I WANNA GET WASHED
by Calvin Miller
From Preaching Today Tape #118
Revival in my own life has been brought together by the near psychotic
connection of two events–first, by a character in the late 60’s who stepped
onto a Broadway stage and, dressed in blue jeans and a tee shirt, cried, “I
wanna get washed!” It was the beginning of Godspell, and it spoke to a double
hunger. We all want to get washed, and we all want to be in the presence of
God. According to the old cry, we want to “Get washed–the kingdom of God is
The second event came when I bucked hay bales in Northern Oklahoma. By
nightfall these little alfalfa “groaties” would be fused to my skin with
sweat–those itching, ugly, hayfield microbes, gargantuan chiggers that
gnawed at you like fanged, fire ants, which bit through the dermis and stung
like cornered scorpions. It was hard to lead us hayfield workers to
Christ–we could hardly be threatened with hell. For we who suffered the
hayfield groats lost all fear of purgatory. In the fiery itch of our days, we
scratched and dreamed of only one thing: the evening shower.
We had rigged an old barrel under the windmill and set it high on a
two-by-four framework. It stood up in the Oklahoma sun all day long, warming
until it was ready for field hands to stand beneath its generous flow and be
clean. Its walls were corrugated tin on three sides, but the fourth side was
open wide to the setting sun. We stood in the water like Adam in Eden. We
would face the west and rebuke the field demons, “In the name of Jesus
Christ, get off of us, you dogs of hell!” Then we’d turn the tap and sing,
“Just As I Am” as the water flowed, and we were born again! And if anyone of
you asked me on any late June day what I most wanted in life, I would have
said, “O God, I wanna get washed!”
We are here to answer the question, “What is revival?” I’m not sure that I
can answer the question well in a short time, but I think there is a time
when the secular grime sticks to us and gritty, itchy boredom clings to us
and we turn our eyes to Jesus Christ and reach for the tap that washes our
obscene egos away. We look imploringly to heaven and cry out, “Please, God, I
wanna get washed!”
There is so much in Habakkuk that cries out for revival.
Who was Habakkuk? According to some, his name means “Babylonian house
plant.” Since I have never appreciated being called a house plant, I can only
guess that it wasn’t much of an ego boost in 607 B.C. Habakkuk was a
contemporary of Jeremiah, but neither of them wrote poetry that caught on
while they were alive. They must have presented quite a pair: Jeremiah crying
all the time, and Habakkuk consoling him, “Now, don’t take it all so hard,
big fellow. God isn’t listening anyway! Besides, Jerry, how would you like to
have Dan Rather call you a Babylonian house plant every night on the 5:30
But if Habakkuk was a house plant, he was at least not a pansy. He was a
tendrilated fly trap champing hungrily at the silence of God.
“How long, O Lord, must I call for help and you do not listen?” (1:2). This
may be Habakkuk’s way of saying, “Lord, I wanna be washed!”
Like Habakkuk, Sara Teasdale, worn out with the swaggering nuclear warlords
of our time, wrote:
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound,
And frogs in the pool singing at night
And wild plum trees in tremulous white.
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
And whistling their whims on a low fence wire,
And not one will know of war, not one will care when it is
Not one will mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly,
And spring, herself when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
Perhaps Sara Teasdale had felt culture stick to her soul like field grime.
In the ugly clot she cried for a universal washing–to be clean of our age:
“There will come soft rains.”
No wonder Habakkuk cries, “O God, I wanna get washed!”
No wonder the Psalmist says, “Restore us again, O God our Savior…Will you
not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (85:4,6). “Wash me
thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin…Purge me with
hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow”
Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole,
I long for thy Spirit to live in my soul.
Break down every idol, cast out every foe,
Just wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
There must come soft rains. O God, I wanna be washed!
After thirty-five years of pastoring churches, I’ve come to believe we don’t
worship God so much as we worship what we want to be for God. We worship what
we want to do for God. We worship what we want to learn about God.
