On Pollution and Grace

There was once a vibrant oasis in the Western United States. Over time, with the introduction of harmful human activity, the oasis became polluted to the point that flora and fauna struggled to survive.

A local group, concerned about the rapid decline of that ecosystem, began to take steps towards repairing the damage that had been done. They removed large amounts of waste from that environment, quarantined a few areas around the lake, and put forth several measures to prevent further accumulation of harmful substances.

Over a short time, the oasis began to recover. Plant life began to recover, the ph balance of the water was improving, and the soil composition was getting back to what it needed to be. The nearby town began introducing new life into the ecosystem; fish and several plants to further improve the quality of the soil and water. However, there were still noticeable issues with the levels of pollution that were found.

Once again, the people involved in monitoring the situation saw improvements. This time, however, the improvements came slowly. They began doing water treatments to further cleanse the lake, and introduced soil treatments to remove even more pollutants that were found in the ground. Improvements still came, but noticeable differences were difficult to observe.

After some time, the people became frustrated with their progress. At several hundred thousand dollars spent, the nearby town was thoroughly invested in removing all pollutants from the oasis. But, the tests still showed the presence of pollution. Even though the current levels of harmful substances were a tiny fraction of what they once were, further measures were enacted to continue the purification process.

Aquifer rehabilitation, plant scrubbing, animal cleaning, numerous amounts of sprays, and chemical spreads were introduced. At this point, the economic cost was well into the millions of dollars and national finances were being used for the rehabilitation project.

As these methods were taking place, the situation – surprisingly – began to get worse. The levels of cleaning chemicals ended up killing most of the fish in the lake, as well as the plant life surrounding it. The town had to declare bankruptcy because of the inordinate level of costs it had undertaken. And, in a brief span of time, the oasis became a desert.

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I’ve heard this story used as a thought experiment for cost-benefit analysis in economics. I feel it works equally well in a social setting.

There is a nasty habit that has evolved in our midst; the tireless pursuit of perfection. Every possible negative instance is heavily scrutinized and swiftly punished. There can be no imperfection in our society; no room for error. Whenever a comment is made that is racist or sexist (or if it could be taken as such), a cleansing process must take place to eradicate it.

I have been concerned for a while that our culture is committing the same self-destructive process within our own social fabric. With these trends of racial reconciliation, gender equality, mutual tolerance, and open-mindedness becoming increasingly radical, I cannot help but wonder if our Western ideal of perfection is going to kill us.

Now, I am not in favor of racism, sexism, bigotry, or whatever other ideologies exist that elevate one type of person over another. However, I also feel that it is a problem to relentlessly pursue their eradication.

Let’s face the reality: people will be bigoted. Racism, sexism, closed-mindedness, xenophobia, and similar negative traits will exist wherever we go. It is good to recognize these realities and seek reconciliation, but we should also acknowledge that there comes a point where pursuing perfect justice will ultimately lead us to creating an environment in which we, ourselves, cannot even live. We will have cultivated an ecosystem that is so purified that no form of life can survive.

I am still wresting with this line of thinking, and am curious to see where the logical end of it lies. I feel very strongly, though, that instead of asking ourselves, “How can we get rid of these social ills?” we should begin asking, “Can we show grace in the midst of human imperfections?” Following the direction of the general philosophy of our culture, the answer to the latter question is quickly becoming “no.” In such an environment, no one will be able to survive.

Integrating this line of thinking into the Church, we should not be surprised by those who say, “I am not good enough to be a Christian.”  The more we pursue our idea of perfection (whether we are talking about politics, theology, or whatever else), the more it will come at the cost of our own humanity. We won’t be able to live in the world we’ve created. We would do well to walk with humility in these times, especially since we are wading through a growing paradox of increasing legalism and the simultaneous extension of self-sovereignty.

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On Death and Glass

I once cleaned windows for a dead man.

I don’t think I will ever forget the moment when it happened. And it still grips me, even today…

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Several years ago, I was working for Brad’s Window Cleaning out of Rockford (best company I’ve ever worked for, so I am unashamedly promoting them!).  One day, we had a cleaning job for a cottage by a lake. Nothing unusual about this job; a quick exterior power washing and in/out window cleaning. Since I was the crew leader for window cleaning, I headed inside the house to begin my work.

I was greeted by a kind woman, probably in her late 60s, and later met her husband who was sitting in a recliner in front of their television. I don’t remember their names, but the impression of their personalities is engraved on my memory.

It was a lovely cottage. A brightly toned, open living room facing the lake to the East, with large peak windows that needed a ladder to reach. There was a set of French doors that led to a deck, so the whole room filled with natural light.

As with most homes by a lake, most of the window cleaning was done in one or two rooms that face the scenery. So, as I was expecting, I spent the vast majority of my time in that living room – moving my ladder around, handing screens, and moving furniture.

I got to know their family quite well, even though I don’t remember all the details. They had a recently married son who did business somewhere in the South. I believe they also had a daughter who was rather successful in her field. This couple were proud parents, and they expressed interest in getting to know me as I cleaned the dust off their sills.

The television was on most of the time, and the sound was a dull white noise to us. I recall it being Fox News, and the story of the hour was a natural disaster or political upheaval in a foreign country. Something like that.

The main thing I remember was that the conversation between us was cordial and inviting.  I actually missed them as I went to other parts of the house to finish my work.

The following year, I pulled up to their cottage in our work van, and felt excitement at doing this job once again (we had some customers who were… less than exciting to work for. But some customers were a blast to have!).  I was by myself this time, as it was a small enough job that didn’t justify more than one cleaner. I will never forget being invited in and walking into that living room; that sacred space.

This time, however, the recliner was empty. I asked, “Where is your husband?”

“He passed away.”

I remember just standing there, staring at the chair. I so clearly remembered our conversation a year earlier while he sat there, and I was dumbstruck that he would never be there again.

I don’t think I ever paid so much attention to detail as I spent that afternoon working quietly around her house. I even cleaned up the dead spiders and bug carcasses that fell on the ground as I cleaned the garage windows (If you’ve never had to clean a garage window, consider yourself blessed by God. They’re the worst!).

Sometimes, while I’m cleaning windows, I still remember those moments. I learned, then, that even minuscule tasks can be significant. Ever since that day, window cleaning was no longer my job. Window cleaning became my ministry.