Tag Archives: grace

My Own Skin

As has happened more often in the last 25 years than I could possibly recall, Jeanne dropped something unexpected into my consciousness during a phone conversation several months ago. I was in Minnesota getting ready for a week-long retreat and conference; she was driving to Vermont on business and planned to see some close friends who we have not seen in a long time. “They’ll be wondering how you are doing,” she said. “I think I’ll just say that you’re comfortable in your own skin. You’re just comfortable with who you are.” Somewhat taken aback, in response I said something lame like, “Well I guess that’s true some of the time but not all of the time.” But long after the phone call that phrase—“comfortable in your own skin”—remained embedded in my brain. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve heard the phrase, but it was definitely the first time that I ever heard someone use it to describe me.

Recent Sunday gospels have  provided me with some insight into this “comfortable in your own skin” thing. For instance, a few weeks ago we heard the highlights of just another random day in Jesus’ life in Mark’s usual straightforward and sometimes uncomfortably honest style. In Mark’s gospel, we get the sense that Jesus knew who he was—and I’m primarily referring to who he was as a human being, not that he was the Son of God. He knew his gifts and talents, what he had to offer. And he knew his limitations. He knew, for instance, that he was an introvert. That is why the gospels so often report him as trying to get away from the daily crowds pressing around and demanding things from him. That explains why at the beginning of this gospel we find him sneaking into the back door of someone’s house because he “did not want anyone to know he was there.” But of course it doesn’t work, and in short order a Syrophoenician woman is begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter.

Jesus’ response to this Gentile woman is spectacularly dismissive: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” What’s wrong with him? Does he say this because she’s a Gentile? A woman? Both? Whatever his problem is, this vignette certainly doesn’t fit the traditional picture of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” who accepted and loved everyone without exception all the time. This doesn’t look like the Sermon on the Mount in action. This sounds more like what a narrow-minded, judgmental jerk might say, the sort of thing that we all have thought but probably pride ourselves in never actually saying out loud. Is this the Son of God, the Savior of the World?

Strangely, that often seems to be a question that Jesus is asking himself in Mark’s gospel. One thing’s for sure—this is the reaction of a tired, worn-out human being who would like to have his first day off in three years. But then Jesus does something remarkable—he realizes that he is wrong and, by his actions, apologizes for his rudeness. The woman’s clever and intelligent response—“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”—reveals to Jesus just how wrong his first response was. “Touché,” he says (or at least thinks), and then casts out the demon from the woman’s daughter from long distance.

Jesus having a bad day—not exactly what we are asked to consider on a regular basis when in “religious mode.” But this is a powerful passage because it reveals Jesus as a total package, in his full humanity. This is a Jesus I can relate to far more easily than the traditional description of Jesus who is so far removed from my own human weaknesses and foibles as to be unapproachable. I get no sense that Jesus on a bad day berates or kicks himself for not being his best self. Instead, he still is able to listen in spite of his limitations, to change, and to embrace his complete humanity. That, I take it, is what being comfortable in your own skin is all about.

Several weeks ago, I went to the philosophy department on lower campus to pick up my office mail for the first time in a week. Being director of a large program on campus precludes me from getting to the philosophy department more than once or twice a week, unfortunate because my philosophy department office is beautiful and peaceful, while my other office is often the vortex of an administrative whirlwind. It was late in the afternoon of a long day filled with meetings, admistratia, containing none of the parts of the academic life that give me energy. As I sifted through a small pile of book catalogs, memos, junk mail, hoping to find at least one thing that would make my trip to the department worthwhile, I let out a deep sigh. From inside the office on the other side of the mailbox-bank wall, I heard a voice call out: “Long day, Vance?” It was Michael, our current department chair who now occupies the office that I occupied several years ago when I was department chair. “How did you know it was me?” I asked. “I recognized your sigh,” Michael replied. “No one sighs like you do.”

Wonderful—my sigh of frustration due to overwork is my most recognizable calling card. But shortly after his exchange with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus encounters a deaf man with a speech impediment. This time Jesus seems to make it up as he goes along, sticking his fingers in the guy’s ears and spitting on his tongue. “Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” He sighed—he may still be tired and having a bad day. But Jesus knew who he was and was comfortable in his own skin. His halo did not need to be in place for him to accomplish miraculous things. Such things flowed from his core naturally even when his halo was askew. That’s worth remembering—my own sighs and impatience are as much a part of me as my best teaching moments. To the extent that I remember that the best that is in me need not be hindered by my less-than-best, even on an off day, to that same extent I’m becoming comfortable in my own skin. And that’s good because it is, after all, not only the only skin I’ve got—it’s the skin that the divine lives in.

