Loves Comes Down… or over as the case may be
By Stacey Tuttle
As I stepped across the threshold of their small, overcrowded apartment, a wave of stench assaulted my nostrils so overpowering it nearly halted my progress into their home. The over warm air, almost moist (surprising in our dry climate) and permeated with the smell of smoke and filth was like an unwelcome blanket I couldn’t get out from under. It was smothering. I longed to stand outside in the fresh crisp air for my visit, or ask them to open windows and the door to help air the place out. Or even to cover my nose…but lest I offend them, I smiled and walked on in with nary a grimace or a wrinkle of the nose.
It’s not that I didn’t expect it; it had always been this way. It’s just that it was always so much worse than I was able to prepare and brace myself for. And in truth, I had tried to excuse the state of filth in their prior place on the number of people and animals all sharing the same space: four people (plus another three on weekends usually), and a pit bull and a three-legged papillon, all living in the exact same 1 bedroom, 1 bath and small office (or bedroom) space that I occupy with my aging Jack Russell (same as in identical design-just to clarify). And, I am a bit ashamed to admit it, the same space that sometimes feels a bit cramped to me. To make matters worse for them, none of them shared a bed. This wasn’t your normal family of four, mom, dad and two small kids. This was a mother and her two large middle school boys and a close family friend who recently got out of jail and needed a hand while he got his feet back under him. The additional three were his daughters who would stay the weekends.
But I was kidding myself. It wasn’t the size of the space, the number of inhabitants or the animals that were to blame. Deep down I kind of knew it. There was a general lifestyle of acceptable filth that went far beyond their living space. The boys would sometimes smell so bad I would make them go upstairs and shower … with soap (no, that was not a given) … and use deodorant (also not a given)… before I would take them anywhere. Their mother and I would discuss it, but she said that was a battle she’d just given up on.
So, now that they had moved into a bigger space, three whole bedrooms…one for the mom (and the new boyfriend who joined the scene), one for the family friend and one for the two boys…and now that they had gotten rid of the dogs… and now that they had a nice, new, clean place, I had so hoped they might keep it that way. Especially with three adults now living there to help. It was clean the first time I saw it. Right after they moved in. At least, the carpet wasn’t riddled with stains and debris and the stench wasn’t overpowering. But now, less than three months later, this apartment is as foul as the last.
As I drove home from my visit with a headache pounding in my head from the inescapable smell of cigarette smoke, I lamented their move. Part of it was that I missed having them as neighbors. I had grown to care so much for this make-shift family. The boys would knock on my door all the time, bored, lonely and wanting some company or a hot meal, or needing a lunch for the next day when they ran out of groceries or lunch money. (For a single person, you wouldn’t have believed the collection of school snack foods I had going for a while!) Their mom works nights and is rarely home when they are home. They have rarely had a home cooked meal. They don’t have a car and hardly ever get to go anywhere. So, they kind of adopted me and my home as their own. They were ecstatic when I took them to my soccer games or out to feed the horses or on a hike… We would talk about their problems, about the Bible, about school and family and disappointments. The younger one came not a few times in tears needing someone to talk to. I loved it.
And it wasn’t just the boys I became attached to. I became friends with the mom and her boyfriend, her co-workers and girlfriends. Got to know the ex-con living with them and my heart broke for his story, his previous bad choices, and the incredible difficulty he is having now as he tries to simply get a chance in life to start over and do things right. He is trying, but it sure feels to him at times that everything is against him. Sometimes, he confessed, jail seems like a much easier way to survive.
But, as I nursed my headache and pondered my thoughts, I had to confess, it wasn’t just that I missed them. Oh and I did. But that wasn’t the only thing I lamented. I was totally bummed that they moved because it was so wholly inconvenient for me. Ugh. There it is – the ugly, selfish truth. I liked being their friend when it was easy for me and when I could avoid anything unpleasant.
You see, it was so much easier when they lived upstairs. I didn’t have to schedule time to see them, they just popped in. All I had to do was turn them away whenever it wasn’t a good time. They could come over for dinner and a movie and they could go with me to church, etc…all of this and more without me having to go across town in the opposite direction to pick them up and drop them off. It was so easy.
More than easy, it was clean. They could come to my clean space. I never had to go into their messy space. In fact, back when they lived upstairs, we planned a little birthday party for their mom. They asked if I wanted to bring the cake and presents upstairs, but I quickly suggested that they come downstairs so we could set it up just so and surprise her and so she wouldn’t have to clean up…which was all very true. The other truth though, that I didn’t tell them, was that I thought I might gag if I tried to eat something upstairs in their apartment – it was that foul. And I am that snobby.
