Other People’s Messes


I spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning up other people’s messes. When I became a stay-at-home mother eleven years ago, nobody told me how much of my life would revolve around doing just that. There were tasks I expected – making meals, doing laundry and putting it away, reading to the children, even changing diapers. But the never ending cleanup of the ever-present Messes I Didn’t Make never entered my mind.

It happens almost every day. One or more of the kids do something — get out some toys, make themselves something to eat, draw a picture — leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Sure, they might occasionally put away components or two of the disaster, but actual restoration of a room to its previous condition is beyond them.

I sometimes come upon a scene where, for example, a lunch of leftover pizza has recently been “consumed.” I use the word lightly, because the fragments now scattered across the domestic landscape could fill twelve baskets. (Each time I encounter this, I grow a little less impressed by the miracle Jesus performed with the loaves and the fishes, but maybe that’s just me.) The house, like the aftermath of some violent storm, is surprisingly quiet. They’ve no doubt vanished upstairs with school books or to play Legos, or have escaped to the basement for other such pursuits. Somehow they know better than to bicker with each other in circumstances like these. They know it will only make it easier for me to find them, and that unlike more edifying pursuits, arguing is an activity I have no qualms interrupting with newly assigned chores. I could call them back to address the scene of the crime, but for what purpose? Whoever returns may do the whole job. In theory, this is possible. More likely, they might throw a few items away and leave the rest.  Or (most likely of all) they will simply inform me that they had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, not leftover pizza, so it’s clearly not their mess. They know I’ll choose to do the task myself rather than interrogate them to find the culprit. Something about choosing battles.

In such a case, I then find myself confronted with a familiar scenario. Wordlessly I sort through the debris, figuring out what goes to the refrigerator, to the dishwasher, to the trash; three or four round trips from the dining room to the kitchen. Then there’s the wiping off of the table, which could necessitate another three trips depending on which child made a sandwich. If it was the 13-year-old, one trip suffices; if it was the almost-5-year-old, I bring the whole roll of paper towels and a spray bottle.

I’ve been cleaning up after them since they were born. It is part and parcel of my vocation whether I knew it from the outset or not, and some days it’s easier to accept than others. Some days I sigh and say to myself, “I can do this out of love. Even the angel hair noodles on the carpet, I can clean those up out of love.” Some days I just want to holler, “I didn’t make this mess either! I didn’t spill anything, or break anything, or smear sauce on the table! Yet here I am, the only one who cleans it up!

It always seems that at moments like these, my eyes fall on the Cross. He could say the same thing to me. “I didn’t make this mess or break anything. Yet I’m the One to clean it up.” Frustration evaporates to humility…most of the time. Such is the way of it, the task of the Christian. Our Lord bore our sins – not His. He cleans up our messes out of love for us. He’s done much more than wipe off a countertop or put the (now room temperature) milk back in the fridge. My dozen steps from the dining room to the kitchen a few times over are nothing compared to His grueling path to Calvary. Here in my comfortable home, I have smaller crosses. He doesn’t ask me to bear the same burden He did.

The messes I make, He cleans with His own blood. Messes I’ve made as predictably as a toddler eating pasta. My “messes,” my sins—impatience with my kids, laziness toward the duties of my vocation, pride in the humility with which I accept the burden and clean up after my kids (ironic, that). He wipes off my soul with the grace of the confessional, wrings out the washcloth for me to go back again and start all over.

That is what the Incarnation is all about — only God could repair what Man had sundered. Meanwhile, I become so full of my own importance that I forget why I’m really here. Do I have something more important I should be doing? I’m not curing cancer, writing the next great novel, devising new economic schemes that will pay off our national debt. I’m caring for the souls God has seen fit to gift me with, and cleaning up after them is a daily  — sometimes hourly — task.

It’s an often thankless and forgotten part, surely. They notice when I don’t get the laundry done; their drawers are empty. It comes to their attention quickly when dinner isn’t on the table; their bellies are empty. But their constant messes? No sooner are they made than forgotten. It doesn’t even occur to them that I do this for their sake.

Instead of addressing what they’ve done, or what I’m doing on their behalf, they vanish. Off to pursue whatever strikes their fancy.

How often do I forget Who cleans up my  messes? How often do I forget I even made and left them? Why can’t I grow up and learn to stop making them in the first place?

But there’s a lesson in all this seemingly aimless cleaning. Just like a child who knocks over a large glass of milk, spills the sugar bowl, or breaks a glass, there are some messes that are too big for us to handle.

Luckily, we have a God who loves us so much, He came to do it for us.


Originally Published on Sep 26, 2014.

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