My daughter plugged her nose while we were talking to a man from our neighborhood.
Whenever the weather is nice, he sits out on the front step of his one bedroom run-down apartment. He sits out there all day. He sits out there and rolls handmade cigarettes. If you asked me to, I could probably count how many teeth he has on two or three fingers. A van picks him up every once in a while to take him to the county mental health facility. He lives by himself and I'm not sure how often he washes his clothes or takes a bath.
His name is Paul. We call him Mr. Paul.
He is very friendly. He waves at all of the people that walk and drive by. He puts out bread crumbs for the birds to eat. He likes jazz music. Lots of people stop to talk to him. Everyone likes him. I think he reminds the neighborhood that life is better when it's not so fast-paced.
Whenever we see him on one of our family walks we like to stop for a chat. He's watched our children grow up. Recently he's told our daughters that he loves them. He calls them his god-daughters.
Today, on the way home from church, we stopped the car to talk to him today because it was the first time we'd seen him sitting out front in a while. It's been winter time and he's stayed indoors during all the cold weather we've been having.
He was happy to see us.
We rolled down the car window and he leaned far into it while we updated each other on how life has been during the winter months. While he happily talked to us, he would inadvertently spit all over the passenger seat. He told us he was happy to see us. He said its been lonely staying inside during the winter time. He asked us how we're doing. He remembered that our house was robbed the other week. He showed concern and asked us for any updates on that situation. He smiled at our girls in the back seat and said they looked like twins. We just enjoyed chatting and laughing together.
Well, at least I enjoyed it. My oldest daughter, Ava, wasn't so sure.
His smell filled our car.
Our children aren't used to being around stinky people. Ava smelled his smell and stared at him with facial expressions that said, "Hmmm. I'm not sure what I think about you. You smile a lot...and I like that. You laugh a lot and I like that. You seem friendly...and I like that. But you spit when you talk. I'm not sure what to think of that. And...your teeth look funny...or do you have teeth? And our car really got smelly when you started leaning in. I do know what I think about that...and I don't like it."
He noticed her expressions and (with a big smile) said, "Are you plugging your nose? Are you saying that my armpits are stinky?"
She didn't respond. He didn't hesitate to keep on smiling and talking. His response to her nose-plugging was gracious. He realized that she, at 4 years of age, still has some learning to do in regards to social graces.
I observed these things but didn't give Ava any teaching or instructions on what to say in the moment. I continued the conversation and kept it happy. I told him that we like seeing him. Finally, I wrapped things up because it was time for the girls to each their lunch.
After we left him and parked in our driveway, I turned to Ava and said, "Ava, while we were talking to Mr. Paul you plugged your nose and it hurt his feelings. When you plugged your nose it made him feel like you thought he was a stinky man and that you didn't want to be around him."
I tried to start teaching her about what I do when I am with a person that is stinky. "Ava I smell him too. He smokes cigarettes. That makes his breath stink. He only has a couple of teeth in his mouth. That means he probably doesn't brush his teeth. He probably doesn't take a lot of baths like you do. He probably doesn't wash his clothes very much. He does stink and I smell it to. But I don't plug my nose. When I smell his stink I look at him and I smile a lot."
Ava said, "But I can't STAND the smell!"
Here's what I said in response:
"Ava, the interesting thing is that Mr. Paul isn't very much different than Daddy. Daddy might take more showers than Mr. Paul. Daddy might brush his teeth and wash his clothes more. But there are so many things that are the same about Mr. Paul and Daddy. All of us, without God, are in a dark, stinky, messy, muddy pit. If God didn't help us, there would be nothing clean about us. Before God comes to us, we smell. We are dirty.
And do you know the amazing thing, Ava? God saw us in the smelly pit and he didn't stay far away. When someone plugs their nose while they talk to a smelly person, it means that they want to be far away from their smell.
But when God saw us in our stink, he didn't plug his nose.
God smelled our stink. He saw our messiness and he got close to us. It's like he reached his hands down into our smelly pit and he got close to us and picked us up. To be with us, and to rescue us, he had to get his hands dirty on us.
That's why Daddy doesn't plug his nose when he talks to Mr. Paul. Daddy doesn't plug his nose with Mr. Paul because God doesn't plug his nose with Daddy. Daddy is like Mr. Paul. I might have cleaner clothes, but both Mr. Paul and Daddy are in a messy dirty pit without God. And God wants to get close to both of us."
Then I told Ava a story about when her mother and I went to a garbage dump in Guatemala City. (Over 5000 people survive, and make their living, off of the contents of the dump. They are scavengers. They go in everyday searching the trash for items they can sell (i.e. aluminum, glass, electronics in the trash, plastic, etc.)
I said, "Ava, we were there. The people were stinky. They smelled like trash. Their houses smelled like trash. In their minds, some of them even feel like they are trash. They feel like they are worthless. They feel like no one wants to be close to them because they live in the trash. But Mommy and Daddy got close to them and we smiled at them and we talked to them.
They feel like they are trash but we helped others remind them that they are not trash. They are treasures.
When God sees stinky people he doesn't first think about their stink. He thinks about how he made them. He made them special. He wants them. He doesn't plug his nose. He gets close."
Ava looked at me with shocked eyes. She said, "But Daddy what if you got bugs on you!?"
I said, "We did get bugs on us." (When we returned from our trip we were treated for scabies.)
"How did you get them off?"
"We had to go to the doctor and put medicine on our skin."
(Side note: Ava hates bugs...so this was a shocking moment for her. She thought, "Why!? Why would you go to people and be willing to get bugs on your skin!?!"
I continued, "We were happy to go to them. They are like us. We are all messy. We might wear cleaner clothes. But without God, we are all in a pit. And God doesn't stay far away. He smiles at us. He get's his hands close to our stinky-ness. He looks at us and does not plug his nose. He smiles at us and gets close and says that we are his treasured possession. We are his special treasure."
"That's what I do when I talk to Mr. Paul and smile and laugh with him. I'm telling him, with my actions, that he is a treasure. I'm telling him, with my actions, that God loves to get close to messy people."
Do you ever feel like God doesn't want to be close to you?
Do you ever feel like what you've done (or what you're doing) makes God want to keep his distance and 'plug his nose?'
Check out these verses from Psalm 103:
"Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion"
Consider listening to these songs that go along with the theme of God getting close to us in our messiness.