2.20.2010As I work at a homeless shelter, I am often overwhelmed with stench. There are various types, and since I have a very capable nose, I tend to smell them all. I smell the typical "I've been wearing these shoes for years and they have literally been through it all" stench of shoes. I smell the discarded garbage from rotting veggies donated at the last minute. I smell armpits and body odor, I smell dirty clothes and an over abundance of hand sanitizer. I smell booze breath and cigarette breath and just plain stank breath. To me, all these things smell disgusting, but to God, I know they smell like love.
It's funny how much the sense of smell is linked to particular memories. All it takes is a whiff of a certain smell to take me back to my house during middle school. Or a certain smell to take me back to Buchanan Elementary. Sometimes I will smell something and almost be transported to my summers at Sky Ranch, or my summer playing basketball in Australia.
So when I walk through the dorms of the shelter at night, and smell feet and farts, bad breath and cigarette smoke, I wonder how that all smells to God. And I think it is a bittersweet smell to him. Bitter because our weakness has led us to embrace the disgusting smells of the world. The smell of alcoholism and drug addiction, pornography and materialism, bitterness and greed, gluttony and hatred, fear and violence, ultimately death. But it is sweet because it is the smell of a long lost love. The smell of lost sons and daughters. The smell of a people so close to greatness that if they would but close their hand on it they might hold it. God smells the potential and the problem.
And I think it takes him back, back before anyone could possibly remember, to the day he began creating. It reminds him of the smell of an untainted garden. The smell of people in harmony with their world, rather than destroying it. The smell of victory. And in that sense, I think it also takes him forward. The smell anticipates the day it will all be over, but the day that it will start anew.
Those are the things that the smell of homelessness reminds me of. Because those of us who belong to the kingdom of God are homeless. We are exiles here in a world that does not understand us, or our smell. Our world smells only our defeat, but our Lord smells our surrender. Our world smells our deaths, but we can smell our new life from our deaths. That's what I smell when I smell stinky shoes and unwashed underwear.