Stinking Up Church From My Perspective

Loiter Larry rose to the challenge and accepted the mission assignment a week ago.  He came back and reported on it.  He described how timid he was, and how he showed up just a bit late.  Then it was mostly uneventful.  He shook hands with one person – ONE PERSON.  Nothing was said to him about his smell.

I began thinking, that’s probably the standard.  No one talks about it.

Oh, Larry suffered a lot of shame.  He worried that someone might talk about it… behind his back.  But other than his own anxiety over it, there was no evidence that his mission made any difference to anyone except himself (and maybe his readers).

Here’s an ironic thought:  I think I smell a conspiracy.

I went to church this weekend and repeated the mission assignment where I go.  I went expecting Larry’s experience to be mine too.  And it was, mostly.  I really felt the sting of shame.  I worried over it too.  But I had Larry’s experience to learn from and I had a copy of Yankoski’s book describing his experience with it too.  So, even though I felt a lot of shame, I also felt emboldened.  And sure enough, no one spoke to me about it.

I don’t want to be unfair about this.  I think it’s possible someone still might come to me and bring it up.  I met a few people who made mention of my placard or my shirt, and I handed them each a business card with the blog address on it.  By now I have handed dozens of them out at church.  But so far no one there has commented, liked, emailed, or privately mentioned having read here to me.  It’s like the social phenom called Studied Non-Observance.  There is an unwritten rule that church people should ignore homeless folx on the one hand and prophets on the other.

So I was emboldened.  But let me just tell about the way my morning went, and I hope you see my boldness in the telling of it.

The Play-by-Play

Before leaving the house

I woke up in the living room, since I wasn’t about to go to my bed.  I woke up early.  My mind was on stinking for church.  I recalled when I was a small child how my grandpa would shine his Sunday shoes on Saturday night.  He was on a regular basis preparing for church a solid 12 hours before going.  I had started skipping showers on Friday morning.  Not exactly the same, but it somehow made me remember the old man.

I had foster children to prepare for Sunday worship.  I cleaned them and dressed them up, while I began to fear that I just didn’t stink bad enough.  No one in my house actively complained to me.  I remember working in the Psych hospital and witnessing a patient off their meds go for over three months with no shower.  The scrubs this patient wore actually turned from blue to brown – and that was in a clean hospital environment.  The smell of this person was so bad, other patients did not want to eat across the room from this one.  And here I was hoping to up the intensity because even though 3 days is bad, it just wasn’t bad enough.

I was considering stuffing one of the baby diapers in my pocket to ratchet up the stench.  But then I thought if I could build up an extra good sweat in my current clothes one more time, it would be more natural.  I dug out my insulated coveralls, put a coat on over that, and began doing calisthenics.  Somehow, I just wasn’t getting hot enough, I thought.  Then I remembered a stocking hat I keep in my bag.  I went to grab it.

It just so happens, I have not used my bag for a few weeks.  But on Saturday, when Agent Z and I hit the streets, I grabbed it and stuffed my Bible in it and some communion supplies.  But I didn’t realize until we were downtown that sometime back I had taken a brown bag dinner to a study group meeting and left the leftovers in a baggy down in my book-bag.  The leftovers from that meal had rotted thoroughly, and the stench was overpowering.  When I found it, I just threw it all in a trashcan.  But the stocking cap had been right under it.  And when I pulled it out, the stench of that rotten meal filled the house.

I promptly put the stocking hat on my head.  I almost threw up from the smell!  It was a gift from God, I thought!  I finally had my stink on.  I overwhelmed myself.

The smell was so bad, after about 5 minutes, I had enough of it and tossed the hat.  But the residue stayed with me.  I asked my wife and kids, and they assured me I was smelling rank.

(Oh… btw, I thank God I have a wife, who though she does not understand, is willing to endure God’s call on my life.  Thanx to Mrs. Agent X for her loving, patient support!)

Arriving at church

Finally, I loaded up babies, and we headed up to church.  I grabbed a placard Agent Z made a while back that says, “The Least of These Slept On the Streets Last Night – Matt. 25”.  I attached it to the baby stroller and wheeled us in to the sanctuary.

We were met at the door by a door greeter who handed us a program/bulletin.  I handed the greeter a card.  Then I shared greetings with a widow lady in the lobby we invited over for dinner a few weeks ago.  She spoke to the babies, of course.  I did not detect that she smelled anything funny.  She made no mention and no funny expressions.  And yes… I was scrutinizing the Looking Glass Self!

