers or those he reported to, as he wore his fake friendly persona with them.

But back to the cluttered desk:  I took a picture of my present desk at its most cluttered for this post.  I have been thinking of cleaning up the mess for about a week, and then I read the devotion…

But returning to the quote from Swindoll, I may have a cluttered desk, but I keep track of every sock in the house.  I did the laundry before my wife left to be a babysitter.  I sometimes paired her socks incorrectly, but I had them washed, dried, and paired with other socks.  She just wore an occasional pair with one dark brown and one navy blue.  I kept telling her to tell people that she had another pair at home just like them!  She never thought that was funny.

And as for the mess under the kitchen sink, that one is on my wife and it is knee deep, not ankle deep.  But who puts their legs under the sink anyway?!  If you are old enough to remember the old radio show, you will remember what happened when anyone opened Fibber McGee’s closet.  That’s what happens when you open the cabinet under the kitchen sink.  The kitchen may look spotless, as long as you don’t open any of the lower cabinets.  Then heaven help you.  To her defense, when we moved into the house 20+ years ago, we had a ton of kitchen stuff and a third the cabinet space to put the stuff in.  The kitchen was designed for someone who never cooked.

As for Einstein, who never combed his hair and had a cluttered desk, I got that stuff down, but I have no remembrance of a Big Bertha computer problem.  He wrote the book in the mid-90s, but that reference escapes me.

But neat freaks have to chill as much as clutter freaks have to clean and straighten up occasionally.  Quoting Proverbs 1:1-7 above (with the haughty tones in his neat freak voice dripping from the printed page), and telling me that I need to be neat like he is?  That won’t work.  It might even get me a little riled.  In my case, I have to clean more often than I used to, as I forget where I put things – something I never had a problem with while employed.

God had His rules about clean and unclean, as the Scripture from Numbers reminds us above, but there is no verse in the Bible that states “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”  Sorry, mother, it isn’t there, but the Numbers Scripture above may come closest.  We each have a different method of organizing, but organizing is essential, or we really will lose stuff.

So, from the champion clutter freak, I say, “Cleanliness is overrated, but clutter can get in the way also.”  It is especially bad when clutter gets in the way of sharing the Gospel.  If Swindoll had approached his devotion from that angle, I would have been all ears.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.


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  1. Despite liking order, my work spaces have always been cluttered— but I always knew where everything was— I’d go into an organizing frenzy about once a month … and with the best if intentions, I’d proclaimed order was to be my middle name— then a few days later, it was back to organized chaos— since my husband retired— he’s all neat and orderly—- he’s picked up on this Harry carry managerial skill of mine—skills he never exactly noticed before as I took care of business and all ends were met— in over 30 years, he never saw my office at school— probably best 😎

    Liked by 2 people

  2. March 23, 2020 — 11:41 am

    I am told by my artist husband that he knows precisely where everything is in his clutter of creativity. The statement itself is an oxymoron, but I’m beginning to understand.

    Liked by 2 people

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