What God Has Made Clean

Guest meditation by Anna Taft

Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners, and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ ~ Acts 11: 4-9

While our culture doesn’t have the same focus on ritual purity that some other cultures do, we certainly have ideas of cleanliness and dirtiness, and stereotypes about who or what is dirty or clean. And these ideas vary a lot between different cultures and regions. I remember the first time that John came to Mali with me. As our plane approached the airport in Bamako, Mali’s capital, we could see reddish dust everywhere, barren expanses, palm trees, and the Niger River in the distance. After we made our way through customs and toward the baggage claim, John went to use the restroom. Walking into the men’s room, he saw a very tall, well-dressed man washing his feet in the sink. John wondered what was going on. Was he expected to wash his feet in the sink also? Or was the restroom so dirty that one felt a need to wash one’s feet before leaving? I imagine the man was washing his feet, hands, and face to prepare for prayer as his Muslim custom expects. But for John the unexpected scene raised all kinds of questions about what is clean and what is dirty.

Cleanliness is, in fact, considered very important in Mali. Most people bathe twice a day, assuming they have access to enough water. When people bathe in the villages Tandana works with, they go into a stone enclosure in the corner of the courtyard built for that purpose. Water from this enclosure often drains out into a public passageway. The quantity of suds I have seen coming out when someone is bathing is unbelievable—so much white foam—I have no idea how I could ever generate that many suds by scrubbing myself. I’ve seen mothers washing young children in a courtyard, and the child is covered from head to toe in white foam, getting incredibly clean. I surely would have screamed from soap getting in my eyes if I had been washed that way.

Once I was traveling by motorcycle with a Malian friend to a meeting in a remote village. It was a long, rough trip, and when we got there, it was dark and chilly. Shortly after we had sat down with our hosts and begun talking, I was told that water had been brought to the bathing enclosure for me to bathe. I was exhausted and cold, and the last thing I wanted to do at that moment was take a bucket bath. I whispered to my friend that I didn’t need to take a bath, that someone else could use the water. He replied that if I didn’t want to bathe, I had to at least go into the enclosure and splash around, to make it seem like I was bathing. It was not acceptable to go to bed dirty or to refuse the wash water that a host had provided for me. There are many different ideas of what is required for cleanliness.

With all these different customs about cleanliness, it is easy to judge other people as less than ourselves. In the region of Mali where I work, women from certain family lineages do indigo dyeing. They are considered dirty because their work leaves dark stains on their hands and involves strong smells from the indigo plants boiling. In fact, they are considered a lower caste. But they know that God considers them clean. When The Tandana Foundation worked with indigo dyers to create an indigo bank that gave them a revolving fund, so they could always access their materials on credit and at reasonable prices, and a building where they could work together and safely store their supplies, Fatouma Kamia, one of the leaders of the project, said:

“You know that here people don’t lend us money because of our social status, we are seen as an inferior class. So this project will not just allow us to restart our activities but also to be socially and economically independent. I ask you to share my warm thanks and appreciation with the donors in the name of all the women dyers for raising us up in society, since this is the first time in Ondogou township that a project has been undertaken for us, the traditional dyers and caste women. The Foundation is like a messenger from God whose eyes read the thoughts of people who are poor and not taken into consideration, to understand their needs and guide them in fulfilling these needs.”

She knows that God sees and understands her, but she was surprised to find human beings doing the same. But that is what God calls us to do—to see God’s creation and know that it is clean and beautiful—to see our fellow human beings and know that we are all created in God’s image.

Who do we consider less than ourselves? Is there anyone you don’t want to be seen with? A group you consider different and incomprehensible? Or is it more subtle than that? Perhaps just a different set of expectations, an unexamined assumption about what is appropriate for others vs. for ourselves.

Peter says, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” Peter was asked not just to invite gentiles into his church, but to go himself into their homes, into their lives, their culture. What does it mean to go with someone and not to make a distinction?

