Years ago, someone gave me this well-earned token of esteem:

My desk has pretty consistently followed my reputation for clutter. Few people have ever seen its surface. But suddenly, this happened:

There have been two theories suggested for this radical change in my behavior:

  1. That I’m clearing the way for a new and more creative phase of my ministry. This is known as the Second Awakening Theory.
  2. That I’m cleaning up my affairs for the soon-coming end of my ministry, either by death or retirement. This is known as the Diminishing Pulse Theory.

Strong arguments have been made on both sides of this debate. However, neither is the true reason for my sudden emergence as Mr. Clean. Here’s the truth.

Last Friday, Dr. Larry Campbell, Pastor of Pasadena’s First AME Church, came in to talk with me. As he sat in the chair across from mine, he had to sit up straight to see me over the pile of “important papers” strewn all over my desk. Suddenly, I had a vision of his former life, when he was a career U.S. Marines officer. His final assignment in the service was as Human Relations Director of all the Marines at Camp Pendleton. Even now, he dresses immaculately, down to the polish of his shoes. In that moment, I had the impulse to stand up straight before him and say, “Yes, Sir! I’ll clean it right away, Sir!” That afternoon I got started.

Now, don’t get me wrong; Pastor Campbell is not a judgmental person; he didn’t give any sideways glances of disapproval. It was just that being in the presence of a person with high standards of neatness and orderliness made me see my own tolerance of sloppiness in a new light and led me to make some positive changes (at least for now).

I think that’s why there are plenty of warnings in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms and Proverbs of the Old Testament, that it’s important to cultivate friendships with people who will be a positive influence on our lives. Here’s a typical example:

Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm. (Proverbs 13:20; see also Psalm 1:1, Proverbs 11:14; 22:24; 27:17)

Unfortunately, there’s a tendency in us to surround ourselves with people who make us comfortable as we are, with all our sins and shortcomings. That allows us to feel relatively OK, without making any efforts at self-improvement. People with higher standards of behavior, speech and attitudes toward life make us feel uneasy and not quite good enough. We don’t like that feeling and tend to shy away from them, even though these are the people we need most in our lives to help nudge us toward becoming our better selves. We may even label them as self-righteous or hypocritical to justify our avoidance of them.

These thoughts reminded me of a song that goes back at least to the Temperance Movement of the 1930s. It goes something like this:

One evening in October, when I was one-third sober,
And taking home a load with manly pride;
My poor feet began to stutter, so I lay down in the gutter,
And a pig came up an’ lay down by my side.
Then we sang ‘It’s fair weather when good fellows get together,’
Til a lady passing by was heard to say:
‘You can tell a man who “boozes” by the company he chooses!’
And the pig got up and slowly walked away. *

I don’t want to be like the sloppy drunk that even the pig didn’t want to associate with. That’s why my desk is so clean today. Come see it while you can.

* You can listen to an early 1930s version by film idol Rudee Valley, or a late 1990s version by Fozzie the Bear of the Muppets.

– Pastor George Van Alstine