Sunday, January 8, 2017

unclean lips

Who am I to buy the communion wine?

-- Annie Dillard*

The most annoying thing about God, if scripture can even metaphorically be trusted, is that God forgives sins.

Forgiveness is unfair. You mean the idiot who cut me off at the exit, the broker who lied about the interest rate, the friend who won't talk to me for no good reason, the boss who won't stop interfering, these people don't owe me something, don't have to pay for their transgressions? When killers pose behind badges, when pastors counsel violence, when the mogul steals the widow's mite, are there no marks in the Book of Life? As a Universalist I'm supposed to imagine a banquet at the end of time to which all souls have been invited, but I balk at the scene where Slobodan Milosevic asks me to please pass the potatoes. I'm far from perfect, but I know I didn't orchestrate a six-figure ethnic murder. What's that guy doing here? I ask the host. What happens to justice when sins are forgiven?

But it's even more inconvenient when my own sins are forgiven. It blows my comfy perfectionism out of the water. Here am I, cultivating my woeful inadequacy, itemizing the reasons why I don't deserve to be good, secure in the knowledge that I am not fit to make the world better, listening to the long and weary list of sordid investments from which is born my presence on the earth, checking my privilege, owning my social location, confessing my embeddedness in structures of injustice, testing myself in a never-ending list of "isms" by which my perspective can be found wanting because we cannot see from all perspectives at the same time -- and now something bigger than me, with an arm of wind, sweeps my iPad and my notebook and my ID badge off the table and out of the room, saying it matters not, will you go? I wasn't planning for this -- this was a scene that wasn't supposed to happen for a good long time, in some future when I am finally ready and there's nothing wrong with me.

I've been having this bromance with Isaiah.**

The greatest torah (instruction) I take from my work is that, whether I like it or not, I am accepted. I've passed through hundreds of thresholds, doors of a hospital room or an apartment, to sites of holy terror, places where there's someone who unlike me is really suffering, truly behind the eight-ball, and where others are suffering for them. Their eyes turn to me -- me, you understand -- and they want my help, as if I had some help in my briefcase. If they only knew what an imposter I am.

"Woe is me!" said Isaiah, "for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips." What are you picking on me for? Don't you see how corrupt I am, how compromised my talents and how hopeless my situation? What do you want from me, who have to work with people like this? Find somebody better, wiser, more eloquent and well-connected, for god's sake! Find somebody . . . else.

And the seraph sweeps his inadequacy off the table, taking a live coal from the altar with a pair of tongs and touching the resistant mouth: "Your guilt is departed and your sin is blotted out." The voice from behind the seraph asks "Whom shall I send?" And the new prophet, doing the right thing after exhausting other possibilities, speaks the one remaining answer: "Send me." And this unclean man, from that moment, is "anointed." Not made perfect but authorized, dispatched, commanded -- to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to comfort those who mourn.

An intern sat with a sleeping patient who slowly came awake. "I thought you were an angel," said the patient. "Made your day, didn't it?" I said to the intern later. But the threshold is lower than we think: an angel (malak, angelos) is just a messenger. The patient looked at her and got a message.

We Unitarians have no choice but to own the third president who declared himself one of us and wrote into history the principle that all persons are created equal, each with unalienable rights. That Unitarian was, now notoriously, a sinner. But there's not a one of us who can say they wish those words had not been written; or that they had not been written by an American; or that they had not been written by a Unitarian. The world's a stage, and the theatre teaches that each of us has a curtain and behind the curtain is a mess, but we have to get on with it and there's no time to clean house.

There's a Christian doctrine called Incarnation. It means that Yeshua -- Jesus as many call him -- wasn't pure. He was made of blood and guts, born (as an ancient father*** said) inter faeces et urinam to a penniless family of a despised people in an awkward corner of empire. And that is the glory of it. No matter what your view of the Jewish prophet crucified in Jerusalem, life's greatest astonishment is that humanity is no excuse.

It's not that I'm good enough. It's that I'm not good enough and sometimes it matters not.

*Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 63.

**quotations from Isaiah, chapters 6 and 61 (NRSV)

***Bernard de Clairvaux

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