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.
One of my most productive moments in parenting took place when I lost control in anger and threw my son’s cell phone across the living room. I didn’t toss it. I ripped it out of his hands while he was in the middle of a video game battle, and then without hesitation I uncorked the best fastball that I had thrown in years. It rotated head over heels three times while it blazed across the long room in a straight line. Cell phones are a surprisingly good weight for throwing. The phone, which happened to be of expensive make, made direct face to face contact with the corner of our solid wood dinning table. I never had this type of accuracy when I was a little league pitcher. The crack sounded more like a baseball bat hitting the table than a phone. My son stood like a statue. His eyes fixed on me in distain and disbelief. My younger son, who was also in the room, burst into tears. Both from being startled by the explosive noise, and the explosive outburst of his father.
I was pretty sure the phone had disintegrated into its millions of component pieces, but I didn’t care. I was still blazing angry. My wife rushed into the room from the kitchen. She looked at the face of her son, red, contorted, and disbelieving. She tried to match up what she heard and what she saw. “Did you hit our son?” she asked in confusion.
“No, I threw his phone.” My voice was sharp and fast.
“Cameron!” My wife couldn’t believe it.
I was loud and yet still articulate through my rage. “The joy he gets out of those games isn’t worth the compromise to his character!”
“I know, but you can’t do that!”
I was still too angry to feel any shame or regret. I hadn’t been sleeping well. My irritation with my kids’ attitudes, sneakiness, and lies had been brewing and boiling for days. It finally snapped. I stepped out of the room and went into the kitchen while my wife went in to clean up my mess, starting with the emotion trauma I had inflicted upon my sons.
I took a couple of deep breaths. What I had been afraid of had come upon me. I could see this coming for days. It is easy to come up with lots of reasons why. It is true that there was fault in every corner of the room, and that at my core was a desire to see my children grow into upright, contributing members of society. But none of that mattered right now. There was only one important thing to be done. To be broken over my anger and the way that it was harming those that I cared most about. And then to do what I could to make it right.
I knew I wasn’t ready to go give anyone a hug, so I headed to my bedroom. I fell onto my knees and buried my head into the cushions of my armchair.
“Oh God, I am a wreck! And I’m wrecking the lives of Your children. Have mercy on me. I am irritated, and tired, and angry. I have rage and regret and fury and shame. I am supposed to be the adult, the man, the minister, and instead I am the one who is out of control and destructive. I am ashamed…”
I could feel the tears fill my eyes as I bore my obvious depravity to the Lord. My anger in all its forms was obvious and out in the open for all to see. I might as well call it what it is. Bring it into the brightest light I knew how, before God Himself. This deepened my shame, knowing that these kids weren’t mine to treat as I wanted. They were on loan to me. They belonged to the Lord, and would be returned to Him one day. The children I hurt belonged to another. I felt the appropriate fear that we should feel when we hurt another of God’s children.
The deepening shame and named sin actually helped trigger my desire to be right, not just with God, but with my family. I anticipated the path back to a restored relationship would be difficult and probably expensive in more ways than one.
I started by apologizing to my wife, who was in the kitchen. The boys had gone to their rooms. “Jordan is really upset. You scared him.” She was earnest and direct.
It is a deep wound in a man when he loses respect from the one person he needs respect from more than anyone else, specifically his wife. Some men give up trying to gain this respect. The deposits in this bank are tricky. The bottom line increases very slowly with incremental additions through perfect fidelity, daily communication, good parenting and consistent provision. It takes years before there is anything worth mentioning in the account. And then, in an angry or lustful moment, the account can be drained to the floorboards.
As I looked in my wife’s eyes I searched to see how much I had lost with her in this moment of losing control. I couldn’t tell, but I knew if I acted quickly and with sincerity I might be able to mitigate some of the damages.
I started with my younger son. He was more demonstratively upset, and I figured I could work my way up to my older son, who I had directly offended.
He was cuddled up in the bottom bunk of his bed. His head was in a book. His face was still puffy and red from the episode. My wife had helped him calm down a bit, but he was still quite vulnerable when I slowly opened the door.
