When our pastor, Tom, used the smell of skunk as a sermon illustration this morning, my husband and I glanced at one another with a chuckle. We know plenty about the lingering smell of skunk at our house.
Our dog Dobby has been sprayed by a skunk FOUR times. While we have gotten better at the cleanup process, we have learned that there are no shortcuts. The smell of skunk requires repeated treatments, patience and ultimately the removal of skunks from our property to prevent a reoccurrence. While Dobby may carry it in initially, the odor clings to everything it touches and takes time to wear off. Even weeks later, after we have thought a particular episode was over, I have been dismayed to detect a remaining trace of the offending odor as I walked back into our home.
One incident in particular stands out. Steve and I had been looking at furniture one Saturday and were planning a trip to a local showroom to see something in which we were interested. A couple of hours before we were to leave, Dobby came in from the back yard in a hurry and we were once again assaulted by the familiar smell. By this time, we knew we had to tackle him quickly before he rubbed against anything. After we had completed the bathing, spraying, and cleaning process, we both changed clothes before we hurriedly left for the furniture showroom. About a half hour into the conversation with the gentleman who was helping us at the furniture store, I was horrified to realize that I smelled something. As I leaned over and discreetly sniffed my husband, I discovered that he smelled….really bad. Putting my hands up to my face and sniffing them in disgust, I realized that I was equally smelly. Although we had changed our clothes and looked fine, we had unwittingly arrived at Belfort Furniture reeking of skunk. Because we had acclimated to the smell in our house after a couple of hours, we didn’t initially notice that the scent had clung to our skin. Luckily, our kind salesman pretended he didn’t notice when we apologized and told him the story…great way to close a sale on his part!
I won’t re-give the sermon, but I loved the analogy about the smell of skunk this morning. If you would like to watch the whole sermon, which I highly recommend, clink on this link. Basically, the suggestion was this: no matter how good we might look on the outside, we all have a little bit of the “smell of skunk” clinging to us. While we are indeed made in the image of God, our ego inevitably gets in the way and we all fall prey to the old “skunky” patterns of selfishness, pride, anger, greed, self-pity, impatience, worry, comparison, distraction and just plain meanness. As followers of Jesus, the Gospel news…the GOOD NEWS…is that we don’t have to stay that way.
The big, churchy, stain-glassed word for the process by which that smelly mess gets cleaned up over time is sanctification. Sanctification is the process of transformation we go through as we begin to look more like Jesus, act more like Jesus and, my favorite, LOVE more like Jesus. Just like we preached to our kids while they were growing up, we tend to become like the company we keep. When we intentionally seek out the presence of the Holy Spirit though regular prayer, study, meditation and service, He WILL rub off on us and we WILL be changed. Transformation takes time, it takes persistence, it takes patience, but it is guaranteed. Scripture promises that God will complete the good work He has begun in each of us who trust in Him. I’ve seen it happen over and over. This stuff is real and, in my opinion, the best path to a life of peace, joy and meaning.
And best of all, I believe that we don’t have to take this journey alone. If we are honest, we all smell a little bit like skunk when we get up close, don’t we? But here is the thing about our common smelliness, we are all in this together, if we choose to be. More and more, I am intrigued by the notion that the path to real community is found in giving up the “I’ve got it all together” act and taking the risks necessary to connect with one another and encourage one another in our common struggles. While I clean up nicely for company, in reality my closest friends and family know that I am regularly lazy, impatient, easily distracted, unfocused, self-involved, fearful, petty and selfish. But, thank God, that is not my ONLY reality. It is also true that God has worked miracles in my life. I am a kinder, braver, more loving, more patient, more compassionate, more confident person because of the Holy Spirit living in me. I am a beautiful mess, both parts in equal measure. After a number of years on this journey, I see enough progress to know for certain that God isn’t finished with me yet and I am confident that He won’t give up on me. Not ever. That is the Good News of Lent and the even better news of Easter.
Here is what I am starting to understand: shame and isolation is the by product of hiding behind our masks, but connection and healing are the results of vulnerability and honesty. I have to remind myself sometimes to drop the act, but I am remembering more and more often the freedom found in being myself….my beautiful, messy, unfinished, Beloved self. Thank you, Lord. I love you too!
Here is the last verse of our final hymn today. The path to freedom and peace:
Come Spirit, come our hearts control, Our spirits long to be made whole, Let inward love guide every deed, By this we worship and are freed.