Big Bird

This is the first election cycle in my remembrance that, at least for a week or so, an eight-foot yellow bird has played a central role in presidential politics. When one candidate promised that his policies, if elected, will put the bird’s employment status in jeopardy, people sat up and took notice. This particular bird has played a special role in my family’s life for several decades. Strangely enough our journey with this bird began with trying to help my sons imagine what God might be like.

It’s pretty much a given that whatever God is, God transcends whatever words and pictures we use to capture the divine reality. But we have to picture what we believe, knowing that all pictures are inadequate. What gender is God, for instance? I have no reason to believe that God is a guy, but since every sacred text I was steeped in from my childhood refers to Him with mostly male nouns and pronouns, it’s been a challenge to picture God as female, a Mother, a nurturer. Old pictures fade hard. So I’ve started using words like “the transcendent,” “the divine,” “what is greater than us.” It helps to remove the picture of the old guy with a white beard, but doesn’t give me a new picture. Recently, I got a lot of help from William P. Young’s The Shack, in which God the Father is a large, robust, African-American woman called “Papa” who is a gourmet cook and generally Loves with a capital “L.”  I’m sure Young has gotten flack from all sorts of people who say “that’s not scriptural,” “that’s disrespectful of tradition,” and so on. So what? All we have is imperfect pictures, we all “see in a mirror, dimly,” and Young cleaned my mirror just a little bit.

Jesus is a guy, of course, simply because Jesus was—a guy. So what’s the Holy Spirit? To be honest, we didn’t talk much about the Holy Spirit in church when I was a kid; sure, the Spirit’s in the Bible, but that’s the only place I ever encountered him (or her, or it). People didn’t talk about the Spirit, probably because they didn’t know what to say, The Holy Spirit lived between leather covers. It wasn’t until I ran into a bunch of charismatics as a young adult that the Spirit all of a sudden became important. If forced to specify a Holy Spirit gender, I suppose I would have said “female” just to mix it up a bit. But the one visual of the Holy Spirit that stuck with me early on was the one that everybody knows from the baptism of Jesus, where God booms from heaven “This is my beloved Son” and the Holy Spirit descends “like a dove.” The whole Trinity together at the Jordan River. Don’t get me started on the Trinity—there is no picture for that.

So the Holy Spirit is a dove (male or female doesn’t really matter, I guess). I can buy the bird part, but a dove doesn’t work for me. Doves are too close to pigeons, those rats with wings that fly only when you’re inches from them in the car, and whose heads jerk back and forth in the same way that Steve Martin’s hands do when he does his “King Tut” routine (I’m really dating myself). The prophet Hosea even refers to the northern kingdom of Israel, which has wandered from God, as “a silly dove without sense.” Enter another inspired piece of iconoclasm. Once many years ago, when Jeanne joined my two young sons and I in a new “blended family”—it’s definitely a good thing that one doesn’t know what one getting into when one makes such decisions—she referred to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird.” It was a brilliant move on her part, locking into a six and a nine-year-olds imagination, accustomed to regular doses of Sesame Street, an unforgettable picture of the divine. My sons are now in their early thirties, and the name my family uses most frequently when referring to “what is greater than ourselves” still is Big Bird.

And it works. The image is just irreverent and crazy enough to do the job. If God the Father can be a big African-American woman named “Papa,” why can’t the Holy Spirit be an eight-foot tall, bright yellow androgynous bird with massive feet and red-and-white striped stockings? No one’s going to go to doctrinal war over whether Big Bird’s feathers are yellow or orange (I don’t think), but it’s a great place holder for one aspect of what truly transcends any human attempts to get the picture perfect. I once sent Jeanne an email with a link describing a summer writing workshop, asking for her impressions as to whether this would be a good program for me to apply to. In her return email, she wrote “I don’t need to read the description. Anything that will help you write in a non-academic way has Big Bird all over it.”

At the end of his poem “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes that “the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast, and with, ah, bright wings.” Indeed. But Gerard Manly forget to add that the wings are bright yellow.