I am writing this late on a Sunday evening, reflecting on an intensive training experience I have had recently. It may take me a while to appreciate the full scope of the work The Holy Spirit has done on my heart, but I feel compelled to document it. I was humbled. I was stretched. I was reluctant. I was eventually obedient. I was changed.
The last few weeks of my life have been much consumed with finding things Amy (not her real name) needs to get settled in her home with her two young daughters after being released to home detention. I’m always so encouraged by how quickly people respond when specific and immediate needs are shared. I don’t know what makes me so special (nothing, really), but I am so blessed to be the “Santa” who gets to deliver the donations. I would give anything for the givers to see the joy, the relief, and the humble disbelief displayed by the women when they receive the generous gifts. Sometimes I feel guilty — like I benefit from blessings that are not rightfully mine. I’m so grateful, as are the women I am privileged to serve.
But the fact is, God demands a lot of me in this process as well. I don’t share this for credit or praise, but only to explain that when I put out the call for such needs, I have to be ready to pick up, drop off, return messages, etc, to get the items to those in need. In this particular case, my husband and I have made made more than a dozen trips to Amy’s apartment with a car packed with donations. Then, as Amy sorted through the contents of the storage unit secured by her grandfather while she was incarcerated, we returned with a car full of items she needed to get rid of to make a comfortable home for her children — toys and clothes that had been outgrown, a potty chair that was no longer needed, etc. We took pizzas over so Amy and her daughters could have dinner the first night they spent together in their new home and on the second day, took them a home-cooked meal of chicken and noodles. Most of our time lately has been spent ministering to Amy, and that is fine with us. I couldn’t live with myself if I asked so much of others, but I wasn’t willing to work myself.
But that first weekend after she was released, God asked me to do something I absolutely didn’t want to do.
I joke a lot about having OCD, or being a germaphobe, but if I’m honest, it’s not entirely a joke. Just about any time I shake hands or touch a public surface, I’m already thinking about when I’m going to be able to wash my hands. I keep vinyl (never latex) gloves in my car for when I pump gas. I “hover” in public restrooms, flush the toilet with my foot, open the door with a paper towel, and I am constantly wiping my cell phone with alcohol. I wish I had the type of OCD that makes me hyper-organized, but I just have the kind that makes me a little weird.
In jail ministry, I have had to go into some pretty difficult situations — especially for one who has germ issues. I remember giving a woman a ride home one night (she was released at 12:00 midnight). She had been in jail for a few months, and although was able to keep her apartment while she was incarcerated, she could not keep her electricity turned on. I helped her carry in her things and I was overcome by the stench waiting for us. Rotting food in a warm refrigerator, dog and cat feces (her pets had been left locked in the apartment for days when she was first arrested), and trash that had not been taken out.
Another time, I was asked to help a woman clear out her storage unit. That didn’t seem like a big deal to me until I got there and it looked like she had lived in it for a while. I won’t go in to details, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I drove around with another woman’s belongings in my car for 3 days one time because when I took her to put it in a storage unit, she couldn’t get the lock open. I didn’t want to take her things in my house.
The real problem is when these issues I have hurt people. It is a constant battle to remember that people have feelings and if I treat them like they have some kind of infectious disease, they are not going to feel loved. The issues are mine and mine to control by surrendering them to God. And God stretches me by challenging me. And this time, He certainly stretched me.
We delivered a carload of donations to Amy and as we were leaving, she timidly said to me, “Can I ask a huge favor?”
“Sure!” I replied, “What do you need?”
She nodded in the direction of a huge cardboard box just by the front door of her apartment, overflowing with clothes.
“Could you possibly wash that laundry for me?”
I knew she didn’t have a washer and dryer yet and that her apartment complex didn’t have a public laundry facility. I knew she had a hook-up and would need a way to do laundry and that is one of the things I’ve been working on. I knew that for the immediate future, she was not allowed to leave her apartment, so even if she could find a ride to a laundromat, that wasn’t an option either.
What I didn’t know was that while she was incarcerated, some of her belongings had been put into storage — including dirty laundry. In the moment, I tried to choke down my instinctive response and I said, “Sure! No problem,” trying my best to sound like it was no big deal. I’m not sure if that was for her benefit or mine.
David carried the box to our car even as he knew — probably better than anyone — just what had been asked of me and the internal torment it was causing.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked as he put the box in the trunk of our car. As he closed the trunk, the a puff of musty odors blew into my face.
I can’t lie to him, “I honestly don’t know. I may need to take this to a laundromat.”
