For this weekend’s sermon, I decided to preach an ‘old’ sermon to coincide with the launch of my new book. This was actually the last sermon I preached before cancer whisked me away from the pulpit for a year. Some of this makes its way into the first chapter of the book.
In addition to the Isaiah lection for 2nd Advent, my text was 2 Corinthians 5.17-21
‘God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself…’
So I’ve got this mole, right here on my shoulder.
It’s not gross or anything. It’s just large and discolored and has a few hairs growing out of it. ‘Suspicious’ my former pre-med Mrs calls it, right before she points at it and quotes that line from Uncle Buck about finding a rat to gnaw it off.
My wife, Ali, had been after me for months to go to the doctor and get it checked out. But, because I’m an idiot, instead of going to the doctor I consulted WebMD, a website- I’m now convinced- that was designed by ISIS to frighten Western infidels. If you haven’t checked out WebMD already, don’t. (Right after Breitbart) it’s the most terrifying internet you’ll ever browse.
I consulted it for a suspicious mole, and 12 hours later I logged off in black despair, convinced that I suffer from IBS and TB, convinced that my kids have ADHD and maybe scolios too and that I might as well pre-order those little blue pills because ‘that’ is likely right around the corner for me as well.
To be honest, even though I spend 2-3 hours every day admiring myself in the mirror, I didn’t even notice the mole was there. I didn’t realize it was there until the summer when I took my shirt off at the pool and Ali threw up a little bit in her mouth.
Now as all you Waynewood Pool members already know, me taking my shirt off at the pool is normally an Event (with a capital E). A moment that provokes jealousy among men, aspiration among boys and awakens 50 shades of Darwinian hunger in women.
Like Bernini unveiling his David, normally me taking my shirt off at the pool is a siren call, overpowering all reason and volition and luring the primal attention of every female to be dashed against this rock.
But I digress.
The point is when I took my shirt off at the pool that summer and saw Ali wipe the vomit from the corner of her mouth it got my attention.
Ali got after me to go to the doctor. My youngest, Gabriel, who tried to biopsy my mole for his new microscope, got after me. My mom, who is a nurse, got after me. And the voice in my head confirmed what WebMD and all the rest had told me.
But my personal philosophy has always been that if you wait long enough the worst will always happen so for months and months I didn’t do anything about it.
Then one behind-closed-doors-kind-of-night Ali whispered across the pillow that she was never going to touch me again until I scheduled an appointment.
I called the doctor the next morning.
Of course, because I have health insurance, I can’t just call the dermatologist to schedule an appointment. No, that would make us socialists.
No, first I had to blow a morning and a co-pay at the general practitioner in order to get a referral to the skin doctor.
The nurse at the general practitioner’s office weighed me and, with a toll booth worker’s affect- took my blood pressure. Even though I told her I was just there for my mole, she insisted on typing my age into her tablet and asking me the questions that my age automatically generated.
First question: Have you experienced depression or thoughts of suicide in the past month?
Her second question was ‘Have you noticed an increase in memory loss recently?’ ‘Not that I recall’ I said.
Stone-faced, she moved on to her third question, asking for the date of my last prostrate exam. ‘Uh, never’ I stammered and, not sensing my sudden anxiety, she asked me when I’d had my last colonoscopy.
‘Wait,’ I said, ‘I’m not old enough to need those things done, am I?’
‘Just about’ she replied.
‘In that case can we go back to the depression question?’
Ten days, a copay and 3 double-billing mistakes later I went to the dermatologist, clutching my referral like a winning lotto ticket.
When I last went to the dermatologist in 1994 as a puberty-stricken middle schooler, the dermatologist’s office was one step above the guy who showed up at gym class and told you to turn your head and cough.
Now, it’s like something from the Capital in the Hunger Games.
I walked into the steel and glass, Steve Jobs-like office where a receptionist with impossibly purple hair and a dress made of feathered, bedazzled boas handed me paperwork on a clipboard and told me to have a seat.
‘All I Need for Christmas’ was playing overheard on the stereo while a flatscreen on the adjacent wall advertised the dermatologists’ many services to do away with age, imperfection and just garden variety ugliness.
A slide advertising the office’s newest service, eyebrow implants, slid horizontally across the plasma screen.
Judging from the model’s face on the screen, eyebrow implants are a procedure designed to give septuagenerian realtors Alex Trebeck mustaches above their eyes.
The next slide was a photo of the office itself along with its staff, centered above a cursive catchphrase. Their mission statement.
“Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”
And as I started to fill out the paperwork, I wondered what sort of psychotic person came up with a slogan like that.
I mean- if the goal is to appear on the outside how I normally feel about myself on the inside, then I’m already as ugly as I need to be.
Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ started to play as a door opened and a nurse, who looked a little like the supermodel Elizabeth Hurley, called for Mr. Michelle.
