Sometimes you learn dark secrets when doing the laundry. I wouldn’t know much about this because for the past 15 years while I was in seminary and various demanding jobs my wife has done the vast majority of the family laundry. But I’m learning. As we have embraced the slower pace of a small town tucked under the wing of the Eastern Sierra mountains, I’ve been finding more time to do laundry.
One day after finishing putting a large load in the washer I came back to my bedroom with a surprise. There was one of my favorite pairs of slacks hanging on the back of the door. I could have sworn that I put that pair of pants in the laundry. Later I asked my wife about it. She got a sheepish look, with her head angled downward and slightly to the side. “I never wash those.”
“What?” I was sure that I had misunderstood the comment. I couldn’t think of any conceivable situation in which an article of clothing would never be washed.
“I never wash them. I just spot clean the stains.” She could see I needed fuller explanation. “They are dry clean only. And you know we don’t usually have that in the budget, so I just look them over, get rid of any stains and hang them back in your closet.”
My mind was spinning. I’ve been wearing these pants regularly for about a decade. I’m wondering if they are still carrying dirt from our first years of marriage when we lived north of Boston, MA. I’ve never known my wife to do something suspect without talking about it. That seems strangely out of character. And then there is the embarrassment that these pants just magically end up hung back in my closet, and I’ve never noticed. Not once in the 250 times that they have by passed the washer, the dryer and ended up back in my closet. Simple probability would suggest that I would have stumbled across the surreptitious plot at least once in 12 years.
I’m still standing silent. I give a slight chuckle. I’m not angry. I didn’t catch any strange bacteria from my sponge-like pants that have been soaking up grime and contaminants for thousands of days. But I’m not pleased either. I’m a pretty trusting person, and it isn’t too difficult to pull one over on me, so I feel especially vulnerable in these types of moments of revealed gullibility. I feel like I got caught in public without my pants.
More thoughts flash through my mind as it processes this mercurial situation. I did hear a story, probably apocryphal, that one of the developers of Levi’s jeans designed them to never need washing. And he never washed his own jeans. You might think this thought would comfort me. I would be in good company with unwashed jeans. By my very clear reaction to this story about Levi’s was to remember some of the dirtiest, messiest jobs under houses and working with sewer lines that I had endured wearing Levi’s. And to remember the gross texture of soiled jeans rubbing against my thighs, clogging pores and irritating sensitive ginger skin. I was appalled when I heard that anyone, even Levi himself, would never wash his jeans. This was a fate I didn’t wish on my worst enemies. If I had any worst enemies, which I’m not sure I do.
The slacks are pretty much on their last lap as it is. There was starting to be an outlined fray where my wallet would sit in my back pocket. And I switched from a wallet to a front pocket cell phone case to carry my cards and ID a few years back, so these pants have been old for a while. With that in mind I grabbed the pants and headed straight to the holy land. These things were about to get sanctified. They were getting jammed in the washing machine immediately, even if they tried to do the splits to avoid touching the water. Maybe they would disintegrate as the petrified dirt holding the fibers together was surrounded by detergent and ripped out of their forever home. Maybe they would lose all their fading color and never be worn again. That’s okay. It was worth the risk. I wasn’t about to wear these things in their foul state one more time. It would tempting fate. It would be playing with my imagination. The entire time I would be wearing them I would be imagining an ultraviolet light highlighting all the microscopic living organisms jumping from my pants to my legs. I couldn’t do it.
There comes a point in our lives when the dirt becomes more than we will stand. In our wardrobes this leads to doing the laundry. In our spiritual lives their leads to repentance. Repentance in our culture today gets a bad wrap, being unnecessarily tied to medieval excesses and self-flagellating pilgrims. Repentance, at its core, is a turning toward things more true, more pure, more beautiful. Our culture today talks about the benefits of teaching yourself and your children to have a mindset committed to growth, and to being teachable or coachable. The history of the church and the bible calls this repentance. It starts with the gift to see the dirt. The first part of repentance is when your conscience, or a friend, or a Scripture pulls you aside and tells you, you’ve been wearing pants for 12 years that never get washed. It could take the form of recognizing greed, sloth, anger, anxiety, doubt, pride, lust or 100 other forms. And when we are confronted with this knowledge, spiritual maturity invites us to be as averse toward these nonphysical parasites, as we are toward the microbes in our clothes and on our food dishes.