During the ride back to Noblesville, I thought about the task and carefully planned how this should be handled. If I did the laundry in our house, I would carry the box in the back door, directly into the laundry room, and not through the house. I would just put it in the washing machine, one small load at a time, and wash it on hot. Though I had thoroughly cleaned our washer just a couple of weeks prior, it would need it again when we were done. I thought about the skin cells, hair, and I couldn’t let myself even imagine what else was lurking in the box of laundry. I started talking to God. Actually, I started arguing with Him.
“How can you ask me to do this, God? What if I bring bed bugs or lice into our home? I can get her all new things — why does she even need this stuff?”
But God didn’t let me off the hook. I had to do this laundry. I left it in the trunk of the car while I finished every last bit of our own laundry and put it away.
I’m kind of a laundry nerd. I’ll wait while you get over your shock. Of all the household chores I have to do, laundry is the one I mind the least. I have a system (just as I have a system for nearly everything I do — another of my endearing OCD tendencies.) I actually sort laundry — towels, dark colors, light colors, whites. Technically, I “pre-sort” it, as we have separate baskets for each type of load. When a basket is full, I do the load of laundry, and each load has its own settings and formula:
- whites: they are soaked for a minimum of an hour in hot water and bleach. I run the extra rinse, with vinegar in the fabric softener dispenser, to get rid of some of the bleach smell (but I like a little)
- light colors: warm water, regular cycle, regular detergent, vinegar rinse
- dark colors: cold water, baking soda and detergent soak (because the dark loads usually include some workout clothes), vinegar rinse
- towels: detergent and baking soda soak, warm water, vinegar rinse. Towels must be moved from the washer to the dryer immediately after they are done. If we forget, they get re-washed. I hate putting my face in a towel and inhaling a musty odor.
- sheets: (this is a big process, done weekly, mattress cover every other week)
- mattress cover: bleached, hot water (including a stock pot full of BOILING water
- fitted sheet and pillow cases: Borax, baking soda, some Dawn dish soap, stock pot full of BOILING water (and I let it soak for a while.) While it is soaking, I sprinkle baking soda on the mattress to absorb any odors
- flat sheet: Borax, baking soda, stock pot full of boiling water, and a soak. While this is soaking, I vacuum the baking soda off the mattress and spray it with Lysol to kill any germs
- blankets: one at at time (1 in the summer, 2 in the winter): cold water, just a typical wash cycle, vinegar rinse.
Why am I getting into this? For one, these are great techniques — feel free to use them. For another thing, I want to drive home the fact that to me, laundry is kind of a big deal. I don’t mind folding clean laundry, or taking it fresh out of the dryer to hang it before it has a chance to get wrinkled. I can’t relate to people who lament a, “mountain of laundry,” waiting to be washed or folded. I do laundry pretty much every day. I take pride in my ability to treat and remove almost any stain. I keep Dawn dish soap, borax, Felt Naptha, a Magic Eraser, hydrogen peroxide, a bleach pen, bleach, vinegar, baking soda, and two different types of detergent stocked in the laundry room at all times.
God was asking me to bring a stranger’s mountain of dirty laundry into a place of refuge for me in my own home and I preferred to not.
Doing Laundry? Or Washing Feet?
I don’t know if God is more amused or frustrated by me, but I know He is very patient. He let me hash out my internal conflict until the point where He interrupted my thoughts, as if to ask, “Are you done yet, Stacy?” I was ready to listen, still hoping for a last-minute reprieve.
Instead, this Scripture was placed on my heart.
After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them. (John 13:12-17)
We don’t have many occasions to wash one another’s feet in our society these days, but when Jesus walked the earth, He did so in sandals on dirty paths in a hot climate. Feet got dirty and had to be washed. Amy asked me to do her laundry, but Jesus was asking me to wash her feet.
I knew I had to do that laundry — and I had to do it right. I had to treat that box of crusty, smelly laundry, with the same care and attention I would our our own, less-seasoned loads. I had to sort it. I had to pre-treat stains. I had to wash it until it was clean, fold it and hang it carefully, and return it to her new. Her laundry was no dirtier than my own.
You see, the passage in John is not the only account of foot-washing in the New Testament. There is another, in one of my favorite stories in the entire Word of God, when Jesus is anointed by, “a sinful woman,” in Luke 7.
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so Jesus went to his home and sat down to eat. When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them. (Luke 7:36-38)
That she is referred to in that way implies she may have been a prostitute or adulteress, but says more to me about how the religious elite looked at her than it does about her lifestyle. She was dismissed. She wasn’t worthy.