We were there a few minutes early, so I took a seat near the back and to the right, not far from one of the main entrances.  I unloaded our gear and set the placard facing the door where people coming in would see it.  I knew that perhaps as many as 100 people would walk past the point where I was sitting.  Some of them would know me and greet me.  Most would not.

Shortly before the worship service started, my sister-n-law and her husband found us.  She asked if the seats just behind us were taken, but before she and I had a chance to talk about it, her husband, who was shaking my hand by that time, suggested to her that they could sit on the other side of the sanctuary.  (I have to just assume he was moved by the smell, because he did not say that in front of me.)

As the song service began, I noticed another couple come up behind us.  They almost took the two seats just behind us, but after a moment, the slipped a few paces away.  Again, I am left assuming I know why.

The song service was good.  And we opened the worship with communion and a collection.  Then sang more songs before the pastor stood up to preach.  He preached from several passages in Luke’s Gospel – passages that featured Jesus “touching” undesirable/poor people.  He delivered an impassioned sermon about how the church, which is the Body of Christ, is to do for the world around us like Jesus does to the world around him.  We too are supposed to touch these people.  He even suggested that he thinks Luke wrote this gospel with churches like ours in mind – people of means, people very much like middle, to upper middle class lifestyles.

As the service concluded with more singing and some remarks from one of the bishops (and two baptisms as well), two different women who are familiar with my foster babies came down the aisle and stopped to hug on the child in my arms at that moment.  Neither one let on that my smell was offensive.  But that would be extremely unlikely or unnecessary as worship was still in progress.  But they had each just sat through a sermon about Jesus touching undesirable people and the admonition for us to as well.  So….  Hmmm…

Finally, one last person greeted us before we left the sanctuary.  My wife’s uncle.  He is a doctor and all, but he is a humble man.  And when we got married, he particularly stepped up to serve the homeless in the serving line.  So, I am not surprised at his gentle kindness at all.  But still, he said nothing of my appearance or smell.

At long last, as we were making our way out the door, the babies in the stroller and me, a man I do not know held the door open for us to walk through.  He read the placard hanging from the stroller and made polite comment about it.  I told him we work in street ministry, and I handed him a card and invited him to check out our website.

The Get-Away

With that, it was done.  We loaded up and headed home, where I wasted no time steaming up the bathroom.

When it was all said and done, I didn’t get any direct feedback over the smell at all.  And honestly, I don’t know what to expect.  There is no doubt that toting babies and looking homeless sends a mixed message.  The nonverbal social cue is mixed up.  The idea of telling someone they stink is a taboo almost as bad as stinking itself.

On the one hand, if I was better connected with these people on an interpersonal level, I think they would feel more open to inquire.  Yet that might suggest that someone there reads here too sometimes.  But that says something sad about church too.  Why after more than a year of attending there am I not better connected?

But then there is that other part… the part this blog addresses all the time.  The fact that a church… of all institutions… a church… with homeless people gathered round the property at night should know what to do with them.  And this one has a preacher preaching very powerful sermons preparing this church just as much as a sermon can to actually TOUCH them.

So, let me say this by way of expectations: If you read here with any regularity, AND if you go to worship assembly with any regularity (which you should, btw (Heb. 10:25)), then the next time you meet someone at church who stinks like they haven’t had a shower in days, invite that person out to lunch afterward and find out why they stink – even if you have to come right out and ask.  And then see if they have any needs your church might be able to TOUCH.

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3 comments

  1. paulfg · October 3, 2017

    “There is an unwritten rule that church people should ignore homeless folx on the one hand and prophets on the other.”

    You may be right. But there is something about your “challenge” that never sat right with me, and after this post I understand better why that is.

    Several years ago as a new manager, I was given the “challenge” of telling an old chap in my team that he stank. He had worked there for years. The team had worked with him for years. No one had said a word to him about his personal hygiene. Except everyone talked about it when he wasn’t around. And the talking was very “plain speaking” (so long as he never got wind of what the team really thought). And he did stink. And it was off-putting. A distraction from getting the job done. So I accepted the “challenge”.

    It was embarrassing for us both. It was painful for us both. It carried the risk of him leaving. It carried the risk of him not trusting anyone anymore –because commonsense said it was the team who wanted this conversation (no matter what was said or not face-to-face between him and me).

