Taking Out the Garbage

Excerpt by Deborah Detering

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

My mother-in-law, in the twenty years we lived nearby, never reminded me to empty my garbage pail. When those I love are having trouble with old hurts, new relationships, or addictions, I want to tell them, “Your garbage can is full. It smells. You need to empty it.”

A teenage foster son came to us with one of the most jammed-full-to-over-flowing and stinking garbage cans I’d ever seen. Sixteen years’ worth of “You’re the dumb one, the crazy one, the ugly one . . .” poured out of him. I kept telling him to get rid of that garbage, but he had owned it for sixteen years. He didn’t believe it was garbage. He put up walls around it. When I tried to take him to a professional counsellor, he thought I was trying to get rid of him.

He did allow me to feed him. He allowed me to find him when he ran away. He sometimes forgot to back across the room when I hugged him.

We bargained: He wouldn’t run away and I wouldn’t mention counselling. He’d come in by curfew if I didn’t mention the past. The bargaining kept him out of juvenile court and off the streets, but it didn’t clean out the garbage. Then, when I thought the rotting garbage would destroy him, he chose otherwise.

First, he went to night school, earned his G.E.D., and graduated from the discard pile of “You’re dumb.” Then he joined the army, surviving the hounding of drill sergeants because he’d left behind the baggage of “You’re no good.” The following year, he took his wife to a Christmas party and stood tall and clean in his uniform. I commented, “You’re handsome!” and he cheekily replied, “I know it!” He’d cleaned out “You’re ugly.” Some months later, I found him asleep in a recliner cuddled up with his infant daughter. The lingering mold of “Nobody could ever love you” was being scoured out.

I think of Zacchaeus. Jesus didn’t tell him to stop cheating people. He said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19: 5 NIV). I think of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus didn’t scold her. He said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:1-11 NLT). I think of Matthew, a despised tax collector. Jesus didn’t tell him to find a new job. He said, “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9 NIV).

Likewise, in the twenty years we lived near my husband’s parents, my mother-in-law never told me to empty my garbage pail, and neither did she barge into my kitchen and take it out for me. Messy kitchen or clean kitchen, she loved me as I was. In the same way, when those I love are struggling with old hurts, new relationships, or addictions, and I want to admonish them with “Your garbage can is full! You need to empty it!” I instead choose mercy because I care about them as a treasured child of God.

Those who know they are loved regardless of their garbage will find the strength to dump it. Those who accept that Jesus cares willingly allow Him to not only remove the garbage but scour the garbage can, too.

*This excerpt is from Detering’s yet-to-be-released novel, Crossroads.

About Deborah Detering

Detering‘s fiction explores family relationships and reflects her experience in foster care and with abandoned teenagers. She is currently finishing a middle grade series of novels. Visit her blog and Facebook page for more.

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