When I was in high school I smoked. Not like a chain smoker or anything, but I was more than a dabbler. I kind of quit when I got to college, and then really quit when I got married. Well, mostly really quit anyway.
I’ve had the same pack of cigarettes hidden away in the bottom of my desk drawer for the last three or four years, and when I’d get really stressed or feeling especially low I’d revisit my old addiction in hopes of finding some relief. Without fail, instead of relief I’d just find myself feeling nauseous in a cloud of guilt, hacking like an asthmatic cat with a hairball.
I wasn’t remembering any of that downside though when I collapsed into a chair on my deck and with shaking hands lit up the last cigarette in my antique pack.
The evening had started out normal enough. Brandon, my teenage neighbor, had asked for a haircut. He had an absolutely glorious afro, the stuff of legends, but he wanted it gone, so I brought out my gear and right there in the front yard we commenced operation Fropocalypse.
As I began hacking away, I noticed Tony, another neighbor, pick up a pair of my scissors. I didn’t say anything, but watched him out of the corner of my eye as he walked over to my van and while looking in the mirror started cutting chunks out of his afro.
After seeing enough of the damage he was doing, I offered, “Dude, need some help with that? No Charge.” He quickly turned me down and kept hacking, so I let it go. As Brandon’s haircut got crispier and crispier (better), Tony’s got raggedier and raggedier (worse), and despite my repeated offers to help, and the merciless flaming (teasing) from the mob that had gathered, Tony wouldn’t let me fix the train wreck that was happening on top of his head.
I’m not sure what caused him to finally give up on his misguided mission, but eventually he plopped down in my barber chair and just said, “Fine”.
As I began cutting, it became instantly clear why he’d been avoiding me and trying to cut his own hair…
It was the worst case of lice I’d ever seen.
It’s not often that I get grossed out to the point of puking. Maybe it’s because since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by things like boogers and bugs. My dear Mother recently reminded me that I used to impress the neighbor girls with my ability to crush rolly pollies with my teeth.
This was different though. There were so many lice I could hardly see his scalp and the parts of his scalp that weren’t covered in lice were covered in scabs and open sores. As the reality of what I was seeing hit me, I threw up in my mouth.
The Lord and I had a quick desperate conversation that left me feeling sick but determined to help get this kid rid of his tiny tormentors. I quickly sent the crowd that had gathered to the backyard to work on a project, and quietly asked Tony if he was aware of the infestation. He hung his head and nodded.
“How long you been battling?” I asked him. “Too long,” he replied. “You ready to be free of them?” I asked. He shot me a weak smile, and with an approving nod the war began.
I can’t recall how long it took, as the haircut is still kind of a blur, but I still shudder when I recall the lice crawling up my arms and legs like a massive army of tiny invaders. Eventually, after waging war for what felt like forever, I declared victory. His head was still pretty raw, but it was clean, and his heart seemed to be overflowing with the peace and joy of someone that had tasted victory in a war they’d been stuck in for too long.
After gathering my gear, I frantically tried to brush off as many lice as I could, ran upstairs and promptly threw up in a trashcan. Without thinking I grabbed my last cigarette, ran to the deck, and collapsed into a chair, sobbing.
I took a couple drags off the cigarette and between coughs wondered aloud, “What was that!?”
I’ve never heard God audibly speak, but it was as if He whispered in my ear clear as day, “That, was you in that barbers chair…”
As I sat there in a puddle of tears, the scene played out in my mind like I was watching a movie, only I was Tony, and it wasn’t lice on my scalp, it was my sin crawling all over my soul. The ugly sins and the respectable ones, the sins I hide beneath my fro and try not to scratch at when I think people are looking. The sins that I justify, minimalize and think I can manage and deal with on my own. The sins I’ve entertained for far too long thinking I’d never be rid of them, and the sins that are leaving my soul sucked dry and scabby. The laziness, the lust, the greed, the judgmental pride, the jealousy, my all too frequent selfishness induced indifference towards God and the people He’s sent me to love, the worry, the lies, and all the impotent idols I run to for life… like the cigarette I was holding in my shaking hand.
I felt sick, and not just my body, but my whole soul felt nauseous. I can grow pretty numb to my sin sometimes, even justifying it as a good thing on occasion, but as I sat there in that chair I saw it for what it was and felt utterly repulsed by it.
As I leaned over and extinguished the cigarette with spit, another question penetrated my guilty fog and hit me in the heart…
“Need some help with that? No charge…
“How long you been battling?”
“Too long,” I mumbled under my breath.
“You ready to be free of them?”
What followed was a painful but liberating, repentance filled soul war that left my heart feeling pretty raw, but clean and overflowing with the kind of peace and joy you’d see flowing out of someone who’d just tasted victory in a war they’d been stuck in for too long.
The Gospel that I too often grow numb to was the key that set me free, for the millionth time. As I sat there in that chair, I felt utterly overwhelmed by the reality that Jesus not only shaved my sins away, but He actually took on all of my lice so I could be clean.
What wondrous love is this, o my soul…?
A love that blows minds, changes lives, and frees repentant prodigals and religious older brothers with His purifying embrace.
“Observe how Christ loved us.
His love was not cautious but extravagant.
He didn’t love in order to get something from us,
but to give everything of himself to us.
Love like that.”