The power of the unseen

The other night I went to take the trash out down the two flights of stairs behind our house to the big cans out back. The kitchen trash was very full: it should have been taken out days earlier and I could barely lift the plastic handled bag out from the trash can. As I managed awkwardly through our back porch and out the back door, I realized that the handles were stretching out so much that I was afraid the whole thing was going to pull apart.

By the time I was half-way down the first set of stairs, the handles had pulled to the point where the bag was now dragging, or bumping actually, down each stair. I had the thought that maybe this was not a good idea, but honestly in the moment I could see no other way of getting the bag to the bottom.

As I reached the last stair, directly in front of Paul’s back door, I suddenly felt the bag become strangely light. And it was then that I realized it had split on the bottom and the contents of my trash were now pouring out onto the stairs and the landing where I stood. It was totally dark outside and the sensor light had not yet been tripped, so while I could not see the mess I knew instantly that it was substantial. I am pretty sure I uttered something I would not say in front of my children.

I walked far enough down for the light to come on and then turned to address my mess. What I realized was that, while the bag was indeed overfilled, that had not actually been the problem. The issue was the broken plate that had been sitting at the bottom of the trash. Heavy and sharp, the plate had easily sliced through the already straining plastic.

As I scooped up egg shells, coffee grounds, and lots of mushy stuff I could not identify, I thought about my life. I usually think that I know what is hard about what it is I am carrying or trying to do, but it is actually quite common that there is some unknown threat, some piece of brokenness that really has the potential to create a huge mess. Relationships are certainly like this. How many times have I been surprised to find out that in the midst of the messiness of human relationships, there is a big jagged piece of something that I did not know was there doing some pretty heavy damage.

I remember in seminary we talked about the “unspoken narratives” that can exist in a congregation: stories from the past that, while they may not even be known by subsequent generations, continue to dictate what happens. These are a bit like my broken plate: hidden, heavy, powerful.

I eventually got all the trash into the trash can, and made my way in the dark to get the hose. I dragged it over to the stairs and sprayed down each stair and the landing. The whole ordeal was exhausting (it was late), and scary (I don’t like being out back when it is dark–especially with the recent driveway rapes and of course the gunman trying to evade the cops). Which is what it can be like to deal with unspoken narratives, be they in the church, in families, or in relationships.

But I can say that those back stairs are now cleaner than ever.


  1. amen, my friend. if only we, and the church in general, were a little more willing to enter the mess until it was clean again. cleaner than ever…

  2. How well this account speaks to the messiness of our humanity. For whatever reason, just now, I am thinking of the person (me) who is at times trapsing through life, unaware of the stream of toilet paper clinging to the bottom of their shoe.

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