Liz led me through a maze of hallways to a room so antiseptically bright I half-expected to be greeted by the Giver.
Inside the exam room, Liz handed me a hospital gown and instructed me to take off all my clothes and promised that the doctor would be in in a few minutes.
‘All my clothes?’ I begged for clarification.
‘Yep, even your underpants’ she said.
For some reason Liz Hurley using the word ‘underpants’ on me made me feel like a 5 year old boy whose mother makes him follow her into the ladies’ room.
She closed the door gently behind her as I unfolded the baby blue gown.
Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals, but up to that point I’d never been a patient before and most of the patients I had seen were underneath sheets and blankets.
Now that I held my own hospital gown in hand, I discovered that the correct way to wear it is not as self-evident as you might think.
Are you supposed to wear it open in the back, like a cowboy’s chaps? Or should you wear it open in the front, like a bathrobe? Or maybe, I pondered, you should take your particular ailment as a guide?
Since my mole- the cause for my visit- was on the front of my body, I reasoned, I decided upon the latter ‘style.’
So there I sat, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski except I didn’t have a White Russian in hand.
And, I was naked.
If I was unsure about the correct way to wear the gown, I got my answer when the doctor knocked, entered, and immediately snorted and said ‘Oh my.’
‘I wasn’t sure…’ I started to explain, but he waved me off and said ‘It’s okay, not a problem. You won’t have it on for long anyway.’ Words that proved to be more auspicious than temporal.
‘Are you cold?’ he asked, looking at me. ‘We can turn up the heat.’
‘No, I’m fine.’
The doctor sat down on a round stool in front of a black computer and I proceeded to give him my professional diagnosis based on my degree from WebMD.
He listened and rolled his eyes only once when I told him my suspicions of also having MS and when I finished said ‘Let’s have a look.’
So I showed him my mole, which- I’ll point out- was very easy to do since I was sporting the gown like a smoking jacket.
He looked at it for a few moments, looked at it through a magnifying glass for a few moments more and then, just as Rod Stewart started to sing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ the doctor said ‘I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. The hairs growing out of it make it look worse than it is.’
Relieved, I started to get up to get ready to go, but the doctor said: ‘Not so fast. While you’re here, we should probably do a full body scan.’
‘We?’ I wondered to myself as he left and returned a moment later with Liz Hurley, who- I noticed- struggled to suppress a giggle when she saw me in the gown.
With Liz gawking on, he proceeded to peel back my gown like it was cellophane on a pound of ground beef, which is probably a good analogy because there’s nothing quite like being naked, perched on top of butcher paper, clutching your bait and tackle to make you feel like a piece of meat- that grayish, 50% off, sell-by-today-kind-of-meat.
The date-rapey Christmas song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ started to play, which seemed appropriate since they then both started to bend me in impossible positions as though I was a yoga instructor or Anthony Wiener on the phone.
Bending and contorting me, they both picked over my every freckle and blemish like we were a family of lice-ridden Mandrills.
‘Anything suspicious down there?’ he asked ominously.
‘I hope to God not’ I said, but apparently invoking the deity did not provide sufficient medical certainty for him because he took his examination south, which was when he decided- for some reason- to ask me what I did for a living.
Normally when strangers ask me my profession, I lie and tell them I’m an architect. It helps avoid the awkward and endless conversations that the word ‘clergy’ can conjure.
But with no clothes on and even less dignity, there seemed to be little reason to pretend.
‘I’m a minister’ I said.
‘Really? What tradition? You’re obviously not a rabbi’ he said with a wink.
‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said.
‘My grandmother was a Methodist’ he muttered.
Maybe it was because this was about the last position I wanted someone associating their grandma with me or maybe it was because the whole situation was so impossibly awkward, but once I started talking I found I couldn’t stop.
You’d be amazed how interesting you can make denominational distinctions sound when you’re as in the buff as Wilfred Brimley in Cocoon and being pawed over like a 4-H cow.
John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa’ came on as the doctor finished and said in a measured tone: ‘You do have some moles on your back that concern me.’
Then he ordered me to sit back down and lean forward as far as I could, which I did, clutching the last corner of my gown against my loins.
The doctor took a black sharpie and drew circles on my back, which struck me in the moment as not very scientific; meanwhile, Liz Hurley grabbed a digital camera off the supply counter.
Under normal circumstances, the combination of supermodel, a nurse’s outfit and a digital camera would pique my interest, but somehow I knew what was next.
She told me to lean forward again so she could snap some close-ups of my back, which she did with slow, shaming deliberation. Then, I can only assume to degrade me further, she actually showed me the close-ups of my back.
Now it was my turn to throw up a little in my mouth.
‘That’s what I look like from behind? It’s like a flesh-colored Rorschach test. I should call my wife and tell her I love her’ I said to no one in particular.
She laughed and said: ‘The images are magnified so don’t worry. Trust me, everyone appears kind of ugly and gross when you get up that close for a look.’
