We often joke about our church floors; they’ve all been either rock, dirt, and, on occasion, cement. They’ve never been pretty; they are always of the “needs improvement” variety. I used to be bothered by the floors, especially those of rock, as they would ruin my shoes. It didn’t matter what kind of shoes I had, the rocks would eat them up. Together with the rocky floors, we also have a permanent dust issue. It’s mostly dusty in our church “facility” (a tent) and if it’s not dusty, it’s muddy. I much prefer dusty to muddy, as the dust is much easier to clean up than the mud is.
I’ve long forgotten what it is like to wear nice shoes to church; I have to think of what is sensible, easy to clean, and what to wear that I won’t miss in the event they get ruined in the mud. The ladies and I of our churches have concluded that we can identify who goes to our church by looking at their shoes.
How do you clean a dirt floor? Isn’t it impossible? By definition, a dirt floor cannot be clean – but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to clean it. The floors are swept before every meeting; admittedly the sweeping makes them appear neater but they are no cleaner. The chairs get set out on the neat-looking floor and service begins. Once we have finished, the chairs get put away and the dirty floor remains ever the same: dirty. Dirty as it may be, the floors tell a tale that can be seen in the footsteps, and sometimes knee prints, of those who made it to service.
That people would come to church still amazes me all these years into our service in Africa. All over the world people are busy; everyone has laundry to do, children to care for, jobs and businesses to tend to and yet, our people make time to come to church. They don’t make time to come to a church that meets in a nice building; they are making time to come to church that meets in a tent with a dirt floor.
One might be tempted to think that here in Africa people don’t care about their surroundings – I must disagree with that perception. As much as anyone else in the world, Africans love beauty but their understanding of beauty supersedes what the rest of the world perceives as beautiful. Here on the continent, we have understood that beautifully built buildings don’t make the church. Church meets wherever God’s people come together and this has allowed for massive church growth all over the continent. Our floors are dirt and sometimes our roofs are little more than the shade offered to us by the trees, but we have church. And that is what we find to be beautiful.
I’ve been to services where musical instruments were fashioned from discarded car parts and soda tops – never has there been a sweeter sound. I’ve sat on stones in the sand and heard beautiful choirs sing amazing melodies and watched as tears rolled down the faces of the singers – a truly beautiful moment. I’ve gone to funerals and watched parents lay their children to rest and lift their hands to the Lord in surrender – a sacred moment if ever there was one.
Beauty, I have come to find, is much more than what I used to think it was: beautifully manicured lawns and stained glass windows. Beauty is found in the footsteps on the dirt floor of this life; those steps mark lives of love and loss. My eyes, every time I set foot into the tent, go to the floor, to look at the footprints there. I wonder who is behind the prints I’m studying and what brought them to our tent – and I pray, Lord, may we value the lives behind those prints, for they are beautiful.
I look forward one day to having a building with proper chairs and a proper floor; it will be a real treat to wear a nice pair of shoes to church one day. But in the meantime, I’m busy praying over those footprints on the floor, they are the most beautiful things I have ever seen.