It’s not exactly that I would always cringe to go into a filthy place. I never noticed myself being particularly snobby or picky about such things before. The precious orphans I worked with in Russia smelled every bit as bad as these boys and I never complained. Nor was I ever particularly bothered by how dirty and smelly and filthy conditions were in Russia. However, there were a few differences. For starters, I knew they didn’t have convenient access (that’s an understatement) to soap or places to wash. I also didn’t have a clean, good smelling apartment in Russia to go to as an alternative. And furthermore, I saw how hard they worked to keep things as clean as they could. They were just very limited in what they could do.
I guess my response to this family is a bit different because, until they moved, I had a choice. I could keep my involvement clean and convenient…for me. I also struggle a bit with knowing that, unlike my orphans, this family had/has a choice. They could keep things clean. They could make things smell better. They could take showers…with soap…and use deodorant. They could pick up the mess lying all around. But they don’t – the placed is a consistent sty. But that choice is from my perspective. What if they have never known any difference? This is likely what they grew up with such that they don’t even recognize the difference (not just the young boys, that’s a given, but also their mother and other roommates).
This isn’t the immediate point though. The thing that hit me like a ton of bricks as I drove away, sucking in the fresh air, was that this is love.
Inviting the family into my home was great, don’t get me wrong. But it was still a little conditional. Love on my terms. But now that they have moved, I have to love them on their terms, their turf, their space. It’s not convenient. It’s not “on the way” for me – it’s rather out of the way. Furthermore, there’s no compromise and no giving on their part. They don’t have transportation, so they can’t meet me half-way. I either come all the way, or there is nothing. Essentially, our relationship totally depends on my willingness to make all the effort. And when I get there, they have nothing, not even a clean place to invite me to sit. I have to spend my gas, my time, my money to go over and see them. I have to suffer a headache if I’m to visit (a given—the smoke smell), and choose not to notice the mess and filth…. But THIS is love.
THIS is what LOVE did for us.
He came down.
He came all the way.
Surely God preferred it when he could visit with man in the Garden of Eden. It was paradise, after all. And surely He prefers to spend time with man in Heaven—it’s His home, after all, and paradise to boot. (I can only imagine how clean and how amazing it must smell!) Surely that is preferable to His Majesty than to come to earth. I know he created it, but like that new apartment, it didn’t take us very long to trash it.
Someday He will call us all to His home, to Heaven, to stay for good. But for now, we live here, on earth. Earth, the home of slums and wars and disease and hatred and snobbery and prejudice and sex trafficking…and the list goes on. Now, I’m not saying that in my eyes earth is all bad. In fact, I love earth! There are so many things about my little corner of the world (and pieces I’ve seen of the rest of it) that I adore and am quite proud of. But that’s in my eyes. And, like my former neighbors, I am accustomed to a certain level of filth in the world.
It’s interesting; my friends are so content, so accustomed to their way of life that they aren’t even aware that I might consider it sub-standard in any way. In fact, they have always been quite proud of their messy home. Whenever they were finally forced to clean their room they were so excited to show me their newly clean place. And to them it was. But really, it wasn’t. It was straightened up a bit, I’ll grant you that. But they failed to recognize that cleaning actually involves the removal of dirt. While there were no longer piles of clothes heaped on every square inch of floor and bedding, the surfaces (walls, floor, bedding, etc.) were still filthy and it still stank.
They were equally proud of their meager possessions. In fact, one day one of the boys was overjoyed because he was “dumpster diving” and found a pair of old, crusty worn out snakeskin boots that fit him. He was so proud of his “new” boots. He thought he was the best dressed cat in the jungle!
They (especially the young boys) have never thought how it (home, possessions, life) might look to my eyes…or smell to my nose.
But that’s when I realized, I have never thought much about how my life might look to God. I mean, think about our world, our ways of life—have you ever thought about how it must seem to God, especially when you compare it to how he intended it (reference the Garden of Eden) or where he resides now (Heaven)?
That’s not to say I don’t think about God or try to follow His ways. I do. But that the things I am so proud of, the things I would want to show Jesus and brag about probably look to Him a bit like those snakeskin boots. And while I think I’ve done a bang up job of cleaning my life by avoiding the “big sins,” I fail to realize how putrid and filthy even my “good deeds” are, covered in the stains of my selfishness, insecurity, arrogance and pride, my jealousy, my ulterior motives and need for attention…
But He doesn’t curl up His nose, or grimace. He doesn’t say He’ll wait till I can get to Heaven on my own and visit with me there. I can’t. Like my neighbors, I don’t have a car that will get me there. I can’t even meet Him half way. So He came all the way, for me and for you.
