Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon once wrote that having our nappies changed is our first experience of what grace looks like. I don’t remember that experience from the receiving end, but this afternoon I had my first taste – not literally, I’m relieved to report – of what it is to provide that special form of grace.
There was no actual nappy involved, however. My nephew Noah is at that transitional moment when he is (according to his parents, at least) too old for nappies, but not quite old enough to understand and utilise the adult alternative. To put it bluntly, he still poos in his pants, but these days there is no nappy there to pick up the pieces. I suppose it’s the old sink or swim pedagogy, except in this case sink (along with toilet) is the preferred outcome to swimming in one’s, well, you catch my drift. The method is sort of working on Noah, but only to the extent that he is visibly uncomfortable and embarrassed when the inevitable happens. The thinking, I suppose, is that eventually a sufficient dislike for those feelings will cause him to nip them in the bud and mount the toilet seat. Shame and discomfort – the great human motivators for change.
Anyway, I knew as soon as I came into the room where he was supposed to be sleeping that something was afoul. It may have been the sheepish expression on his face as he stood out of his cot and by the window. It may also have been the smell. I picked him up as carefully as I could – for my sake more than his -- and brought him downstairs to the bathroom for official confirmation. Sure enough, he was swimming. Since I had no prior experience of dealing with something like this before – well, I guess I had, but they had always been extremely personal experiences – all I could do was wing it. A splash of water here, a dab of tissue there, a sort of scraping effect somewhere else. “Remove all traces by any means necessary” was the general mandate, and I carried it out trying not to dwell too much on what it was I was actually doing. That “the other” takes a dump is one of those pieces of information that we erase when we encounter the other. Yet here was an other about whom that information was impossible to ignore: Noah, with soiled underpants, standing compliant and silent, trusting me to do what was necessary to redeem the situation. Is this what childlikeness looks like? Semi-naked, and allowing someone to clean your backside for you?
The majority of us move on from that posture, and we call that “maturity” or “development” or “growth” or “progress”. Rightfully so, perhaps, but damned if we won’t lose something in that process. Certainly not dignity or pride or independence, but something human and creaturely nevertheless - the sense of "being-from" that necessitates "being-for" (though "necessitates" might be too...economic a word). Now I’m not suggesting you and your friend wash each other’s posteriors in an attempt to regain your childlikeness or humanness or love, but surely John 13 is instructive in all of this. Here true deity and true humanity are on display in an act not a million miles away from the one just described. This is shocking not because God would stoop so low, but because it is a concrete revelation of the kind of God that the Father of Jesus is; it is shocking because it reveals to us the very grain of the universe, and it calls us to go with it that we might have the life that is really life.
If Hauerwas and Willimon are right; if changing a child’s nappy is an act of grace, then grace is nothing more or less than the gift given. In Noah’s case, I merely gave him the gift of a clean bum. I gave it to him because he was in my care and he needed it. And if someone as selfish as me is quite willing to give that, how much more is…