Soiled Lives

Telephone 1When I answered the phone, it was my uncle. Though he had sons of his own and I had a father, he always called me “Son.”

“Son, I understand you want to be a pastor?”

“Yes, sir.”

“So you think you’re called, huh?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

“Son, if you’re really called to the ministry, meet me at the church Thursday morning and spend the day with me.”

My classes at San Diego State were on Monday-Wednesday-Friday, so Thursday morning I got up and went to the church. I had no idea what he had in mind.

After chatting for a few minutes, he said, “Follow me.” We got into his car and, without saying a word, drove to the outskirts of town, pulled up to a cluster of tiny, two-room shacks, and parked on the dirt in front of a small green hut, too small to be called a house or an apartment, yet this was someone’s home.

Uncle got out of the car, and I followed. We walked up to the door of one of the units, and he knocked. No answer. He knocked again, louder this time. Again, no answer. “I know he’s in there.”

He tried the door, and found that it was unlocked. Slowly he opened it, and went in. There on the bed in the small two-room cabin was a man — drunk, passed out. A mixture of vomit, diarrhea, urine, and alcohol on the bed, walls, sofa, and floor. The stench was overwhelming, as if attacking my nostrils and throat. I thought I was going to throw up.

Suit and Tie

Without saying a word, without even a grimace, the pastor took off his suit coat and tie and handed them to me. I watched as the man of God took on the role of the servant. He turned on the water to fill the tub, then went over to the bed. He undressed the man, rolled up his putrid clothing, and placed it into a garbage bag. He picked up the still-unconscious drunkard, naked and filthy, placed him carefully into the tub, and bathed him. I thought of the scene in the Gospel of John where Peter said to the Lord, “Wash all of me. Not just part of me.”

After washing the man, who never did wake up, my uncle said, “Make sure he doesn’t drown.” Then he went back to the bed, stripped off the blankets and sheets, and put those into the bag with the clothes. Finding an old towel, he mopped the walls and the floor, repeatedly going over to the sink to rinse the crud away. He searched the dresser drawers til he found a set of clean sheets and a blanket, and made the bed. There was a fresh pair of pajamas in a drawer, and he placed them on the end of the bed.

After cleaning up the place, my uncle returned to the bathroom, dried off the comatose man, carried him to the bed, and put the pajamas on him. Covered him up, and tucked him in. Then he took the bag of soiled clothing, bed linens, and a few other things that needed to be laundered, walked out to the car, and put them in the trunk of his car.

After locking the man’s door, we got into the car. The foul smell was not confined to the trunk. It filled the passenger compartment as well. The stench came with us, not only because of the awful stuff in the trunk, but because the filth had gotten onto my uncle’s shirt, pants, and shoes. Although by now it was almost time for lunch, I thought I was going to lose my breakfast.

Instead of going back to the church, we drove to the pastor’s home, where he took the bag from the trunk, went straight to the laundry room, and washed the man’s clothes and bed linens. After showering, my uncle dressed, and we went back to the church. Before I got into my car to go home, he said to me, “Son, that’s what ministry is all about. Good people soil themselves and make a mess of their lives because of sin. Your job as a pastor is to find out what Jesus wants you to do about it. And then do it.”

Though my uncle is no longer alive, I’ll never forget him — or the lesson he taught me that day. As we go about the daily tasks the Lord has called us to do, sometimes we find ourselves cleaning up our own messes — sometimes the messes other people have made. The ugly scenes are often the result of sin. Some of the mountains of debris we are called to clean up are caused by years of neglect or ignorance. Some is caused by discouragement, abuse, or failure. Seervant Leader Statue

In Lakeland, Florida, at the center of Southeastern University’s campus, is a bronze sculpture of Jesus washing the feet of one of his disciples. The sculpture is titled “Divine Servant.” I think of my uncle almost every time I see it. It is a great work of art, beautifully depicting the call for genuine disciples to be servant ministers. Ironically, the sculpture is beautiful, whereas the brokenness of human lives is quite unattractive, and working with broken people can get ugly.

Facing Messy Stuff in the Church Book

In his book, Facing Messy Stuff in the Church, Ken Swetland talks about the ugly, painful situations church leaders may deal with. “Churches are made up of sinners whose lives are broken – sometimes because of their own choices, sometimes because of experiencing wrongs outside of their control. . . . Resolutions are hard to come by.” He goes on to say that the church is “. . . a fellowship of people who come together to worship God, serve him in the world, and be agents of healing in the lives of broken people who make up the church.”

As we respond to the situations that people have made of their lives, their families, their cities, or their nation, it is helpful to keep in mind that we have a rich heritage of serving in Jesus’ name, cleaning up the stench and the debris of people’s lives. As my uncle said, that’s what ministry is all about.

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Author: Paul Linzey

After pastoring in Southern California, I went into the Army as a chaplain. Now retired from the military, I'm focusing on writing, speaking, and mentoring. The overall theme of my work is Biblical Principles for Life, as applied to relationships, spirituality, career, and stewardship of one's life.

9 thoughts on “Soiled Lives”

  1. Powerful story and wonderful example about service to others in a visceral way. It would be easy to write a man like that off. To open the door, get a whiff and slam it closed again in revulsion or even sadness. Inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul,

    This is an amazing story of servant leadership, and I commend you and your uncle for your dedication to loving your neighbor.

    I ask the following in all humility and only to provoke constructive dialog. As I am moving into a vocational pastor role, I find myself asking “why do we believe that this type of love and service is reserved for pastors?” While certainly not below the role, shouldn’t this be what every disciple of Jesus is called to do?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good Morning, Greg. Thanks for your comments — and your questions! The fact is, this is the way all human beings should treat one another. Jesus did say that the essence of true spirituality is to serve. And that includes every disciple, not just pastors.

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    2. As a follow-up note, Greg, I’ve met a ton of pastors who’s idea of ministry is preaching and teaching and being the organization leader, with vey little thought (if any) about the servant side of the equation. They consider themselves to be above that. What are your thoughts?

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      1. I haven’t met too many of those. The pastors that I know of who lead an organization, where the leader’s primary focus is on teaching and leading also have a vision of developing disciples and servant leaders, so while not “above that”, they’ve created an organization that does not rely on the senior leader to be the one servant.

        My experience has been more that many parishioners consider the type of sacrificial service you describe as the “pastor’s job.” What is it we are really paying pastors for? To do ministry, or to equip the saints? If the latter, then the parishioners should be about doing the ministry–and the paid staff should be about running the organization of the church and equipping the saints. Pastors should still be doing ministry, just after business hours, like the rest of the church, in my opinion. But that’s not what the expectation is in many churches, in my experience. They pay the pastor to do the ministry.

        Liked by 1 person

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