It was Sunday morning and we dressed and walked from the rectory where we were staying over to Church for Mass. We were early, yet the Church was filling quickly. We stood looking around trying to decide where we would sit, when the catechist grabbed Greg and I both by elbows and Led us to the front benches where hundreds of children squeezed in close. She sat us right in the middle of them all and then stepped back and smiled proudly. We scrunched in, knees close to chests, and I felt oddly like Buddy the Elf.
Little heads turned shyly in our direction. Then quickly back, not wanting to risk the embarrassment of being spotted by adults who pride themselves on insuring that these little ones know how to behave in church. So we all awkwardly faced forward and pretended not to notice one another.
Admittedly, I was a much worse player at this game than the children. They gathered their composure rather quickly, obediently knelt and fingered the colorful crystal beads of the rosaries we had gifted them the day before, and proudly recited their prayers loudly and clearly. I, on the other hand, had to be vigilant to keep my twitching hand from reaching out and patting their dark heads. When am I forced to control such urges, the twitch tends to transfer itself to my eye and I end up winking maniacally at everyone in sight with an overly wide smile plastered across my face. Poor children, left to keep from making eye contact with the crazy smiling, winking lady with the hand twitch.
Then my eyes settled on the little head just in front of me. A small version of a future man, tiny and shuffling to find his comfort zone squeezed between so many girl moms who swished their hands as his curious head shifted from side to side.
He was dressed in his best. A white undershirt stained with the red of Tanzanian mud and shorts two sizes two big. They dipped below his knees and pointed to his sandals, also too big, their velcro straps fastened tightly to keep them from flopping off his little feet. And over the top of it all, a square-shouldered navy blue sports coat, the finest item of clothing he had ever owned I am quite sure.
It was so obvious that he had tried so hard that morning. To put his best foot forward and fit in with the church crowd. To polish himself up and make himself presentable. He fought the discomfort of it all so valiantly and wrangled his urges to slump and twist and turn with such tenacity. A valiant little soldier if there ever was one, trying to fit in to the ranks like the rest.
And yet, despite his very best efforts to get it right, I noticed that the all the flies still buzzed around his head. He tried not to swat at them, little brave one. But there they were, flitting in circles over him, flashing the truth to the world. The truth that despite his very best efforts, he had still arrived at church dirty. That even though he was the one who had tried the hardest, he still couldn't cover up what lay underneath his buttoned up propriety.
And my heart sank. As I sat there behind him and watched him try with all he had to get it right. Because all I could think was, "Oh my love, I know. I so know."
Me, in Africa, trying to get it all right. Me, in my life, trying to be worthy of this ministry and the calling the Lord has placed on my life. Me, trying to keep from squirming under the weight of other people's admiration. Me, feeling the sting of the dirt that still lies underneath it all no matter how hard I try to scrub it away and just.face.forward. Eyes on Him. Not on everyone else around me.
Yes, I often feel like the little man in the dirty clothes and the sports coat with the flies' buzz announcing my sin and dirt to the world.
And I wanted to grab him and scoop him up in arms and proclaim to him that Jesus loved him wildly, passionately and personally, more for the flies than for the sports coat. But I did not. Because I realized he was already doing the very best thing he could. Holding his head high, training his eyes forward, and ignoring the flies.
And in that moment, I realized it was he who was preaching to me.
So when if you make your way to church today and you feel a little bit like the flies are swarming over your best dressed self in spite of all your efforts, take a note from my little preacher friend. Stand up straight. Hold your head high. Fix your eyes on Jesus. And know that you are made clean and dressed in righteousness when you receive grace upon grace in the Bread of Life.