Quite a few years ago, I was single still and owned a little house. I threw lots of parties at that little house and one of them was a goodbye barbecue for our friend Dave, who was moving to Dallas to attend seminary.
The Tuesday after this party was trash day. I intended to roll my big black City of Houston trashcan down to the curb before I left for work. Before I did, I glanced inside at the trash bags collected from the remnants of the barbecue. And crawling among my trash can were lots of little maggots.
"I'm okay," I told myself as I got in my car. "It's okay. I am okay." And I almost was. Until I remembered that scene from The Lost Boys when he looks into the Chinese takeout rice he is eating and sees maggots. About two blocks from home, I pulled over, opened the car door, and threw up in a vacant parking lot.
I remembered this story tonight as I was reading A Marriage Without Regrets. Kay Arthur tells a similar story that happened when she was 14. Now, Kay was 14 about sixty years ago. And yet, sixty years later, the memory of those maggots "makes her skin crawl."
Just what is it about maggots that has this effect on us?
They are not the grossest looking creatures. They are just little and white - not nearly as disgusting as the giant Texas cockroaches I encounter on a far-too-regular basis. At the time the trashcan incident happened, I wasn't even positive what maggots were (fly larvae, fyi). Or what they did. But the very sight of them made me revisit my breakfast.
Now I know this is a gross topic but it is incredibly intriguing to me because, as much as I utterly deplore and am terrified of cockroaches, I have never once thrown up at the sight of one. But we all have very visceral reactions to maggots. And if I am anything like Kay, my stomach will still churn at the memory of Dave's barbecue maggots for another fifty years.
Something deep within our soul reacts to maggots, in the same way that I believe we are intrinsically frightened of snakes and spiders.
We should be thankful for them. Without maggots, animals would die and just - stay there. Dead. The roadsides of Texas would be littered with millions of armadillos.
And maggots have other redeeming qualities: scientists are use them in medicine to clean out wounds, because maggots only eat the decaying flesh and leave the healthy flesh alone. After that fateful day, I googled "Help! I have maggots in my trashcan!" and came across many websites saying if your dog gets maggots in a wound, leave them there (ugh.) They are much more exacting than a surgeon's scapel. So, technically, maggots are a blessing.
So, why are repulsed at the mere thought of them?
I have a theory: it is because deep down, we know why maggots exist. Even if we aren't completely conscious of their ecological purpose, in our hearts, in our souls, we know what they do.
They eat flesh. Decaying flesh.
They rely - they thrive - on death.
I believe God has written on our hearts that maggots are a sign of the Fall - they are only necessary because there is decaying flesh all around, and that decaying flesh is a result of Adam and Eve's sin. Of my sin. Of the same sin that ate the fruit and nailed the Son of God to a cross.
When we see them, squirming around as they binge greedily on a once living creature, our souls confront mortality, and our souls recoil.
This afternoon I watched the movie Blades of Glory. Now, this is one of the dumbest movies ever. And oh, how I laughed. I don't believe we have watched an adult movie while the children were in the room before, but they were this afternoon. The movie is fairly innocuous and I figured they would laugh at the ice skating. What I didn't factor in was the cursing.
Blades of Glory's curse words are not on the varsity team - only the d-word, the h-word, an occasional s-word. Shepherd and Eva Rose were half watching, half playing but when the characters cursed, my eyes would dart to them to see their reaction.
They didn't look up, they didn't even flinch. I realized it was because they just didn't know those words. They've never heard the a-word. They didn't even realize it was bad.
Oh, what innocence, to not even flinch.
Then it occurred to me that, were my children not in the room and thereby making me hyper-aware, I wouldn't have flinched either. I hear these words often enough - and yes, even sometimes say them - that I have become oblivious to them as my children are. But not because of innocence, oh, no.
When did I begin flinching?
And more telling, when did I quit?
Tonight, for some reason Walker and I began talking about when I first came to orientation at the University of Texas. All of the freshmen received a AIDS prevention brochure in from the University about safe s*x. In this brochure, there was a list of "safe activities" and "unsafe activities." The unsafe list had terms that I had never, ever heard before.
My roommate and I discussed the strange unsafe practices, consulted with friends, then guffawed when we were "enlightened" at some of the bizarre (and unsafe, according to this brochure) things some people do in the name of s*xual pleasure. God's beautiful plan for loving, married couples perverted in the most absurd and obscene ways. I giggled as a little of my innocence - already holding on by a thread by the age of 18 - was lost.
Some of the things on that list still repulse me to remember. Some of them, however, I don't think would, these twenty years later. I've heard it all again since then. I've heard even worse.
When did I stop flinching?
When did I get so blase when confronted with wickedness?
When did my soul cease to recoil at sin that leads to death?
When did I quit even noticing it?
When Jesus sends his disciples out to save the lost of Israel, he said, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."
Wisdom and innocence is a very delicate balance. How can I know when to recoil, and still be wise? How can I remain innocent when the world around me constantly bombards me with depravity? How do I keep a clean heart and a pure mind in a world that glorifies evil?
I want to reject the sin that devours the decaying flesh around me. I want maggots to be unleashed in my life for medicinal purposes. I want them to eat away at the flesh of my old self, the flesh that wants more than anything to jump on board with the world until I am so immune to sin that I never, ever flinch.
Yet I want my soul, the soul that seeks holiness, to remain. Cleansed. More precisely than a surgeon's scalpel. As precisely as a double-edged sword.
Dear God, show me how to be in the world and not of it. May my sin and the sins that surround me, the evidence of death that feasts on my soul, repulse me so much more than those maggots.
A rerun for Sarah who has fruit flies in her fridge