In the same way bacteria and grime make us sick and cause reactions and rashes to us physically, so our unseen failings cause us harm to our spirit, our emotions and our relationships. First and foremost our relationship with God. The dirtier our spiritual pants get, the less comfortable we feel in God’s presence. Church feels threatening. Prayer isn’t enjoyable. Even Christian friends start to feel like the ultraviolet light that will reveal our dirt.
The Christian faith has long had rhythms built in to help with our spiritual laundry. The Lord’s Prayer invites us to ask for forgiveness daily. Father, “forgive us our sins (trespasses), as we forgive those who sin against us.” A wise practice is to slow down the prayer in our private times of reflection. Let God’s Spirit bring up any specific shortcomings that we need to repent of before the Lord. If we really want to crack out the spiritual Oxyclean, then tell the sin to a Christian friend and ask for their prayers and counsel on the matter. These pants are getting washed!
In the Anglican, and other high church traditions, there is also corporate rhythms available to help us in our spiritual laundry. Before taking communion the congregation gets down on our knees and acknowledges our sin “in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” Now we are getting down into the cleansing waters! The prayer continues, “we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” And now comes an important part of repentance, “we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” Emotional engagement with our failings allows a deeper cleansing. It is possible to get down on our knees, to say these words with the mouth, to agree with them intellectually, and to forget to put in the spiritual detergent. When I heard that my pants had last been washed in the Indonesian factory where they had been tailored, I had an emotional response that led to me changing that situation. Similarly, when we allow ourselves to be truly broken, sorrowful, disappointed in our actions toward God and others, it triggers our desire and the possibility of change. Some level of this desire for improvement is implied in the forgiveness that God offers through the Christian faith. As it is articulated in the Anglican absolution, God “has promised forgiveness of sins to all those who sincerely repent…”
But all these practices of personal and corporate repentance are a washing of the feet of a pilgrim on the way, they aren’t the actual cleansing from head to toe. They keep us growing. They protect us from many infections and spiritual sicknesses, but there is a great washing that they point us back toward.
This is, of course, the waters of baptism. At baptism a person acknowledges their spiritual dirt, and their need for cleansing before a God that can see all the microscopic failings that we are blind toward. The person repents, or turns from the conviction that they can successful and fully clean themselves, and acknowledge that only God can accomplish this perfect spiritual purity in them. And so they go under the waters of baptism, and in doing so they acknowledge that God has provided the great cleaning agent. That in the person of Jesus, God’s only Son, he has chosen to give his life, to pour out his blood upon the cross of Calvary. And for all that acknowledge that that payment, that sacrifice is powerful enough to pay every debt of sin, to cover every punishment that we deserve, and to cleanse from every sin that ensnares us, we are forgiven. This is the once, for all, head to toe spiritual cleansing.
This is the great first washing, after decades of collecting spiritual dirt, or in the case of babies, after inheriting a legacy of thousands of years of transgression through their lineage. This is the first time I throw my gray slacks into the washer. It is a wonder that they don’t fall apart. I am relieved that there are still enough fibers to hold them together when they come out of the water. And for those that are deeply aware of their spiritual state, we similarly are amazed that when our sins are cleansed there is still enough of ourselves left to come up from the waters on the other side. We are a field that has been cleared, and plowed, and is now ready to begin bearing good fruit, and growing green vegetables.
All the other daily and weekly cleansings point back to this great cleansing. And all the subsequent times that my gray pants are washed, they may have a week or so of dirt and oil built up, but it is only a dim reflection of that first time they went through the wash and came out clean.
So how did they turn out? They looked the same. To be honest, they felt the same too. They didn’t fall apart. They survived the wash. And I am still happily wearing them to this day. Cleansing works. And I don’t have to wear a dirty pair of parts for even another single day. Unless of course there is another pair of pants my wife hasn’t told me about.