Spring cleaning in late December

Spring cleaning in late December December 29, 2011

Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near,” Richard Beck writes, noting that we bring all kinds of baggage to that word “repent.”

Beck wants us to liberate ourselves of that baggage — along with our other baggage, literal and figurative:

When people ask “What must I do to be saved?” Christians don’t, as a rule, say things like “If you have two shirts give one to the poor.” We don’t see that action — giving away excess possessions — as an example of responding to the gospel. But it is. It’s readjusting your life to the new rule of God.

A second and related reason for the eclipse of repentance is that repentance has become a morbid concept. Christians are ashamed of repentance because it doesn’t sell well with the public. And this is understandable. If you’ve grown up with toxic, guilt-driven fundamentalism the word repentance conjures up notions of shame, self-loathing, and a wrathful, judgmental God. When we hear “Repent!” many of us hear “You’re going to hell ya damned sinner!”

But this is where I think the ideas of preparation and allegiance come in handy. Repentance is preparing for the reign of God. It’s not about getting down on yourself. It’s about clearing out the rubbish and clutter of our lives. Sort of like spring cleaning. (Literally, at times, a spring cleaning. To the point of going through your stuff and giving it away.) More, repentance is about loyalty and allegiance. It’s about hearing the declaration of the gospel and switching sides. It has less to do with guilt than about joining up with a new team.

The end of one year and the beginning of the next is often a time for literal spring cleaning — or, I guess, not-quite-literal spring cleaning, since it’s not literally spring. But many of us just got some new clothes for Christmas and it’s a good time to clear out the closet.

Sarah from “heard, half-heard” offers a helpful “brief and grumpy guide to donating clothes,” focusing particularly on donating to shelters — where sweaters, coats and other winter clothes are needed this time of year.

She describes an annual clothing drive at her alma mater, which was also where I went to college (during an earlier Bush administration). In my day there we had an annual post-Christmas-break “Tunic Drive.” That name came from the same passage that Beck cites above, in which John the Baptist told the crowds who came to him: “Whoever has two tunics must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Signs promoting the Tunic Drive reflected organizers’ ambivalence about this kind of trickle-down charity. “Old Clothes Are For Poor People” one sign said. “Clear Some Closet-Space Before You Hit the Mall” said another. But for all that — all the ambiguity of “SWEDOW” and “Haiti Doesn’t Need Your Old T-Shirt” — it’s still true that:

A. Many of us have good, useful stuff that we do not need or use;

B. Other people do need such stuff, and could and would use it; and

C. There are plenty of responsible agencies, such as GoodWill, who can capably facilitate the transfer of stuff from those who don’t need it to those who do, while also creating jobs and job-training for people who need those things as well.

So if category A above describes you at all, then track down your local version of category C and bring them a load of the sorts of things that you might want or need if you found yourself in category B (meaning in part, as Sarah says, “not torn, not stained, not so shapeless that you can’t tell what it is”).

If you do find yourself doing some post-holiday closet-clearing, here are a few more random bits of advice I’ve received over the years. Please feel free to add to or correct this short list in comments below:

1. Don’t buy new hangers until the old ones break. Try to establish some kind of equilibrium of enough. Make room for that nice new shirt your aunt gave you by saying goodbye to that shirt in the back that you never wear, but that you’ve been keeping because you could almost imagine a scenario, hypothetically, in which one day, given the right circumstances, you might actually wear it.

2. Approach your closet as a prosecutor, not an advocate for the defense. The burden of proof lies with the stuff itself, which must defend its continued presence in the closet by demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that it is useful, beautiful or meaningful.

When in doubt, try the next-day rule. Set it aside and say, out loud, “I’m going to wear this tomorrow.” If hearing yourself say this doesn’t produce an immediate sense of enthusiasm over the prospect, then get rid of it.

3. Somewhere in your closet there may be one or more items of clothing that you’ve been holding on to because they would be just perfect should the occasion arise. That Hawaiian shirt would be just the thing if you’re ever invited to another luau-themed party like that one back in ’06. And if there’s ever another ’80s costume party, then you’ve got an amazing outfit all set in the back of your closet.

Stop waiting and get rid of that stuff. The imagined occasions for which you’re keeping these clothes will never arrive. Well, actually, due to a corollary of the Law of Umbrellas, those occasions will never arrive until you finally give away those outfits.

So pack them up neatly and give them to the Costume Person at your local community theater. The odds are that she or he will have a need for just exactly those outfits long before you will. And if, months or years from now, you do get invited to that luau or ’80s costume party, then you can always borrow them back for the occasion. The Costume Person is usually pretty cool about that. (And if you’re not already acquainted with your local community theater then it’s time to correct that, too.)

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