Getting Your Hands Dirty

I confess this truth: I struggle sometimes to enact my Christianity with my hands. I prefer to sit at my comfortable couch, in my air-conditioned or heated house, with food close at hand if I ever get hungry, clean and well-dressed, my muscles not taxed. When someone in my community asks for help, I often excuse myself from participating. I have a busy life. I have five children, a writing career, a teaching career, and many other volunteer positions. I don't have time to babysit for a friend or to weed an ailing neighbor's garden. I am grumpy when I lose sleep, so I skip signing up to help with the triplets born on the street just across from mine all night, or to take the all-night shift at the local cannery for the poor.

As I say to my children sometimes, this is not my best feature. I truly admire others I see who seem more eager or more faithful in their willingness to get their hands dirty helping others. I want to give and to be Christian, but the truth is, I want my devotion to be easy. I want to show my love for others in some way that doesn't cost me anything. Does any of this sound familiar? I hope it doesn't but it probably does.

I'm not saying that we are required to do every single thing that might be suggested to us in the service of others. We don't. Service fatigue is real and it isn't helpful in the long run if you've exhausted yourself on a single project and have nothing left to give. It's also perfectly fair to choose projects that appeal to you personally and stick to those even when other projects are shoved in your face. It's important to maintain certain boundaries, to say no when you need to say no, and to make sure that your own family (and yourself) is well-cared for.

It's also important to make sure that we give what is most useful for others, which is often money, particularly if you are trying to help refugees on another continent. For precisely this reason, I was recently part of an on-line auction to benefit Lifting Hands Internationa recently and we raised more than $29,000 to help refugees in camps all across Europe. This was a great way for lots of people to help their fellow humans even when it's not possible for us all to actually fly to Europe and bring supplies with us.

But offering money is not the same as getting your hands dirty. Growing up, my father showed me time and again the importance of doing the work yourself. He could often have hired someone to take his place, helping people move or mowing a widow's lawn. But he didn't. I asked him once why. He told me quite clearly that he felt that part of being a Christian was accepting that you were never above doing hard, physical labor to help someone else--even if you could pay to have someone take your place. Sometimes, I admit, I have thought this was a foolish choice. But the older I get, the more I realize that getting your hands dirty sends a vital message of community support to those in need. It says--I care about you enough to do this for you. It says--I could hire someone to do this, but I want you to see me here, acknowledging your need.

So a couple of months ago, I made a commitment to do more hands-on work in my community. My first opportunity arrived just weeks later when a neighbor rather suddenly announced that their family had to move. I noted to myself the date and time and tried to figure out how to make it happen. Saturday mornings I often like to sleep in on Saturdays and then get up, eat a leisurely breakfast, then head down to the treadmill for marathon training. But this time, I got up early, finished my long run by 11:00 a.m., and headed straight over to the neighbor's house to offer my time in helping to clean the house.

I hire out most of my own cleaning, but I spent the next two hours scrubbing kitchen cabinets with heavy duty cleaners and thick brushes, breaking a sweat and feeling a burn in my muscles as I did for neighbors what I would never do for myself. I simply don't care enough about my cabinets being that clean, and maybe my neighbors didn't, either. I'm not sure anyone in the family really noticed the more than two hours I spent lovingly getting sticky, oily grime out of the cracks in the wooden doors or the big red cup-shaped stain on the top level of the cabinet by the sink. It didn't matter. I wasn't cleaning the cabinets for them. I was cleaning the cabinets for Christ.

Why would Jesus care about clean cabinets? He probably doesn't. But this was my offering. This was me getting my hands dirty in the service of God. If I did it to the least of these, I was doing it for Him. And I was trying to say to Christ that I was willing to do what He asked of me, even if it was something I don't normally do.

I enjoyed some of the camaraderie I experienced as I chatted with other women who came and went, doing other cleaning in the house. But mostly, I was quiet and felt a pure sense of peace and blessing for my simple work. I went home shaking from hunger and with my knees sore from kneeling on countertops for so long, but I felt that my offering had been accepted. I will be getting my hands dirty again soon. I hope you will, too.

It's never really going to be convenient to help the poor, to comfort the grieving, to mourn with those that mourn. Human needs don't happen on a schedule. A hurricane isn't going to strike when it's convenient for you to give because you just got your tax return. A premature baby isn't born to your time frame. A family friend won't always die when you have a day off. Sometimes sending money is right, but the human connection is an important one. I can say from experience now that getting your hands dirty isn't easy, but it also feels very, very good.