Repentance, and the act of asking forgiveness is a delicate art. It can be met with open arms and a heartfelt, “I forgive you!” Or it can be met with, “I’m not ready to forgive you, and I will never let you hurt me like that again.” Not to mention the thousands of shades in between. It takes courage to place yourself at the mercy of another person with the freedom of choice to receive you or reject you. It brings me back to the days as a young adult when I would call to ask a girl to go have dinner with me. The heart races, the throat begins to tense and close. Why can’t I talk normally right now? Rejection, though less physically demanding, feels like death. It is a small death. It is the death of a relationship, at least for a time. And there is a part deep within us that knows that the quality of our lives is the sum of our relationships. When our relationships disintegrate, the rest of our lives aren’t far behind. Wisdom leads us toward the courageous act of asking forgiveness.
“Son, I’m sorry that I lost control of my anger, and that I scared you.” Whew. That wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it was going to be. My second son can sometimes get lost in his emotions, especially when he is tired, and not want to relate with anyone. Would I get one of these reactions?
He looked up at me, right in the eyes. He needed to see that I was sincere. I was fortunate that throwing things around the house wasn’t a part of my normal routine, otherwise it would have been much harder for him to receive me. To my relief he nodded his small head.
“Will you forgive me?” I asked him, wanting our reconciliation to thicken and grow.
“Yes dad. I forgive you.”
“Can I have a hug?” Another wonderful sight. He nodded again.
What a glorious gift to me those nods were. My soul breathed a deep sigh. I felt a wave of relief knowing that this could have went much worse. There is something very close to our core that needs to receive those nods. The Christian faith explores this need. At the heart of the faith is the declaration that God is willing to give us those nods, if we would be willing to ask. According to the Christian faith the Amazing One that called us forth, and placed us in families that cared for us, and maybe gave us a squirmy child in our arms, or a majestic view from the top of a mountain, or a dear friend that listens to all our deepest hurts, that One is ready to forgive. When we lash out Him, and tell Him to get out of our house, or decide to stop talking with Him for years on end, or refuse to sit down and dine with Him at His Table, He is ready to nod at the question, ‘Will you forgive?’ He has a tender heart. He cries like my second son, but He is willing to go to any length to see that the relationship is restored, even if costs Him His life.
I lean over my son and press my chest against his. He puts down his book, which is no small gesture for my little bibliophile, and wraps his arms around me. I kiss his straight hair which lays flat across his forehead, and whisper, “Thank you.” It is a significant action when someone, who could choose otherwise, chooses to forgive. I am deeply thankful. I will set aside extra time to help him with his math homework in the days ahead so that he will know that I am earnest in my desire to be reconciled with him.
That was the easy one.
The five feet across the hallway to his brother’s room feels like running the mile in middle school. I dread it. I drag my feet. Ugh! I have a pain in my side. This is difficult. As I approach the room of my passionate red head, my firstborn, I smell a hypocrite. How many times have I told him to be angry, and to express it with his words rather than by hitting the wall, or throwing his books? I’ve lost my moral high ground. I have no right to talk. At this point I can only curl up next to him as a fellow sinner. And yet, he needs me to be more than that. He doesn’t just need a broken, permissive grandparent for a dad. He needs a parent that will continue to have the courage to coach him toward wisdom and growth and behavior that will grant him favor and success in the world. He needs an environment at home that gently introduces him to the way the world really works, within a context of love and support. He needs to deal with his impulses and duplicity, and late-night videogame binges now so that they don’t mess up his life later. Parenting! What an impossible task. Who is adequate for the challenge?
He too is laying in his bed. He is looking straight ahead, processing the chaos of the evening, and worn-out from a long day. There is no reassuring glance or smile. I have a clear mirror of the damage that I have caused. It is written across my son’s slumped shoulders. I am committed to apologizing and to omitting all the excuses, reasons why, and empty promises of not doing it again. I gently sat down on the bed next to him.
“Son, I’m sorry that I threw your phone. I should have never done that. And I feel ashamed. Please forgive me.”
