The other day at Kohl’s I tried on some shirts. One of them must have been tried on by a woman wearing strong perfume because the smell overwhelmed me as I slipped it over my head. To be honest, the scent repulsed me at first. But then I thought about who this woman might be and what she might look like and why she might have rejected the shirt I liked. I wondered if she was sweet like my darling Mom, who wears delicious-smelling perfume that makes you feel loved when you hug her. I ended up feeling a kinship with this phantom, smell-good lady, and I bought the shirt.
I felt a similar kinship with some homeless folks I met recently. My town has a winter program called Open Doors where homeless men and women come in out of the cold and spend the evening and night on green mats on a church floor. My church family teams up with a host church to provide tasty, hot dinners, and one cold February night my Bible study group brought in ham, mac and cheese, green beans, rolls and brownies. We ate with the residents and chatted it up. One thing I noticed was how many of them were coughing. Some looked glassy-eyed and feverish. One pale-faced man hardly ate because he said his cancer made him lose his appetite.
Leaving them after dinner left me feeling sad, especially for those who were sick, and then 48 hours later I came down with the flu. I’m pretty sure I caught it from all that coughing. I was tempted to regret my time there until I thought about what it would be like to have the flu and be homeless. At 7 a.m. the residents get released from the church building to search for a warm place to be for the next 10 or 11 hours, but I could just stay in my warm, cozy bed to sleep all day. I could get up and make myself a bowl of chicken noodle soup or take spoonfuls of cough syrup to calm my hacking — but they walk the streets. Amidst these thoughts I embrace the flu they gave me — and embrace them as my brothers and sisters, my kin who were dealt a much worse hand in life than I was.
I think of kinship, too, when I walk forward each week to eat Christ’s body from a common loaf and drink his blood from a common cup. The people in front of me and behind me in line are my brothers and sisters who carry germs as I do. We chew the bread together with our different sets of crooked or straight teeth. We sip, slurp or gulp port wine from the same cup, and the person dispensing it reminds us that “this is Christ’s blood shed for you,” you singular and you plural. We come together in this act each week, submitting ourselves to God who washed real dirt off his disciples’ real feet.
But we are also submitting ourselves to each other, germs, dirt, saliva and all. Drinking in God while touching our lips to the same cup to which many others have touched their lips reminds us that when we embrace people — ladies who wear perfume, homeless people who cough, spiritual siblings who carry germs — we embrace God himself.
Paula Cook is a mother of four, volleyball coach, writer and occasional speaker who lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.