It’s hard to go anywhere these days without hearing someone talk about the potential swine flu epidemic. The last few times I have left the country, people have been concerned that I might catch this new strain of flu.
On my recent trip to Panama, I stood in line to have a thermal body scan. The procedure is somewhat embarrassing. First, you stand in front of a special camera. Next, it projects a colored image of your body onto a screen. There you are in all shades of yellows, oranges and reds for all the world to see. If the thermal map shows an elevated temperature, the officials refuse to admit you to the country.
Recently, I have seen public health announcements touting the new way to sneeze: into the inside of the elbow. I happened to sneeze the other day and was reminded that I didn’t do it correctly. But have you ever tried to sneeze into your elbow? Talk about awkward and uncomfortable! I am in reasonable shape (as long as you think round is a good shape). But I have a hard time moving my arm fast enough to lift my elbow all the way up to my face. And no one talks about what you’re supposed to do with the stuff that comes out of your nose. I can’t get used to the idea of walking around all day wearing what I used to put into my hanky on my shirt sleeve. Sneezing into the inside of your elbow goes against everything I learned growing up.
One of the things my mama taught us was to wash our hands and to scrub behind our ears. Living out in the country as we did, we sometimes came home with what seemed like half the field under our nails. Mom never said cleanliness was next to godliness, but she didn’t think twice about whipping out her hanky to give our faces a quick scrub. I grew up believing in the purifying power of Lava soap, Clorox bleach and that strongest of all cleansing agents, Mama’s spit.
I don’t know if today’s young mothers would ever consider spitting into a hanky and scrubbing a child’s face. Instead, we have the miracle of hand sanitizer (which seems to work on faces, too). Over the past few years, our student missionaries have carried small containers of hand sanitizer to use where running water is hard to find. You might say those containers come in . . . handy. But I’ve never seen anything like the proliferation of hand sanitizer that has occurred in the public arena in the past few months. I’ve seen these dispensers appear at the theater, at the bank and even in the churches where I speak across the country. The other day, I heard a pastor encourage his congregation to use hand sanitizer before they shook his hand at the end of the service. I won’t be surprised if soon, instead of shaking hands during the greeting time at church, we’re encouraged to bump elbows instead.
All these things are changing the face (not to mention the hand) of the way we do ministry. I would never want to be responsible for the spread of swine flu. But sometimes I wonder what our obsession with cleanliness says about the things we consider important.
During Jesus’ time on Earth, told His followers about a different kind of cleanliness. He spoke to the religious leaders and pointed out that although they made sure their outward appearance was spotless, the inside was . . . not. He boldly told them, “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:27-28).
The solution Jesus offered had nothing to do with thermal scans, sneezing into the elbow or bottles of hand sanitizer placed strategically around the temple. Instead, He urged the people to take care of the inside . . . first.
Mom and Dad, remember to look at your children through the eyes of Jesus. Sometimes you need to help scrub their nails or wipe dirt from their faces. You may ask them to use hand sanitizer at certain times or teach them to cough and sneeze into their elbows. But first, ask God to help you model the lifestyle of a clean heart. When He does His deep work on the inside, He changes lives on the outside, too. And that’s the one kind of cleanliness that counts . . . for eternity.