Our house squeaked cleanliness. Order was in sufficient supply to step on legos on only one of three forays into the play room. The new microwave heated actual food into being actually warm. From the outside, and on a cursory tour of the main living areas, all appeared well.
The basement was another story, however. There, in the places where secrets congregate for the rituals of rusting and breaking down beneath the feet of innocent residents, the thing was leaking. Not quickly, but steadily. An untrained nose could smell it wafting sickly out from behind the furnace room door, day after day. An imaginative ear could hear it slick dripping into the sump pump hole, night after night. Any eye could see the weakly prismatic sheen seeping along the bottom edge of the cinder block walls, discolored brown from the year after year.
Heating oil. The stump of the previous furnace pipe protruding from the wall located the source somewhere under our exterior cement patio. From there, the leak worked through the sandy soil and into the porous basement wall. Probably, surely, hopefully, the source was a small pool of left-over fuel from the furnace changeover to gas, decades ago, and the mess would ease itself away over time.
In any case, the smear on the furnace room floor persisted only as a nuisance. When rain poured above ground, the situation below would spread just a little and subside with time. A gravelly absorbent, rather like kitty litter, could be tossed around the edges of the walls to keep at least some of the oil from entering the drainage system and, eventually, the water supply. Every so often, I’d go down there with a shovel and scoop away the mounds of what now seemed like oatmeal and toss fresh grit in place. We thought about cleaning it up with detergent, but the oil wasn’t going to respect a clean floor, so we just managed it to a mediocre level of satisfaction.
The oil wasn’t a big problem, so it didn’t need a big solution.
Probably, surely, hopefully.
* * * * *
As we approach Lent, that season of self-examination and repentance in the Christian calendar, it is right to consider our sins humbly. These might not be the sins that anyone could see, but those evils that hide in our spiritual basements. Someone would have to live near our hearts long enough to know those spaces were even there. Under our manicured flowery reputations: the craving for a little more worldly approval. On the other side of selfless service: a touch of warped gratitude to God that we’ve got it together. Behind our gentle words: an edge that believes our rightness equates to righteousness.
Sin always seeps out and someone always finds out. In that case, or if we’re just spiritually-mature enough to act first, it is tempting to go into maintenance mode. We promise ourselves we’ll pray, sopping up our pride with dry piety. We read or hear the Spirit of God through the verse that speaks just to us, and we dig into the moment of conviction, sure that this time we have been changed, right up until a little suffering comes to wash away our commitment. After years of being sinners, even saved sinners, we come to accept that managing our sins, containing them, putting them out-of-sight and out-of-mind, is as far as God’s grace can take us until He takes us to Himself.
These small sins will seem, even to a keen observer, small, and no grand beating of our souls that God would have mercy on me, a sinner, is quite called for. We know the eventual complete solution, and Christ is big enough, but our salvation will come to fullness in God’s time. For now, an occasional confession, to freshen up, will suffice.
Probably, surely, hopefully.
* * * * *
The oil kept oozing. A committee at church got curious enough to wonder about the real source, which could not be a pool of remnant oil, nor a forgotten pipe. No, people with knowledge surmised that, buried under the patio, sagged a heating oil tank that had never been removed. It would go on leaking until time and corrosion made its metal brittle enough to waffle under its own weight. And then?
So the backhoe arrived to tear up the cement and scoop out the overlying sand. Sure enough, just a foot beneath the surface, sat an old oil tank. The gray metal screeched under the sand and shovel’s teeth, complaining as each drag revealed, not a garden-variety 200-gallon oil tank, as was common back in the day, but a full submarine. A 1000-gallon oil tank, eyeing us coolly in the ferric December air.
Unscrew the fill cap. Take a sounding. Drop a stone into the coffee-colored sludge and hear only a stifled tinny vibration, cushioned by a slow fall.
When the environmental company came laden with 55-gallon drums, they didn’t have enough for what finally amounted to 600-plus gallons of heating fuel stagnant in the tank. Though the oil was useless after so much time, it was finally out, and the tank itself could be sawn apart.
The hungry hole received its due, new cement eventually slopped into place, and though there is still a noticeable scar on the yard, we are a little closer to all being well as opposed to merely appearing well.
* * * * *
Those sins that seep out conspicuously are rarely the source.
Deeper examination of our own hearts and consciences will disturb us with heavy hypotheses of greater sin under the nice patio appearance of the church going, and behind the basement wall of the ego.
When the craving for worldly approval trickles out in our words or facial expressions, we may fear uncovering the shame that lodges in our sense of self. We know God has received us in grace, called us friends, named us His children, and promised us a delightful inheritance. Surely the boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places! And yet, stale disgraces continue to tell us how broken and dirty we are. Maybe it is time to fracture the protective concrete under which we hide and address the real issue with the gentle steel mercy of God.
As warped gratitude for believing ourselves better-than deforms us into pride, it may cost us to consult an external spiritual guide to tell us the truth. Gallons of vainglory are there, stored up for a worldly system which asks us to burn ourselves out trying to shine brightly enough. What must be removed fills drums of fuel, which otherwise will become hazard on the day of wrath, useless in the brilliance of the grace of being fully known as we ought always to have been. Perhaps it is time to dredge our hearts hot with selfishness in order to surrender to the better warmth of the refining fire of the Spirit of God.
And again comes that moment of supposed rightness which mutates into subtle self-righteousness. We take on the mantle of the unmerciful servant, whose superior anger exposed his basic and deadly failure to receive his Master’s grace truly. That servant, even amidst the piercing irony, blinded his compassion to the facts and lost himself in the process. Yes, therefore, it is time to dig out the space in our hearts reserved for junk and instead be filled with the love and charity of Christ.
Dealing with our sins is never pretty, and those moments of exposure will leave their scars. But they will also leave us well, because to do the work of rejecting complacently appearing good with the faith of becoming truly good is also the work of grace.
Let it be so this season. Let grace not be anything less than a deep earthy surgery into the truth about you and the greater and wonderfully consuming truth of Jesus.
Consider where you leak. Wonder about what’s underneath. Call in the Spirit, courageously dig up the history and the sin, and be made new, because as was and ever shall be, all Lents are made for Easter.