When I was at a former church I did campus ministry, and every year we’d take a group of college students on a mission trip somewhere. I’ll never forget the year we went to Washington DC. We worked with a group called “Hearts and Hammers”, which sent work crews out to do house repairs for people who didn’t have the means to do it for themselves. We went to the home of a woman I'll call "Mrs. Black." She wanted us to paint some walls in her house.
Words can’t adequately describe this woman’s house. From the outside it looked like a typical bi-level, suburban home that was about 20 or 30 years old. But as soon as you opened the door, you knew that there was nothing typical about this house. The first thing that caught our attention was the odor. This woman had 17 cats who roamed throughout her house at will and, to my recollection, there was no litter box.
There was trash, everywhere. Her dining room looked like the inside of a dumptster: McDonald’s cups, pizza boxes, milk cartons, you name it. I couldn’t see the table or the chairs, stuff was piled so high. In her living room there was nowhere to sit, with junk mail from years past, newspapers, magazines… piles everywhere. As we walked through the house, it was all like that. A mountain range of garbage, most of it defiled by her herd of cats.
The students had to leave the house and put on surgical masks so they could breathe. And they were upset. When they offered to help clean her house, Mrs. Black refused, insisting that what she wanted us to do was some painting. This was absolutely absurd!
Finally, we convinced her that we wouldn’t be able to paint because we couldn’t get to the walls. Reluctantly, she let us clean, and we went at it for days. We left a much different house than the one we had entered. But after we drove away the last day, we all wondered how long it would take for the place to look again the way we had first found it.
I still think about Mrs. Black from time to time. I’ve come to realize that I have more in common with her than I would like to admit. I come to God, asking him to help me out with some light painting, thinking that’s all I really need. But there’s so much trash cluttering my life that he can’t do much of anything with me because he can’t get to me.
As a Lutheran, I’m big on grace. I know that I can’t save myself from my own self-destructive ways; only God can do that. But I wonder if maybe there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want God to do his work in my life. Because that would mean opening myself up to the very real possibility of having my life transformed. And that’s scary for me. It would mean letting go of the way of life I’ve come to know. Even if it’s not really working for me, it’s familiar, it’s safe. I know what to expect.
So, rather than risk opening myself up to God’s Spirit working in my life, I continue to fill my life with all kinds of unimportant stuff. I pile it up all around me, hoping that it will make it all the more difficult for God to come to me, and maybe in the process, nothing will change. I can be the same person I’ve always been, well-insulated from the one who has promised me abundant life.
Yes, Mrs. Black and I aren’t all that different. But God doesn’t drive away and give up on me the way our mission team gave up on her. And that makes all the difference.