Today Le Tour de France ended in a part of France in which I traveled when I visited my sister while she taught there. (Sis, you can keep going to cool places, and I’ll keep visiting you there.) It was cool to see parts of the country, the cobblestones I had walked on where now the competitors were racing. The thing about the stage today: it was raining. And so at the end of the stage, every single biker was covered in the mud kicked up from the road from their tyres and the tyres of all the men racing with them. The announcers said that they were showering or at least getting a “thorough toweling off” before they had any interviews.
I’ve not often been that dirty. I have a pretty clean job, where I do a lot of writing, and I might sweat, but it is only because I might be preaching outside or if the heat is turned higher than I find comfortable. On vacations, I take a shower after a day at the beach, but that’s to get salt and sand out of my hair. I don’t play sports very often in the rain, though I do enjoy a stroll in a summer downpour every so often.
I remember once, though, that I got pretty dirty.
While I was volunteering with Peace Corps in Kenya, a group of us wanted to go over the border to Uganda to white water raft the headwaters of the Nile. There is probably a flight that goes from Nairobi to Kampala and a quick cab or charter flight that would take at most an hour or two to get the journey done. But, being volunteers and with limited spending money (I almost said we were poor, but that would be lying) we all took the local mass transit available. That means we all took Matatus. A Matatu is a unique vehicle, designed for fifteen passengers, with the diesel engine block directly under the driver and front passengers. They are everywhere in Kenya, probably in most of Africa. We saw a couple of the same vehicle bodies when were in Tokyo, but they were not the same, they were way too clean and didn’t have nearly enough people in them. Remember how I said they were designed for fifteen passengers? Sometimes, especially in the western side of Kenya, the conductors can fit in an extra five, ten, or fifteen people in, as well as live chickens, goats, children who sit in laps, and any assorted collected luggage. It can get a little cramped.
Our group came together, and managed to fill most of a Matatu, but not all of it, there were locals riding with us. I managed to sit in the very back, alongside a window that I cracked open to get some good air circulating through. There is no air conditioning in Matatus. You learn to make the best of imperfect circumstances. I was sitting pretty for the final leg of our trip. Window seat, got a seat nearly to myself, friends around me, doing pretty good, actually.
When we got to the base camp of the rafting company, I gave myself more than a once-over. My arm, where the sleeve met the skin, looked like I’d gotten a farmers tan. Not too bad, just a bit red and dark. On closer inspection, I realized it was dirt. That’s right, the dust of the road had layered on thickly enough so that I thought I had a tan. It was time for a bath.
I went on to take the most amazing shower of my life. Showers are not all that common in Kenya. I didn’t live with running water in my home and took bucket baths to get clean most of the time. The base camp had showers set up along the ridge looking out over the river, one wall made of forest and river in the distance. As I soaped up my hair I could see rivers of dirt streaming down my body. I don’t always rinse and repeat, but this time it was incredibly necessary. It felt so good to be clean.
I wonder when else that is the case. Do you have to get really dirty to appreciate getting clean? The contrast makes the positive so much stronger.
I struggle with thinking sin is the same way. And in some ways it might be. When a woman comes to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, the host at the table complains at her effusive display of gratefulness. Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a man whose debts as big as a mountain being forgiven who is more thankful than a man with a mole’s hill worth of debt forgiven (Luke 7).
Paul asks: so should we sin more, to make the forgiveness that much sweeter? Absolutely not (Romans 6).
The thing about God’s grace: it is sweet regardless of the journey we have taken to receive it. Whether we have raced through the cobblestones of Northern France in the pouring rain, ridden in the back of a Matatu down a pot-holed dusty road, or done what seems to be nothing of consequence, God offers us grace to cleanse us of all that has hindered us.
I forget this. I forget that grace can come to me and those around me, whether we have a squeaky clean past or a hundred different skeletons in our closet. Shouldn’t we get a little dirtier just to make the cleansing that much better? Not necessarily. And in the same vein, it doesn’t matter how dirty you get, whatever past you think you have that is going to make God cringe. The waters of God’s grace shower down in a never ending fountain that cleanses us of everything. Every doubt, every fear, every anger, every moment of jealousy, every single thing. Now. We still live in this world, even as we are working to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. Grace is not a one time thing. We still need grace to work in us every day. Just like you need a regular shower, you need a regular encounter with God, with the grace and Spirit of God to stay in the right direction.
God is not done with you yet. God is waiting to cleanse you with grace again. And guess what? It feels so good to be clean.
Breathing is one of the essential practices of the body that our bodies automatically do without us having to consciously think about it every single moment of the day. We breathe because we need to. Healthy breathing is deep, full, and restorative. Most of the time, we are not generally conscious of our breaths.
I consider myself fairly conscious of my breath. I will notice inhales and exhales and can control and breathe deeply like a singer or athlete or a baby most of the time. But I become incredibly conscious of my breathing when I cannot breathe like I should be able to.
Right now I’ve got a cold that complicated itself into bronchitis. It is not a whole lot of fun. But it has made me extremely conscious of my breathing. I try to fill my lungs and it feels like I just can’t quite get there. They won’t fill. No matter how much I inhale I still feel a bit lightheaded or weak.
It is shortlived (I hope). I’ve gone to see a doctor and I have new and fun drugs to try to clear my lungs out. I need my breath. I need to be able to breathe deeply. I still have to preach on Sunday. Last Sunday was an interesting exercise where I was not nearly as strong as I am used to. It was a short sermon and I was depending on the strength of the Spirit to get me through.
Really, that’s what I’ve been doing since the cold. Depending on the strength of the Spirit. I really need to do it more often. I am nearly not quite thankful for my cold and for my bronchitis, because it helps to remind me that even when I am healthy I am relying on the strength of God.
