I kneel atop a riser and pray, but I'm not in a church at the Communion rail; I’m in a stairwell scrubbing scuffs and dog slobber from once white walls with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. The house is not mine and I do not know the owners, their circumstances, or their names. And, truth be told, I’m not in the habit of praying for strangers.
When I lived in California and attended the same church in the same town for twenty-five years, my prayers revolved around the lives of the parishioners, my friends, and my family. When I became involved in region-wide ministry and began writing prayers for various occasions, I had names and faces to imagine while I carefully crafted thanksgiving and supplications on paper.
And in my seven years as a pastor, I held my arms out wide during the “Joys and Concerns” portion of our Sunday morning worship, listening deeply, then repeating the words of individuals, summarizing, clarifying, and amplifying for the congregation, and for God, as I lifted my hands, as if releasing balloons heavenward into a silent embrace.
I was thoughtful, earnest, sincere, and eloquent—or at least I tried to be, the writer in me choosing her words with care and precision.
In the Pacific Northwest where I’ve made my home (three homes to be exact) for nearing on four years, I have necessarily found myself outside the comfort and tradition of my former church, unfamiliar with the needs of those around me as I sample new churches and communities.
I find myself a stranger, or an acquaintance, not in a position to know the deep longing of others' hearts, or to infer how to pray for them without a shared history and experience. Without a platform from which to pray, and a position in which others listen to the prayers I might offer, I find little use for words.
Instead, my work is my prayer. Painting and pulling weeds in a home I own and am resurrecting from neglect, becomes prayers for the health of the home, the garden, and for the successful sale to a buyer who will love and care for the spirit of the place as my husband and I have.
Today, though, is different. I don’t own or rent this home; I have no attachment to it. I am here with my husband and our small crew to paint and clean, to help our realtor (who has helped us both buy and sell our homes in Puget Sound) make this new listing of hers as appealing as possible, enabling her to get the best possible sale price for her clients, aiding them as they make a new life in a new place.
These clients have already left this home for Spokane, children and dog in tow, and I do not ask for details in order to know more about them. Instead, I scrub sticky handprints from stair rails and cabinet pulls, and think back on my life with young children and too many pets.
I craved order in that chaotic life and my husband’s comfortable income allowed us to hire a housecleaning service (weekly before the recession, monthly afterward) when we moved into our newly built home. Clearly this family has not had that luxury. It would be easy, too easy, for me to judge the owners by their housekeeping, to form an opinion of their character—less than stellar—based on the bathtub rings.
But now that my husband and I have lived in a series dilapidated homes filled with dry-wall dust, rotating stacks of tools and paperwork from our renovations, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, my perspective has shifted.
I have come to an acceptance of dirt and disarray that evokes my compassion, rather than equating to moral failing (even as an agnostic child I knew that "cleanliness is next to Godliness"), for which I am thankful.
It occurs to me to pray for these strangers, to wish them Godspeed though I know not their names or circumstances. But I have no words.
It is enough, I hope, to think of them as I sink to my knees on their carpet, to hold the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser in my hand, to streak it across the white walls, feeling the pad crumble beneath the friction as smudges, crayon marks, and other signs of the messiness of life disappear, leaving a clean blank surface upon which another family will soon make its mark.