Sunday, July 8, 2012

Birthmarks welcome

When I was a kid, I had a very noticeable birthmark on my face. As you might guess, I was self-conscious about it. My mom even took me to a dermatologist, who gave me some cream to make it disappear, although it didn’t do much. Instead, the birthmark seemed to fade as I got older. You can still see it, but you have to look for it.

Because of the birthmark on my face, I was quite struck by Nathanael Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark” when I read it in school. It’s about a scientist who marries a woman who is absolutely perfect in every way, except for this small birthmark she has on her face. The scientist becomes obsessed with it and he works at coming up with a concoction that will make it go away. When he finally thinks he has it perfected, his wife agrees to take it. And it does the job. Slowly, the birthmark on her face disappears. Unfortunately, as the birthmark fades away, so does his wife. When it is completely gone, his wife is finally perfect in every way. Well, except for the fact that she’s dead.

Have you ever noticed that animals don’t worry about being perfect? My dog Pooky only has one eye and I’m quite certain she has no awareness of this. She’s too busy being Pooky. Striving for perfection seems to be a very human characteristic. Some of us learn early on that it’s futile, and we relinquish the quest. Others among us can never get past it. We’re always fighting against our limitations. Ever deluding ourselves into believing that if we just try a little harder, we’ll get there.

Religion, for some people, is all about striving the quest for perfection, or at least getting as close to it as they can. So they work hard to live morally upstanding lives. And they’re extra careful about coloring between the lines so they don’t mess up. Somewhere along the way, their religion has given them the impression that the goal to life is striving for perfection.

Is that what Jesus was all about? Was Jesus all about striving to be perfect? We like to say that Jesus was perfect. But by that do we mean that he never did anything wrong? How could Jesus have grown up like we all do and never do anything wrong? The kind of perfection Jesus achieved would be better described as completeness. In striving to be like Jesus, our goal as his followers, is not to live perfect little lives. It’s to live authentically, as the people God created us to be. It’s to be whole.

And, here’s the catch. In order to be whole, we embrace who we really are, including our imperfections. We look at the things about ourselves that we may have decided have no redeeming value, and accept them as a part of who we are.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about his “thorn in the flesh.” No one knows exactly what it was for him. There are different theories. Some people think he was nearly blind. Others say he had malaria. Or he was homosexual. It’s probably just as well that we don’t know exactly what it was because it doesn’t matter really.

What matters is acknowledging the fact that we all have a thorn in the flesh. It’s that thing that seems to keep coming up again and again and you wish more than anything that it would just go away. I’m like that about my weight. My struggle with my weight isn’t going to go away, no matter how much I may obsess over it. That’s a thorn in the flesh for me. I wish I could say it’s the only one. There are others, as well. A big part of what it means to be human is to have struggles. That’s the way it works.

Paul reminds us that this isn’t all bad. A thorn in the flesh is a constant reminder to us of our imperfection. And really, our imperfection may just be one of the most perfect things about us. Because it’s the way God made us. It’s a part of who we are in our completeness.

I can’t begin to see myself as God sees me. When I see myself, I tend to hone in on all the stuff that’s wrong with me. But I suspect that may not be what God sees when he looks on me. It may be the things that I wish I could change. But I suspect that may not be what God sees when he looks at me. It may be the things that I think are all wrong about me that endear me the most to the God who loves me.

Paul puts forth the idea that it’s in our weakness that we find our strength. I don’t know about you, but that certainly rings true for me. That’s the way it seems to work in my life. When I’m struggling so much that I don’t know which way to turn, I end up going to the only one I can turn to. When I’m so empty that it doesn’t feel like there’s anything left of me, there’s a vacuum inside me that only God’s Spirit can fill. When I don’t think I have what it takes to do what I know I have to do, that’s just the opening God needs to work through me. When I am weak, that’s when I become strong. When I feel like I’m not enough, I learn that God’s grace is more than enough.

For a long time, I thought this was all about this really cool thing that happens between God and me. When I’m weak, God makes me strong. But I’ve grown to think of the way this works a little differently. I think it’s more about me acknowledging that I need help, that I don’t have it all together and, if it all depends upon me, I’m in a lot of trouble. Then God comes to me in my weakness and gives me the strength I need. And I’ve noticed that the way this most often happens in my life is through other people. God gives me the strength I need when I admit that I need help. Then I’m open to receive it. And it comes to me through the people God sends into my life. When I am weak, then I become strong.

There is a story about a guy who falls in love with a beautiful woman and begs her to go out with him. “Be serious,” the woman says. “You’re fat, bald, ugly and your wardrobe is atrocious.” So the guy goes on a diet and loses 80 pounds and starts working out at a gym. He gets a hair transplant and plastic surgery. He goes to a tanning salon and buys himself a new wardrobe. Finally, he goes back to the woman and asks her what she thinks. “What a hunk!" she says, and she agrees to a date.

So he arrives at her door with a limo and driver. She emerges from her house radiant, promising him a never–to–be–forgotten evening. As they walk together toward the limo, lightning strikes the man. So now he’s lying on the street dying, and he cries out, “Why now, God? Why now, on the happiest day of my life?” God answers. “Sorry, Sam. I didn’t recognize you.”

We may spend a lot of time and energy trying to be people we aren’t. But it’s good to remember that God sees us as the people we are: people who are full of what we perceive to be imperfections. Striving for perfection is not only futile, but it’s not even God’s desire for us. What God wants from us is an authentic relationship with him as the people he created us to be. All birthmarks are welcome!

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