    And I had to include the possibility he had a medical condition which disallowed him smelling “fresh”. I had to include domestic circumstances as maybe being a reason for not smelling fresh. In other words – I had no idea why he stank – and could not assume anything – all while saying the unsayable. It was one of the most difficult things I have done – and one the most difficult things he had to experience. Because there was no reason other than he never new because he never knew.

    Now to your challenge.

    The mixed messages you are giving are complex. Yet despite stinking you were treated as you would normally be treated. I find that “inclusive”. Some people preferred to sit elsewhere? So would I. You had your family with you. You were obviously not homeless. You were very much as usual – just smelling more than usual. Why should people know what was going on, and why should people say the unsayable (see above)? Which answers my original discomfort.

    “There is an unwritten rule that church people should ignore homeless folx on the one hand and prophets on the other.” I don’t see it as that. I see it as this:

    “Why after more than a year of attending there am I not better connected?”

    And I think if that was the challenge: being better connected, then conversations about the homeless would happen naturally – perhaps the changes you seek would happen more easily – and all without the need to force others to change (without them understanding why they should.

    “Why after more than a year of attending there am I not better connected?”

    I think is the challenge in all churches.

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  2. Pingback: Feed (all) my sheep | Just me being curious
  3. Agent X · October 3, 2017

    As I think about “church culture”, I have ideas that might be insightful, but then again might really miss the mark.
    I have a lot of experience with it, and a LOT of that is very negative. Deeply, damagingly negative. So those who reject it get a lot of sympathy from me. Not that I agree with them, because it is a mistake to leave it. *** a side note on this at the end of this comment ***

    Sill, my experience alone is not a proper sociological study. My social experiments are anecdotal at best. I think we can make educated guesses from them, but firm conclusions likely require more disciplined study. And so I would characterize my opinion as perhaps an educated gut response.

    Agent B, a former blogger who has influenced me greatly, called modern church a “social club”. I think his description and the evidence he gave for it were powerful, insightful, and often enough accurate. I look at people embracing rituals they don’t understand, and I wonder why they bother. I really think that if I didn’t hold Jesus in higher regard, I would wake up one Sunday (sooner rather than later) and assess things soberly and decide, the whole sham is a sham. I think I will sleep in today, and plan to be at the lake next week.

    And I think more, and more, and more Americans (and really Europeans too) are coming to (or have come to a long time ago) similar conclusions. I mean, if you go to church these days, you will see a lot of empty pews, and if you go to the lake, you will hardly find a speck of beach upon which to fish from. Just two generations back, this was unheard of….

    I don’t know if the egg came first or the chicken, but I am clear that our churches, in addition to being social clubs, are also extremely consumeristic. We were using the term “seeker friendly” a few years ago. That was code for setting up a market to sell you God. And suddenly God became trendy, stylish and novel. When I got out of school, I worked for several years at a Christian book store. We were one of the few bookstores that really catered to ministers and students – a real academic nature to the niche we carved in the market. And yet we found that at graduation season, we relied heavily on sales of Bibles to churches that would give them to graduates. And of course, they wanted them monogrammed.

    So, I was monogramming Bibles. And in the heat of the grad season, we would order stacks and stacks of them. The monogrammer machine would get quite hot with all the overload. And invariably sooner or later in those massive stacks, I would make an error in the spelling of a name. And once you spell “Jennifer” with an “X”, Jennifer isn’t going to want it.

    Do you know what the store does with Bibles imprinted with mistakes?

    Well, the really nice ones, we would put on the bargain rack at like 75% off. But if the Bible was not normally sold at more than $50, then we generally tossed it in the garbage.

    I can just imagine William Tyndale rolling over in his grave!

    Yeah…. You try really, really hard to verify the spelling of those names, double check, all that. But when you have 4000 vain people to please, a few are going to get trashed. The word of God… in the trash because Jennixer doesn’t like the way I spelled her name.

    I began refusing to imprint Bibles. This was a joke. We made a mockery of Church, faith, God, and bibles. And then I watched a lady and her daughter come in one day searching for a particular shade of purple cover for the Bible… a shade that matched her shoes!

    Need I go on???

    And we have a rock band for a choir now. Lattes in the lobby. All that.

    And it’s not like any one bit of it is a sin or wrong or something, but stop and look at the forest a moment instead of just a few trees. Who here is really seeking Jesus? Who here is counting the cost of discipleship? And who here keeps a copy of Bonhoeffer on the coffee table to impress their intellectual “Christian” friends when they come to pay a visit?

