The Chicagoland snow finally showed up over the past week. Morning ice, afternoon slush, fresh evening crystals. So it’s a good time to trade the drafts breezing off our windows for memories of a warmer season. I take you to Nebraska in July, somewhere near the Winnebago Reformed Church (pictured), during a church youth service trip…
Sweat was streaming down our arms. We were hacking back weeds and tearing out suckers, those tree saplings that cannot quite be gotten rid of, from along a house foundation on the Winnebago Reservation. The homeowner was serving the church with her mind and love, but her body no longer had the strength to handle the yard, and certainly not in 95⁰ F. By mid-day, we were slathered in layers of sweat and sunblock and plant debris that had become our skin. We began to notice that the people who actually lived there were not outside, but part of service projects is not complaining about prairie winds extracting all the moisture in your body. We were handling suckers for the Savior, after all, or maybe we just were suckers for the Savior.
Plus, there would be a cool shower later, right? We would stuff ourselves into the van, cross the river to the Iowa school that had showers, exit said van by peeling each other off the seats, and refresh. Imagine, then, our horror at the sickly-hot water that came out of those showers. As the steam began to crawl around the locker room and then add a layer to our sunblock skin, I decided I would be better off using the hose behind the church building where we stayed.
As I sprayed off, I noticed the busy highway just across the field. I imagined I-29 motorists concerned, perhaps even outraged, about squatters at the church. There would be explanations with the authorities. “No, officer, don’t worry, we paid a registration fee and are fully authorized to be gross in this location.” “We cleared it all with the owner of the property… Jesus!” “Sheltering sweaty people from Winnipeg, Milwaukee, and Illinois is part of this church’s ministry – just ask the new pastor who starts next week.” Just don’t enter the guys’ area, where sweat-saturated shirts hang on the youth room basketball cabinet and the smell of work is becoming a seven-layer dip over the course of the week.
The next day, we were back at the suckers and the sun was baking group-member Jaidyn’s mind into different, though perhaps not elevated, states of consciousness. She became suddenly musical. Casting aside her inhibitions, she offered “The Tarzan Song,” and tried to remember lyrics to “The Cat Came Back.” Very high-minded spiritual stuff, I know, but trying “As the Deer” would have been too realistic, and “Oceans” would have been just plain cruel. Then came “Green Socks:”
Greeeeen socks! They never get dirty,
The longer you wear them the stronger they get!
Sooome-times, I think I might wash them,
But something inside me keeps saying not yet… not yet… not yet…
(take it from the top)
Somehow the throb of the heat and the rhythm of the song made a connection. We were living “Green Socks.” Yes, we were filthy, covered with all manner of making-do-for-now, but the longer we stuck together, the stronger we got. In the morning, devotions and prayer. Lunch in the cool-ish basement of the Winnebago Reformed Church. Sorting out food pantry deliveries and finding Christian joy in doing unpleasant jobs. At night, worship in song and Scripture, and small group discussion about the meaning of community as Jesus defined it.
We learned to stick together, literally and figuratively. Sharing space and work, with no real way to escape, meant we could not wash ourselves so quickly of the inevitable mess of human life and relationships. Regrets, sins, and burdens welled up into conversation and prayer. I connected with another dad who taught me how to grieve for and claim the promises of Christ for a child who never got to be born. I heard a young lady feeling socially included after years of being manipulated by frenemies. Another found affirmation of calling in the midst of her confusion about why people were so comfortable laying their burdens on her.
More broadly, Christian community is “Green Socks.” God’s grace calls for our humility to stop pretending about our dirty lives long enough to recognize our need to be clean. By not sanitizing our own lives, we can come to love ourselves as ourselves and our neighbor as they are as we together seek the wash that only God can put us through. When we stick together, it means He has first stuck with us. The longer He does that, the stronger we get. He’s never been shy about getting Himself mixed up with us, filthy though we may be. Oh, sure, His grace does clean us up, but we’re not fully ourselves yet. Not yet, not yet.
Meanwhile, life will take its blood, sweat, and tears from us. We get crusty with wearied hearts. We smell bad with sin. For now, we find grace to make do, and we wait on His promise that we will be changed.