Monday, January 13, 2014

Rotten Remnants

Yesterday brought about an opportunity to do something I would really rather not keep doing! But before I tell that story, I need to give some background information.

Last summer, on one of the hottest days of the season, I went with my sister after hours to the church office where she works. When we unlocked the door, we immediately caught a whiff of something unpleasant. We looked around the office and could not find anything in the trash that would give off such an offensive smell. So I went roaming through other parts of the building, and when I started downstairs to the children’s wing, I knew I was getting warmer. I opened the refrigerator in the small kitchen downstairs and stared at one lone object in the freezer: a long, rolled package of hamburger meat. The refrigerator had obviously quit working, and the meat had apparently been there for days, undetected. The plastic wrap was puffed up with an obvious bubble of putrid gas sealed inside, and looked ready to burst. The smell was one of the worst things I have ever encountered.

Like one facing a time bomb, I slowly backed away from the scene and backtracked to inform my sister that I had found the culprit. We brainstormed what to do, and having drawn the short straw, I eventually crept back down the stairs with an open trash bag in hand. Fearing that the bloated package would explode with little encouragement, I sneaked up on it, threw the bag over the meat and scooped it inside, quickly twisted the open end closed, and with my gag reflex working overtime, I hurried outside to the trash container and literally threw it inside. I was almost expecting to hear a huge explosion when it landed, as it felt very much as if I were disarming a bomb. The “de-scentsitizing” of that area of the church took a few days; and the memory of that horrible smell had finally been filed in the basement of my mind.

Until yesterday.

Again, my sister (cohort in crime) accompanied me to a neighbor’s house because we had volunteered to check on things in her absence. We had suspected on the previous trip to the house that something in her refrigerator had spoiled, so we came equipped with baking soda and a plan to clean out the offending object and do our good deed for the day. In and out in twenty minutes, tops. A rotten smell swept over us when we unlocked the back door. We opened the refrigerator and started pulling out things that appeared to be spoiled and throwing them into the trash bag. Soon, I realized that the things I pulled out were not really cold to the touch, and we suddenly grasped the awful truth that the fridge had bitten the dust! Opening the freezer confirmed it as a rush of putrid smells poured into our nostrils.

After gagging a few times, we put together a plan of action and began to haul all the ruined food out to the dumpster, washing out the slimy shelves and putting the empty food containers in the dishwasher. Six trash bags later, we unplugged the offending appliance and left a couple of bowls of baking soda inside to do battle with the smells. As we dragged ourselves home, we couldn’t help but think, “Why us? How did we get lucky enough to discover something this rotten twice in six months?”

We did manage to chuckle about it finally, but it took awhile for all the bad smells to leave our memories.

This morning, I was reading from a book that was a Christmas gift (Extravagant Grace—God’s Glory Displayed in our Weakness by Barbara Duguid) when I had an “aha” moment. The book speaks to John Newton’s writings about grace, and in this specific chapter, Barbara Duguid writes about how we often struggle with our own weaknesses, and may feel abandoned by God when we find we are not victorious over a continual, besetting sin. She proclaims that we ARE victors when we recognize our weaknesses, and admit that we are not able in our own power to defeat them. Please indulge me as I quote a few lines from the book:

“I am speaking here to . . . people who struggle repeatedly with sins that they think are beyond God’s reach . . . Although God did not create your struggle or tempt you to it, he has called you to walk with it. He has assigned it to you, and he loves you as he calls you to walk through it. He is not disgusted by you. There is no sin under the face of the sun that can surprise him or repel him from you. You are not the worst of the worst or more depraved than those who struggle with more socially acceptable sins such as gluttony, pride, or overachievement . . . The roots of sin in the heart are all the same, even if the outward workings of those sins vary immensely.” 1

Your mind may not be making the leap with me, but what occurred to me as I read that passage this morning was that my heart is much like the rotten smell coming from that broken refrigerator yesterday. From the outside of the house, everything looked fine. The house was neat and trim, and when we stepped inside, everything was clean and in its proper place. Even the refrigerator looked perfectly functional and attractive from the outside. When we opened it and looked inside, however, the reality was obvious: something ugly and dirty, something smelly and foul, was hidden inside.

The same was true of the church building. We walked inside and the floors were clean, the carpet vacuumed, all appeared to be in good order. But going into that basement and opening the door to a refrigerator that was seemingly in good working order, the truth rushed at us that inside, something rotten was hiding.

Those of you who know me may think that to compare my heart to a pile of spoiled food is a ludicrous analogy. I appear to be a decent, good person, and you might argue that I am blowing things out of proportion. But I think if all of us truly examine our hearts, we know that there are things inside that are not pretty. Just one of many ugly things in my heart is pride. Sometimes I hide behind a know-it-all attitude because I am really insecure and recognize that I don’t know it all. But in some areas, I really am prideful about things I know or areas where I excel. And because there is a part of me that doesn’t like to be incompetent in ANY area, I tend to plump up those places where I shine to try to make myself look really capable and smart. Not only does it create a prideful spirit in me when I do that, but it hurts other people because I cause them to feel not so smart, or I alienate them because they recognize my boastfulness for what it is.

There is something rotten hiding inside all of us. The reason for writing this is neither to make us victims or martyrs nor to glorify our sins. Neither is my intention to have us feel defeated because we haven’t “arrived” yet in our struggles against the weak areas we all have. My purpose for such introspection is to point to the Scriptures for more understanding of how to deal with those imperfect areas of our lives.

In 2 Corinthians 12:9, the Apostle Paul writes, "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'  Just as Bill Wilson encouraged those Twelve Steppers long ago, there is victory for me in admitting where I am powerless. If I can admit to myself the areas where I am weak, the instances where I know I can’t do what God has asked me to do, and if I can honestly admit to others that I am a flawed human being, God can use my broken heart. He can do for me what I cannot do for myself. The walls of pride and self-sufficiency come down. The arrogance that causes me to act as if I know more than you do becomes a humility that does not wound you, but instead invites you into an honest, supportive dialogue rather than one in which we have to “one-up” each other in order to feel better about ourselves. We no longer have to hide in shame over the unlovely things we harbor in our hearts.

Jesus Christ addressed people like me who were smug in thinking they were “good people”: “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.”  (Matthew 23:25)

Perhaps God had a purpose in allowing me those two nasty cleanup experiences. Lord, please don’t make me deal with another of those stinky messes again! As Br’er Rabbit said to Br’er Fox, “Please don’t throw me in that briar patch!”

But if a nasty cleanup job is my briar patch—if that’s what it takes for me to see the ugliness inside my heart that needs the ultimate cleansing—then I will do it. (I won’t like it, but I’ll do it.)

I think I get it, Lord. I am convicted of this prideful attitude, and I know that the only way I can be cleaned up is through your grace. But could you maybe teach me next time through some other method than a stinky refrigerator?

1 Extravagant Grace, by Barbara Duguid, P&R Publishing, 2013, p. 152