In seminary we usually worship what we have learned about God. We worship
the people of God. We worship the house of God. We worship our Sunday school
report. We worship our church attendance and sing our hallelujahs to
ourselves at our conventions, where everyone is given some time to brag.
We bring such little gods as revival reports and say to the, “Awake! Arise!”
But they cannot speak. They are wood and silent stone, idols that speak only
of our own creativity, our own small ego gods. We seminarians are the Baal
makers. We lift church growth to Yahweh status and adore the
pastoral-statistical gods who say, “We have our lovely thousands!”
Our Gloria Patris stick in our throats, and we worship success and print the
neon numbers of the megachurch gods. Thus, we call mere Homo sapiens “god” in
the place of him who made the water stand and bushes burn. Why do we make
such Baals? Idols are for people who don’t really need God but would like to
Idols are just right for seminary. They allow us to treasure our program,
our student status, our grade-point average, our dreams for God–anything
instead of God. And the hungry irony is that probably more idols get made
right here on Seminary Hill than anywhere else.
Oh, they are not vulgar idols, not Chemosh or Astarte. We still talk more of
Paul and Jesus than Gilgamesh or Enkidu. We don’t throw our children into the
fiery arms of Dagon. But we do have our seminary gods. And seminary husbands
who promised to “cherish and love” don’t! And seminary wives who said, “Till
death do us part,” trade some of the old vows for what Sheldon VanAuken
called “that creeping separateness” that finally destroys even Christian
Of course, our small gods can never be the God, but they are god enough to
keep us from the real God. Why do we turn so readily to idols? Because the
work of faith in the living God is hard work.
Why was God so inscrutable? Why did God treat Habakkuk this way? Had he ever
played golf on revival nights? Hadn’t he blessed the Kiwanis luncheons and
wore his TRY GOD pin everywhere? Still, God was silent. Trying to believe in
the real God makes idols look like a snap! So Habakkuk states his case: “I
complain to thee of wrongs, and yet thou wilt not help. Why make me gaze on
We need to get washed because God gets elusive. God gets silent. God gets
difficult. He removes himself, and we can’t find him. Why do we need
revivals? Because our easy God is gone.
I loved the easy god of my childhood, the Christ of the Broadman Sunday
school pictures. There he was, Jesus, an easy name to say. Further, Jesus was
easy to recognize. He always wore a purple and white robe, and he always
looked like Jesus in his neat, oxford beard and those kind, keen,
intellectual-Baptist blue eyes of his.
We had a picture of Jesus in our little church. He was always praying
serenely in Gethsemane. There he was, ever beautiful, robed in folds of
satin, our easy Jesus, the last Boy Scout, the Obi Wan Kenobi of our little
world. He was as handsome as Mel Gibson in that picture. He did not sweat
great drops of blood. He was the academy-award Nazarene, arranged under his
halo in a Hollywood agony. This easy Jesus made Gethsemane a piece of cake.
In 1947, two events crowded my young existentialism: in the same year I sang
choruses and made a Jesus flannel-graph board in my Wesleyan Methodist VBS
class, my grandmother, who lived with us, lost her mind–at that time, I made
no connection between chorus singing and the losing of one’s mind; later in a
Baptist church, I became used to living with schizophrenics!
One of the things Grandma did as a result of losing her mind was that she
became possessive and began to steal things and stick them in her trunk and
Coming home from the little Wesleyan Bible school with my flannel-graph
Jesus, I encountered my first spiritual crisis. Grandma stole my
flannel-graph Jesus and put him in her trunk. I couldn’t understand why she
would get so possessive with Jesus. Later, in seminary, I would get used to
students hiding Jesus in their trunks. But then it was new to me.
I never saw my sweet, easy Jesus again. Like Habakkuk, I found that God
backed away from my need. It was an omen. My beautiful flannel-backed Trinity
was locked away in Grandma’s trunk, that trunk buckled with two huge locks
labeled GOG and MAGOG. I cried before this ugly ark of the antichrist and
begged that Christ come out. But Jesus was gone, and my poor demented Grandma
wouldn’t give him back.
