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We Get to Be Human

For Sunday October 8, 2006

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Job 1:1, 2:1–10 or Genesis 2:18–24
           Psalm 26 or Psalm 8
           Hebrews 1:1–4, 2:5–12
           Mark 10:2–16

Job praying, by Marc Chagall.
Job praying, by Marc Chagall.

           A few weeks ago I biked over to the Superior Court building on Grant Avenue for jury duty, and who was assigned to the same jury pool but my neighbor Pam. Knowing that she had a wonderfully wry sense of humor, and that both of us had spent time in that very building, as we took the elevator to the third floor I stared at the floor as you do in elevators, then casually remarked, "You know, I've seen about as much of this building as I care to see." Pam roared with laughter, "Isn't that the truth!" The architecture of the Superior Court building in Palo Alto, I might add, is Government Drab—not nearly as pretty as the historic Spanish mission style of the Superior Court in downtown Santa Barbara, where I've also been.

           I once asked a therapist if she thought I was normal. I should have known better, but I was hoping that as an "expert" in these matters she might certify that I was still okay. No such luck. Sister Ann responded to my question with awkward silence, then said, "What's normal?" Later I realized that she was trying to help me to stop comparing myself to others, to stop thinking of myself always and only in the best possible light, to stop pursuing an unattainable ideal, and to come down from my pedestal and join the human race with all its ambiguities and afflictions.

           In retrospect, I think that during that period in my life I embodied some version of this week's Psalm 26. I read this Hebrew poem as a psalm of sanctimony. It mystifies me how David, eloquent confessor of adultery and murder in Psalm 51, could portray himself with such smug sanctity.

Vindicate me, O LORD,
   for I have led a blameless life;
I have trusted in the LORD
   without wavering.
Test me, O LORD, and try me,
   examine my heart and my mind;
for your love is ever before me,
   and I walk continually in your truth.
I do not sit with deceitful men,
   nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I abhor the assembly of evildoers
   and refuse to sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence,
   and go about your altar, O LORD,
proclaiming aloud your praise
   and telling of all your wonderful deeds.
I love the house where you live, O LORD,
   the place where your glory dwells.
Do not take away my soul along with sinners,
   my life with bloodthirsty men,
in whose hands are wicked schemes,
   whose right hands are full of bribes.
But I lead a blameless life;
   redeem me and be merciful to me.
My feet stand on level ground;
   in the great assembly I will praise the Lord. (NIV).

David's self-righteousness reminds me of the character Mrs. Turpin from the short story "Revelation" by Flannery O'Connor. Mrs. Turpin was a good, decent, upright, and proud woman who did everything right, except for the unpleasant fact that she was a self-righteous racist. She was a person, writes O'Connor, who when she entered heaven needed "even her virtues burned away."

Satan smites Job with boils, by William Blake.
Satan smites Job with
boils, by William Blake.

            When I read this week's Old Testament story from Job with its tale of human devastation, and the earnest but unctuous speeches of his three friends who tried to "fix" him, I began to think of my circle of family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. I thought about the devils that threaten to undo them. Here are some of the Job-like trials that people I know and love face—hospitalization for clinical depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, obesity, brain tumors (four people), suicide (five people), questions about sexual identity (homosexual, bisexual, and transgendered), divorce (the subject of the attempt to trap Jesus in this week's Gospel), HIV-AIDS, vehicular manslaughter, teenage eating disorders, cancer, involuntary unemployment, and the death of a parent. Such is humanity's baseline "normal" that Sister Ann was trying to get me to understand and embrace rather than deny, that Job in his agony exemplifies, and that belies David's saccarine sanctimony.

Job afflicted with leprosy, 15th century unknown.
Job afflicted with
leprosy, 15th
century unknown.

           The New Testament reading this week from the book of Hebrews affirms that wherever we find ourselves, God speaks to us "at many times and in various ways." Maybe he speaks to us through a book, a film, a friend, a song, perhaps a dream (cf. the many dreams in Scripture), a work of art or nature. Ultimately, though, God most fully reveals who he is and what he is feeling, thinking, and doing in Jesus: "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being." To demonstrate the deepest heart of God, Jesus shared humanity's flesh and blood, was made like us in every respect, suffered like we do, prayed with "loud cries and tears," died a violent death, "tasted death for everyone," and in some mysterious way by his death "destroyed him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." Conquering sin, death and the devil is, in fact, a convenient shorthand for who Jesus was and what he did. Mercy, empathy, and compassion (literally, "suffering with") thus characterize the God we worship (Hebrews 1:1–4, 2:5–18, 4:14–5:10).

           In an interview with Anne Lamott, who is no stranger to pain, Linda Buturian asked her what she most wanted to convey to her son Sam about God. "I want to convey that we get to be human," Lamott answered. "We get to make awful mistakes and fall short of who we hope we're going to turn out to be. That we don't have to be what anybody else tries to get us to be, so they could feel better about who they were. We get to screw up right and left. We get to keep finding our way back home to goodness and kindness and compassion. . . I want him to know that no matter what happens, he's never going to have to walk alone. . . That's what I'm trying to convey to Sam." (Shouts and Whispers).

For further reflection

* How do you understand the book of Job?
What do you make of David's psalm: "Vindicate me, Lord, for I have led a blameless life."
How and why have at least some Christians gained a reputation as "holier-than-thou?"
What might Lamott mean when she says that "we get to be human?" Can that become an excuse or rationalization?

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