The Hunger to be Clean

Once you have been clean–I mean really clean–you are never satisfied again with anything less.

If anyone cleanses himself….he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work. (II Timothy 2:21).

Recently, at an outdoor event a church was staging for the community, I sat under a covering sketching anyone and everyone, people of all ages. At one point, something offensive hit me. A man with a body odor that indicated he had been weeks away from the bathtub approached to see what I was doing.

Later, I reflected on how rare that is. In the civilized circles I run in, we almost never encounter the unwashed and the odorific.

But we used to. In fact, it’s very possible I used to be among them. After all, I grew up on the farm and getting dirty and taking rare baths were part of the culture. More on that in a minute, however.

Sometimes when I am out west riding with the cowhands, moving a herd to the trailhead or fighting outlaws or just branding the dogies–I read Western novels a lot, in other words–something occurs to me: these people must have been filthy.

You almost never read in a Western novel of the main characters taking baths. If they do at all, it’s usually a swim in a creek or a formal bought-and-paid-for hot bath in town at the end of their journey.

They seem to wear the same clothes day after day and sleep in them at night.

Is it unfair to conclude that these people were dirty most of the time? Not only that, but I think we can assume it wasn’t just the dusty cowhands on the trail, but the townspeople also–the preacher, the schoolteacher, the sheriff, the merchants–who took rare baths.

The obvious question is: Weren’t they repulsed by the (ahem) fragrance the dirty bodies gave off?

Apparently not. When everyone smells the same way, no one notices.

Bill Glass asked a fellow at the Fort Worth stockyards once how he could stand the smell. He said, “What smell?”

We can get accustomed to anything.

Here’s the story of this (now) citified farmboy regarding baths, with a little application to the spiritual.

As a child growing up on the farm or in the mining community where we sometimes lived, there was no running water in the house and therefore no bathrooms. Baths taken in a galvanized tub were Saturday night affairs.

The joke was that each of the six children in our family took baths in the same water. The last child died in the quicksand.

As a teenager, I began working on the farm–following the mule all day long, or working underneath the hay baler, or chopping with a hoe in a field, or sometimes shoveling out a hogpen. All were dirty jobs, some horrendously filthy.

Mom had an aversion to dirt. She never said that in so many words, but since she worked day and night mopping and scrubbing, it was plain. That’s why at some point, we rigged up an outdoor shower.

Dad took an old water heater–I have no idea where he found one on a farm–and, using a welder, cut out one side. He built a scaffolding and laid that tank horizontal with the cut-out on top. Then, each morning before we went to the fields, one of the kids would run a hose to the tank and fill it up with water. (Explanation: By that time, we had a drilled well, a pump, and indoor water. We just didn’t have a bathroom.)

During the morning, the sun would heat the water in the tank. Then, when mom or one of my sisters clanged the outside bell for lunch, each of the workers–that would be Dad and the four of us boys–would enter the enclosed, home-made shower, and rinse off. We would then don the same clothes (we shook them out to get most of the dust off) and only then would Mom let us sit at the dining room table for lunch. (That “dinner” was something else. More about that some other time.)

That was our bathing routing. And that is when our family began getting clean. Or, some would want me to say, “cleaner.”

When I went off to college at the age of 18, something wonderful happened. I discovered that in the dormitory, each floor had a large bathroom with all the hot and cold running water you could ever want. And no one stood by to limit your use of it.

For the first time in my life, I had access to a real shower.

Some days, I would take three.

I loved the fresh feeling of a shower. (The fact that there was no air conditioning in Berry College’s Lemley Hall might have had a little to do with the need for multiple showers that summer of 1958!)

Since then, I have rarely been more than 24 hours without a bath.

It’s great to be clean.

Once you’ve been clean–really clean–for an extended period, you’re never satisfied with anything less.

I remember backsliding.

What hit me about my wicked heart was how much I missed being clean. Before, when I’d been close to the Lord I rarely thought about what it meant to daily have my sins forgiven and to enjoy the Lord’s presence. But now that the heart was ugly and rebellious and my sins were accumulating with no forgiveness in sight, I sure did miss being clean.

David did, too. After that Bathsheba-Uriah business, we see his prayer for cleanliness.

He begins Psalm 51 with this plea: Have mercy upon me, O God. According to your lovingkindness, according to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

Later, he prays, Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

And then: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Once you’ve been clean and have gotten dirty, nothing will do until you’ve had a bath.

That unwashed fellow at the park had no clue about the odor his body was emitting. I imagine he would be surprised to know how offensive everyone around him found his presence. If he did find it out, he would have to make a choice: either to get clean or to limit his associations to people like himself.

People make that choice every day.

I can remember the day when people smoked everywhere. Even–if you can believe this–in hospital rooms, they lit up cigarettes. In every office in the land, tobacco smoke filled the air. Furthermore, it was a rare home where the woman of the house–it was almost never the man–strictly forbid smoking inside.

You know what this means, of course. The residue of cigarette smoke–the odor, the microscopic particles–embedded itself in carpets, curtains, furniture, and yes, in our lungs and skin.

Then, one day, someone decided this was not good and stood up to say so. We should create non-smoking places in our world. And since tobacco was bad for our health, we should tax it heavily and shut down almost all advertising for cigarettes. Amazing how long it took humanity to decide this.

I recall the first day I noticed a sign that Ochsner Hospital in suburban New Orleans was from that time on smoke-free. That wasn’t all that long ago, because we moved to this city in 1990.

Consequently, most of us are now living without the constant plague of tobacco smoke filling the air, poisoning our lungs, stinking up our lives.

These days, when we walk into a store or office building, and off to one side are two or three employees taking their smoking break, a whiff of that smoke repulses us. In fact, even when no one is even there, we smell the discards of their smoking and it turns our stomach.

That’s a great sign.

It’s an indication we are finally getting some things right in our strange world (strange because we do some things so right and then conversely, some things so completely backward).

Once your life is smoke-free, you are forever repulsed by that stench that used to define your existence. Now, you wonder, “How could I have never noticed that before?”

It’s great being clean.

Try it. You’ll like it.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (I John 1:9)