What do you do when you’re a child and you lose your easy Jesus? You go to
VBS and make a Baal. We learn early that we can make our own Baals, and
church is the place for it. I began building idols: macaroni and shellacked
plywood that said, GOD IS LOVE, and decoupage Jesus boards built out of
tongue depressors that said, TRUST IN THE LORD, which everyone said were
beautiful. We glued sparkling things on Folger’s cans and trimmed them in
rickrack. In this odd litany of egg cartons and pipe cleaners, we made
caterpillars that looked nice with our plywood butterflies. Then our parents
came to family night, and we stood up and sang, “I may never march in the
infantry…” and ate weenies and went home.
That’s how we behave when Jesus is locked in the trunk. I remember at night
I cried because I wanted him back, my easy Jesus. But I seldom got him back.
Sometimes I’d see him doing marvelous things but always at a distance.
When I was in adolescence, Jesus quit wearing his old, familiar, purple robe
and white tunic, and he was almost impossible to find. To make matters worse,
they put the good old King James Bible in modern English, and suddenly Jesus
talked like everybody else. Yes, our Baptist preacher had warned us to eschew
that new, red-covered, communist-inspired RSV, translated by liberal-pinko
Methodists. They left out Mark 16 and John 8. There were spurious, untrue
passages, so the Bible had to be footnoted as if it were God’s term paper.
In the good old Bible, when Jesus was twelve, he went to the King James
temple of my childhood. He had always said this to his mother, “Wist ye not
that I must be about my Father’s business?”–it is easy to tell who is Jesus
when he says, “Wist ye not.” But the Living Bible Jesus said, “Know what,
Mumsy?” Then someone painted a picture of Jesus without his beard. He looked
like Karl Malden, so I turned and left.
Grandma died in 1951. I begged them to search her trunk for my good old
flannel-graph Jesus. But he was gone. My easy god was gone. So at seminary I
took up advanced idol making. I made such idols as would win me greater
compliments: sermon idols, seminary-transcripts idols, grade-point-average
idols, denominational awards, Ph.D. grants.
By seminary I had begun to accept the field grime once so distasteful to me.
I quit hungering for the washing. I went made building my idols by day, and
by night I would weep. Hundreds of ego demons bit through my dermis, but now
I accepted the grime. Now I was educated, and I didn’t want to be washed. I
went to bed with my egocentrism. I got up with it, and I never apologized to
God. I polished my Baals. I was a Christian writer!
I thought at times I could not live, when suddenly one day I was reading the
Bible, and I came across Habakkuk. His grandmother had also stolen his
flannel graph! Habakkuk had obviously lost his easy God too. I loved him for
writing, “How long, O Lord, must I cry for help, but you do not listen?”
O God, I beg you, please–my easy god is gone. James Kavanaugh wrote
I have lost my easy God–the one whose name I knew since
I know his temper, his sullen outrage, his ritual forgiveness
Now he haunts me seldom: some fierce umbilical is broken,
I live with my won fragile hopes and sudden rising despair.
Idols are easy, but Habakkuk really tells the truth. Idols are small and are
for small souls. Habakkuk could never get away from the truth. Idols always
looked a little too commercial and machine made. They were always too garish
and velvet Elvis for him.
No matter the level of their quality control, they usually read on the
bottom, MADE IN PHILISTIA BY PHILISTINES. They were powerless and little.
Habakkuk had to own up to the truth. From the watchtower Habakkuk could see a
lot of things–how little idols were and how big God was. He could see that
most of their lives people worship little things and finally lose sight of
the greatness of God altogether.
He cries at last, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be
silent before him” (2:20).
Well, what is it we are to do when our security systems fail? We are to
globalize. If we are not careful, our dream of revival will get cut down to
trifling little words and small religious acts. WE can shut up the global
moving of God in our little devotional acts and wet emotionalism. But revival
is more than quick tears at a hot altar. Revival is pushing back the crushing
closeness and giving a big God a big place in our seminary and in our lives.