When I am under my own power, I can try to fill myself up as much as possible, but when I stop I find that I am still not all the way full. I find that my own strength is not enough, my own effort is not enough.
God uses my weakness to remind me of God’s own strength.
I’ll keep breathing in the Spirit, and try to fill myself up as much as possible with the force that gives even more life than air. It takes practice, but I am going to keep breathing for the foreseeable future. It is my practice of breathing the breath of God.
My signoff in my emails, phone messages, and benedictions is a general variation on peace be with you. I seek to grant peace to others as I go throughout my day and my ministry. I pray peace over church members in hospitals, with those who are grieving or caring for the ill, upon those who have difficult decisions to make. I want others to be more at peace because of an encounter with me. I want to be used as an instrument of God so that God’s peace and comfort will rest on others. I can work pretty hard at sending peace. It doesn’t always work.
Sometimes the hardship continues, the stubbornness remains, and the isolation sinks deeper. Sometimes peace is not to be had. Sometimes the situation is without a sense of peace. It’s not anyone’s fault, just that peace is too elusive in certain times in our lives.
See, with all this peace that I am trying to grant when I am with others, the peace that I seek is away from others. I want a porch at a cabin on the beach or in the mountains: no telephones, no cell phones, no clocks, and no computers. Just me, a cup of coffee or tea, a loved one, and nature. I want a space where no one will disturb my peace, where no one will come to disrupt and add their own agitation into my environment.
I think that partly I want that kind of peace because I have a environment where I work where at any moment I can be entered into someone else’s crisis. I can be called up on at a moment’s notice to go and try to bring solace and care and even perhaps peace to a unstable situation. These calls don’t happen very often, but the possibility hovers over me six days a week.
If I’m honest, seven days a week. Even though I keep Sabbath, it doesn’t mean that I will not get called—especially in a dire emergency—during my Sabbath.
I have realized, finally, that if I cannot let go of the need to extend peace to all people at all times in all places, regardless of the circumstance, then I will rarely find time to extend peace to myself. I’ll wear out. There will be nothing left of me. I realize that. But it is so terribly hard to listen to the dual call of God, to extend peace to others, and then also to receive it for myself.
The receiving is the hardest. I don’t really consider how hard it might be for others to receive peace in their spaces from me. But if it is this hard for me to receive it, as I know that I need it and that it will work to help me as I always continue to grow more whole, then I suspect it is equally as hard or more so for those around me.
A storm blew through our community last night just after sundown. The sun was setting in the west, and the storm was blustering in from the north and the east. It made for a pretty sky, but it also made the darkened storm clouds approach with a deeper darkness than we would have had otherwise. I love the way that storm clouds rush in over a landscape, and so I went to a neighbor’s yard to get some photographs with my phone. As I was taking the pictures, I looked back toward my house, and noticed that the storm had blown even closer, sinking us deeper into the dark. The wind was picking up as well, bending trees and whipping my hair around my face. Lightning flashed. It was time to get inside.
I get nervous when a storm approaches. I can feel the storm approach deep in my bones. I get antsy. If you try to have a serious conversation with me when a storm approaches expect unthoughtful, one word responses. Lightning and thunder make me startle and jump, and the rush of a heavy rain with possible hail makes me check the storm reports and the colour of the sky, just in case of tornadoes.
I also love storms. I love their power, I love their force, I love the way that they renew the earth with fresh water. I just need a little more comfort when they blow through.
I’ve gone through some storms recently in my personal life, when I really needed extra comfort. Watching the storm clouds brewing in abstract doesn’t give me nearly the same kind of joyful awe as seeing the ones that blew over us last night. Life storms—whether they are upheaval, heartbreak, or loss (sometimes all three at once)—tend to solely fill me with dread and utterly sap my energy. The comfort I sought, through my support system and reliance on God, didn’t shelter and protect me the same way that the roof over my head covered me last night. It is as if I am stuck in a picnic shelter in the midst of a huge rainstorm, and the wind is blowing nearly horizontal sometimes. I still felt the creeping cold of loss deep into my bones.
Perhaps I need to learn to build better storm shelters, dig myself a shelter deep in the ground somewhere, go hide until the storm blows over. But if the shelter is deep and secure enough, then I may not know when the storm has gone. I may hide in my shelter and never realize that the skies are blue again.
There is another problem with a shelter dug too deep. I am the only one inside it. Sure, folks can come and provide me with some essentials now and later, but a shelter that protects me from every single little thing has only space for me inside it. Not only is it lonely, it is also selfish. With a deep personal hiding hole, I don’t provide shelter or provision for others. I cannot help others with their storms and crises when I am sunk deep into the earth myself. Part of the way that I heal is by providing shelter for others. I can’t do that deep within my own insulating shelter.
And so I keep myself from digging a cellar in the ground, a metaphorical storm shelter that will insulate me from every single drop of hurt and brokenness. Instead, I expose myself to the storms, feeling the pain and hurt of those around me, looking for the way that each new storm will provide the space for new healing and renewing power. Because storms have power. They have the power to destroy, but they also carry energy to wash away the debris and detritus that have built up in our lives. Yes, destruction will occur. Objects, emotions, and relationships will be torn away. But what remains is space for renewal and rebuilding. The cold will seep deep into my core, but sooner or later the skies will clear and allow warmth and healing to begin.
The storm is not the end of the story. The storm does not speak the final word. The storm is a powerful, magnificent, awesome (in every sense of the word) force of nature. But the one who created nature is bigger, and has a bigger story to tell. And so I celebrate the storm. I know there is a sun shining right behind it.