He mumbles something. It is one or two sentences and I can’t make out what he said. I could have him say it again, but I think he might have been apologizing for the decisions that led up to the incident. There is a part of me that wants to grab onto his apology, maybe have him repeat it clearly and turn this into a learning moment. But I resist this urge. This isn’t why I’ve come.
“Son, I often talk to you about controlling your anger, and then I went off and completely lost control tonight. I need to grow in dealing with my own anger.”
“I forgive you dad.” He looks at me, and he means it. His forgiveness is a sacrament to me. It helps me know that my faults, even in their worst state, can be overcome and our family can move through even our darkest days.
We embrace and I ask to pray with him.
“Heavenly Father, I have mistreated your children tonight, and I am so sorry. Thank you for my son making the decision to forgive me… (Then the thought came to me) When I fail as a father, please help my son to know that there is one Father who will never let him down, who will never lose control. Please use even my failings to draw my son closer to You, and help him to know that he always has a perfect Father to lean on. In Christ’s Name. Amen.”
I am surprised at how my son seems quick to connect with me. I am usually a fairly self-disciplined, and well-spoken person. Maybe the fact that I lost it tonight, and have to ask his forgiveness is actually a relief to him. He needed to know just how human I am. How I can be overcome occasionally by the same impulses and dark emotions that often send him flying. And maybe he even needed to see how angry it makes me when his little pleasures cause him to compromise his character and his honesty. For several days after the event he seems connected with me, and he makes good choices about his use of technology.
I give him a kiss and walk back to the kitchen where my wife awaits. She is holding the phone. It has a bright orange case, and to my surprise it isn’t dangling with wires hanging out. She pulls a little bit of the plastic back, and says, “Well, the case is a little broken but the phone seems fine.” I can’t believe it. I apologize to her again, and in the days to come I am a bit more contrite than usual. I have a fuller awareness of my propensity toward anger and destruction. I have a stronger sense of my need for grace. I am grateful for my wife’s forgiveness. And that is the moral of the story. When you buy your kids a cell phone, purchase an Otter Box case. They are indestructible. Even when exposed to the hottest flames of anger.
“Evan, are you sure that piece wasn’t important?”
I tried not to say anything, but the worry in my gut got the best of me. It was too much to see him pull one more component out of the back of my computer.
“That part was too advanced for you anyways,” my brother responds with a sly smile. He enjoys being sarcastic with me. I suppose it is my just penance for picking on him when we were young.
I smile and quietly remind myself that Evan knows more about computers than a chipmunk knows about acorns. He has fixed my computers several times, and there is no reason to think today will be any different. The challenge comes because I understand so little of what he is doing.
This is the type of experience that was facing the nation of Israel in the first century. Not their computers breaking down, but the challenge of having to trust a Loved One that was doing things they didn’t understand. The Loved One was God, who had showed himself faithful through Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and acquisition of the Promised Land. But now God seemed to be pulling handfuls of wires out of the box. Jesus, the promised king of Israel, dies and is resurrected. The Jewish nation largely rejects this crucified Messiah. The non-Jewish peoples begin to join the movement by the thousands.
For a rabbi like Paul of Tarsus, these events were largely a surprise. He and his people were expecting a king with a long earthly reign, and sweeping influence starting with the nation of Israel and extending out to the rest of the world. But rather than blurting out his concern saying, “God this isn’t the way it is supposed to go!” he instead breaks into trusting praise, “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33)
Paul references the book of Job (pronounced with the long ‘o’ sound) from the Hebrew Bible, and in doing so parallels his experience of surprise and concern with another of God’s people from the past. Job too experienced deep pain and loss without explanation about the purpose behind it. And yet, he was called to trust in the One that was steering his future through dark tunnels.
How do you respond when life’s event, the body’s pains and relationships’ challenges seem to get yanked out, without explanation? Does your worry, or bitterness, get the best of you? Or are you able to trust the One who holds your life in His hands? Maybe like that moment with my brother at the computer we all need to take a deep breath, remind ourselves that He knows what He is doing, and trust God to repair us in the way we need it most.
Together in the journey,
Fr. Cam Lemons