I think about this a lot in my work with Tandana, and when we take visiting volunteers to our partner communities in Ecuador and Mali. There is always a little bit of difference, a little bit of distinction, so to speak, as we are different. But there are many ways to demonstrate that we are together, that we aren’t drawing distinctions. Sharing food is a huge one. Willingness to accept and enjoy food is of paramount importance in Ecuador. Our volunteer groups are often served mountainous piles of potatoes, fava beans, and corn, and we always tell them to accept it with a smile, eat what they can, and take the leftovers with them. That is a very important way to show that we don’t make a distinction. I suspect that is one reason that Peter’s dream focused on food—it has a powerful symbolism to show whether we consider ourselves together or separate. Being a picky eater, I’m not so great at eating everything, but I always make a point to show gratitude and enjoyment. Something that is easier for me personally is learning languages. Speaking even a few phrases of a language that has been historically marginalized is a powerful statement. Working side by side is also really helpful, showing a willingness to put out physical effort at the same level. Joining in dances is another way to show togetherness—there’s nothing like being willing to try something new and uncomfortable and even laugh at yourself to show that you don’t make a distinction.

If there are others around us whom we see as different, perhaps we can go beyond simply inviting them into our church or our homes—we can also follow them to their homes and join in some of their customs as Peter did.

As we think about what we may call profane that God has made clean, it is not only certain foods or customs, not only other people. In our Christian tradition, ever since Augustine incorporated classical notions of the soul ruling over the body into his influential philosophy, there has been a tendency to view our physical bodies as profane. This tendency was intensified when Descartes further separated mind and body. While there have always been alternative voices proclaiming the holiness of the body, surely most of us have internalized some of the dominant messages about our bodies’ uncleanliness. How can we see that our bodies are God’s creation, clean, beautiful, and holy?

I think we also have a tendency to divide our emotions into the holy ones and the profane ones. When we are angry, frustrated, enraged, or desperate do we accept those emotions like we do when we are grateful or joyful? Do we try to hide them from God, thinking they are unacceptable? Eugene Peterson, the pastor and scholar who did The Message translation of the Bible, said, “It’s easy to be honest before God with our hallelujahs, somewhat more difficult with our hurts, nearly impossible to be honest before God in the dark emotions of our hates.” And yet he finds it absolutely essential to bring all of those emotions before God. He continues, “People who repress all those emotions often get sick, depressed. Learning how to express our fears, our discomfort, our hate, if you will, is often very freeing.” We can learn to accept these harder emotions as clean in their own way, and as also worthy of being shared with God.

A couple weeks ago, we did a trip on the San Juan River, with packrafts and a stand up paddle board. On our third day, an intense wind was blowing up canyon nearly the entire day. We only had 12 miles to go, which we thought would be easy, but the wind made it very difficult. We paddled and paddled and paddled against the wind, straining our muscles. It was hard to take a break, because if you did, you could get blown back upstream. We had a pre-assigned campsite to reach, and as I looked at the map, I set intermediate goals, trying to give us a sense of making progress. If we can just get to that next side canyon, we will be halfway there. Around the next bend, there will be another side canyon on the right. We kept paddling and paddling. Finally, as the sun was sinking behind the canyon wall, we reached our destination for the night. I pulled my raft over to the bank where I could see a trail leading in between the tamarisks. And as soon as I stepped out of the raft, I sank in deep, soft mud. If you’ve been on the San Juan, you know what that mud is like—sticky, gooey, slimy—it doesn’t want to let you go. Both of my feet were sinking, so I kneeled to spread out my body weight. I struggled to extract my legs from the mud and clamber up onto higher, drier ground. I was soaked and getting cold in the evening air. As I struggled in the mud, some profane words came out of my mouth—it was just one obstacle too many at the end of a long day, and I was frustrated. I knew the mud was good, clean, San Juan mud, and the wind was a good, clean gale. Could I accept that my frustration, also, was clean in God’s sight? That I did not need to hide my sense of exasperation and exhaustion? As I emerged onto the sandy trail, I let out a loud, angry sigh—maybe more of a moan. John thought I was upset that my new pants had gotten covered in mud, but that wasn’t it at all. It was just clean mud, but I was cold and needing to get out of those wet pants, exhausted and needing to rest. I wouldn’t say that I had the presence of mind to intentionally share my frustration with God, but at least I did express it out loud, acknowledge it. Soon, I had calmed down, gotten into dry clothes, and gotten out the stove to cook dinner.

I pray that when I face harder, darker emotions than that, I can acknowledge them, accept them, and bring them before God, remembering that I, and all of my emotions, are God’s creation.

As we go about our lives, may we remember not to call profane what God has made clean. Let us recognize the beauty and the holiness in all of creation, including all people and ourselves.