Some years ago now, I was on a mission with my Dad. These missions, at least back then, tended to involve staying in some fairly rudimentary accommodation. This particular mission was no different.
At some point, we were alerted to a problem in the ladies toilets. Essentially, one of the toilets had become blocked. For reasons I still cannot fathom, people continued using that particular toilet until it inevitably began to overflow. Apparently, a few noble folks tried to deal with the problem – how exactly, I don’t know. But alas, the toilet was well and truly blocked, the HQ was filled with more than a faint whiff of human waste and, whether anybody knew how to resolve it, certainly nobody wanted to be the one to have to do it.
Given his engineering background, my Dad has always enjoyed problem-solving. Especially when it involves something vaguely mechanical. He stepped into the breach and, some 10 or 15 minutes later, emerged to tell us the thing had been fixed.
‘What was the problem?’, we all wondered. Forgive me for the details, but we were told an industrial level of female sanitary products had been flushed down the toilet causing a major blockage. Bit grim, but it happens. ‘How did you fix it?’ we asked, immediately wishing we hadn’t. The response came back, ‘I had to reach my hand into the toilet and pull it all out’. Into all that effluent and excrement only to pull out masses of used sanitary products? Oh yes. Cue cries of, ‘gross’, ‘sick’ and ‘minging’. But what my Dad said next has always stuck with me. In the most matter of fact way possible, he simply said: ‘sometimes you’ve just got to get your hands dirty’.
My wife has determined this last weekend to be a good one on which to toilet train our 2-year-old daughter. It’s not a job anybody is ever likely to relish. My Dad’s enduring words immediately sprang to mind as they have done over the countless times our children have variously bled, thrown up, urinated or pooed on all manner of our belongings.
But his words have also served me remarkably well in my role as a pastor. Of course, there are the obvious times when the church toilets are blocked and somebody has to fix them. Generally, that has not been me but, one day, there is every reason it could be. But, more broadly, churches are generally just messy places. Especially churches that are actually making in-roads with the gospel and seeing people saved. When those people are drawn from the most chaotic backgrounds or the hardest of circumstances, you can bet the mess is all the worse. People inevitably bring their baggage with them and that bag is normally full of the equivalent contents of the aforementioned blocked toilet.
Let’s be honest, who enjoys having awkward conversations with people about the aspects of their life and behaviour that are sub-optimal? I don’t even enjoy having those conversations with my own children. Just think how much more awkward it is to have those conversations with people you’ve only known briefly but, joyously, they’ve come to the Lord and are having to work through their baggage in a bid to honour Christ. Dealing with pastoral problems is messy stuff and handling the results of sin is always going to be a filthy job because sin, much like when someone recounted to me the time they spread excrement all over their bedroom walls as a toddler – like some sort of dirty protest – because it seemed a good idea at the time, just gets everywhere and stains everything.
But, as we walk with people and seek to help them honour Christ in the way that they live, my Dad’s enduring words remain with me: sometimes you’ve just got to get your hands dirty.