Love came down…to earth…as one of us. (Can I just say that I am so thankful that to visit my former neighbors I don’t have to do what Jesus did and enter a womb again??? A little smell is nothing compared to that awkwardness!)
And he didn’t just visit. He stayed. He lived here. To be completely honest with you, I cannot imagine being willing to go and live with that family. All of us, in that tiny space, in the filth and the stench, for a prolonged period of time—much as I love them all, I cannot imagine. But if I was going to do such a thing, the one thing I do know is that I would want to bring some changes.
I would start with cleaning. But, once I had the place cleaned up and smelling fresh, I would want to bring some light into other areas as well. I would want to cook and introduce some health into their diet…. I would want to decorate and make things beautiful. I would want to broaden their horizons and introduce them to new experiences and education, etc. I can think of a million things, but overall, I would want to help show them how life can be more than what they have been accustomed to – more in health, in education, in opportunity, in faith… more.
When Jesus came down, He had the same ideas. And when you allow Him to “come over” and be a part of your life, He has a similar agenda. He loves us enough to come, all the way. He loves us enough to move in, even if our life is offensive to His higher tastes. And He loves us enough to help show us more. It breaks His heart to see the filth we are content to wallow in. It breaks His heart to see us not reach the potential that He gave us. It breaks His heart to see our lives be so much less than He intended for us. So, he moves in.
And then Jesus (or more accurately, his Holy Spirit) gets to work cleaning things up.
As I think about how He cleans, I think it makes sense to put it like this. First, He gives us an “Extreme Home Makeover” through His death on the cross which cleanses us of all our sins. So, we have a new life, just like my friends had a new apartment. The problem was, my friends still had their old habits. So, it wasn’t long before their new apartment looked (and smelled) like their old one. It was still a new apartment, they hadn’t actually gone back to the old one—in fact, it’s gone and they can’t go back. But a new apartment isn’t enough. They need help changing their old habits so they learn to take care of the new apartment, so they can keep it looking like a new apartment.
So, the second thing Jesus does, after our “Extreme Home Makeover,” is to begin to teach us and change us. He gently shows us the dirt and the mess we make. He shows us how to stop making such an unnecessary mess and how to clean up after ourselves when we do. Kind of like teaching a kid to eat over a plate so he doesn’t leave crumbs all over the floor, and then teaching him to sweep or vacuum when he does. Only with Jesus cleaning up involves things like confession and repentance.
Jesus doesn’t just clean though. He shows us the more in other areas of our lives as well. He shows us the things which bring us health. Not just eating healthy and exercising, though taking care of our bodies is part of it, but also things like worship, prayer, being generous, serving others, being obedient to authorities and to His leading. Things which make our soul healthy and strong.
Then , He decorates our very souls and lives with character qualities which are more beautiful and fragrant than any bouquet of flowers that ever graced the finest palace, things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Then he broadens our horizons. He takes us to new depths in our faith, stretches our trust in Him. He begins to show us just what all He has in store for us, the love, the ministry, the usefulness, the purpose. He gives us glimpses of His vast resources that He freely gives to us as we need them and He sees fit. We begin to comprehend that truly, there is no limit with Him. There is no horizon, just endless possibility.
I said before that I could not imagine actually moving in with this family. Visiting is hard enough. But, I think about similar sacrifices people make every day that they might show the love of God to others: Missionaries who give us comfortable life styles so that they might live as and minister to some indigenous people group, Teachers who are so passionate about helping their students that they give up far more lucrative career options, People who work with the homeless, Mother Theresa. There are so many beautiful examples. And I wonder how they can do it?
Because that’s what love does. It comes down. It comes over. It goes all the way. It doesn’t always keep things nice and neat and clean. It doesn’t require that things happen on its own turf. It goes where things are stinky, nasty, dirty, unclean, inconvenient, uncomfortable and dangerous. It loves others as they are, where they are, for who they are.
And then it helps, it changes, it transforms…it gives more.
 One asked me one day how come my place always smelled so good—but honestly, I think just not smelling bad would have been a good smell to him! But in case any of you are wondering how to get your place to smell good…might I recommend cleaning it? Soap? And then there are these awesome things called candles, air fresheners and room sprays…there’s a whole line of things to help your place smell good! Alas, I gave their mom a candle for Christmas…but it would have been one awesome candle if it had been strong enough to even begin to mask some of the other smells in that place.
 Galatians 5:22