Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. All around town I saw ashes silently residing on the foreheads of people around me. Even my own daughter with her beautiful porcelain skin had ashes hiding beneath the messy flop of hair. Typically I reach for wipes to clean various things off her face (yogurt, dirt, marker etc.) This however wasn’t something to be cleaned. It was something to be worn long after she had forgotten it was there. It did however set her apart from others. Smudged, so to speak, with the grittiness of Christ.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about being smudged, dirty, even unclean. This past week my Sunday School class finished our look at a book titled “Unclean” by Richard Beck. I am not sure I could recommend a book more highly. It was encouraging at points, disturbing at others and always thought provoking. It looked at the church through the lens of the psychology of disgust. It forced us to talk about holiness, purity, what Christ modeled and now calls us as the church to be and do. In the conclusion Beck says
“Notions of purity and holiness create judgments regarding pollution, defilement, and contamination. Purity and holiness carve the world into clean and unclean and then direct feelings of revulsion and contempt toward the self or the other, those designated as ‘unclean.'” Once these judgements and boundaries are in place, it is almost impossible to see how the mission of the church can be accomplished.”
The mission of the church is messy, dirty, gritty and often looks anything but pure. I’ve had multiple conversations recently about who is “in” or clean and who is “out” or unclean. I have heard from teens and leaders in church settings that Young Life has treated them as less than worthy and even rejected their presence as they were already connected to a church and therefore not worth their time nor did they fit the mission. I have heard from teens and Young Life leaders that while they long to connect with the church, churches reject them for not looking…well, churchy enough. I sat in a class with adult nursing students this past week who stated that while spirituality is important, they see little to no connection with church for feeling judged and turned off for not being able to be regular attenders due to work schedules or not expressing the correct beliefs in ways that were palatable to those in leadership.
I also had the experience this week of the stark reminder of when I too am treated as unclean and when I return that notion, at least in my own mind if not in my actions. I sat with a group of men discussing atonement at the invitation of a grant from Notre Dame. Three of us hold PhD’s, the other three hold either a Master’s or Bachelor’s from a particularly (shall we say) “rigid” institution. The two male PhD’s were treated with respect, almost reverence from the three other men. I was told that my comments were “a matter of opinion”, “that I didn’t know what I was talking about” and then simply shut out of conversation. It was clear both by their actions that night (and openly my previous encounters with Bible students from this particular school) that women are viewed as lesser and inferior. I used to be terribly hurt viewing myself as Beck states with “contempt” and “revulsion” wondering how to be acceptable in the eyes of Christians in general and those I respected in particular. This particular night I was simply tired and felt I no longer have time to waste my efforts on such people. In short, I viewed them as unclean.
As I drove away, I wondered how do we ever get to a place where we can do the work of the church if we in the church cannot even get over our disgust with one another? How do I become a person who is able to cross boundaries in the ways I desire and see Christ doing? How do I take this gritty season of lent and realize that perhaps we need to figure out how to view all as Christ does previously unclean, washed white as snow.