Divinity and Dirty Hands
Dirty hands are quickly given a bad rap. Children are born ready to dig into the mess before them, to experience the sandbox by getting it under their fingernails and in between their toes, and to delight in life by generally getting it all over themselves. But it does not take long before we learn that dirty fingers and messy faces are not acceptable, that jumping into mud puddles to experience the rain will almost always come with a reprimand, and that finger-painting is for the little ones who have not yet graduated to more “refined” utensils. Moving from child to adult seems to involve cleaning up one’s act in more ways than one.
The earliest Christian disciples utilized metaphors of childhood in their letters to newly believing communities. Paul compares one’s knowledge of God to the process of learning: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”(1) Peter similarly encourages new believers to grow in love and knowledge: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”(2)
It is easy to read both of these examples and conclude that the ways of children are behaviors we are being told to outgrow. It is easy to allow our negative perspectives on what is “childish” to inform the way we receive these exhortations involving what is “childlike.” Yet far from speaking of childhood negatively, Paul is comparing our current understanding and vision of God to that of a child’s, which will encouragingly grow clearer on the day we stand before God face to face. Similarly, Peter is not urging us to grow out of our newborn hunger, but on the contrary is calling us to grow further into it. In other words, there are indeed some things in childhood that God would not have us to abandon with age!
I cannot help but wonder how much of life we forego as we misplace the instinct of getting our hands dirty, and instead learn to perceive the world in detached and more acceptably tidy ways. I believe the same can said of faith. Might we miss out on things of the kingdom, things of God and of Christ, because we have so ossified faith into something that only touches spirit or mind, and not hands, feet, and body? Might we fail to move farther up and further into the kingdom because we see this kingdom as something only distant—a future hope for a future life—instead of something dynamically here and among us, calling us to a fully-engaged, hands-dirtying existence today?
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus told disciples and on-lookers alike, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”(3) Neither Christ nor the kingdom he came to make known is a static entity, something that mattered long ago and might matter once again, but not here and now in this life as we know it. On the contrary, all of history, the stories of salvation and the Incarnation itself, remind us that God is far more hands-on than this. The Lamb of God very physically took away the sins of the world. And with a God who is willing to become flesh and dwell among us, who is willing and able to stand as the gate to another world, what makes us believe that we would be called to a faith that is anything less than hands-on as well? Even in his last days, Christ did not merely leave us with instructions to remember him as a figure in history. He told us to remember him, gave us a meal, and left us with a way to bodily take-in the very kingdom and story he proclaimed again and again.
Christ has truly given the world permission to touch, to experience, to jump completely into the great and wonderful kingdom in which God reigns. In this kingdom, we can be as children who delight in knowing life with dirty hands, who like Thomas need the invitation to touch, and like Paul see the need to give mind, soul, and body to the one who gave us all of himself. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
(1) 1 Corinthians 13:11-12.
(2) 1 Peter 1:2-3.
(3) Matthew 18:3.