No matter how engrossed I might be in an episode of Bugs Bunny or Gilligan’s Island, my ears never missed the approaching rumble. It crawled its way down the alley, one man driving, two other men walking alongside, hefting garbage cans and spilling their contents into the gaping mouth of the truck. I would bang through the back door, sprint across the yard, swing open the gate, and stand there gawking and grinning as my favorite parade passed by. The muscled men were friendly, as demigods should be to their prepubescent devotees, even going so far as giving me candy on occasion—a gift of sheer horror to my mom. These men, they had a dream job. A big, loud truck. All day in the alley. Candy in their pockets.
I was a boy. But when I became a man, I wanted to be just like them. I too would be a trashman.
Over the course of the next three and a half decades or so, my vocational aspirations underwent several metamorphoses. There were several years when I wanted nothing more than to build a cabin deep in the woods, trap, hunt, fish, and live off the land, as did the Daniel Boones and other mountain men heroes of my childhood. There was a time when I considered becoming a farmer and rancher, like many of the men in my hometown. I ended up, for shorter or longer periods of time, laboring at feed, tire, and hardware stores; hammering shingles onto roofs; preaching in pulpits; writing articles and books; lecturing in seminary classrooms; picking up and delivering freight. I was a boy once, and when I became a man, I became many things. But, sadly, my earliest boyhood dream never came true.
Perhaps I should have gone with my first instinct. For I know a thing or two about trash. About throwing things away. About being thrown away. Even about recycling.
Isn’t it odd, the power of names? I sit down at a meal, with a white napkin beside my plate. It’s welcome on my table. I pick it up and wipe my mouth with it. It is still a napkin, my napkin. I have no qualms about putting it back beside my plate of food, or on my lap. But when I’m finished with it, I throw it away. The napkin becomes “trash.” And once it becomes trash, I wouldn’t dream of retrieving it from the dumpster and putting it back on my table, or wiping my mouth with it. It is no longer anything but trash to me, as is the empty milk carton that once sat in my refrigerator. Or the holey pair of socks that once wrapped around my feet. The trash can is the great equalizer. What falls into it becomes what it is. It is no longer a napkin or a carton or a pair of socks or any other individualized, named item—all they are is trash.
Thank goodness we never treat people they same way. What kind of world would we have if that were so? We would never dream of lumping individuals into a category such as—oh, I don’t know—maybe “white trash.” Never would someone catch us categorizing people by their weaknesses, failures, or addictions, as if Charlie is no longer an individual but merely part of the undifferentiated mass of alcoholics; Sandy no longer a specific woman but swallowed into the lump of nameless drug-addicted whores; Tim one of those “godless, perverted homosexuals.” No, one would never find us, especially the church, throwing people away into the various trash cans we keep close by for the sake of convenience. For if there is anything we Christians do with unflagging zeal, it’s kissing the leper, embracing the pariah, wiping away the shit that stains the unclean, and digging out of the trash those whom society has thrown away. Right?
We have a God who walks the alleys. He’s not afraid of trash. He loves that which others have thrown away. For he is a Lord of redemption, whose gift is the recycling of lives that have been trashed. He strolls through the alleys of this world, picking up the discarded remains of people, washing them, clothing them, feeding them, embracing and kissing them, and adopting them into his own family as heirs of the fullness of his riches.
When I was a boy, I wanted to be a trashman. Little did I know that I would grow up to need a God who was a trashman, who would unhesitatingly stoop down, retrieve me from the dumpster, and treat me not as an object to be despised but as a son to be loved.