True revival is globalized.
“Let all the earth keep silent!” cries Habakkuk. “Globalize!” says Habakkuk.
“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as
the waters that cover the seas” (2:14, RSV).
When I was eight, in the middle of World War II, I took a trip on a bus from
Enid, Oklahoma, to North Carolina. After what seemed like days on a diesel
bus, we reached North Carolina. Because of this trip, my world grew, and
somehow I did too. I was never bigger than the day I found the truth about
Garfield County: it was little. So is Oklahoma. Even the state of Texas is
little. And the Baptist General Convention is very small.
The entire Bible is the tale of men and women who bump into God’s immensity.
Wash us with greatness! Scrub us up from this killing littleness that teaches
us that our convention is large. We are so Laodicean. We believe that we are
large and wealthy and have need of nothing and know not that we are wretched
and miserable and poor and blind and naked. O God, cleanse us from such grimy
provincialism. Globalize us with real revival!
Moses cried to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” “Salekethami!”
“Excuse me, we’re multicultured in Egypt,” said Pharaoh. “Does your god have
a local address here in Thebes?”
“I’m afraid not. He’s the cosmic I AM. I met him in Sinai, and my kinfolk
met him centuries ago in Babylon. Better globalize, Ramases, and, like I
Isaiah, lost in rapture of the cosmic God, cried, “For you will go out in
joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap
their hands” (55:12, RSV).
Habakkuk too proclaimed: “Globalize!” “The earth will be filled with the
knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”
“Globalize,” said Christ. “Listen up, you fishers and fig pickers and former
fornicators. Go preach, teach, and get washed! Sling off your provincial
Aramaic bias, we’re moving Jehovah into the crisp, Latin ghettos at the
center of the Roma!”
There are only two teachings for which we will ultimately be held
accountable here on Seminary Hill: “Get Washed!” and “Globalize!”
Oh, the sin of our oft-shallow evangelism. We win pygmies to Jesus, and
pygmies they remain. They cling to littleness and treasure their prejudice.
They put El Shaddai in an envelope little enough to carry in their zipper
Bibles. I hate zipper Bibles–these little packages of Yahweh belonging to
those who are finally content to go to Baptist training and never again
hunger for God.
Hear Habakkuk cry from the Disneyland pavilion,
It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears,
It’s a world of hope and a world of fears,
There’s so much that we share, that it’s time to be aware
It’s a small world after all!
Ah, but God is BIG! With such global gusto, Jesus–the global
Messiah–launched an international movement. And he has given you his Spirit
and gifted you to make it happen. Dare we be honest?
Do other people get a big world view in looking at us? Here we are
Baptists–so plural, so defensive, so small? Do we create a picture of a big
God and a big world?
Jesus saves them and sets them free, and we chain them up in little hyphens
and adjectives: premillennial Christians, cause-oriented Christians, Baptist
Christians, Christians against the NEA, Christians against public
drunkenness, Christians who are against Christians who are against things. He
sends them out to the world; we send them out to casserole dinners.
I think it was on his watchtower that Habakkuk first wrote that great old
Sanskrit hymn: “Give me land, lots of land under starry skies above. Don’t
fence me in.”
Knock down the stockades. “Make God big!” cries Habakkuk. quit tacking your
groupie requirements on my free grace! O God, we are in need of a wash! Scrub
us up from our contented littleness that is so grimy and unattractive. Wash
us from the idolatry that long ago usurped our easy Jesus. Revive us again!
Promise us, God that “there will come soft rains and the smell of the
ground, and swallows…and frogs in the pools…and wild plum trees.” For,
Lord, we are weary with the drought.
We long to be perfectly whole,
For thy Spirit to live in our souls.
Break down every idol, cast out every foe,
Just wash us and we shall be whiter than snow.
O God, please we wanna get washed!
Copyright 1995 (c) Christianity Today, Inc./LEADERSHIP JOURNAL