    There are a select few who have managed to turn their congregations into stepping stones to wealth. They get on TV with smoke machines, big hair & lipstick, but it’s still a pig!

    Anyway, I am exhausting the point now and I really don’t have to. If you want to argue against this, I don’t. Shut up. I am not interested in hearing from you. If you don’t already know this, stick around and read more. But otherwise, we all are living in denial as we engage this stuff. We are in it for the hype or the money or the important friends to schmoose… And even those of us who think we really love Jesus, if we are not struggling against this stuff have capitulated.

    So.. a homeless person comes to church. Where are they going to “fit”? They are not. And anyone who wants to help them fit will have to move a lot of spiritual baggage around in their own hearts and risk upsetting other people’s baggage in order to do it. So homeless people pretty much get the hint from the locks on the doors at night.

    I read Yankoski’s account of like 3 or 4 churches he visited as a homeless person. One of them had security guys that he described as though they looked like the secret service agents will ear bud radios and all scurrying around making accusations and stuff all in a great anxiety to get these guys out of the church. He told of another guy who kicked them off church property when a special event was held on a Saturday morning. The man was very rude about it and uncaring. But the boys went back the next day for Sunday worship, and afterward the same man had repented and approached them apologizing! And that is fantastic! That is how the church fixes this problem. But of course, if we would deal with this stuff while it is still hypothetical, we wouldn’t have to botch it to begin with!

    So.. my guts tell me that in this scenario, when Larry and or I go to worship all smelly, we are tempted to come late and leave early. Kinda like the lady with the 12 year hemorrhage that thinks she can just touch the hem of the cloak. We come in shame and hope to get our spiritual need met and slip away undetected.

    The church, though doesn’t do like Jesus. The church on the upfront, is putting on a concert with a sermon. It’s like a show. At the start of it, we have our best foot forward, but if you come in late, you have missed the meet-n-greet session and thus missed the show. If we meet you on the way out… well, sorry, but we were on our way to Rosa’s Café for lunch… And never consider that we might just now be starting the real show. The show were we perform for Jesus privately rather than the rock band perform for us (which also is botched).

    And so, I think, socially speaking, the whole gear mechanism is off a cog. The poor want to slip in late and slip out early (assuming they even want in this racket at all), and the church, the rock show, is geared to receive early and host for the concert, but not for the aftershow party. Thus, the whole thing is likely to miss even on its best day.

    I will say this, something I did not mention in the post. Our preacher at one point made a point to describe the difference in (my words here not his) Loving others, tolerating others, and shunning others. There are these three broad options, with the one in the middle masquerading as love while at root being more a matter of shunning. Thus he called our bluff! That is if we are really listening. I know I was. I stunk to high heaven and felt very out of place!

    ***okay… Now for that side note from above….

    Being part of this mess is not optional. You are either in or you are out. I hold this disagreement with Agent B even still. Though I sympathize completely with stepping out of this mess and going it alone so that you don’t have to be hurt, be part of hurting others, or be part of the charade. There is a circus of nonsense passing itself off as church out there, and honestly I think Ron Highfield’s article that I linked a few weeks ago really calls the church out on this in a way that just goes for the throat and yet is offered by someone a lot of insiders respect.

    But leaving it is not optional.

    The Essenes left Israel and went back out to the desert to wait on God there. They baptized themselves multiple times a day. They had intricut initiation rituals so they could weedout the jerks who were not serious about faith. And, I strongly imagine they were doing their thing down at the Jordan River, probably just around the bend from John the Baptist, who also was baptizing in the desert and waiting for God. You would think they had a lot in common… and they did up to a point.

    The Essenes quit the temple! They walked out on Israel. They said this circus is corrupt from top to bottom and God cannot bless this mess. So, they left it.

    John, Jesus, Paul and the gang most certainly held critique of the temple and the “system”, but they did not quit it. Jesus ,of course, played the single most impactful role in “cleansing” the temple and driving out the money changers! But he said, My Fathers house will be a HOUSE of PRAYER for all nations, but you have made it a den of rebels. He criticized it, but he also claimed it. THEN he replaced it with himself. (actually that corrupt mess always was meant to point to Jesus to begin with, so it makes sense). The Essenes, though, don’t even get honorable mention in the New Testament. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians. Scribes and Zealots all get criticized too, but they get engaged, and the offer of Salvation is made to them. the Essenes, don’t even factor in to the story.

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