Richard Beck has written a lot about our sensory boundaries in the context of ministering. I have his book Unclean and it is wonderful, and he has written a bit on the same topic in a recent post. Here is a comment I left on that post:
I once worked at a guitar shop and a man came in to buy a guitar. He was in a horrible condition – he smelled as though he were rotting. Literally rotting. He was limping and I supposed he had a leg injury of some kind that was infected. He had not bathed in a considerable amount of time, and probably spent time around lots of cats and dogs. He smelled worse than anyone I’d ever met. The strange thing was he was driving a brand new truck and purchased a very nice guitar. I am guessing that he was an extremely poor or homeless man who had experienced some kind of settlement or inheritance that he was now blowing on brand new items – or he was a wealthy but mentally ill person.
All the other employees of the store left me to “deal with” him because they couldn’t stand the smell. And I pointed out the acoustic guitar room and just left him in there to sample what we had. I couldn’t even walk in the room with him.
All he did was sit there, motionless, and look at the guitars we had. It was as though he were in too much pain to even get up. And I looked him in the eyes and I could tell there was pain there, too. He was in so much emotional and physical pain.
To this day the fact that I couldn’t go in to help him still haunts me. I couldn’t even get near him. And I knew, standing in the doorway of that guitar room, that Jesus could have overcome the odor and gone in and even kissed or hugged that man, and discovered what pain existed there and helped him. I just could not overcome my body’s natural reaction to that man’s condition and smell.
I rarely talk about this and sometimes when I do people tell me that what I did was reasonable and hardly anyone could have ministered to that man. But I consider it one of my biggest personal failings in my life. I should have helped that man, but I felt like I couldn’t.
I often wonder whether I’d die for my faith. I want to feel like I would. But why does it seem harder to bear another person’s odor than to give one’s life?