Maggie had been coming to their home for Bible study, arriving dirty, off the sidewalk and out of the gutters with a load of personal items attached to her bike handlebars and her aging Dachshund under her arm. She came for community and connection, welcomed into my parents’ and another family’s homes, and received a little hope, care, something sweet to eat and hot coffee to drink. She came for weeks, fresh off the streets into the welcoming warmth of a friend’s home. She came with a story and a past and was met with love.
Every week when it was time to share prayer concerns, someone would pray for Maggie, that she would find a home, steady work, get life together, etc., until one week when my tiny but obstinate mother observed with incredulity that they are once more praying for Maggie and once more not doing anything to help her when they could all offer her a place to live for a time. During this time, my parents asked Maggie if she would like to move into their home for a while. There was no expectation of getting cleaned up first, washing the street-stench off or throwing away her collection of dirty personal items before being allowed into their home. Just come in, welcome, live here with us exactly as you are.
There’s this non-verbalized expectation within some church culture stating you have to get “cleaned up” first before you can come. You have to stop drinking so much or smoking so much. You have to stop sleeping around or stop growing weed or looking at porn or partying too hard or cursing too much before you can show up at church or have a relationship with Jesus. There’s this idea that you need to pull yourself up by your own spiritual bootstraps before you can be welcomed into holy community.
I’m gonna say it like it is: This idea is bullshit and wrong and has nothing to do with God.
Because you can’t clean yourself up before you come to Jesus Christ. It’s Jesus who cleans you up. The life that Jesus offers through healthy community can help wash away the hurts, shame, brokenness and pain you carry so you can live in freedom.
I know many of us like a clean, orderly life. One we can manage that’s predictable and uncomplicated. One full of happy-fun all the time and lacking in pain. But this kind of life is not reality most of the time. Real life is messy, full of mental illness, disabilities, addictions, abuse and heartache. If we’re being honest, real life is not always happy and shiny and full of clean people. It’s important to admit that life is just more messy than that.
When I invite my houseless friends into my home for a shower, much of me wants my friends to be clean before they step into my home. To shake off the dirt and bugs and gutter-life before they cross the threshold. But this is an unrealistic, inhumane expectation to have. My friends will not become clean without using my shower while I wash their clothes. They have to step in dirty to become clean.
In a similar way, Jesus would never expect a person to get themselves “right before God” before they could come to him. Jesus welcomes people with all their pain, hurts and messiness with open acceptance, mercy and grace while loving them into freedom.
Maggie has lived with my parents for almost four years now and during that time I have observed an increased sense of self-dignity within her. I have seen her become comfortable in her own skin, discovering her inherent value and worth beyond her living arrangements. She isn’t employed, still rides her bike everywhere and is resourceful through dumpster diving and scavenging for metal to sell. She may be showered and housed and loved but, from an outside perspective, she still might not fit someone’s standard of “clean”.
Getting “cleaned up” might look different to you than it does to someone else. The Church is full of messy people who won’t always look the same as each other and certainly won’t act the way many people think church-goers “should” act. Fortunately, God doesn’t measure us by our human standards but by God’s standards. And those standards have a lot more to do with how you, within your messiness, have loved, cared for, listened to, advocated for and helped other people, than by what those of us in the Church might see as holy and clean.