We’re going to talk about religion, but first we’re going to talk about dead things.
When I was young we had a bird feeder outside the wide picture window in our living room. We’d watch the chickadees, admire the squirrels’ ingenuity and, occasionally, hear the “ping” as sparrows confidently dive-bombed the glass. If we turned quickly, we’d see shaky flashes of feathers as they bounced off dazedly and flew away.
Once, after a particularly loud “ping,” a bird dropped to the grass. My siblings and I ventured outside (under strict instructions from Mom to “not touch it, it could have bird diseases”) and found it lying sideways under the window, shivering, flapping feebly.
We wrapped it in a cloth napkin (“Careful!” Mom shouted after us) and tried to keep it warm.
It was dead by evening.
My siblings and I decided to have a little birdie funeral. We dug a small hole in a trail in the woods behind our home. We may have said a few words; I don’t remember, but it seems like something we would do. Then we tipped it into the ground, careful not to touch it to our skin and under strict orders to return the napkin to the kitchen.
When the carcass thumped into the dirt, the underside was crawling with maggots.
We walked back to the house for dinner.
“Wash your hands,” Mom reminded us, and we shuffled into the bathroom. When we returned she assigned me to set the table, and I pulled out the plates, fingers running over porcelain.
Maggots, I thought, and left the plates on the counter, running back to the bathroom sink to wash my hands again.
It was my Dad who finally noticed what I was doing, who stopped me and smiled and said, “Your hands are clean; come and eat.”
Maggots, I thought, and looked at my hands, skin cracking, crawling, then grit my teeth and sat down to dinner.
I was a kid then — I don’t remember how old — but sometimes, to this day, this is the memory that hits me when I walk into a church.
I’ve spent a lot of time in churches. I’ve gotten to know the women who have confident opinions on modesty, who begin instructions with the words, “God says.” I’ve gotten to know the men who attend because their wives do. I’ve seen kindness, and I’ve seen compassion, and I’ve stood by as, after a visitor walks away, the women’s ministry leader exclaims, “Good heavens, did you see her neckline?” I’ve been taught that God forgives and, in the same breath, the best cure for sin is not sinning.
I’ve taken dedicated notes as holy folk talked to me about love and belief and the behaviors I needed to modify; I’ve listened and absorbed and felt aching guilt for the things I’ve done, or wanted to do, or thought of doing.
I’ve washed my clean hands so many times I know by now that it’s worked into the layers of my skin, embedded in the crevices, and that phantom shame isn’t going away.
Here is the secret, the bit left out at the end of the sermon: the only way to keep your hands clean is to do nothing. Better to keep still, clear and silent and perfectly still, than to do something wrong — wash and wash but good heavens, try not to collect any more grime.
And here is a second: motionless hands catch dust.
For every church leader who compiled lists of new sins for us to feel ashamed of — perhaps frantically washing his own hands after services — I know an elder who cried when he spoke of his friend’s missionary work, a mischievous mother of four who teased me mercilessly until I startled into laughter, a pastor who welcomed me into his home and showed me the scars from his mistakes before we were really friends. These are the church, too. Sometimes it is strange to me that these can coexist: kindness and cruelty, trust and self-flagellation, full-bodied happiness and unremitting shame.
“I like the pointed sermons,” a friend told me once. “It gives me something to work at.” I think sometimes we get so used to fixing ourselves that the constant weight of it, running water over raw skin, becomes normal. Sometimes legalism looks enough like goodness to get invited home.
Just thought we should talk about it. To live, we have to stop washing our hands.