As she passionately washed the feet of Jesus, Simon, the Pharisee, was secretly (he thought) mortified by the fact that Jesus would let this woman touch Him! Simon excused it, believing that Jesus couldn’t possibly know what kind of woman she was. But Jesus did know what kind of woman she was. And Jesus did know what Simon thought of her. And Jesus held the woman, not Simon, as the laudable example. She didn’t see the act of washing Jesus’ feet as a lowly task, but as an honor and she did it with humility.
You see, this mountain of dirty laundry and how I reacted to it said much more about me than it did about Amy. The laundry testified to the fact that I put my own comfort, issues, and neuroses above the needs and feelings of others. The laundry brought to the surface a deep-seeded pride — a belief that somehow, I am better than Amy and that this task is somehow beneath me.
Amy’s dirty laundry exposed my dirty laundry. I had to face the things I would rather not admit to myself, and certainly do not want to confess to others. But that’s exactly what I needed to do — admit it, confess it, and repent.
So I Washed the Laundry
I sorted it, I pre-treated it, and I washed the whites in hot and separated the dark colors to prevent color bleed. I washed her laundry as if I were doing it for my own family. I washed her laundry as if I were doing it for the LORD Himself.
Render service with good will, as to the LORD, and not to men. (Ephesians 6:7)
While no rebuke is fun to receive, I’m glad that I was convicted by my reaction to the laundry. And had I not taken the time to properly wash the laundry, I would have also missed some things God wanted to tell me about Amy, her family, and her situation, as well.
Lesson #1: A family had been divided.
I noticed that much of the laundry was a toddler size 18 months. Amy’s younger daughter is 3 years old now. The laundry had been in storage for that long and a precious baby girl has been separated from her mother for that long. The clothes no longer fit. She has grown a lot since those clothes were hastily put in storage and Amy missed it. As I carefully folded those clothes, I prayed that God would do as He has promised and restore that which was lost to sin.
God, your God, will restore everything you lost; he’ll have compassion on you; he’ll come back and pick up the pieces from all the places where you were scattered. (Deuteronomy 30:3)
I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. (Joel 2:25, ESV)
Lesson #2: Amy’s older daughter was not unlike my own.
As I sorted and washed the clothes I assumed must belong to Amy’s older, 11-year-old daughter, I recognized labels from when my own daughter was that age. I remember how she felt pressure from her peers to wear the same labels as everyone else and to dress a certain way to avoid ridicule and to be accepted. But these clothes were heavily worn — possibly bought second-hand or hand-me-downs. They had set in stains — stains I tried my hardest to remove so she could wear them with pride if they still fit.
Then I saw it — the fluorescent green, over-sized T-Shirt exactly like the one my own daughter had worn when she was an elementary school student. It was the shirt they gave the students to wear on field trips so they could all be identified and stay together. This young lady had once attended the same elementary school my own daughter attended and dearly loved. I wondered how different their experiences were.
Then, it occurred to me that in Amy’s new apartment, her 11-year-old daughter would have to go to another school. In addition to everything else, an 11-year-old girl was facing a new school. Was she scared? I prayed that God would give her peace and protect her as she entered a new world. I prayed it would be a positive change for her.
The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. (Deuteronomy 31:8)
Lesson #3: Amy had a hard life, even before going to jail.
Included in the laundry were uniform shirts and pants from a fast-food restaurant. There were also solid-colored, button-down shirts with grease stains on the front and blue ink stains all over the pocket. I imagined Amy juggling jobs in fast food and waiting tables to feed her daughters. I prayed that God would provide for her and the needs of her daughters and that she would not resort to a lifestyle that would send her back to jail.
And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)
Lesson #4: Whatever is your ‘big deal’ is exactly where He will stretch you.
For me, laundry was a big deal — a place where I exercised my control and obsessed over my compulsions. It was fitting that God would ask me to yield control over something that I held sacred. He asked me to stop worshiping the idol.
There is no job beneath me.
When I finished the laundry and the many lessons God had to teach me, I looked at the tattered cardboard boxes in which I had transported it to our home. That wouldn’t do. We went and purchased new laundry baskets and carefully placed the clean and neatly folded laundry in them. We purchased new heavy-duty hangers for the dressier items and they hung in our laundry room until we returned everything to Amy and her girls.
She was very grateful, but it was I who was appreciative. Thank you, God, for humbling me. Thank you for letting me serve like Jesus did. Thank you for every opportunity I will have.
And as we left her apartment, Amy nodded toward another mountain of clothes — these overflowing from a cracked plastic clothes hamper.
“Could you, please…” she began.
It would be my honor, Amy.
I trust that very soon, God will provide Amy and her daughters with the washer and dryer that they desperately need, but I’m glad it didn’t come before he broke my heart and rebuked my pride. And if it takes a few more loads of laundry to finish His work on me, then so be it.