Friday, August 16, 2013

The Most I've Ever Learned (elbows deep in filth).

Surely God must shake His head when he looks at me. I learn deep... but I learn only when my heart breaks and my dignity is crushed. I see beauty where there is pain, and I want to toss away anything that doesn't come with a personal price. And yet... what I need most can not be paid by me.

Every now and then He has to pick me up and shake me.

It was the end of the final day of the work week. The team was tired, covered in band-aids, and not a few faces had clean lines from the eyes over their dust covered cheeks.

Everyone was tired. Two homes had been dedicated, five children would rest heads for the first time with pillows on beds. We all were worked out and played out. We sat on a cinder block wall overlooking the school of Labor de Falla. The village had grown quiet as we all watched the dust diamonds dance in the falling rays of the evening sun.

The breeze was kind, telling us with its touch that the day's work was good. I remember inhaling and allowing the deep breath to clear my mind. It was at this moment that Mercedes came down the dirt and block slope to my left. She was carrying a wad of black garbage bags in her hand and heading for the metal drum that held the village garbage.

I felt my brow crinkle up as I realized her intention. She had no gloves... and there was no way she could lift that drum. It had no liner. I sat as the reality of the situation sank into my mind, and then my heart. 

For weeks I had been encouraging the children of the village to throw their garbage in the drum rather than to drop it on the ground. It never crossed my mind that someone would have to clean out that drum. It was putrid. 

I looked around thinking, "someone needs to help her!" And then I felt panicked, convicted, and assured. How can we ever claim that we are the hands and feet of God if we aren't willing to get our hands dirty? My God's hands were nailed to a cross. My God's hands reached down and pulled me up. My God's hands point to only one way.

I couldn't even look up as I stood and crossed the distance, feeling the crunch of dirt with each measured step. As I reached down into the can, Mercedes looked up and her eyes met mine. I was overwhelmed by her expression. I quickly fought back the urge for tears to fall because I knew I couldn't wipe them away.

She looked surprised, embarrassed, and maybe even slightly amused. She gave me a look that shouted... "you really don't know what you're getting into." She was right. 

I started out gingerly picking things up by the corners with my index finger and thumb. And then I noticed that her small, strong, worn hands were digging in deep and pulling out great handfuls. So I pulled in my breath, steeled my resolve, and sank my hands in deeply. I could feel grim and unspeakables get lodged in the space underneath my nails.

It was hot, nasty, and the texture was somehow both abrasive and gooey. One of the village boys ran up to help... he started to dig in and gagged. He slung his hands, debris flying off around us... and ran away.

I looked at Mercedes and shared a laugh... and then I looked down into the can and the laugh froze on my face. We had hit a new layer. Life is an amazing thing. It is everywhere. The garbage was wiggling with it. Beetles, tiny flying insects, and the unmistakable sight of maggots. People here don't really throw away meat... and so my mind pieced together that the ooze under my nails must have been bits of something previously alive.

I wanted to run. I wanted to quit. I wanted to get sick. But I knew that by now... everyone was watching. I stole a peek. Sure enough... Mercedes and I had the attention of the village. But so what... let them laugh, I was done.

And then I looked at Mercedes. This mother of 3, who I had worked beside now for two years. I watched her open the door to her new home and I saw her daughter cry when she picked up a small teddy bear and fell on her own bed for the first time. I remembered coming back a year later and seeing that she had painted the home we built... the chicken coup was thriving... and her children looked happier, even healthier.

I knew in that moment that nothing could force me away from that garbage. And so I dug in deep. Soon we were up to our armpits, taking turns, now racing to the finish. 

I have pondered this moment now for over a week. I can not decipher exactly what it is that I learned in that moment. I can only tell you that it felt like a smack in the face that brought clarity to my vision. How can we stand by while others do the dirty work? How can I sit and watch while others dig in and invest?

My soul has never felt so close to God as in those moments when I yield my everything to His uncomfortable calling. I know that so many times I have held onto what is safe and given up what is eternal. 

This free gift from God does indeed come at a price for us. We must yield up our desires and our agenda, we must then take up the agenda of God... and then we must boldly and with gusto dig in armpit deep.

Paul wrote to the Colossians (ch. 3) and told them to throw off their own desires and nature like an old coat... and then to clothe themselves with things of God. I think I had to put on some new clothes... tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, and long-suffering.

Later that night as I dug blackness out from my nails, I thought again of the expression on Mercedes' face. Finally the tears flowed freely from my eyes as my soul began to process that glanced exchange from her and I.

It was the simple act of showing that we are in this together. There is no sitting on the sideline as a christ-follower. We either do not follow, or we sink in our hands and dig in deep.

Elbows deep in filth was what it took for me to understand. The lesson was worth learning even if it required me to be fully submerged. 

Mercedes was only cleaning a can... but my selfish heart was what really needed purified. I am honored to have my life stretched, and strengthened by these lessons of reality, and the incredible faith of a fearless woman in Labor de Falla.

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