‘And that’s not even the ugliest part about me’ I said.
She frowned. ‘Do you think there’s something we missed?’
‘No, no, you were thorough all right’ I said, ‘I was just thinking of something else- my soul.’
‘I guess that’s your speciality, huh Father?’ Liz laughed.
The doctor laughed too.
They thought I was joking. They both thought I was joking.
James Taylor was finishing his rendition of ‘Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming,’ that line that goes ‘…true man, yet very God, from sin and death he saves, and lightens every load’- he was singing that line as I sat on the butcher paper and watched as Liz loaded the snapshots of me onto the black computer.
Watching each unflattering image first pixilate then load on to the screen in front of me, I thought again of that cursive catchphrase in the lobby and what rubbish it was: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”
Because if you could get close up- all over- to me, not just looked at my skin but lived in my skin, lived my life- and not just in my shoes but in my flesh- then you could come up with a lot more ugly, indicting pictures of me than a hairy mole.
Because the cold, incarnate truth is, I’m even more pockmarked and blemished on the inside than I will ever appear on the outside.
On the inside-
I’m impatient and petty. I’m judgmental and a liar. I’m angry and insecure and fearful and unforgiving and…and I’m just a normal guy.
The cold, incarnate truth is- if you stripped me all the way down, not just of my clothes but of my pretense and prevarications, stripped off the costumes I wear and the roles I play right down to my soul, then you’d see how unsightly I really am.
I mean, the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist wouldn’t tell us to make straight the pathways for the Lord if we weren’t all twisted up, tangled and knotted on our insides.
And really, that was what was so unbearable about baring it all in that exam room. It reminded me how seldom I allow myself to be made vulnerable.
What being exposed exposed was just how much I try to cover up my true self. What being revealed revealed was how often I hide behind masks and manipulations, how often I fail to be authentic because I’m afraid of failure, how seldom I’m fully, genuinely me with others because I’m convinced there’s a whole lot of me I don’t think is worth sharing.
So I pretend.
I act like everything’s alright when it’s not. I pretend me and mine are happy when maybe we’re not. I act like I’ve got my _______ together even when my _______’s falling apart all around me. I project strength when I feel weak, and I wear other people’s projections of me like masks.
I don’t keep it real. I pretend. I play-act. I hide.
And so do you.
And since we’re baring it all, we might as well go full monty: the truth is we feel the need to hide and pretend and put on a good face more at Christmas than any other time of the year.
Which is odd.
Because when it comes to Christmas, we don’t just believe that God takes flesh. We don’t just believe that God puts on skin. We don’t just believe that God puts on a body. We don’t just believe that God puts on Jesus’ body.
No, we believe that, at Christmas, God assumes- puts on, takes on- our humanity.
All of it. Every bit. Of every one of us.
The pathway God chooses to get close to us is our humanity- all of it, every bit of it.
Every bit of every one of us.
On the stereo Aretha Franklin belted out ‘Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary’ from the second verse of ‘What Child as This.’
As Aretha sang and Liz finished up with my snapshots, the doctor gave me a patently false promise about not feeling a thing just before he started to dig out my first mole with the finesse of a mobbed-up Italian barber from North Jersey.
Hearing Aretha overheard and seeing my snapshots on the computer screen and thinking of my shame that morning and every unsightly truth it brought to mind, I thought of St. Gregory.
Gregory of Nazainzus.
The 4th century Church Father who taught that what it means to say ‘God was in Christ,’ as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, is to say that all of our humanity is in the God who was in Christ.
All our humanity. Every bit of every one of us.
It has to be.
Otherwise, as Gregory put it, ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’
Those parts of humanity not taken on by God in Christ are not healed.
Those embarrassing parts, those imperfect parts, those shameful and fearful and broken parts of us- if it’s true that Christ comes to save all then all those parts of us are in him; otherwise, they’re not healed.
Every bit of every one of us is in Him, Gregory says.
So there’s no need to hide. There’s no to pretend. There’s no need for shame or masks. We can give every embarrassing bit of our selves over to him because it’s already in him.
We’re not perfect on the outside and we don’t need to pretend that we are on the inside because every part of us is in him already.
With the gentleness of a cycloptic, differently-abled butcher, the doctor removed the rest of my blemishes and finished up by saying ‘You should come back in a year so we can do this again.’
‘I can’t wait’ I said as I started unfolding my street clothes.
Dressed, with my back looking like Clint Eastwood’s in Pale Rider, I found my way back to the lobby.
Someone, I’m not sure who, was on the stereo singing “Cast out our sins and enter in, Be born to us today.”
O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.
The plasma screen on the lobby wall was back to flashing their mission statement: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.” Accompanied by phony photos of people who pretended to feel both.
And, as I left, I said a little ‘Thanks be to God’ to myself because that that is not our Gospel.